Reflections on Associative Constraints and Possibilities in an
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Originally appeared in Transnational Associations, 1987, 3, pp. 168-182 [PDF version]
The purpose of this report is to explore some ways of looking at the emerging
information society which may help to clarify the future challenges and opportunities of
international bodies. Much has already been said in the media about the 'information
society', to a large extent inspired by those attempting to sell their products and
services, whether or not they are appropriate to the emerging needs of potential users. It
is therefore useful to place such elements of the information society in a context which
draws attention to the needs of international bodies concerned with issues such as
development and the environment.
In the light of the theme of the debate, the focus is on the opportunities for
the future. But in order to give substance to such an exercise, it is useful to clarify
the existing forms of international organization action and the limitations which
constrain their wider use. Only by recognizing the limitations of past forms of action is
it possible to avoid the classical trap of seeking ways to implement such forms within
future information systems, without examining the opportunities for alternative forms of
action, whether as complements or substitute.
2. Forms of organized action
It is an unfortunate reality of the international system of organizations that no
satisfactory typology has emerged which recognizes the diversity of the existing forms of
organization. That diversity is, however, to a large extent reflected in the various
sections of the Yearbook of International Organizations and many contrasting types are
distinguished in the commentary therein (1). Nevertheless the prevailing typology
continues to focus on the uninteresting distinction between two categories, IGOs and
(I)NGOs, largely because of its value for questionable administrative purposes within the
For the purpose of this report, the forms of organized action are presented in Table 1. This is in no way to be considered definitive. The
allocation of bodies to parts of the table is merely to be considered indicative of a
primary focus. Some bodies have concerns and modes of action which would require that they
be positioned in several parts of the table. But the table does serve to make distinctions
which permit a richer discussion than the simplistic IGO/NGO model.
By explicitly introducing the time-factor (short-term, medium-term, long-term), a place
is given to the forms of organization which are most widely known, namely the short-term
events (e.g. meetings, demonstrations, and media events such as Band Aid). In the
long-term struggle to gain international legal recognition for NGOs (2), the
'international outlaws', there has been little attention given to the
sociological or legal 'existence' of such events, which tend to be considered as
epiphenomena. The irony of the situation is that it is precisely such epiphenomena which
attract the attention of the media and the imagination of the public, whereas the medium
and longterm forms of action are largely unrecognized by the public, even though they may
be responsible for the widely publicised short-term events. It is of course the short-term
events which are already organized to exploit a number of the opportunities of the
Introducing the longer term distinguishes certain modes of action from those of the
medium-term, which are necessarily more sensitive to the political dimensions of such
issues as development and environment, and less sensitive to the substantive dimensions
implied by such issues. Most IGOs and NGOs function in terms of medium-term
preoccupations, as defined by budgetary cycles and election periods (1 to 8 years). The
political implications of longer-term environmental and developmental issues can safely be
ignored in practice, especially under the pressures of current political crises. Few
organizations, or governments, can afford the political luxury of investment in the
Attention is drawn in the table to the distinction between a global focus and a
non-global focus, whether regional or local. Since the table is only intended as
indicative, the controversial question of the degree to which particular forms of action
may be global or non-global has not been explored in the detail of the table.
2.2 Degree of participation
By explicitly introducing the degree of participation (elite, interest-group, mass), it
is possible to distinguish those forms of action which are considered 'serious'
by various establishments from those which attempt to influence such forms, or must be
taken into account as constraints. The elite form, most opposed to the participation of
outsiders, is primarily characteristic of intergovernmental action, although it may also
be seen in meetings of elites (e.g. Interaction Council, Bilderberg Meetings), the
activities of certain NGOs (e.g. the Trilateral Commission, the Club of Rome), religious
orders and secret societies (e.g. the Freemasons).
In complete contrast, are the forms of mass action which normally invite the
participation of all, usually in an effort to influence the two other forms. The
intermediary form of action is that which is mainly characteristic of nongovernmental
modes of organization.
Attention is drawn in the table to the distinction between concerns which are universal
in nature (e.g. environment, peace) and those which are of a more sectarian nature (e.g.
those of particular economic or social sectors). Since the table is only intended as
indicative, the controversial question of the degree to which particular forms of action
may be universal or sectarian has not been exr~lored in the detail of the table.
