THE BIRTH OF THE CHAORDIC CENTURY:1
Out of Control and Into Order
(Extension as Chaordic organization)

Extension National Leadership Conference
Washington, D. C.
March 11, 1996

Eight months ago, I hadn't the vaguest idea there was any such thing as Cooperative Extension. Since then. it has haunted my mind and occupied a good deal of my life. I must tell you why.

Before we begin, may I beg a small indulgence. Language is only secondarily the means by which we communicate; it is primarily the means by which we think. One can scarcely think or talk of organizations these days without stubbing a toe on what a growing number of scientists from many disciplines believe may be the principle science of the next century, the understanding of complex, self-organizing, adaptive systems, usually referred to as "Complexity. "

The word "complexity" seems much too vague to describe such self-organizing complexes, yet, I find it cumbersome to either think or write about them in the long string of adjectives by which the work is described. After grubbing in various lexicons for a more suitable word, it seemed simpler to construct one. Since such systems, perhaps even the emergence of life itself, are believed to exist in the narrow phase between Chaos and Order, the first syllable of each was borrowed, cha from chaos and ord from order, and Cha-ord (kayord) emerged.

By Chaord, I mean any self-organizing, adaptive, nonlinear, complex organism, organization or community, whether physical, biological or social, the behavior of which harmoniously blends characteristics of both order and chaos. Briefly stated, a Chaord is any chaotically-ordered complex. Loosely translated to social organizations, it would mean the harmonious blending of competition and cooperation. Loosely translated to education, lifelong the harmoniously blending of intellectual and experiential leaning.

The word has become mildly addictive so, for a short while, please humor me with its use. And that is as academic as this talk is going to get.



My purpose this morning is to introduce you to a particularly rich, robust Chaord and relate it to the global tornado of technological change which is blowing apart our social, commercial and political structures, to say nothing of the biosphere, and later, to pose a simple question. To do so requires weaving a rather complex tale from elements of history, events, philosophy, biography and even a thing or two bordering on the occult, using, by way of example, that ubiquitous little rectangle of polyviny chloride you think of as a credit card. First, a bit of history.

VISA had its genesis four decades ago as a California service of the Bank Of America called BankAmericard. Concerned with possible erosion of their customers, five California banks launched Mastercharge in 1966. In turn, Bank of America began franchising BankAmericard. Other large banks across the country launched proprietary cards and offered franchises. Action and reaction exploded. Bank after bank dropped millions of unsolicited cards on an unsuspecting public with little regard for customer qualifications, while television screamed such blather as, "The card you won't go berserk with," a challenge the public accepted with enthusiasm.

Within to years, the infant industry was out of control. Operating, credit and fraud losses were thought to be in the tens of millions of dollars. Life Magazine ran a cover story depicting banks as Icarus flying to the sun on wings of plastic above a red sea labelled losses into which banks were to plunge, wings melted, and drown. In the midst of the mess, Bank of America called a meeting of licensees to discuss operating problems. The meeting disintegrated in acrimonious argument. In desperation, the bank proposed forming a committee, of which I was one, to suggest a solution to one of the critical problems.

How I came to be there has some relevance, so a bit of biography. I was born, the youngest of six, to authoritarian parents with but eight years of schooling, in a small, agrarian, mountain community. At an age too young for memory of the source, came two, grand passions, love of reading and nature, along with necessity to pursue both unencumbered by guide or mentor. With community, school and church, came unremitting boredom, coupled with sharp, rising awareness of the chasm between how institutions professed to function and how they actually did, along with stubborn refusal to accept orthodox ideas, be persuaded by authoritarian means or seek acceptance by conformity.

A perceptive high school Dean brought me to forensics with success enough to have some idea of both what it means and what it costs to excel. Another, at a small, local college, put me in the way of the classics and awareness of both the power and limitations of the human mind. At the same time, continual conflict with both organization inflamed a growing preoccupation with the paradoxes inherent in institutions and in the people who hold power within them.

