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Wanted: New Types of Social Entity

Part I: The role of the potential association


Partial extract from Annex I of a Study Paper entitled: The Next Step in Inter-Organizational Relationships: the use of information, rather than organization, as the foundation for the interorganizational activity of the future. Printed in: International Associations, 1971, 3, 99 148-152

The fragmentation, suspicion, duplication, un- necessary competition for limited resources and conscious or unconscious opposition to change and new patterns of activity which Is Increasingly characteristic of inter-organizational relations, suggests the need for a new type of social entity.

Federations of organizations or even groupings of individuals - as the current solution to this malaise - are considered a potential throat to the autonomy and freedom of action of the proposed members, unless the grouping has a highly specific function (in which case its coordinative power is limited). Members do not want to have things said In their name except on very specific Issues with their approval. Is it not lime that we examined the assumption that " organizations "as we have known them

  • and they do not differ fundamentally from the first associations and limited liability companies that were created several centuries ago
  • are the only possible form of organizing social activity. This is an incredible absence of development in a society characterized by change in all domains.

Perhaps wo could bypass the impasse in inter- organizational relations and the legal recognition of such entities by creating a new type of social entity. Equally urgent, if less obvious, is the need for equivalentnew structures or processes to relate, " potentially ", the activity of autonomous disciplines and as a device for catalyzing individual integration.

As a first suggestion, why do we not - create (or, really, " think in terms of ") what might be called a " potential association "(• société potentielle "in French, as opposed to - société anonyme "). Such an association would, as such, not have " members "In the sense of people subsribing in common to a particular set of views or being represented in any way via any election procedure. The relationship would be loose - almost to vanishing point - to avoid any threat to autonomy. The bodies brought into relationship via a potential association would be held, or, strictly speaking, would hold themselves, in this relationship simply by the fact that they received information, whether on a paying basis or as some form of subsidized service, from a central point on topics of Interest to them. Such centres, each functioning as the secretariat for a potential association, could take any existing organizational form - the fact that each made available information (on a subscription basis, for example) to a list of people or organizations implies no membership relationship whatsoever.

But, and here lies the difference from the multitude of information distribution operations, the secretariat would also ensure that that each " potential associate - or " subscriber "Was regularly and rapidly informed of the identity and degree of " interest "or " deisre to act "of other associates, with respect to each new subject or issue (falling within the domain of that particular potential association) on which he had also registered his interest (or desire: to act, to commit funds, etc.). Each associate therefore has a comprehensive picture, updated weekly for example, of what new opportunities for joint action are open to him.

On such particular issues contact between a group of associates, self-selected from the total " pool "of associates, is facilitated by the secretariat. This could lake the form of " list (of the names and addresses of all associates who had registered the same degree of Into* rest in a given topic) sent to each person on the list -or this could bo extended so that a willing contact person was appointed and indicated on the list. Such a restricted - transient - group (See: Alvin Toffier, Future Shock, London, 1970, p. 133 (transient organizations), pp. 340-3 (situational groups)) may then decide quite Independently on the organizational form or joint action it has to take. If any, (i. e. whether formal or informal, profit or nonprofit, one-off meeting, organization, joint letter, delegation, etc.) for the period of duration of common interest in the subject. The potential association's central secretariat may, in some cases, then prove to be the most appropriate administrative structure to carry out the secretariat function of the specialized transient group. In other cases a separate secretariat may be created.