3. Variety of information policies
In order to clarify the actual discussion of the dimensions of the information society
(in a subsequent section), it is appropriate to present the variety of information
policies practised by the different forms of organization noted in Table
1. This may be done in a form such as Table 2, which, it
should be stressed, is indicative rather than definitive.
3.1 Range of 'users'
Three types of user have been distinguished, those within the organization (whether
operational units or membership), those constituting the organization's context (whether
peer groups, patrons, sponsors, fund sources or sympathizers), and any wider audience
(whether a 'target-group', the 'uninformed', or a 'market'
for the organization's 'products').
3.2 Purpose of information
Three purposes have been distinguished: informing (taken in its its most disinterested
and neutral sense), influencing (whether in direct support of the interests of the
organization or to 'destabilize' its opponents) and facilitating learning (to
engender innovative initiatives, possibly quite independently of the interests of the
Informing and influencing as purposes are primarily characteristic of what has been
identified, in a Club of Rome report (3), as 'maintenance learning'. This is in
contrast to 'innovative learning' which is primarily characteristic of the third
purpose of facilitating learning. Maintenance learning involves acquisition of information
to ensure the continued functioning of the individual or the group. Thus learning to
fulfil the criteria for a job or to fulfil the demands of a contract is a response to
pre-defined expectations. Innovative learning involves the acquisition of the ability to
respond appropriately in ways that cannot be predefined, especially in response to
unforeseen situations characteristic of Personal and societal crisis.
4. Dimensions of the information society
The concept of an 'information society' can be approached in a number of
ways. Unfortunately perhaps, it is the intense discussion of several aspects of the
phenomenon which almost completely obscures other aspects of potentially greater
significance, at least for international associations. Partly for this reason, it is not
easy to separate the commonly discussed aspects from those which merit greater attention.
In an effort to to clarify this situation, the approach taken here has been to produce Table 3 in which '9 Debate Arenas' concerning the
information society are distinguished and interrelated. As with the previous tables, Table 3 is intended to be indicative rather than definitive.
The table emerged from reflection on the merit of distinguishing:
- - communication hardware from the modes of communication which it required or rendered
- - information programming from the social organization which it required or rendered
- - information content from the conceptual organization which it required or rendered
The 9 Arenas result from the interaction between the dimensions so distinguished. The
arenas are discussed individually below the table. The approach is applied to the
information initiatives of the Union of International Associations, as a concrete example.
The result is presented in Table 4, with details given below
4.1 Comment on dimensions
Some brief comment on the dimensions is called for:
- Hardware: includes both the equipment and the telecommunication networks by which
it is linked.
- Mode: refers to the manner in which the information is organized in the
communication process, especially in terms of the technical implications of exchanging the
information in that form.
- Software: refers to the logical instructions for handling, interrelating
and processing information, expressed in a form which can be used to operate a machine
(e.g. computer programs), an organization (e.g. policies, plans, rules and procedures) or
an intellectual discipline (e.g. a methodology and its associated procedures).
- Groupware: refers to the range of possible group and social structures,
especially when conceived in terms of the kind of information exchanges they sustain or by
which such structures are rendered viable (4).
- Content: refers to the hard data (e.g. facts) and soft data (e.g. opinions,
values) actually exchanged in any communication process, irrespective of the mode used or
the logical procedures rendering the exchange possible.
- Conceptware: refers to the conceptual tools, patterns of concepts, models
or paradigms through which the information is ordered. It is to be distinguished from
isolated concepts that may be communicated as content and from any methodology or software
through which they may be given operational form.
In the following discussion of the 9 Arenas, it has been found useful to distinguish
three levels of significance in relation to the theme of this paper.