Thus at twenty, newly married, eager to learn but averse to being taught and absurdly idealistic, emerged the ultimate Lamb hunting the Lion of life. The Lion was quick to pounce. The Lamb fell into a job at small, floundering branch of a consumer finance company. Six months later the manager departed and his lot fell to the Lamb. Protected by remoteness, anonymity and insignificance three people, whose average age was twenty, trashed the company manual, ignored commandments and did things as conditions, common sense and ingenuity combined to suggest.

Within two years, the office led the company in growth and profit. Anonymity was gone and the inexorable fists of hierarchical power and orthodoxy were pounding for conformity. The Lamb escaped to open a new office in a small, Oregon town. The pattern repeated itself. A year and a half later the Lion and the Lamb came face to face in the Los Angeles headquarters, the Lamb, responsible for nationwide marketing and determined to change the company; the company determined to corral the Lamb. It was no contest. Within the year, no longer a lamb but no less a sheep and badly mauled, it was out the door, much wiser in the ways of Industrial Age organizations and the people who hold power within them.

You shall be spared details of the next fifteen years of guerilla warfare between a Sheep irrevocably committed to unorthodox concepts of organization and methods of management and three command-and-control organizations, and with the same, inevitable result; just another hunk of unemployed mutton, bruised and bleeding on the sidewalk. There is no tenure in the corporate stockyard. (As an aside, I am delighted to tell you that not one of those companies now exist.)

Throughout the years, the Sheep continued to read avariciously, including much organizational theory, economics, science and philosophy. The preoccupation with organizations and the people who hold power within them became an obsession, which brings us to the heart of our subject this morning.

Why, the Sheep asked time and time again, are organizations, whether governmental, commercial, educational or social, increasingly unable to manage their affairs? Why are individuals increasingly alienated from the organizations of which they are part? Why are commerce and society increasingly in disarray?

Today, it doesn't take much intelligence to realize we are in the midst of a global epidemic of institutional failure. Schools that can't teach, welfare systems in which no one fares well, police that can't enforce the law, judicial systems without justice, economies that can't economize, corporations that can't compete and governments that can't govern. Even then, thirty years ago, the signs were everywhere if one cared to look.

The answer to the Sheep's questions has much to do with compression of time and events. Some of you may recall the days when a check took a couple of weeks to find its way through the banking system. It was called "float" and many used it to advantage. Today, we are all aware of the incredible speed and volatility with which money moves and the profound effect it has on commerce. However, we ignore vastly more important reductions of float, such as the disappearance of information float.

As the futurist, James Burke, pointed out, it took centuries for information about the smelting of ore to cross a single continent and bring about the Iron Age. During the time of sailing ships, it took years for that which was known to become that which was shared. When man stepped onto the moon, it was known and seen in every corner of the globe 1.4 seconds later, and that is hopelessly slow by today's standards.

No less important is the disappearance of scientific float, the time between the invention of a new technology and its universal application. It took centuries for the wheel to gain universal acceptance--decades for the steam engine, electric light, and automobile--years for radio and television. Today, countless devices utilizing microchips sweep around the earth like the light of the sun into instant, universal use.

This endless compression of float, whether of money, information, technology or anything else, can be combined and described as the disappearance of "change" float. The time between what was and what is to be; between past and future. Only a few generations ago, the present stretched unaltered, from a distant past into a dim future. Today, the past is ever less predictive, the future ever less predictable and the present scarcely exists at all. Everything is change, with one incredibly important exception. There has been no loss of institutional float. Although their size and power have vastly increased, there has been no new idea of organization since the concepts of corporation, nation-state and university emerged a few centuries ago.

Newtonian science, along with the machine metaphor to which it gave rise, was the father of those concepts. It has dominated the whole of society and the mass of our thinking for nearly three centuries, to an extent none of us fully realize. It declared that the universe and everything in it, whether biological, physical or social, could only be understood as a clock-like mechanism, composed of separate parts acting upon one another with precise, linear laws of cause and effect.

