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Governance, Emergence or Govmergence?

April 3, 2012

Governance is a concept that has assumed a place of considerable prominence in the corporate world over the last few years.  Our general modus operandi seems to be to create lots of concepts that overlap, contradict and obfuscate one another, as well as the real-world phenomena that they represent.  Does this concept-fetish show up with regard to governance?  Maybe.  Leadership, Management, Control, Stewardship and other such concepts do seem to play in and around the same semantic space.  In one way or another, the general focal area for all of these words seems to be about things of value (Assets) and the need for thoughtfulness about conceiving, developing, realizing, providing, using and evolving these things of value. 

It’s about thought and it’s about action.  It’s about channelizing thought and action along some guided path toward some desired destination, some objective.

Sometimes, to understand something, it helps to consider the absence of the thing and imagine the world that would have existed in its absence.  If there were no governance, would there be pure chaos?  Would thoughts and actions disperse and vaporize, and leave little behind in their wake?  Is this how things were, when governance was not the rage? That does not seem to be so, considering the success of many organizations that hardly spoke of governance.  Either these organizations were practicing some form of governance without calling it that, or their success derived from the lack of governance.  Or maybe it was a bit of both?  Really?  Can the lack of governance actually be beneficial?  If one looks at examples of emergent behavior arising from apparently disconnected and uncoordinated activities that almost magically coalesce into a complex, rich design, it would be hard to argue against the benefits of approaches based on emergence.  On the other hand, one can easily see examples where a lack of thoughtfulness and coordination can lead to pell-mell and abuse.  Examples are not hard to come by – the recent troubles on Wall Street and at financial institutions have often been attributed to the lack of governance.

In the end, as with many other things, there is a tendency to romanticize words and concepts, and shift our collective gaze from the underlying reality, which arguably should occupy center stage.  Governance can help, emergence can help, and everything in between…which is where things in the real world often lie – in the spaces between the words.

So, in the spirit of romanticizing concepts, let us propose one more concept to muddle the mix: Govmergence.  Maybe this new word will find a sweeter spot in the reality we try to hit with our words.

– Balaji Prasad, April 2012

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