4.2 Nine information society arenas
4.2.1 Adaptive Group (Arenas I to V): These are the arenas in which most
discussion concerning the information society occurs. They relate in most cases to the
pre-conditions, practicalities and infrastructure without which the information society
cannot emerge. For the purpose of this report, their significance is relatively low,
because concentration by associations on these arenas will only result in patterns of
action that reproduce, in the new context, those which have prevailed to date in the
pre-information society era. To the extent that associations rate their performance to
date as appropriate to the challenge, or have no desire to envisage patterns other than
those which have 'stood the test of time'. it is certainly on these arenas that
their attention should be focussed. There are indeed real practical problems which need to
be confronted at this level in order to be able to function effectiveyv in the information
4.2.2 Innovative Group (Arenas Vl to V111): Whereas the above group of five
arenas is concerned in different ways with the infrastructure of the information society
and the various checks and balances appropriate to its continued viability, this second
group may be considered as concerned with its development. The distinction should however
be made between quantitative development, based on existing patterns, as characterized by
the preceding group, and its qualitative development, which is the characteristic of this
group. The preceding group is associated with the 'adaptive' or
'maintenance' learning of the Club of Rome report cited earlier (3), whereas
this group is associated with innovative learning in response to new situations. The major
danger in the previous group is of simply replicating existing patterns, with their many
inherent defects, in a new environment reinforced by a new technology - and then claiming
significant social transformation. Discussions in the arenas of this group therefore tend
to be sensitive to uncomfortable issues which are fundamentally incompatible with those of
the previous group, because they call their premises into question - a necessary basis for
any significant innovation.
4.2.3 Transformative Group (Arena IX): Whereas the previous group of arenas is
characterized by discussions which are critical of the appropriateness of modes of
organization inherited from the past as 'tried and true', such discussions tend
to reject any critical reflection on the innovations which they themselves favour as
'positive'. Such questioning tends to be perceived as counter-productive and
'negative'. By contrast discussions in this group introduce an essentially
self-reflective and self-critical dimension.
5. Identification of transformative opportunities
It is possible to take the 9 Arenas of Table 3 and explore
the implications of each of them for the nine forms of organization identified in Table 2. This would result in a report of 81 sections and is
therefore not appropriate in this context, however valuable it might be as a guiding
framework for organizations wishing to explore their future opportunities and constraints
The purpose of this paper is to help to distinguish more clearly the nature of the
opportunities for international associations which are characteristic of the three groups
of arenas noted above.
It is very clear that there are significant opportunities for international association
action in connection with all three groups. It is also clear that, as an artificial
device, Table 3 does not truly convey the permeability of the
boundaries between the arenas. Activity in any one arena can easily be entrained by
activity in another arena. Nevertheless the objectives of activity in any one arena can
easily ignore, deny or reject, the impIications for activity in another arena.
5.1 Adaptive Group (Arenas I to V): Despite the many startling
differences characteristic of high technology informatics, innovation in this first group
is primarily a question of adapting existing procedures to a new context. The procedures
and structures are not significantly changed. It is, to a large extent, a question of
'more of the same', although carried out with greater ease, efficiency and
effectiveness. And this ease creates a new problem, namely the proliferation in the amount
and variety of information in circulation. This is about to receive a further boost, due
to the much discussed phenomenon of 'desk top publishing', which will presumably
add to the quantities of printed matter being distributed and exchanged by associations.
Innovations associated with the first group therefore contribute directly to the much
discussed 'information explosion', whose consequences are at present under
review in a project of the United Nations University on 'information overload and
information underuse'. In the adaptive spirit of this group of arenas, many further
innovations are explored to counteract such overload. They tend to take the form of
'selective dissemination of information' and specialization. But these together
reinforce social fragmentation and the manipulative abuses which this makes possible.
Within this group the challenge of generating and handling 'quantity', tends to
be 'solved', but at the expense of 'quality'.
The operational challenges of the adaptive process associated with the first group pose
real problems of mobilizing resources and developing skills. The necessity of responding
to such challenges to ensure the viability of initiatives in the information society makes
it appear a luxury to consider the less tangible initiatives associated with the second or
5.2 Innovative Group (Arenas Vl to VIII): The second group of arenas
focuses more directly on the appropriateness of such adaptive innovations, in an effort to
engender structural innovations which transcend the problems associated with the first
group. What, for example, is the 'desk top reading' innovation which will enable
recipients to cope intelligently with the exploding output of 'desk top
publishing' noted above? What are the 'alternative' styles of organization
which may prove more appropriate?
This does not necessarily imply that the innovations of the second group are
'superior' to those of the first. Some of them (e.g. disinformation) seek to
exploit the opportunities of the information society in a more subtle manner than that
associated with the first group. Whereas the first group constitutes a 'first
order' response to those opportunities, the second group is effectively a
'second order' response. It is the ability of international associations to
develop such second order responses which will determine whether they will attain a new
freedom to act within the information society or whether they will find themselves
constrained by other initiatives (possibly as a victim of new forms of exploitation).
