Why do hybrid orgs matter?

May 12, 2009 § 10 Comments

I’ve been poking at the question ‘why do hybrid orgs matter?’ for a couple of days now. Emailing friends and colleagues. Grilling people over dinner. Drawing little doodles. As I did this, I kept stumbling around ideas like ‘huge impact’ and ‘creating public goods’ and ‘massive participation’. Important ideas, but not quite what I was hoping for. It turns out that coming up with a crisp, helpful ‘why hybrids matter’  statement is tough.

Why do hybrids matter?

It’s tough because the ideas we’re playing with here are (in part) very new, and the term ‘hybrid organization’ is still quite fuzzy (there are many different takes on hybrids beyond what I am talking about). However, the more I dig, the more I am convinced that organizations like Mozilla, Wikipedia, Kiva, Miro and so on that mashup mission, market and the culture of the web represent a new pattern worth understanding. Even if we don’t yet have the right words to describe this pattern yet, we need to dive in, think and play.

Elements of what matters

So, that’s what I did. I rolled up all the notes and email comments I gathered in the last few days into a short ‘why do hybrid orgs matter?’ blurb that goes like this:

Mission + market + web hybrids matter because they can wield the power needed to move markets at a global scale, while still looking out for the small guy, taking the long view and staying true to their public benefit mission. They show us how organizations could — and maybe should — work in the future.

It’s pretty awkward and wordy, and in a number of ways not quite right. That’s okay. Even more than earlier, my hope here is to spark conversation. Why do mission + market + web hybrids matter to you? What would you add to this statement?

As a way to feed the conversation, I figured it would be useful to share some quotes from the email conversations I’ve been having and notes on my own thinking. They break down into six things that matter about hybrid orgs:

1. Power to move markets …

This one comes from something johnolilly said in email: “Sometimes we need organizations with financial and market strength but mission-orientations to keep capital-only-organizations doing the right things for the commons. Historically, those with money, and money-missions, have had all the power. Hybrids are important because they have the potential to let mission-oriented orgs wield similar power, but for human-oriented needs.” No question this is at the core of what matters.

2. … at a global scale …

tonyasurman agreed but pushed one step further: “What’s unique about hybrids is the ability to take move market but also the ability to do this at a global scale without losing the integrity of the small. This is really important. Non-profits and social enterprises have never had the potential for this kind of impact. Hybrids can take public benefit products and services to a scale never before imagined.” The global scale that comes w/ the web also seems critical, and not just on the market transformation side. It’s an essential part of creating high quality products and services using peer production.

3. … while still looking out for the small guy …

Global scale, high quality product and public benefit mission mean that hybrids tend to be good at getting great stuff into the hands of incredibly tiny, otherwise-ignored markets. nreville said: “These hybrids are able to bring the full benefits of market influence to underserved constituencies that would otherwise be completely ignored a big company or poorly served by traditional charity. If someone made a special browser for just for people who speak Telugu it would probably suck. But Mozilla is willing to put energy into translating Firefox into Telegu, even when it’s not profitable to do so. The result is that a small constituency gets a world-class product.”

4. … taking the long view …

Similarly, hybrids can think beyond short term gain and consumer support. beltzner wrote: “Hybrid organizations have a distinct advantage over traditional organizations in acting for long-term benefits. Many traditional organizations, concerned with quarterly performance and growth, are consumed with what they can do to increase their immediate position at all costs. Hybrid organizations, concerned with public benefit and ecosystem growth, can trade off immediate short-term advantage with long term development more easily. For example, while a traditional organization may find it difficult to stop activities which have a short term benefit but a long term detriment, a hybrid organization approaches that decision differently. Practically speaking, this also means that hybrid organizations are as concerned with *how* they do things or develop systems as they are concerned with the things themselves.”

5. …. and staying true to their public benefit mission.

Responding to my first post, stephendeberry asked: “how do you ensure the public benefit remains core to the hybrid model?” This is actually a huge challenge for both traditional non-profits (grantmaker demands trigger mission drift) and social enterprises (can become more about the market than the mission). And it’s somewhere I think hybrids built on the idea of mass participation and peer production have a special advantage. They not only have boards and leaders committed to the mission, but they also have huge communities actively involved in interpreting the mission every day by helping to make something. The aggregate decisions of people who contribute to Firefox, or Wikipedia, or Kiva help shape what these things are in very real ways, which is in turn likely to make sure things stay more or less on mission. This isn’t to say peer production is democracy. Usually, meritocracy is the rule. Still, having a massive number of stakeholders involved in building things helps hybrid orgs stay public benefit focused.