In this way the existence of the central secretariat is continually facilitating and catalyzing the creation and crystallization of a multitude of transient groups - self-selected from the total pool of autonomous associates and dissolving back into the pool on completion of the activity tor which they were created. Clearly at any one time a given associate may be, be becoming, or coming to be. a " member "of a number of such transient groups with different: constitutions, degrees of formality, governmental character, continuity, degrees of permanence, binding power over members, types of programme, etc. Such specialized groups may result, in the normal way, in the creation of their own information systems or administrative apparatus - and associates may in fact have no further relationship with the potential association from which the transient group "gelled ". Associates may even then constitute themselves into a more specialized potential association but at no time is the autonomy of the associate infringed upon without his direct consent on the specific Issue. The potential association constitues a development which is a • hair's breadth • beyond current practice. This is encouraging In that it indicates that the novelty would not be so great as to Jeopardize its use. Some organizational techniques which are related to it are: ad hoc committees and working parties, use of mission oriented " task forces "in complex organizations in order to get collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries (this is highly developed in the international Telephone and Telegraph Corporation lor example), • invisible colleges "of scholars, natural disaster or crisis contact groups, - situational groups "advocated for people passing through the same life situation at the same time ('), and working groups of NGOs In consultative status with ECOSOC.

Due to the increasing desire on the part of a number of: NGOs to combine for consultation on specificmailers under the consideration of the Economic and Social Council or its subsidiary bodies, slowly a new approach has been gaining ground. Without changing the basic concept, the Conference agreed that it or itsBureau may act as a convenor of meetings of consultative NGOs who wish to meet, consult and cooperate on specific matters. The conference or its Bureau should however not bear any responsibility for the actions of the groups thus formed. This method which is certainty capable of further and wider application is not objectionable, provided that there is always a clear distinction defining the competence, the action and the responsibility of the Conference and the Bureau on the one hand, and the competence, action, and responsibility of the cooperating groups or ad hoc committees of NGOs on the other hand. "(A review of the Aims and Objectives and the Structural Organization of the Conference of NSO's in Consultative Status with ECOSOC. 11th General Conference of NGO's in Consultative Status with ECOSOC, Geneva, 1969, 11/GC/19, pp. 9-10)

The differences from these techniques are however highly significant.

Firstly, the potential association is given social recognition, it becomes a social phenomenon which can be labelled, discussed and improved upon. At present the processes encompassed leading to the crystallization of such groups occur in a very haphazard, change-dependent, inefficient way (to the horror and despair of members when they finally make contact and realize the effort they have wasted). No information system has yet been designed totact and realize the effort they have wasted). No information system has yet been designed to facilitate this type of contact - the closest approaches are the high-volume, high-cost, highly specialized, profile-based, journal-abstract systems.

Secondly, as a distinct organizational technique it can be active between hitherto partially or totally isolated organizations - as such it increases the whole pace, potential and flexibility of organized activity.

Thirdly by objectifying the tenuous concept of agroup of bodies or persons which could link together in different transient patterns under different appropriateconditions, the need to centre attention on existing organizations (with their tendency to self-perpetuate and constitute obstacles to social change) is diminished in favour of recognition of the range of potential patterns into which the component entitles could • gel • in response to new conditions. A meaninglul and dynamic social framework for ordinary organizations is thus supplied. Thus whilst society may, with the use of a technique of this type, form a highly ordered (tow entropy) complex at any given time - satisfying short term, stability requirements - the high probability of switching to completely different high order patterns at later points in time suppliesthe • randomness •(high entropy) condition essential to the facilitation of social change and devolopment in response to new conditions. In this connection, note Professor Johan Galtung's view on the importance of high entropy for world peace :

"Thus the general formula is: Increase the world entropy, i.e. increasethe disorder, the rnessiness, the randomness, the unpredictability • avoid the clear-cut, thesimplistic blue-print, the highly predictable, the excessive order... Expressed in one formula, this seems to capture much of what today passes as peace thinking. particularly of the associative variety. " (Johan Galtung, Entropy and the general theory of peace. Proceedings of the International Peace Research Association, Second Conference. Assen, Van Gorcum, 1968; also published asChapter 5of Theories of Peace, prepared for Unesco under a contract with IPRA) In other words we have a means of ensuring high social stability at each point in time with low predictability over time, or alternatively, and paradoxically, we can think of it as a potentially (i.e. unrealizable) highly ordered situation over time which • contains a sequence of very disordered situations. An advantage of this isthat people and power groups cannot take up feudalistic roles in potential structures. (In this connection see: Johan Gallung. Feudal systems, structural violence and the structural theory of revolutions. Proceedings of the ipra Third Conference. Assen, Van Gorcum, 1971.)