For those associations concerned with development issues and societal problems, the
adaptive innovations of the first group are far from offering a panacea for social ills.
They are opening a 'new frontier' in which such problems may well be redeployed
in new configurations, without in any way being alleviated. Signs of this are to be seen
in the emerging division between the 'haves' and the 'have nots', in
terms of degree of participation in the information society.
The difficulty in shifting attention to the second group is that the economics of the
information society are to a very large degree associated with the first group. Any
initiative must be viable at the first order level before consideration can be effectively
given to issues of the second order. In most cases (e.g. 'innovative meetings')
the pressures to ensure the viability of a project are such that no attention can
effectively be given to second order innovation. And yet it is precisely at this level
that the qualitative changes, if any, will emerge.
From the point of view of international associations, in the
'pre-information' society a basic distinction is made between profit-making and
non-profitmaking bodies. And yet international associations need to balance their finances
in order to survive, even though no 'profit' is made. In the information
society, many profit-making organizations are actively developing opportunities in the
first group of arenas - often performing information tasks for which international
associations have been previously created. Whilst international associations need to
continue to demonstrate their effectiveness in these arenas (and balance their finances on
the basis of activities there), the 'non-profit' function by which they are
characterized can only effectively emerge through their development of activities in the
second group of arenas which are of considerably less interest to profit-making bodies -
because there is relatively little profit to be made therein. In the information society
the distinction required between first order and second order initiatives can therefore
usefully be considered as analogous to the distinction between profit-making and
non-profit-making initiatives in the 'pre-information' society. Both forms are
required, but it is the second which ensures a continuing focus on qualitative change as
opposed to purely quantitative development.
There is a real risk that, in their struggle to adapt to the information society, many
international associations will find themselves trapped by the real challenges and
opportunities of the first group of arenas. Many new 'do-able' projects are
becoming evident. These will obscure the importance of the transition to initiatives in
the second group (which may well go unrecognized) that would empower associations to
continue to fulfil their basic function in counter-balancing the non-qualitative
initiatives of the first order.
5.3 Transformative Group (Arena IX): Despite genuine engagement in
structural innovation of a qualitative kind, a prime characteristic of initiatives of the
second group is that they are not structured so as to recognize their own limitations -
especially the manner in which their seemingly positive achievements are themselves as
much a part of the problematique as the problems which they address. Initiatives of the
first group, but especially of the second, are often associated with an unquestioning
belief in their inherent 'rightness' as a contribution to the common good. Their
advocates are profoundly amazed by the unenthusiastic, if not negative, reactions of those
holding alternative views (e.g. American reactions to European perceptions of their
proposals; Western reactions to Third World perceptions of their proposals).
Initiatives of the third group can usefully be perceived as sensitive to the
counter-productive aspects of their own best efforts, especially as revealed in the light
of alternative paradigms and cultures. Such third order initiatives must necessarily
respond creatively (rather than reactively) to the reality of the co-presence of
international coalitions seemingly acting at cross-purposed. Here the challenge lies in
using the opportunities of the information society to facilitate
'trans-conceptual' learning processes which can transcend such differences
without denying their function in any pattern of checks and balances. The application of
metaphors to the problems of such development-oriented communication is one unexplored
In a sense initiatives of the first and second groups may well create the impression of
transcending differences - as in naive concepts of the 'global village' or of
'holistic paradigms' - whereas in reality this superficial impression conceals
the necessity for such differences. Differences and disagreements have an important
psycho-social function. Indeed, it might be said that significance only emerges through
the confrontation of dissimilar phenomena. The organized fragmentation of the information
society may however be used to reinforce and protect such differences - whether for or
against the common good.
The third group is not inherently 'superior' to the other two. As with the
second, such initiatives may indeed be more profoundly exploitative. The ability to
'divide and rule' is an inherently third order skill, which if possessed by
those responsible for a second order initiative could be used to totally pervert the
declared intentions of any project. International associations enthusiastically
collaborating on such a project would clearly be totally vulnerable to such manipulation -
unless they developed third order skills.
The inadequacy of the innovations of the second group results from the necessarily
restricted nature of the domain in which they can be successfully implemented. Such
structural innovations make no provision for internalizing the radical opposition of other
competing alternatives, associated with other restricted domains. International
associations normally handle this fundamental problem by avoiding anything more than token
(first or second-order) contact with bodies holding radically opposed viewpoints. And yet,
to the extent that there is some validity to such opposed viewpoints, appropriate global
transformation can only emerge by interrelating such perspectives in new ways. The
emerging information society provides a context for more innovative responses to this
challenge - through initiatives characteristic of this third group.
