History of the Initiative

History of the Initiative

What is really happening with all these changes? Where are they taking us? And what choices do we have for the future? To help answer these questions, we began the MIT Initiative on "Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century" in 1994. Three existing Sloan School research centers—the Center for Coordination Science (CCS), the Center for Information Systems Research (CISR) and Organizational Learning Center (OLC)[1]—jointly launched the Initiative.

The Initiative had two major constituencies: MIT researchers who were interested in the changes going on and where they might lead, and executives from sponsor firms with a parallel interest from the practitioner's perspective. The three founding sponsors were British Telecommunications, EDS/A. T. Kearney and National Westminster Bank. They were joined by a larger group of global firms active in a broad range of industries—AMP, Eli Lilly, Ericsson, LG Electronics, McKinsey & Company, Siemens Private Communication Systems, Siemens-Nixdorf, Union Bank of Switzerland—and the Norwegian Business Consortium (a collaboration involving Norsk Hydro, the Norwegian Confederation of Business and Industry, the Norwegian School of Management, and Telenor). The researchers provided frameworks for thinking about the issues and a set of specific projects in which to anchor the larger themes of the Initiative. The executives from sponsor firms provided funding and ongoing input about the direction of the overall Initiative and of specific projects.

The Initiative itself worked as loose confederation of research projects. More than 20 MIT faculty members and researchers carried out individual projects under the Initiative's umbrella. In addition, MIT researchers and sponsors collaborated on several special projects in areas of mutual interest. In one special project, for instance, consultants from A. T. Kearney, along with an internal task force from an A. T. Kearney client, worked closely with an MIT research team to develop novel approaches to redesigning the client's hiring process.

Three faculty working groups also met to discuss specific issues. One addressed firm boundaries and transfer pricing; another met over the course of an academic year to think about the possible evolution of research universities in the twenty-first century. A third group met to reflect upon the social and value implications of new organizational practices, and produced a "Manifesto for the Organizations of the 21st Century", which is included in this volume.

Three integrating projects—the Process Handbook, the Interesting Organizations Database, and Scenarios of 21st Century Organizations—worked to pull together cross-Initiative themes. The Process Handbook project developed a systematically structured database of knowledge about business activities using insights from coordination science. Applications include process invention and knowledge management. The Interesting Organizations Database project gathered information on organizations with characteristics that were "unusual today, but likely to become more common in the future". Brief descriptions of more than 250 organizations were collected in a Web-based repository, and more detailed information was gathered on a subset of those organizations. The Scenarios project asked the question, "What might the dominant forms of business organization look like in the year 2015?" The project began in 1994 with a series of sessions involving a core team of MIT researchers, facilitated by experienced scenario planners. The initial scenarios that grew out of that effort were then discussed and refined over the next two years in more than a dozen meetings with MIT researchers, Sloan students and executives from sponsor firms and other large companies. Results from each of these integrating projects are included in this volume as well.

The Initiative held regular meetings of researchers and sponsors. Executive Meetings, where a particular issue was discussed in depth, included topics like "Decentralization and the Role of Technology" and "Values: What Do We Really Want?" Broad research reviews were also held periodically, where the MIT researchers presented reports on the range of work being undertaken in connection with the Initiative.

After five years of activity, the Initiative on "Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century" formally ended with a summary meeting in November 1999, just before the dawn of the new millennium (Andrews 1999). Many of the projects begun as part of the Initiative, however, have continued in other forms, and the research themes that characterized the Initiative continue to be central to much of our ongoing work at MIT.

[1]The Organizational Learning Center was later spun out from MIT as the Society for Organizational Learning (SOL).