Author: Harold Jarche Posted: February 10, 2012 1443 views

A guiding goal in much of my work is the democratization of the workplace. Democracy is our best structure for political governance and I believe it should be the basis of our workplaces as well. As work and learning become integrated in a networked society, I see great opportunities to create better employment models.

So is it possible to have Enterprise 2.0 or a Social Business without a democratic foundation? Is the employer/employee relationship the only way we can get work done? In describing Enterprise 2.0, Andy McAfee, who originated the term, says that our work structures will not change:

No, it’s not the death of the hierarchy, of the manager, of the org chart, of the job description, any of that stuff. Some of my colleagues who are interested in this phenomenon, I think take it a bit far, and they become zealots for the manager-free, hierarchy-free, gestalt organization. I don’t think that’s smart, and I don’t think it’s likely, and I don’t think it would be a good idea.

Everything we’re talking about is totally compatible with an official chain of command in a hierarchy. You still need someone to set direction and give marching orders. But the idea of input by many and decisions by few is a pretty powerful idea.

Perhaps hierarchy is a major part of the problem, though. Thomas Malone, in The Future of Work (2004) envisaged four potential organizational models for the network era:

Loose hierarchies
Literal democracy – voting for your boss
Outsourcing through specialized guilds
Markets within organizations

All of these are democratic to some extent. Malone wrote that we need to move away from Command & Control and toward a Coordinate & Cultivate management model. Is that possible without democracy?

Democracy is a work in progress, as we know from history, and the first step is commitment. David Korten in The Great Turning, described America, the Unfinished Project:

Democracy is neither a gift nor a license; it is a possibility realized through practice grounded in a deep commitment to truth and an acceptance of the responsibility to seek justice for all.

Commitment to democratic principles is often lacking in descriptions of Enterprise 2.0 and social business. Without such commitment, I think these initiatives will be seen in hindsight as just another management buzz-word. In 2008, some of the best known management experts were brought together to “lay out an agenda for reinventing management“. Their main premises were that:

1) management models are important social technologies;

2) the current models are out-of-date; and

3) we need to develop more human models for the near future.

There was consensus that our current management systems do not work and several of their 25 recommendations were based on democratic principles:

  • Redefine the work of leadership.
  • Share the work of setting direction.
  • Create a democracy of information.
  • Expand the scope of employee autonomy.
  • Retool management for an open world.
  • Humanize the language and practice of business.

For management to work in the network era, it needs to embrace democracy, but we are so accustomed to existing structures that many executives would say it is impossible to run a business as a democracy. However, there are democratic business models that work today. Just not enough.

Enterprise 2.0 will not fulfill its potential unless its foundation is more than just web technologies or connected businesses. We need to integrate democratic organizing principles into our discussions on Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business. Without a solid architectural organizing principle, I don’t think the Enterprise 2.0 ship will sail very far.

Self-governance not only works, it works better than command & control. In Management Rewired: Why feedback doesn’t work and other surprising lessons from the latest brain science, Charles Jacobs covered learning, management models and democracy in the workplace. A consistent theme is to let people manage themselves, because that works:

Rather than limit decentralization to the top of the hierarchy, why not drive it down into the organization as far as possible? Modern information technology makes such “radical decentralization” much easier now than it was in [Alfred] Sloan’s day.

Such an approach enables people to control their own destinies. From a Darwinian perspective, it’s aligned with the urgings of our selfish genes. From a market perspective, it’s more efficient and effective. From a cultural perspective, virtually every organizational innovation since the Western Electric Hawthorne studies has been aimed at fostering democracy and initiative in the workplace because it’s good for both people and the business. Moving to an entrepreneurial organization is just the next step.

Democracy can be a competitive advantage. At TEDx Belfast, Mark Dowds provided 8 reasons to democratize the workplace:

  1. Reduced costs
  2. Reduced workforce
  3. Increased productivity
  4. Getting closer to customers
  5. Fewer layers of bureaucracy
  6. Shorter time to market
  7. Increased employee motivation
  8. Increased recognition of employee contributions

Let me close with this note from Gwynne Dyer, who wrote that, “Tyranny was the solution to what was essentially a communications problem“.

Modern democracy first appeared in the West only because the West was the first part of the world to develop mass communications. It was a technological advantage, not a cultural one – and as literacy and the technology of mass communications have spread around the world, all the other mass societies have begun to reclaim their heritage too.

We finally have the technology, so that even business no longer needs to be run as a tyranny.

Image: Bank of Canada

About the author >

Harold Jarche

Harold Jarche passionately believes in the re-integration of work and learning. People have connected with Harold over the past decade, through his blog and consulting practices, for innovative ideas on business, technology, social networks and learning. He also distills heady topics like complexity theory into practical advice. Harold has saved clients time and money by focusing on business objectives and conducting cause analyses, instead of prescribing training as a solution looking for a problem. A graduate of the Royal Military College, Harold served over 20 years in the Canadian Army in leadership and training roles. Harold has held senior positions at the Centre for Learning Technologies and e-Com Inc. His preferred workplace is on his bike, where he gets his best ideas.

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