6. Challenges faced by organizations
The previous sections have pointed to the challenges for an international association in
- to function in the information society (the 'adaptive group' of arenas);
- to recognize its innovative contributions within that context (the
'innovative group' of arenas);
- to respond effectively to its own limitations in relation to other bodies with
alternative perspectives (the 'transformative group of arenas).
Particular challenges which may be usefully highlighted at this point include:
- (a) the continuing problem of information overload and the total inadequacy of narrow
specialization as a 'solution' in a context of cross-sectoral issues;
- (b) the emergence of an even greater range of specialized interests to which commercial
information providers will respond if associations fail to fulfil this traditional
function of theirs;
- (c) increasing 'competition' between associations and commercial bodies
interested in providing the same services, thus depriving many associations of an
important source of income;
- (d) increasing costs in conventional communications traditionally employed by
associations (e.g. postage, telephone), coupled with economic restrictions on electronic
exchange of information (possibly deliberately imposed to reduce association activity):
- (e) imposition of restrictive regulations to inhibit electronic exchanges of information
and trans-border data flows (possibly for reasons of 'national security');
- (f) proliferation of a wide range of 'alternative' forms of electronic
communication (e.g. videodisks, electronic mail and conferencing systems, lasercards,
paperstrip), many requiring different, and often incompatible, equipment.
- (g) proliferation of computer crime and abuses designed to sabotage, exploit or
manipulate information systems which it would otherwise be easy for associations to set up
- (h) reinforcement of the prevailing pattern of inequality, discrimination and
fragmentation as vested interests find ways to establish their position in the information
- (i) erosion of the significance of existing conceptual distinctions, whether established
by scholars, legislation or administrations, whose maintenance has been justified by
operational convenience in the pre-information society (e.g. such distinctions as profit /
non-profit, governmental / nongovernmental, temporary / permanent. formal / informal,
national / international, and possibly even legal / illegal);
- (j) extreme difficulty of ensuring that messages of requisite complexity (cf Ashby's
Law) can be communicated successfully (via reductionist conceptual filters imposed by
computerised thesauri) to a sufficiently wide audience;
- (k) difficulties of responding effectively to the opportunities (and financial drain)
offered by a multiplicity of information exchange facilities, whether initiated by
associations, by commercial bodies or bv governmental bodies.
One interesting challenge for associations, whether national or international, will be
that of responding to the changing significance of their relationship to intergovernmental
institutions (e.g. UNESCO, ILO, WHO, ECOSOC). In the emerging environment the latter's
privileged status will be brought into question, to the extent that it is nonfunctional
within the communicating network of international bodies - leading perhaps to a role
analogous to that of the aristocracy in European countries.
Perhaps the most profound challenge for international associations will be to discover
ways to use the facilities of the information society to communicate, interrelate and
defend the subtler insights and values for which they stand - in an information
environment in which such insights must 'compete' for attention (and therefore
resources) with other less subtle, and seemingly more striking items of information. This
is the traditional challenge of international associations transferred to a context where
the opportunities and obstacles are much greater than before.
7. Selected innovation possibilities
Here it seems appropriate to focus on 5 quite different possibilities for future
7.1 Global media events
The surprising success of media events such as Live Aid, Band Aid, Hands across
America, etc, has led to active exploration of the possibility of future events of this
nature. Media contacts have been developed; people and groups are developing the skills to
bring about such events at reasonably short notice; formulas for funding such events are
becoming clearer. Such events are naturally attractive to the media faced with the need to
constantly discover new programme content for an ever-hungry audience.
International organizations, whether governmental or non-governmental, have been slow
to respond to this opportunity. They have only associated themselves with such events
after the fact. The main initiatives have come from North American national coalitions,
although even there the established bodies were not involved in launchinq such projects.
The opportunity and organization of such events engenders much grass roots enthusiasm
as a means of focussing on real social problems or on values such as world peace. They
become a highly visible celebration of togetherness (which seldom takes an attractive and
communicable form in the normal activities of international bodies).
