Democracy is coming

“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.” —David Korten

A guiding goal in much of my work is the democratization of the enterprise. 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. I know that we can do better than huge wage inequalities, generic work competencies, and dead-end jobs.

The Web is the catalyst that could democratize the workplace. The effect of the Web is explained by Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks. He describes the changes that a networked society can have on our governance, economic and cultural structures:

“The networked information economy improves the practical capacities of individuals along three dimensions: (1) it improves their capacity to do more for and by themselves; (2) it enhances their capacity to do more in loose commonality with others, without being constrained to organize their relationship through a price system or in traditional hierarchical models of social and economic organization; and (3) it improves the capacity of individuals to do more in formal organizations that operate outside the market sphere. This enhanced autonomy is at the core of all the other improvements I describe. Individuals are using their newly expanded practical freedom to act and cooperate with others in ways that improve the practiced experience of democracy, justice and development, a critical culture, and community.”

We need to undo our dominant  business models which are the legacy of military hierarchies because they are inefficient, ineffective, and stifle innovation. Not a single major business disaster in the last half-century can be blamed on too much democracy. However, many can be blamed on overly controlling management practices. Hierarchies are only as smart as the smartest gatekeepers. Networks are smarter than the sum of their nodes.

Business models that will allow connected leadership to prosper are essential in a network era. But democratic leadership depends on an educated and informed citizenry. While we may have easy access to information, we still need to continue with the education, especially social learning in peer networks. We need to learn how to change the rules of the game, because work is just a game, with man-made rules.

“For the vast majority of us who sell our labor in the marketplace, our economic insecurity and relative powerlessness impel us to play by the rules.” —Thomas Homer-Dixon

Perhaps the most effective business model for the Internet age is free agents working within a peer network. As tenure was essential for academic freedom, so an unfettered labour model may be necessary for effective connected business. In addition, imagine what kind of societal benefits would ensue if all individuals had the rights of today’s corporations? Given the loss of mid-skill jobs, outsourcing of labour, and the increasing wealth of the 1%, it’s time for a change in how work is done and wealth is redistributed. Those who sell their labour now have the ability to easily connect, learn, and do.

“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” —Dante Alighieri

It is time to bring democracy to the workplace on a large scale. Democratic workplaces do not divide labour and capital. Democratic workplaces are the real social enterprises, because they are open. The democratic workplace is how business can finally catch up to society.
liberty leading the people

5 Responses to “Democracy is coming”

  1. Donald H Taylor

    Hi Harold, as you know, I’m a regular reader of your blog and rank it highly for its thinking. I think I have to disagree with you on this one, though.

    Individual freedoms do not necessarily result in democratic systems. The internet allows people to reach new markets, it is true, but it can also be used to form exclusive groups and fiercely protect their interests. I certainly question whether the internet-enabled unregulated free market for individual labour will naturally tackle unequal wealth distribution or result in equal rights for all, and I’m not at all sure that Delacroix would recognise it as his ideal of liberty.

  2. Harold

    While individual freedoms do not necessarily result in democratic systems, I cannot envisage a democratic system without individual freedoms. Balancing the power of financial capital, that was necessary to build factories, with labour, that is necessary for any knowledge-based enterprise, is a first step. I work in some very flat organizations at this time and must say that work gets done quicker and I am much more motivated to work. A core part of democracy is shared power, in its many manifestations through history. I still think it’s the best framework for the workplace as well.

  3. Donald H Taylor

    Hi Harold – I agree that individual freedom is a pre-requisite for democracy, but while it is necessary, it is not sufficient. However, this is probably a discussion more suited to a lengthy chat over a beer – so let’s pick this up next time we talk! (Meanwhile, of course, I’ll continue to read and to recommend your blog.)


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