Fourthly, at a time when the need for greater participation is being fell, the " sociale anonyme "can be seen as crystallized out of a system of potential relationship between associates known (i.e. non-anonymous) to one another. Namely the transient bodies in which a given associate does not participate are not totally alien to him (provided they arise from the same potential association) - the alienating effect of on ordinary organization is thus reduced.

Note that there is no limit to the number of associates of a potential association - nor to the degree of sub-division or over-lapping between such associations, (Limits worth a moment's reflection are perhaps constituted by the total world population or the total number of groups.)

Two other thorny problems are bypassed :

(a) legal status is irrelevant since the association as such, does not • exist • in the present in any tangible form - it only exists potentially (hence - potential association " ) es a future possibility, and then only par- tially, through any of an infinite (or a least very large) combination of possible sub- patterns called into existence by particular conditions - it is these sub-patterns which may take on forms which could usefully acquire some form of legal status for their usually limited duration - there is however no need for them to • recognize • one another or be recognized by non-member associates. (b) control of the central secretariat is not the critical problem it is in the creation of a normal organization. Its operation could even be carried out under contract or be carried out by an organization totally dissociated from the transient groups which " gel " out of the potential association. Control could be in the hands of a few or all of the associates by their constituting themselves for that administrative purpose only into a limited liability group or even some form of • Commutée of the Whole • (a technique used by the United Nations General Assembly). Alternatively, the minimum administrative operations could be carried out as a normal subscriber-service by periodicals • overlap between such services to common associates would merely confirm then effectiveness.

By implication, both governmental and nongovermenlal, and profit and nonprofit, bodies at any level could be associates of the same potential association. The feasibility of a given pattern gelling Into some effective ad hoc, formal or informal, joint operation would bo determined by negotiation as part of the " life "of the potential association in terms of the political and other constraints valid for the proposed pattern over the period in question.

(It could be instructive to speculate on the results of constituting the many thousands of bodies which make up the UN into a potential association. The same applies to the whole intergovernmental system, the nongovernmental system and could be equally interesting at the national and local levels).

It should be clear that it is precisely this type of method of ensuring a constant, very high and flexible interaction rale which would ensure generation of the maximum amount of self- coordinated new activity, commitment and involvement by associates of potential associations. It is this sort of approach which could be catalyzed by the UN to increase the amount of activity related to development, peace and other UN programme objectives. This could be dona lor the local and national levels, where the centres of interest lie, to strengthen grass- roots interaction, with the recognition that this will build up and overflow naturally and of its own accord onto the international level and from the developed to the developing countries. This can be achieved without the need tor the UN to be responsible for the organization, control or political implications of whatever joint activity gels out -- except where Specialized Agency departmental participation; asan associate in a given activity, Is appropriate. It is the increase in the absolute amount of such interaction which will ensure maximum collaboration with, and support lor, the sub-set constituted by UN programmes.

What social processes, pressures or bodies cause new UN programmes to be evolved (i.e. voted) in recognition of new problems ? Does the UN believe that non-UN Joint activity can contribute to the achievement of UN long- term objectives without necessarily being tied to the UN definitions of methods and priorities - if so, what needs to be done to facilitate such activity (as a striking opportunity lor accelerated development rather than as a politico-administrative problem of selective " recognition "of appropriate organizations ?)

For specific proposaisfor the use of computers to facilitate high inter- and intra- organizational interaction, see Anthony Judge (Information systems and inter- organizational space. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Association, Special issue on Social Intelligence (for Development), Winter 1970-71; International Organizationas and the Generation of the will to change: information systems required, Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1970 (INF/5).


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