There is therefore clearly an opportunity for international associations, if they can
overcome the awkward political and financial issues of negotiating with Western-dominated
media. With the considerable development of global satellite links, there will be a great
need, on the side of those responsible for them, to demonstrate that there is something of
global interest that can be communicated (in addition to the Olympic Games, the World Cup,
or the Eurovision song contest, at a regional level).
Such events do of course have quite distinct limitations, which may well discourage the
involvement of international bodies. Their impact, in terms of their stated goals, has
been questioned. And clearly the planning of such events lends itself to innovative forms
of manipulation and exploitation. Nevertheless if international associations do not engage
themselves on this front, others will.
7.2 Support negotiation system
The previous innovation focuses mainly on persuasion through the asymmetric
communication of images to a largely passive audience over a short period, with little
opportunity to build concretely on any pattern of communication or insight which emerges.
Clearly there is a need to match such mega-events with a complementary system offering
exchange of information between active participants, on a continuing basis, such that
every possibility of engendering new initiatives between them is fostered and supported
throughout the lifecycle of any resulting project.
Such a system is to be seen in embryonic form, especially in North America, in the
emergence of many electronic mail and computer conferencing networks, themselves partially
interlinked (to a limited degree). The most recently launched include PEACENET and ECONET,
with preoccupations implied by their names. They are open to international association
participation, at non-commercial rates.
Since the viability of the technology has been demonstrated. it is worth envisaging
what form such a system could take. The most practical guide to such reflection is the
recent installation of a world-wide, computerised, share-trading network. This links stock
exchanges, brokers, banks and institutional investors. It is composed of a number of
comp!ementary components, which can perhaps best be illustrated by Table 5. This is a
diagram of the equipment on the office desk of a 'fund manager' in a major
financial institution at the present time.
In order to make any valid comparison with the evolution of the ways in which
associations could interact through a comparable system, it is necessary to identify the
functional similarities. Although associations do not have shareholders, they frequently
have fee-paying members. Many also undertake campaigns and projects to which the public is
invited to subscribe. Many also undertake specialized projects for which they seek funds
from other bodies (especially foundations and major institutions). Many also seek, with
such funding bodies, projects in which they could usefully collaborate to further their
programme objectives. All these interactions currently take place using the postal,
telephone, and telex systems, as well as the media. Such systems are in the process of
being integrated, in a quite dramatic way, as communication options within the information
society. There is no reason why associations should not also envisage shifting the
'centre of gravity' of their operations into that context.
The key difference between share-trading and support-negotiation, is that in the former
the focus is on value in monetary form, for its own sake, whereas in the latter the focus
is on values, as expressed in the form of ideas, projects, information and cooperative
arrangements. Just as it is claimed by financiers that they are essentially dealing in
confidence (expressed in monetary form), so it could be claimed that associations are
negotiating degrees of confidence in the interests that they are promoting.
Few would deny that the system whereby the international community negotiates support
for a project amongst its constituent bodies is extremely clumsy - many projects take
years to be 'approved'. This is to be contrasted with the speed of financial
transactions in response to any political situation or opportunity. That support can be
negotiated rapidly for non-financial projects is admirably illustrated by such events as
Live Aid and Band Aid, in which millions of peopIe were involved.
Such a support negotiation system would help bring the international community out of
the bureaucratic dark ages in which token projects, approved in response to yesterday's
problems. are vainly applied (and acclaimed) as significant responses to today's problems
and to those of the future. Such a system would constitute an appropriate context for
emergency preparedness and for the look-out function repeatedly called for by policy
makers. Of greatest significance, such a system would provide a visibly coherent means
whereby individuals and groups could rapidly formulate collaborative projects and mobilize
support for them - thus drawing on the vast reservoir of goodwill which is alienated by
the non-participative initiatives characteristic of the present.
As noted above, the elements of such a system are already evident in operational form,
however embryonic. It is more than likely than coalitions of national, governmental,
commercial or association interests will make ambitious proposals along such lines in the
coming years. The challenge will be to filter out or contain those with hidden agendas and
'empire-building' intentions. Clearly there is little hope that the United
Nations system will prove helpful in this connection, given its selective and highly
politicized track record in dealing with nongovernmental initiatives and those responsible
7.3 Transformative conferencing (6)
The clumsiness of the international community of organizations in formulating an
initiative and negotiating support for it is reflected, to a large degree, in the
procedural clumsiness of international meeting organization. It is fair to say that
international meetings hinder, rather than facilitate, the emergence of new initiatives.
