Why Small Organizations See The Internet As A Chance, Big Ones See It As A Challenge

There is a thing about the internet, a notion that has been around since the early days: That the internet offers a chance to anyone to do something big, to start their own projects, companies, or even movements.

While this is true, what’s easily forgotten is that anyone refers mostly to individuals, or small organizations: Think start-ups, freelancers, NGOs, or clubs. The internet gives those small organizations some leverage compared to the big players, it levels the playing field. So small organizations, quite naturally, see the internet as a chance.

For big organizations, namely corporations (but also governments etc.), it’s a whole different story. Before the advent of the internet, these big players were, more or less, in charge; Certainly in charge of their own identities and products, but to some degree also of their customers and markets. They had control, and this has been dramatically changed by the internet. Big players are more likely to see the internet as a challenge, if not outright threat.

By now, major corporations have adopted the internet as a toolset for various purposes: Marketing, content distribution, public relations, customer service; also for internal knowledge work and transfer. But this process is far from finished. In many cases, the internet is just used to transfer traditional processes online without really taking advantage of the new possibilities of networked communication.

Start-ups, freelancers and the like have adapted far more quickly, as they are more agile and less restricted by hierarchies and longstanding rules, regulations, legacy – what’s commonly referred to as package. In these smaller teams, when you hit a problem, you just figure out a solution, a work-around. If you need help, you ping your network and find help in an instant, no long screening and hiring process required. In other words: The internet gives you the speed and flexibility you need to solve problems quickly and without much of a fuss.

Big corporations or governments don’t have that chance, it’s inherently not possible for them to react as quickly and flexibly. Big players need to react more slowly: for security reasons; to have time to evaluate potential long-term outcomes and implications; for their staff and stakeholders to have time to learn and catch up.

In my line of work I’ve worked much more with smaller organizations, NGOs, start-ups, agencies. In a few cases I’ve worked with (or in some cases: at) big organizations like an embassy, a newspaper, a publisher, a provider of medical services. The difference I made were very, very different, including (but not limited to) the speed of decision-making, the work pace, procedures and processes, and evaluation. Personally, I mostly preferred the work style in smaller organizations.

However, the big companies have one advantage: Resources. The biggies have the money to just do stuff, once they decide, and to assign significant manpower to projects. So it’s always somewhat tricky to find the balance between Powerpoint Karaoke vs Getting Stuff Done, between Throwing Money At Marketing vs Building Cool Stuff Quickly. Both are tempting in one way or another.

One issue though remains that still needs to be resolved: Many big companies, particularly in the content industry, see the internet primarily as a threat, as a marketplace for stolen good, as a bazaar of doom. They would, if that was an option, shut down the internet, or regulate it so it catered their own interests. Quite often, their interests conflict with their customers’. The opponents, if you want to call them that, are perceived as thugs, criminals, pirates.

Quite often, these so-called pirates have no intention of hurting or damaging corporations or corporate interests, but prioritize their own interests as users. Sometimes this is illegal, sometimes it isn’t. Almost always, though, it disrupts the companies’ traditional business models. (For more thoughts on this, check out The Pirate’s Dilemma.)

Now, to cut a long story short: How can big organizations adopt these strategies that can be found on the web frequently? How to make use of these tools, ideas, and models to grow and innovate, instead of trying to suppress them? This will need a major mind-change for a great many corporate and government players, and some bold risk-taking. The walk won’t be easy, or free of risks. However, the potential benefits are huge, for both the big players and their stakeholders. I’m looking forward to see this development evolve, and to be part of it.

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