LH/RH: Avoid the blind men’s elephant and the tragedy of the commons


When working with associations to assess their use of technology, we often encounter situations in which the culture of silos leads to a myopic view of how technology is (and can be) used to further individual and collective aims.

In this sense, it can be much like the old story of a group of blind men who were assembled to describe an elephant. As each member of the group had hold of a different portion of the beast, they all described something totally different and thus failed to reach any sense of agreement.

Similarly, the tragedy of the commons is an economics theory, according to which individuals or groups, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, behave contrary to the whole group’s long-term best interests by depleting some common resource.

All too often, departments acting independently contribute to an uncoordinated approach to IT and squander funding available for technology initiatives – funding that may already be sparse. Whether the funding for such projects comes out of a departmental or central budget, it ultimately all comes out of the organization’s coffers, and thus, if applied recklessly, can lead to little or no return on the association’s technology investment.

On the other hand (see previous LH/RH post for intended pun), by creating a forum in which technology initiatives are routinely discussed, debated, and decided upon, an organization can better coordinate such initiatives and seek solutions that have broader implications for both staff and members. The forum would also provide a place where various departments might give voice to their future technology needs and uncover opportunities to collaborate with other departments, leading to efficiencies of scale and enhanced data sharing across the organization.

By establishing a safe space in which different elements of the association can work together to articulate and solve their challenges through the creative use of technology, your organization can avoid both the trap of the blind men’s elephant by putting the pieces together to form a cohesive whole, as well as the tragedy of the commons by effectively combining efforts to advance the whole enterprise.

Flickr photo by Fang-Yu Lin