Sunday, April 06, 2008

Editorial: UNESCO Needs to be Reinvented for the 21st Century

UNESCO still reflects the management systems of the time it was created in the aftermath of World War II. It is time to reorganize UNESCO, taking into account the advances in organizational design made possible by the Information Revolution, and prepare UNESCO for the challenges of the 21st Century.

UNESCO should focus on International Networks. It should decentralize, outsource back office functions, conduct much more of its activity via the Internet, focus far more on its core functions, and spin off functions that distract it governors and leaders from those core functions.

Why UNESCO Is the Way It Is

When UNESCO was founded, transportation was far less developed than it is today; there was no commercial jet air travel, and the international air travel system was rudimentary. People in developed nations listened to the radio, but the transistor radio had not yet been invented and much of the world was even out of radio broadcast range. Television was an invention waiting for a market. Making an international phone call was a lengthly and expensive undertaking. The intellectual communities that UNESCO was designed to serve were concentrated in a couple of score of rich countries, and got their information from print media.

There were few intergovernmental organizations in existence before the 1940s, and thus few models that UNESCO could copy. The most applicable was probably the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation with its 40 national committees, and the founders of UNESCO did indeed draw heavily on that experience. However, at that time the dominant organizational form used by government and corporations was hierarchical with a central headquarters and dependent field offices. There were few international corporations in today's sense of that term, and even fewer that emphasized knowledge services.

Not surprisingly then, UNESCO was created with a highly centralized bureaucracy (in Paris), and depended heavily on publication in the print media for its information products. Its founders rejected a French proposal that the national delegations to UNESCO be tripartite, with representatives of the National Commissions and Civil Society as well as government; government was given full control. National Commissions were, however, included in the UNESCO constitution both to advise their governments and to serve as channels of communication between UNESCO and the educational, scientific and cultural communities within the member states.

With decolonization and the epoch of development assistance, UNESCO had to reorganize to some degree in order to carry out its development assistance mission. Similarly, as the network of intergovernmental organizations exploded to include thousands of such organizations, and as governments became more familiar with the concepts of intergovernmental organizations and organized to deal with them on a regular basis, many of the successful UNESCO programs were restructured to have governance shared between UNESCO and their own intergovernmental governance committees. Similarly, many decentralized centers and Institutes came into being, and many have governance structures that respond to UNESCO and to their external donors.

21st Century Management

The Information Revolution has led to major changes in management theory. The hierarchical organization of the 20th century was an effective way to manage national systems that were created to achieve economies of scale in production of goods and services and to distribute products via the elaborating transportation infrastructure to national markets. Companies grew by vertical integration of productive and distribution activities, and later by aggregation of different enterprises into conglomerates. Since intra-organizational information systems were at the time more efficient in coordinating the disparate operations of production and distribution than were markets, large organizations were created.

In the 21st century, e-commerce has come to demonstrate that market processes can be more efficient that intra-organizational ones. Business to business e-commerce is growing, and corporations are focusing more on core competencies, buying the inputs needed for those competencies in one set of markets, and selling their products in another set of markets. Indeed, back office functions, once thought to be core functions of any organization, are not only being outsourced, but are being outsourced from developed to developing countries to achieve economic efficiencies. Similarly, we find government to business e-institutions being developed as well as business to customer e-commerce thriving in businesses such as eBay, Amazon, and Dell. e-government is increasingly improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government to citizen transactions.

Mass communication has developed greatly in the later part of the 20th century, so that most people obtain more information from electronic than from print media. Moreover, the Internet has resulted in point to point communication being as cheap as mass media communication. The World Wide Web is a far more efficient way for UNESCO to interact with the global community that are paper books and periodicals. Indeed, with the development of community radio and satellite communications, it is possible to reach many of even the most isolated communities with up-to-the-minute information.

While it is far more feasible for people to travel to and from Paris than in the past, video conferencing is an increasingly useful approach to face-to-face communications among people who live in widely separated places; video and audio streaming via the Internet can make the proceedings of such conferences cheaply available to a global audience, with each member tuning in from his or her home or office at a time he or she finds most convenient. Thus Internet mediated dialog is likely to increasingly substitute and complement in-person meetings.

Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia of Life illustrate that new Internet based technologies can substitute for earlier management-intensive approaches to the development of bodies of reliable information, and moreover can result in those bodies of information being more current than would be possible with traditional approaches.

Social networking, which probably began with the scientific community in the United States via email and inter-networking, and expanded to include online depositories of scientific papers, has exploded with the growth of Facebook, Linkedin, and other social networking platforms. Today the scientific community continues to gather at large scientific meetings and to disseminate information through peer-reviewed paper journals, but a far richer and more timely networking is taking place over the Internet.

Implications for UNESCO

Studies of governmental organizations that have successfully embarked on e-government efforts have suggested that the process goes through several stages, each of which subsumes and builds upon the previous stages:
  1. The establishment of a presence on the Internet.
  2. The provision of information via the Internet.
  3. The conduct of transactions via the Internet.
  4. The ultimate restructuring and reorganization of functions and processes to utilize the Internet.
UNESCO has already accomplished stages one and two, and is conducting some transactions via the Internet. It is now time for the organization to undertake the completion of the process of restructuring and reorganizing to fully utilize the potential provided in the new Global Information Infrastructure. It should revamp its publication policies, reinvent its websites, and build a global information network to be far more effective in the provision of information to the global community. It not only should be far more proactive in moving its transactions to the Global Information Infrastructure, but it should also find ways to dis-intermediate the international communications among the national intellectual communities that it serves.

Most importantly, it should begin to undertake the re-engineering of its structure and processes, and the restructuring of the institutions that form its interface with the governments of its member states, with civil society organizations, and with the global and national intellectual communities it was born to serve.

John Daly
The opinions expressed in this posting are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for UNESCO or any other organization.

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