We have since structured society in accordance with that perspective, believing that with ever more reductionist scientific knowledge, ever more efficiency, ever more specialization, ever more hierarchical command-and-control, we could engineer organizations in which to pull a lever at one place and get a precise result at another, and know with certainty which lever to pull for which result; never mind that human beings must be made to perform like cogs and wheels in the process. For two centuries, we have been engineering those institutions and pulling the levers. Rarely, very rarely, have we gotten the expected result. What we have gotten is all too obvious; a collapsing biosphere and a crumbling society.

It has given rise to what it amuses me to think of as the Sheep's first law of the universe: Everything has both intended and unintended consequences. The intended consequences may or may not happen; the unintended consequences always do.

Just as Newtonian science was the father of today's organizational concepts, the Industrial Age was the mother. Together, they dominated the evolution of all institutions. The unique, variable, processes by which products and services had been handcrafted were abandoned in favor of vertical, hierarchical organizations, which, in order to produce huge quantities of uniform goods, services, knowledge, and people, centralized authority, routinized practices, enforced conformity and amassed resources. This created a class of specialists and managers expert at reducing variability to uniform, repetitive, assembly-line processes endlessly repeated with ever-increasing efficiency. Thus, the Industrial Age became the age of management.

It also became the age of the scientist, whose primary function was to reduce diverse ways of understanding to uniform, repetitive, laboratory processes endlessly repeated with ever-increasing precision. In time, the university obtained a monopoly on the production and certification of both classes. Today, the higher levels of all organizations, whether commercial, governmental, educational or social, are now formed of an interchangeable, cognitive elite, interwoven into a mutually supportive class with immense self-interest in preservation of existing command-and-control organization and the ever-increasing concentration of power and wealth they bring.

The essential thing to remember, is not that we became a world of specialists and managers, but that the nature of our expertise became the creation and control of constants, uniformity and efficiency, while the need has become the understanding and coordination of variability, complexity and effectiveness.

The Sheep's incessant questions and fifteen-year guerrilla war led, in the late nineteen-sixties, to several convictions.

Sick of hard walls and a bloody head, in 1966, I decided to engage in that favorite American pastime, retirement on the job, selecting as victim a bank where a modest living could be had at the cost of a pleasant demeanor, conformity and fractional effort. Within the year, the Lion pounced again. The bank took a card franchise from Bank of America, I was driven into management of the program, thus my presence at the meeting and appointment to the committee.

The committee seemed an exercise in futility and I privately said as much to the BofA representatives, suggesting, instead, that the committee consider how to create an orderly method of addressing all problems. They agreed, but concerned it might be suspect if proposed by them, insisted I put it before the meeting. The audience, in the way of all disorganized groups faced with a proposal creating the illusion of progress and requiring no money or effort, readily assented. The meeting disbanded, the committee met and I was elbowed into the chair, with no intent but to do a bit of civic duty.

Within six months, a complex of regional and national committees had been formed, which had but one redeeming quality, it allowed organized information about problems to emerge. They were much worse than anyone had anticipated, far beyond possibility of correction by the existing organization. Losses were not in the tens of millions, but the hundreds of millions, and accelerating. Suddenly, like a diamond in the dirt, there it lay. The need for a new organization and a precarious toehold from which to make the attempt.

All the "~rees" now so popular--reorganizing, reengineering, reinventing--were the wrong "rees," for they imply yet another version of that which already is. It was necessary to reconceive, in the most fundamental sense, the concept of money and credit card; even beyond that to the essential elements of each and how they might change in a micro-electronic environment. Several conclusions slowly emerged:

(you might ask yourself what will happen to the Institutions of University and Cooperative Extension as information and learning become nothing but alpha-numeric date in the form of arranged electrons and the demand becomes lifelong and global, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, as, in fact, it already has, although no present institution exists to serve the demand.)
It became clear that no bank could do it, no hierarchical corporation could do it, no nation-state could do it. In fact, no existing form of organization could do it. It would require a transcendental organization linking together in wholly new ways an unimaginable complex of diverse institutions and individuals.