In many ways they can be considered as laboratory models of the problems of the structural
and procedural inadequacies of the international community.
The emerging information society is already affecting meeting organization in a number
of ways: use of telex, reservation systems, media involvement, communications devices,
messaging systems, satellite links (video-conferencing). These may be said to have
contributed to the increase in the logistic efficiency of such events (Arenas I to V).
They cannot be claimed to have increased the effectiveness with which ideas or positions,
put forward by different participants, are interrelated in order to bring out the pattern
of concepts which could constitute the foundation for a new initiative.
The previous innovation discussed depends on the participation of many bodies in a
world-wide network. Whether or not this comes about in a useful form, associations should
be able to explore uses of low-cost computer equipment and software as a means of
providing 'conceptual scaffolding' to facilitate the emergence and collective
recognition of patterns of significance in their own meetings - and the possible
transformation into even more significant forms. All the elements are available. Some
experiments have already been conducted along these lines (7). Further possibilities are
now emerging with the availability of 'do-it-yourself' artificial intelligence
(shell) programs. Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz, developers of the EIES computer
conferencing system, announced in December 1986 a new initiative: 'awakening
technology'. This focuses on tools and technologies to help awaken individual and
collective mind emphasizing the use of personal computers and computer networks as
electronic extensions of the mind.
7.4 Meta-stable coalitions
The viability of any form of organization is to a large extent dependent on its ability
to maintain its coherence. This ability is directly related to the nature of the
communication system. Any organization based on the slow exchange of letters by post needs
to emphasize the rules for being 'a member' and to make evident who is on the
current membership 'list'. When participants in an electronic mail system
interact, they effectively bring about the creation of one or more organizations - if the
pattern of their interactions causes clusters of participants to emerge around particular
fields of interest. Such clusters can be formalized if necessary - membership can then be
restricted to participants on a 'list', if desired. The point however is that
the transition between the 'nonexistence' and 'existence' of an
organization, in such a context, can be both very subtle and highly formalized. The
emergence and dissolution of such an organization can be very rapid, with little need to
maintain the organization in existence once it is no longer needed - since the
participants can reconfigure into that coalition at any time. The information system
establishes a continuum out of which coalitions can rapidly emerge, in response to any
issue, and into which they can dissolve when no longer immediately relevant (8).
The above process currently occurs in the many computer conferencing systems, usually
based in North America. The process exhibits a fundamental weakness to the extent that it
is merely a form of 'super-telex' (characteristic of the adaptive group of
arenas). In particular such systems have no special means for handling the kind of
disagreements which are mediated within the framework of international associations having
a politically and culturally diversified membership. In fact no use is made of computer
processing power to facilitate (or even provoke) the emergence, maintenance and
dissolution of coalitions in terms of the pattern of shared, opposing and complementary
interests of participants. If such an innovation were to be made the emergence of a whole
new range of meta-stable coalitions would be possible.
The difficulty in conventional organizations based on non-electronic communications
lies in the necessarily simplistic nature of any rules which are agreed amongst the
members as the basis for the organization they form. If they are too complex, in order to
take into account a variety of exceptional cases, the organizational decision-making
procedure is perceived as cumbersome or simply incomprehensible. As a result, if the
organization cannot be made 'hospitable', some potential members of an
exceptional nature simply do not join. This reduces the potential effectiveness of any
More interesting however is the possibility of coalition formation on topics in which
all potential members have reservations that cannot be reconciled in any simplistic set of
rules. In such instances, the processing power of the computer can be used to devise sets
of rules of a higher order of complexity (cf Ashby's Law) within which the different
reservations of the potential members can be reconciled. In effect the
'constitution' of the organization so formed is based on a dynamic set of rules
embodied in a computer program, rather than in a static 'legal' text as at
present. Representing the organization structure might then be done using a dynamic and/or
graphic model, rather than using organization 'charts' as at present.
One merit of such an approach is that it can make use of both patterns of agreement and
of disagreement - embodying discontinuity (9) - to ensure the stability of the structure,
rather than relying solely on consensus as at present. The art of interweaving agreements
with disagreements to bring about an entirely new form of organization is suggested by
models of 'tensegrity organization' (10).
