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Just like Visa? Yeah? Really?

One of the most interesting things circulating amongst those who fancy creating ecosystems for identity is an idea that we should have "frameworks" "trust frameworks" just like what have now in credit card networks. Sounds great - just replicate what they have. It isn't that simple. For one thing it is a global worldwide network that has evolved for 40 years. For another it was created in a very unique process lead by a man named Dee Hock. He wrote a whole book about the process Birth of the Chaordic Age. Anyone seeking to replicate this success should read the book.

I know about this history in part because the first people that hired me to work on identity efforts were inspired by this actual history and sought to build a Chaordic Organization to make it real.

Visa History People working in digital identity frequently talk about the Visa network and its network of contracts that support the flow of transactions across the globe. Much of the focus is on what is perceived to be at the core of this network, the Trust Framework. This framework is a network of contracts including banks that issue credit, merchants that accept credit, the contracts amongst the issuing banks, and the contracts between the merchant bank and the merchant. This whole set of documents is over of 900 pages long. I have heard people thinking about the possibility of massive interoperable trust frameworks in digital identity saying that we should start by basing the outline of a framework for digital identity on the table of contents of this massive legal document.

What kept circulating as these conversations about how they thought this network functioned were questions about how Visa formed and the unique approach its founder had to getting coherence across such a large community of stakeholders. In its founding, Dee Hock was able to get the coopetition (cooperation and competition) between the banks to happen based on the network of relationships and connections he formed between them, developing a shared purpose and articulating a core sent of principles that allowed them to work together effectively. Then from there all the artifacts like the trust framework arose. Hock had a clear understanding that the system as operated. When he began to form, the network was in chaos; it was breaking down. They needed some order within the system to help it function. It was a complex situation in the middle between chaos and order. He called this the domain of complexity Chaordic.

Chaord:  (kay'ord) 1: any autocatalytic, self-regulating, adaptive, nonlinear, complex organism, organization, or system, whether physical, biological or social, the behavior of which harmoniously exhibits characteristics of both order and chaos. 2: an entity whose behavior exhibits patterns and probabilities not governed or explained by the behavior of its parts. 3: the fundamental organizing principle of nature and evolution.

Chaordic: (kay'ordic) 1: anything simultaneously orderly and chaotic. 2: patterned in a way dominated neither by order nor chaos. 3: existing in the phase between order and chaos.

[Chaord.png] (sorry I'm not a master of the git hub and getting a picture in will take me a bit but I will figure it out) I am sharing this story to illustrate the context for the trust framework referenced within the Identity Management community. Learning how Visa was successful opens the way for us to wonder if it might be possible to try this type of coherence building. I'm not making this recommendation; however, it is not out of the realm of possibility as a path the community of stakeholders could take as a way to work together.

Dee Hock's retelling told the story of how Visa came to be as posted on the Chaordic Commons Website in 2002. I thought the committee an exercise in futility and privately said as much to the BofA representatives, suggesting, instead, that the committee consider the sole question of how to create an orderly method of addressing all problems. They agreed, but concerned that the proposal might be suspect if advanced by them, insisted I put it before the meeting. The audience readily assented, in the way of all disorganized groups faced with a proposal creating the illusion of progress but requiring no money or effort. The meeting disbanded, the committee met, and I was elbowed into the chair, with no intent but to do a bit of civic duty.

Within six months, a complex of regional and national committees had been formed, which had but one redeeming quality--it allowed organized information about problems to emerge. These problems were much worse than anyone had imagined, far beyond possibility of correction by the existing organization. Losses were not in the tens of millions, but in the hundreds of millions and accelerating.

First:  Money had become nothing more than guaranteed, alphanumeric data recorded on valueless paper and metal.  It would become data in the form of organized electrons and photons moving around the world at the speed of light, at minuscule cost, by infinitely diverse paths throughout the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

Second:  "Credit card" was a misnomer, a false concept. It must be reconceived as a device for the exchange of value in the form of arranged electronic signals. The demand for that exchange would be huge--and global.

Third:  Whatever organization could best globally guarantee and exchange data in the form of arranged, electronic signals would have a potential market––every exchange of value in the world––whose size beggared the imagination.

It became clear that no hierarchical corporation could do it, no nation–state could do it. In fact, no existing form of organization could do it. The resources of banks worldwide were calculated.  The total dwarfed the resources of most nations. Jointly they could do it, but how?

It was beyond the power of reason to design an organization to deal with such complexity, and beyond the reach of imagination to perceive all the conditions it would encounter. Yet, evolution routinely tossed off much more complex chaords with seeming ease. It gradually became apparent that such an organization would have to be based on biological concepts and methods. It would have to evolve--in effect, to invent and organize itself.

I asked three others to join me to address a single question based upon a single assumption. If there were no constraints whatever, if anything imaginable was possible, what would be the nature (not the structure) of an ideal organization to create the world's premier device for the exchange of value?

We isolated ourselves in a small, remote hotel. There followed a week of intense, night–and–day discussion. Slowly, a dozen or so simple principles emerged. Let me give you some examples.

  • It must be equitably owned by all participants.  No member should have intrinsic preferential position.  All advantage must result from individual ability and initiative.
  • Power and function must be distributive to the maximum degree.  No function should be performed by any part of the whole that could reasonably be done by any more peripheral part, and no power vested in any part that might reasonably be exercised by any lesser part.
  • Governance must be distributive.  No individual, institution, and no combination of either or both should be able to dominate deliberations or control decisions.
  • It must be infinitely malleable yet extremely durable.  It should be capable of constant, self–generated, modification of form or function without sacrificing its essential nature or embodied principle.
  • It must embrace diversity and change.  It must attract people and institutions comfortable with such conditions and provide an environment in which they could flourish.

It took six months to perfect and gain acceptance of the principles. There followed an intense, year–long effort involving a great many people and disciplines. The principles were gradually enlarged into a concept, the concept into a theoretical structure, and the structure fitted into the interstices of law, custom, and culture. In June 1970 the VISA chaord came into being.

Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior. -Dee Hock

What would it be like if out of this effort the stakeholders came to alignment around a common purpose, core principles and came up with clear practices to operate with. Could this simple set things give rise to a coherent interoperable system of systems for identity? I think there is a possibility this could happen if the connections between stakeholders are based on healthy strong relationships. I will leave you with this from their website about the process.

The chaordic design process has six dimensions, beginning with purpose and ending with practice. Each of the six dimensions can be thought of as a lens through which participants examine the circumstances giving rise to the need for a new organization or to reconceive an existing one. Developing a self-organizing, self-governing organization worthy of the trust of all participants usually requires intensive effort. To maximize their chances of success, most groups have taken a year or more on the process. During that time, a representative group of individuals (sometimes called a drafting team) from all parts of the engaged organization or community meet regularly and work through the chaordic design process. To learn more about the process and the details of the six steps one can go to the site of the chaordic commons that is now just an archive http://www.chaordic.org .


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