It was beyond the power of reason to engineer such an organization and beyond the reach of the imagination to perceive all the conditions it would encounter. Yet, evolution routinely tossed off much more complex Chaords with seeming ease. I asked three others to join me to address a single question based upon a single assumption. If anything imaginable was possible, if there were no constraints whatever, what would be the nature of an ideal organization to create the world's premier system for the exchange of monetary value.

We isolated themselves in a small, remote hotel. There followed days and nights of intense discussion. We could agree on nothing. It gradually became apparent that such an organization would have to be based on biological concepts and methods. It would have to evolve, in effect, to invent and organize itself. We realized we could have to go much deeper, into the depths of our beliefs about the nature of institutions in an attempt to reconceive the very notion of organization itself. Slowly, painfully, a dozen or so very simple principles emerged, more than enough as it proved to be. Let me give you some examples.

The struggle to develop those principles gave rise to the Sheep's second law of the universe: Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex, intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple, stupid behavior.

There followed an intense, two-year effort involving a great many people and disciplines. The principles were gradually enlarged into a concept, the concept into a structure and the structure fitted into the interstices of law, custom and culture and in June, 1970 the VISA Chaord came into being.

It remains difficult to describe that community, but, in order to later illustrate a simple truth, you should know a few things about it.

In the legal sense, VISA is a non-stock, for-profit, membership corporation. In another sense, it is an inside-out holding company in that it does not hold but is held by its functioning parts. The 19,000 financial institutions which create its products are, at one and the same time, its owners, its members, its customers, its subjects and its superiors. It exists as an integral part of the most highly regulated of industries, yet the core of the organization is not subject to any regulatory authority in the world. It is self regulating.

It espouses no political, economic, social or legal theory, thus transcending language, custom, politics and culture to successfully connect institutions and peoples of every persuasion. It has gone through a number of wars and revolutions, the belligerents continuing to share common ownership and never ceasing reciprocal acceptance of cards, even though they were killing one another

Its products are the most universally used and recognized in the world, yet the organization is so transparent its ultimate customers, most if its affiliates and some of its members do not know it exists or how it functions. At the same time, the core of the enterprise has no knowledge of, information about or authority over a vast number of the constituent parts. No part knows the whole, the whole does not know all the parts, and none has any need to. The entirety, like all Chaords, including those we call body, brain and biosphere, is self-regulating.

A staff of only three thousand scattered in twenty-one offices in thirteen countries on four continents coordinates this three quarters of a trillion dollar business, including around-the-clock operation of two, global, electronic communication systems with thousands of data centers communicating through nine million miles of fiber-optic cable. Those systems clear a greater number of electronic financial transactions in a week than the Federal Reserve wire system does in a year, at a cost of less than a penny each, including currency conversion and financial settlement between members.

Its employees received mediocre salaries by commercial standards, could never be compensated with equity or acquire wealth for their services, and none were given preferential pay or opportunity based on academic credentials. Yet, those people selected the VISA name, completed the largest trademark conversion in commercial history in a third the time anticipated and built the prototype of the present communications systems in ninety days for less than $25,000.

Time and time again they demonstrated a simple truth we have somehow lost sight of in mechanistic, command-and-control organizations: The truth is, that given the right circumstances, from no more than dreams, determination and the liberty to try, quite ordinary people consistently do extraordinary things.

Fifteen years with the VISA organization gave rise to the Sheep's third law of the universe: Everything is its opposite, particularly competition and cooperation. Neither can rise to its highest potential unless seamlessly blended with the other. Either without the other swiftly becomes dangerous and destructive.

Well, enough of history and philosophy. What about the future. Over the centuries, many of our finest minds have argued that the two characteristics that most distinguish the human species are memory and language. Memory, but the ability to store and recall images. Language, but the means to share those images, and when recorded, the collective memory of the species. In the beginning, was only that which a single mind could experience. Painfully, each step taking centuries, we ascended a ladder. With language, came shared memory. With written language, came expansion of shared memory to that which could be manually recorded and transported. With the printing press, came expansion to that which could be mechanically recorded and transported. A library, after all, is nothing but the extended memory of the species.

