HANDY C., Trust and the virtual organization. Harvard Business Review, May-June 1995

Not long ago, I found myself in the Laurentian Library, which Michelangelo built in Florence for the Medicis nearly 500 years ago. It is a special place, filled with the scent of learning; a place more restful and more uplifting, in many ways, than the Church of San Lorenzo, in whose cloister it stands. The Laurentian is no longer used as a library, however. It is visited only by tourists, and, as for its contents, they could all be fitted onto one CD-ROM disc.

Was this, I wondered, a symbol of what was coming to all our organizations? Their buildings turned into museums for tourists, their work on discs? And would we not lose something thereby, because, for all their probable efficiency, videoconferencing and cruising the Internet are not the same as working in Michelangelo’s library?

Only the week before, in fact, I had been with a group of librarians, discussing the future of their modern-day libraries. Computer screens and keyboards, they agreed, were taking over from shelves of books and journals. A publisher revealed that he was no longer going to print and publish his journal but would instead enter it into the database of subscribing organizations. In that case, said one of those present, we need never visit a library again; we can get all that we want from the screen in our room. At the University of Virginia, added another, the change is already happening; all you need to access the library is a password and a modem. The library of the University of Dubrovnik was destroyed, someone else reported, but the gift of a computer terminal, linked to a host of foreign databases, more than compensated.

I watched the expressions of those in the room as they took in the implications of what was being said. They were coming face-to-face with the idea of the virtual library: a library as a concept, not a place; an activity, not a building. For the librarians, who were accustomed to seeing themselves as guardians of a special place, the idea was either frightening or exciting, depending on their ages and attitudes.

Libraries, whose lifeblood is information, were always likely to be among the first to confront the challenge and opportunity of virtuality, but as businesses become ever more dependent on information, they come up against the same dilemmas. An office is, at heart, an interpretative library geared to a particular purpose, and more and more of our economic activity is a churning of information, ideas, and intelligence in all their infinite variety—an invitation to virtuality.

Since the lifeblood of libraries is information, it’s not surprising that they’ve led businesses in confronting virtuality.

It is easy to be seduced by the technological possibilities of the virtual organization, but the managerial and personal implications may cause us to rethink what we mean by an organization. At its simplest, the managerial dilemma comes down to the question, How do you manage people whom you do not see? The simple answer is, By trusting them, but the apparent simplicity disguises a turnaround in organizational thinking. The rules of trust are both obvious and well established, but they do not sit easily with a managerial tradition that believes efficiency and control are closely linked and that you can’t have one without a lot of the other. Organizationally, we have to wonder whether a company is, in the future, going to be anything more than the box of contracts that some companies now seem to be. Is a box of contracts a sustainable basis for getting the work done in our society, or is it not, in fact, a recipe for disintegration? For society as a whole, the challenge will be to make sure that virtuality brings benefits to all and not just to a favored few. Organizations and, in particular, business organizations, are the linchpins of society. That gives them responsibilities beyond themselves, responsibilities that virtuality throws into high relief. Leggi l’articolo completo