6. Hybrids can show us how organizations could — and maybe should — work.

The organizational tools available to us as a society are quite broken, or at least don’t fit all the things we need and want to do. The current economic crisis shows this. The overly bureaucratized world of grant dependent non-profits shows us this. And, on a more positive side, the growth of massive informal social movements shows this. We don’t have good organizational models (or legal incorporation structures) to figure out how to channel the energy of huge numbers of people who want to play across mission and market make things better in a coherent, collaborative, high-impact and sustainable way. The hybrids I am talking about are taking a shot at fixing this, inventing and evolving new ways to organize as they go. This is pretty meta, I know. But it’s also pretty important.

7. ….?

I think there is some good stuff in here. But it definitely isn’t completely right yet. So, the question now is: what’s the seventh item on this list? The eighth? And the ninth? I really want people to add to this list, to poke at it further and to call out the bits that feel like just plain bull. The more I struggle with these ideas, the more I think conversation is useful.

Why do they matter to you?

Why? Because figuring out why these organizations matter, what makes them tick and what challenges they face (my next post) is a part of making them work better. Working in uncharted waters is hard. Sharing what we’re learning along the way helps. It helps those of us trying to nurture organizations and communities that mix mission, market and the web. And it provides fuel and encouragement to people who want to set up such organizations anew.

§ 10 Responses to Why do hybrid orgs matter?

  • Linda Rogers says:

    In a time when people have lost trust in the “branding” of corporations, when hearing one voice “staying on message” means that it is probably bullshit, people are more and more relying on the “voice of the many” through distilling opinions on Twitter, Facebook, etc. to have some idea of what to believe, who to trust.

  • Nick says:

    Hybrids are important because they unselfishly create ecosystems for economic development.

  • Hybrid orgs allow people in places where they haven’t been able to have input in larger world issues to have a say. With a little education and access to a computer a person anywhere can have input and who knows what effect that sense of empowerment will have.

  • Gerv says:

    The “still looking out for the small guy” bit, at least for Mozilla, seems to be more about the participation model than the organizational model. We translate into Telugu because a Telugu translation team has volunteered. But if it were just about “Global scale, high quality product and public benefit mission” then we’d be going out and trying to pay teams to translate the top N remaining languages. It’s only when you add “participatory structure” to that organization that you really end up looking out for the little guy – because, in fact, it’s the little guy who is looking out for himself and his mates.

    It’s probably true that not being quarter-by-quarter profit driven allows you to do more in this area – for example, to design and refine your processes so that adding the Nth translation team into the release mix doesn’t slow you down – but even hybrid orgs have to acquire at least as much money as they spend.

  • Eyal says:

    [Adding to 6]
    Hybrid orgs are showing us what’s possible, inspiring our imagination.
    By being organizations aimed not only at profit maximization, they allow us and themselves to experiment in new and exciting ways which could help the commons.

    [Perhaps 7]
    When working together, hybrid orgs are more effective, sustainable, far reaching, and benefit making. The sum is bigger than it’s parts.

    Hybrid orgs empower people and release their potential. They do it across countries, colours, religions and incomes.
    They bond people together, transcending even political and regional issues.

  • […] been thinking lately about Mark’s posts on hybrid organizations (see one, two, three).  Many of the things he’s talking about in these posts overlap with ideas I have about […]

  • […] 17, 2009 Mark Surman has published another blog post about why hybrid organizations matter. I agree with pretty much all of what Mark wrote, and don’t have much to add in general. […]

  • brdy t says:

    By ‘move markets’ do you mean positively? I’m thinking so. Madoff moved markets too so be specific I think as it’s a seductive notion to me anyways.

    Great to say ‘benefit making’ – I belive it’s true, but you have to define the ‘benefit’ right? That’s tricky. We know innately that it’s true what you’ve written but I would be hard-pressed to define measureables.

    Too many metaphors for my taste – ‘fuel’ for organizations for example. I know what you’re saying but if you’re clearer it would help.

    On ‘Public Benefit’ – consider looking at the final valued outcomes list of the Governments of Canada Service Reference Model – that’s an exhaustive listing of about all 30 things that can be final valued outputs for citizens and residents. Doesn’t matter if the gov, priv/sector, NGO, QUANGO delivers the service.

    I’m with stephendeberry in the sense that long term benefits are distinctly different from maximizing shareholder value or corporate profits and perhaps hybrids are best-of-breed org types for making that happen.

    So I’d say define what you mean by ‘public benefit’ as it’s too vague, say what ‘moving markets’ means (is it always positivistic or somehow implied that it is?) and look again to the notion that network-effect and value-network theory is conducive to understanding your investigations into what a hybrid org is.

    Hope that helps.


  • […] probably clear by now that I’m a keener for orgs mashup public benefit mission + market disruption + the participatory […]

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