Suddenly, with the revolution in microelectronic technology, within fifteen short years, we have on the order of one thousand times better algorithms, five hundred thousand times more computing power per individual and five hundred million times more mobility of information. The entire collective memory of the species will soon be no more than a few keystrokes away. Visual and verbal Interaction with the finest minds in the world will soon be a couple of buttons away. We do not begin to understand the technical significance of all this, let alone the societal change it has unleashed or the institutional change it demands.

Yet, just around the corner are other revolutions of enormously greater significance. To mention but one, the emergence of nanotechnology. Simply stated, it is the engineering of self-replicating machines and computers so tiny they can arrange atoms, the basic building blocks of nature, as though they were bricks. The necessary science has already been discovered. What remains to be done is the creating of tools at the atomic scale. Molecular biologist have already pioneered the creation of such tools by borrowing the structure of cells.

So fasten your seat belts, the turbulence of change has scarcely begun. Within three decades, for better or worse, we will look on our present methods of manufacturing, sources of energy and concepts of organization as relics of a primitive Industrial Age. And if you think to perpetuate the old ways, try to recall the last time evolution rang your number and asked your consent.

Well, why am I hear today speaking to you about such things. Eleven years ago, I left VISA to devote the remainder of my life to family, nature, books and study in an effort to digest the VISA experience and think about the future. Two years ago, people from the Joyce Foundation became aware of VISA and the beliefs on which it was based. They intruded into my idyllic life to engage in a dialogue about the future. Learning of how VISA came into being, they posed an irresistible question. If anything imaginable were possible, if there were no constraints whatever, what would be required to catalyze massive Chaordic institutional change throughout society and avoid massive institutional failure. After considerable thought, I suggested four things, all of which would have to be well under way within five years.

In my view, none of the four had the slightest chance of realization and I told the Joyce foundation as much, thinking that would be the end of the matter. It was not. They insisted that the world had shifted in the ten years of my self imposed isolation; that people had lost faith in existing institutions and were desperate for new concepts; that an effort must be made. They posed another compelling question. If the Joyce foundation would depart from past policy and make their first grant to an individual to cover expenses, would I contribute my time and investigate as freely and broadly as I liked whether or not the four objectives were indeed impossible and if not, what might be required to set them in motion.

Thus, it happened that two years ago, I set out an odyssey more improbable than VISA, and incomparably more important, traveling the world to search out people concerned about institutional failure and committed to doing something about it. It led to an extraordinary number of dedicated, brilliant people, inner city leaders, scientists, corporate CEO's, Native Americans, prominent authors, software and communications gurus, educators, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, politicians of every persuasion, economists, theologians and philosophers. The response changed my views completely.

Nine month ago I became convinced that with an intensive, part-time effort by a few hundred deeply committed people and institutions, and a $1.5 million dollars for research, travel and professional support, the nucleus of such a global Chaordic Alliance could be conceived and brought into being within eighteen months. It might then attract enough global participation to bring about the other three objectives and catalyze the massive, cultural and institutional change which a livable future demands.

Well, what has all this to do with each of you and with Cooperative Extension. Now we approach the occult. Less than two months after committing myself to the effort, as I was about to leave on a trip the phone rang and Larry Hansen, Vice President of the Joyce Foundation asked me to tell him about my activities with Bob Anderson, Director of Cooperative Extension at Iowa State University, and the meeting we had planned. "Larry," I replied, "I haven't a clue who Bob Anderson is, and, by the way, what on earth is Cooperative Extension."

After five minutes educating me about the rich history and impressive dimensions of Cooperative Extension, Larry added, "Anderson sent one of your papers to people throughout Extension, claiming it was most provocative thing he has read in years and that where it says 'Chaordic' all he can read is 'Twenty-First Century Extension'. He has invited State Directors to bring two of their top people and meet with you for three days of hard work to explore Extension as Chaordic organization."