A further development, enabling the emergence of even more subtler coalitions, could
result from even more dynamic sets of rules to cover cases where the coalition can only
effectively 'exist' by alternating between several different (and essentially
unstable) forms, each governed by a different set of rules (11). Such 'variable
geometry' is a well-developed characteristic of organic molecules basic to life -
namely 'resonance hybrids' (9). In a much simpler form it is evident in rules to
maintain coherence through rotation of an association secretariat or chairperson.
7.5 Metaphor design (5)
The fundamental challenge for international associations, as noted earlier, does not
lie in either the adaptive or the innovative group of arenas, but rather in the
transformative group. Innovations in either of the first two groups will tend to be based
on existing linear and static paradigms. They will tend to be locked into the prevailing
Western paradigm. This has not produced ways of organizing which respond effectively to
the complexity of the social system - that the international community is obliged to
confront and to reflect through coalitions favouring opposing paradigms.
It is questionable therefore whether innovations like those described above would not
simply be coopted to serve vested interests of a traditional kind. Even the possibility of
moving beyond the linear, text-oriented information systems which are the core of the
information society, using pattern-oriented software and hardware, is subject to such
constraints. It is also clear that the information society will severely discriminate
against the 'information poor' - whether blatantly, or subtly through depriving
them of adequate information of a transformative nature (the information equivalent of
'avitaminosis'). It is also doubtful whether such changes will permeate
sufficiently rapidly to assist any but the information elites.
In such a context, an alternative approach would seem to be well worth exploring,
namely the design of metaphors offering people a way of re-conceptualizing their
relationship to their social and natural environment. Metaphors offer the considerable
advantage of requiring few resources for their dissemination. They can even be used to
bypass the considerable lags in the education system. They have the special merit of being
natural to most cultures and languages - so that it may be more a question of enhancing
peoples' own use of metaphors, rather than importing new metaphors for them.
Outside the literary world (with the possible exception of fundamental physics), it is
only politicians who make deliberate use of metaphors to communicate. For metaphors are
inherently communicable and travel well, in contrast to the sophisticated theories of
academe. They have the considerable merit of transcending non-functional conceptual
distinctions and remaining comprehensible to many, to whatever degree. And yet this
resource has not been explored, at a time when most other communication techniques are
recognized as suffering from severe limitations.
The key to collective navigation through complexity may well lie in new ways of using
metaphors to clarify policy options, whether or not their use is facilitated by high
technology information systems. It may be through the exploration of metaphors that the
international community of organizations will finally discover a way to describe itself
meaningfully - whether to itself or to those who currentlv question its credibility.
1. Anthony Judge. Types of Intemational Organizations: detailed overview. In: Union of International
Associations (Ed). Yearbook of International Organzations. K G Saur, 1986,
2. European Convention. In: Union of International Associations (Ed). Yearbook
of International Organizations. Munich, K G Saur, 1986, Appendix 6.
3. James W. Botkin, et al. No Limits to Learning; bridging the human gap. Oxford,
4. Peter Johnson-Lenz and Trudy Johnson-Lenz. Three ways to organize organization.(Documented
communication through the EIES computer conferencing system, 1979). Develops the concept
5. Anthony Judge. Metaphors. In: Union of International Associations (Ed). Encyclopedia of
World Problems and Human Potential. Munich, K G Saur, 1986. Sections CM and XCM.
6. Anthony Judge. Transformative conferencing.In: Union of International Associations (Ed).
Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. Munich, K G Saur, 1986, Section T [papers]
7. Anthony Judge. Metaconferencing techniques.In: Transformative
Conferencing; problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings
concerning social development. Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1984, pp
8. Anthony Judge. The role of the 'potential association'. International
Associations, (23rd Year), March 1971, pp. 148-152. [text]
9. Anthony Judge. Embodying discontinuity. In: Union of International Associations (Ed). Encyclopedia
of World Problems and Human Potential. Munich, K G Saur, 1986, Sections KD and XK [text]
10. Anthony Judge. From Networking to Tensegrity Organization. Brussels, Union of
International Associations. 1984. [text]
11. Anthony Judge. Altemation between variable geometries; a brokership style for the
United Nations as a guarantee of requisite variety. In: D Bardonnet (Ed). The Adaptation
of Structures and Methods at the United Nations. Dordrecht, Martinus Nijhoff, 1986, pp
12. Alvin Toffler. The Third Wave. New York. William Morrow, 1980.