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Organization and governance in the era of digital humanitarianism
Andrej Verity & Mary Milner

 

 Recent past: emergence of V&TCs, horizontal governance and effective collaboration

Innovation has become a way for private firms to be competitive yet humanitarian/disaster response has been protected by high barriers of entry. With modern technology, outside actors have started to develop new networks, tools and initiatives that better meet the needs of the public. Perhaps the first major aspect of this trend in humanitarian affairs is the emergence of the Volunteers & Technical Communities (V&TCs) who are communities of volunteers and/or professionals who seek to leverage their skills and today’s technologies to assist formal humanitarian response and affected populations during times of crisis. These networks of digital global citizens have identified, and moved to fill, gaps in international crisis response. In many ways they fit the description of a Global Solution Network [2] as defined by Don Tapscott [3].

In trying to figure out ideal governance for a horizontal structure, we looked outside the V&TCs for examples. Open-source software communities, Occupy Wall Street, and Wikipedia have forged a new path towards horizontal organizational structure. However, they have also experienced significant downsides in the absence of predetermined organizational and governance structures. The main finding was how important defining governance structure, in advance if possible, really was to the long-term survival of the entity. A disregard for governance structure can actually result in an unrestricted, hyper-political, and detrimental power structure within a ‘leaderless’ entity. In some of the cases, the research showed that an aversion to articulating good governance for a network leaves it vulnerable to the occurrence of informal hierarchy – that is, the type of hierarchy that develops ‘naturally’ between individuals. This type of hierarchy can actually be far more detrimental and debilitating to a network than a predetermined organizational structure. Analysis of research related to hierarchy within network organizations found that despite the initial intentions to be hierarchy free, hierarchical structures emerged over time. Although V&TCs should continue to be inspired by these groups, we must seek to improve upon their models.