"Larry," I replied, "this is bizarre. I don't know Anderson from Adam's off ox, have no idea what this is all about and no time to find out or I'll miss my flight. "I'll send you a copy of his letter" Larry replied, and rang off. I shoved the matter into a crevice of my mind and left for the airport. He was quick to the point. I was swiftly disarmed. "You don't know me. I must tell you what I've done and hope you'll understand," which he did succinctly, adding, "I've already heard from key people in sixteen states and there is a high degree of interest. This could be extremely important to the future of Extension. Will you come?" Candor begets candor. "Bob, if this is another passel of academics looking for an intellectual excursion and opportunity to write a few more obtuse papers, I haven't the slightest interest. If these are serious people with serious intent I'll be there." In his loquacious way Bob replied, "Good! They are. I'll call you next week."

He did. We met. They were. We have met twice since, each time with an expanded number, will again five weeks hence in Kansas City, and elsewhere throughout the year. They have been extraordinary meetings. I am astonished at the degree to which Cooperative Extension already contains Chaordic genes. It may well be all incipient Chaord trying to happen. It is difficult to characterize the content of our meetings in a sentence or two. If I were to try to do so. it would be something like this:

If anything imaginable was possible; if there were no constraints whatever, what would be the nature of an ideal organization to create the world premier system of learning communities for the exchange of knowledge, tolerance, trust and wisdom in the service of all living things. We are laboring intensely in the deepest sense of a true learning community, to evoke from our collective experience, knowledge and wisdom, the purpose and principle such a system would espouse and a structural concept which would embrace them.
Where all this will lead I do not know. I have great hope and strong beliefs about where it should lead. But then, it is not my beliefs which are important in this affair, it is the beliefs and hope all the people who compose Extension and who depend upon it. So I shall say no more and let those who have been part of the process--several are among you--share their experience with you.

The German poet-writer-scientist-philosopher, Goethe, one of the truly great minds of the past few centuries, had it right when he wrote:

Until one is committed there is always hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation there is one elementary truth the ignorance of of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; the moment one commits oneself then providence moves to. Multitudes of things occur to help that which otherwise could never occur. A stream of events arises from the decision raising to one's favor all manner of unforeseen accidents, meeting and material assistance which no one could have dreamed would come their way.

What ever you can do or dream you can begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

My time is up, but I should like to share a final thought. It is my personal belief that we are at that very point in time when a four-hundred year old age is rattling in its death bed and another struggling to be born; a shifting, of culture, science, society and institutions enormously greater than the world has ever experienced. Ahead, the possibility of regeneration of individuality, liberty, community and ethics such as the world has never known, and a harmony with nature, with one another and with the divine intelligence such as the world has always dreamed.

There isn't the slightest doubt in my mind that Chaordic we are, Chaordic we will remain, Chaordic the world is, and Chaordic our institutions must become. It is the way of the world in the centuries ahead, as life evolves into ever-increasing levels of complexity. Unfortunately, ahead lies equal possibility of massive institutional collapse, enormous social carnage and regression to that ultimate manifestation of Newtonian, mechanistic concepts of control, dictatorship, which, in turn, would have to collapse with even more carnage before Chaordic Institutions could emerge.

Or have we--have we at long, long last--evolved to the point of sufficient intelligence, spirit and will to discover the concepts and conditions by which Chaordic institutions can find heir way into being? Institutions, which have inherent in them capacity for their own continual learning, adaptation and order, and ability to coevolve harmoniously with all other living things to the highest potential of each and all?

I simply do not know, but this I do know. It is far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism. At such times, it is no failure to fall short of realizing all that we might dream. The failure is to fall short of dreaming all that we might realize.

Institutions are not about doing, They are not about being. Institutions are about becoming, and the world cries out for what Extension could become. And so, the simple question to which I referred in the beginning. If not such a dream, what? If not Extension, who? If not now. when?


1 © Dee W. Hock 1996

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