Please watch this - a very thought-provoking 20 minutes:
The lecturer, Clay Shirky, discusses distributed organizations and how they are different/better/worse than traditional top-down or hierarchical organizations.
One of the advantages Shirky points out with a distributed organization is that many of the costs of a traditional command & control structure are avoided (such as paying for an office to house your workers and hiring a supervisor to monitor them). Because the cost-per-worker goes way down, the number of workers who can participate goes way up. This means that there's much less risk in letting amateurs & hobbyists participate; if they aren't very productive, well you haven't lost anything because you didn't pay for them in the first place. The distributed organization gains access to a much larger pool of resources: no corporation could afford the cost to hire every amateur out there in a traditional sense, and yet these people have the potential to contribute something of real value to the project.
One of the drawbacks Shirky identifies with a distributed organization is that while you gain access to many more participants, you surrender control over their efforts. If somebody is volunteering their time to work on a project, nobody can really boss them around because they aren't beholden to a boss!
The challenge, I suppose, is figuring out how to take existing problems or efforts such as "let's make a product and sell it for lots of money" or "lets feed all of the starving people in the world" and re-frame them in a distributed manner.
Or put another way: how do you incent masses of people to participate in your project?
The answer (as Shirky points out) is that you can't: it is too costly to provide incentives for all of the individuals who may want to work on your project.
So, for example, Wikipedia and Flickr work because people are self-motivated to publish facts and photos in which they are interested. What has to happen so that large numbers of middle class North Americans become self-motivated to send a meal-a-day to starving people in Third World countries? Problems which are based in the physical realities of manufacturing & logistics seem opposed to distributed solutions.
So it seems to me that a distributed organization of workers will only arise when the individuals have their own incentives to participate. And the unfortunate truth is that most people are *not* self-motivated to work on your project (such as eliminating starvation or developing a product that you can then turn around and sell for profit.)
Do you have any ideas or examples of real-world, distributed problem-solving? Put 'em in the comments section! (Here's one to get you started!)