Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Centralization Conundrum

I've been thinking about this issue since I started working with library systems at a library automation consortium in 1998. The question is - which type of architecture works better and under which circumstances - one hierarchically dictated, centralized, large-scale system that provides for many different organizations - or a decentralized architecture, with each organization having its own individual system that meets local business needs.

The centralized system sounds like it would offer economies of scale. However, in many cases the centralized system is at such a scale that it costs exponentially more. The key advantage a centralized system really offers is the advantage that comes with centralized training and troubleshooting. One knowledgebase required, one set of experts who can solve all of its issues. So that's the real advantage.

The downside is that the centralized system wasn't necessarily built in a way that meets the needs of the individual organizations who've been sucked into it. The alternative - many little systems, one for each organization - allow that organization to customize things to meet their "on the ground" needs, to do real user-centered design. That's a level of flexibility and adaptability that centralized systems just don't offer. But it requires greater technological fluency on the part of each organization. The good news is that we're all more technologically fluent than we used to be and as new players enter the workforce, we grow still more fluent.

Then there is the issue of point of failure - a centralized system offers one. That's why the internet was built the way it was - decentralized. So it could continue functioning at some level no matter what.

I think about this issue of centralization v. decentralization a lot in terms of e-government. In an era when the technology for web-based services is so easy and cheap (or free), why can't agencies offer web-based services and information that are more usable and accessible? Take a look at this great article on e-government & you'll find a blueprint for how we could make government more technologically adept and user-friendly.

The old command and control model is hierarchical, centralized, and NOT web-speed. There needs to be a new model. It needs to focus on creating frameworks that allow the individual entities to do what they need to do to succeed with their customers. It needs to focus on ensuring collaboration, education, communication, interorganizational-compatibility, and usability for all stakeholders.

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