Voices of Digital Communities

Are You a Mandarin or a Maven?

Mayors, city managers and Councils deal every day with a natural tension between the mandarins and the mavens. "Mandarins" were the bureaucrats of Imperial China.&...

by / June 8, 2009
Mayors, city managers and Councils deal every day with a natural tension between the mandarins and the mavens.

"Mandarins" were the bureaucrats of Imperial China.  They made it possible for the Emperor to exercise central control over that vast land.  They also lent their name to what is today China's official language.  The word "maven" comes to us from Hebrew via Yiddish. It describes a person with knowledge who seeks to pass it on to others.  If there's a "go to" guy or gal you rely on for help, that person is a maven.

When it comes to managing a community, the mandarins view it as a system, often a hellishly complex one, but still a mechanism of interconnected parts, each influencing the others.  With this systems view, they want to identify where the gears mesh and where they don't.  They seek to rationalize the use of resources and develop intricate plans with scenarios and rules for responding to them.  They tend to like city management systems and e-government, one-stop call centers and inter-agency consultation.

Mavens, on the other hand, see the community as a collection of people, often hellishly complex in their individual needs and aims, virtues and vices.  With this individualist view, they are skeptical of grand plans and the human capacity to create anything really rational.  They tend to believe in teaching, in empowering individuals to create change for themselves, and in working with the mess you have instead of designing something exquisite that is only destined to turn into a bigger mess.

As the leaders of our Top Seven Intelligent Communities can tell you, putting all your weight on either end of this seesaw is a recipe for failure.  Some aspects of community leadership benefit from heavy analysis, planning and central execution.  It's tough to build and manage a broadband network, for instance, by letting a thousand flowers bloom.  But other challenges respond best to the human touch.  It is pretty clear that reducing digital exclusion or increasing innovation are less about systems than about changing what goes on between people's ears.  When faced with a new challenge, I like to think first about who should be in charge of meeting it.  Is a problem for the mandarins or one for the mavens?  The answer to that question determines how you attack the challenge.

Future Cities ICF.jpg I began thinking about this while editing ICF's next book.  It's called Future Cities and will be published in September.  Future Cities is a collection of essays by a George Washington University professor and futurist, and senior executives at two global consulting firms.  It offers a 50,000-foot-view of the city's role in innovation.  How to integrate security and safety into city life.  Design principles for the future "Internet City."  In short, it's hog heaven for the mandarins.  But if you're a maven, you may roll your eyes at these very smart people who seem to think that every problem can be solved with a bigger, better, more integrated architecture.

That's OK.  People who manage Intelligent Communities have to be good at riding the seesaw without letting either end bump on the ground.  I like to think that our first book, Broadband Communities, contains some good, in-depth analysis, but at heart it's for the mavens out there.  In September, we'll be letting the mandarins out of their box.  In the meantime, what do you think?  Are you a mandarin or a maven?  And which do you think should be in charge of meeting the most urgent challenges your community faces today?  
Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.