Localizing the vision

by Colonel Phil NeedhamI have been dragged into the computer age kicking and screaming. I have a natural (okay, conditioned) distrust of the reliability and permanence of electrons jumping around inside a laptop and doing exactly what I intend for them to do. Furthermore, I have frequently had those electrons (or whatever those particles of electronic impulse are) do things very differently from what I had intended. Once, I lost about a hundred pages of a book I was working on in London. Fortunately, a visiting friend, Major Mike Reagan, whose mastery of the world of high tech I envy, found the draft hidden somewhere in the recesses of my mysterious little laptop. How can something be so close at hand and yet so far?

Okay. I must be a remnant of the industrial age. I want to see a very direct relation between cause and effect. I could do that with the old typewriters, even the electric ones. But the manipulation of data, the interplay of programs, the almost immediate access to a network of just about every resource conceivable, the seemingly unlimited possibilities of what you can do on a screen–well, it dazzles me. I used to think that computers would harm us socially and morally: we would all become computer geeks experiencing the world vicariously through our screens and avoiding the direct social interaction that makes us human and forms our values. And I still strongly suspect there are dangers here.

visionBut my thinking has changed. There is no point in insisting on remaining in the industrial age. We have moved into the age of high tech, made possible, of course, by the accomplishments of the industrial age. Greg Jonas, a financial consultant, recently told our Territorial Executive Conference that we are, in fact, currently in the process of moving from the technology age to the information age. High tech developments now make it possible, given the right conditions, for everyone to have access to more information than they could ever want or use.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times (12-3-00) entitled ‘The New Power Lines’ says that ‘in the digital age, city councils and churches are replacing Washington.’ Along with the globalization of information access has come the increasing dominance of the decentralized private sector. ‘In [the new] paradigm, the real action takes place not in Washington but much closer to home–at county seats, city councils, local boards and commissions, and perhaps most profoundly, voluntary associations, houses of worship and neighborhoods. This renewed importance of personal and even spiritual commitment to place represents a departure from the patterns of the past century.’

I find it interesting that the writer, Joel Kotkin, refers to religious communities a number of times and that this article is not written for the ‘religion’ section of the paper. He is articulating what he considers to be a new reality in our world. Translated into the milieu of The Salvation Army, he is saying that in the digital age, local units (primarily corps) are not only where the important action takes place (We have always known, or at least professed, this.); they are the real power base and they now have, or can find, the resources they need to accomplish the Army’s mission in their own settings. The digital age has created the means and the mindset to reach out in many directions for tailor-made resources never before available locally. One-size-fits-all is true of fewer and fewer things. Corps now have the capacity to shape their own unique strategies for mission and ministry.

Where does headquarters fit into this new paradigm? I see three roles. First, it must cast the broad vision for the territory or division and make sure that the organization is driven by its mission statement. Second, it must be a competent facilitator and first-class resource center for local units. Third, it must ensure that all units, itself and the field, are aligned with the ethical standards, essential policies, and accountability standards of the organization.

I think that past strategies of command-and-control are ineffective in more and more ways and that the consultative and coaching model is proving itself as the most effective approach to leadership for both headquarters and the corps. Sometimes a situation requires that a leader take control. More often, it requires that she empower others. The capabilities unleashed by the digital revolution seem to make strategies of local empowerment more viable, and even necessary, given our environments of rapid change. There is no way headquarters can devise cookie-cutter strategies that are effective in most local settings; nor does it have the wisdom to know what is best in any given local setting.

Most of the God-given wisdom lies with the local unit, and most of the needed knowledge is now locally accessible through digital technology. The challenge for headquarters, I think, is to help the local units unlock the wisdom available to them and to build the confidence needed to develop and implement their own strategies to accomplish their vision. Most corps in our territory have now articulated their corps visions. The next step is a tougher one: to build a road to, to put feet on, their visions ­ to craft a good vision strategy. The new corps review process is designed to facilitate that step. The review document, though imperfect, is a significant step in the direction of doing that. The role of headquarters will be consultative. Following its use this year, the document and the process will be refined further.

The toughest step of all–and the one that proves our seriousness–is the implementation. Accountability must also be built in to the process. Headquarters will play a role in this, but grassroots accountability is even more important.

It’s the information age, folks! We all have resources available beyond anything we could ever have imagined. We have the capacity to craft a strategy for our own corps or center that headquarters does not have. We can think and act locally in powerful, new ways.

It makes me want to get over my distrust of computers.

(Note: I am still concerned that computers not become an addictive fascination. We must make sure we use them to connect, and not to disconnect, us. To inform and resource us, not to alienate us from each other.)

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