“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” – Winston Churchill
Our society has tried many ways to organize work over the years, yet real democracy is a form that few have attempted. The need to control people runs deep in our work cultures. Managers have ‘direct reports’ and humans are regarded as ‘resources’. The need for command and control stems from inadequate means to effectively communicate. But in the past decade we finally have the circumstances where almost anyone can communicate with almost everyone. Hyperlinks have truly subverted hierarchy, even though institutional and market hierarchies are doing their utmost to prevent or control this. Oligopolies control most of our communications media, even democratic states run surveillance operations on their citizens, and many workplaces monitor all mediated communications. These are reactionary attempts to stop what has the potential to be the inevitable spread of democracy.
Why do we need democracy? It is the only way humans will be able to organize in order to deal with the complex problems facing us. Our intangible marketplaces, like the app economy, will continue to be highly volatile. Climate change and environmental degradation cannot be addressed by any existing institution. New approaches to solving wicked problems are required if humanity is to thrive or even survive into the next century.
There is sufficient evidence to show that people can be exceptionally innovative under certain conditions. Working in a machine-like organization is not one of them. Organizing according to biological principles is our best path forward. We need to use organizations merely as a medium to connect individuals to their environment, not as an end in themselves, nor as a way to concentrate wealth. The role of every organization must be to improve its environment, as that is where it draws its sustenance. The only reason individuals should join any organization is because they share a common purpose. Hierarchies may be needed to get work done, but they have to be mutually agreed-upon and temporary. Organizations should be seen as temporary structures to improve the state of humanity. Anything less is rather primitive.
Working in a truly democratic fashion requires changes at all levels, from the law, to labour legislation, and especially in our educational institutions. It also requires an aggressively intelligent citizenry, which should be the focus of all our public institutions. As Thoreau said, “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.” The democratic workplace will be messy. But the alternative is worse. It is time to give up our mechanical toys and embrace a more complex way of interacting. There is no need for measured hours of work controlled by managers, only work for real value, as viewed by our fellow human beings.
Thinking for ourselves is the foundation of a new way of working. This requires an understanding of the whole environment in which we work. Artificial structures like jobs remove our ability to see the whole system. As we learn to think for ourselves, we must also connect with others. We are only as smart as our knowledge networks. But we do not need someone to manage our connections. The simple guideline of self-direction, often enabled by network technologies, can create beautifully complex relationships amongst interconnected people. This is already happening outside the organization. We need to bring it inside. For the first time, we have the technology for democracy at work. The writer, Gwynne Dyer, has observed that, “Tyranny was the solution to what was essentially a communications problem”. This problem no longer exists.
The principles of the network era workplace are simple. It is only through innovative and contextual methods, the self-selection of the most appropriate tools and work conditions, and willing cooperation, that complex problems can be addressed. This requires creative work based on passion, creativity, and initiative. The duty of being transparent and sharing our knowledge rests with all workers. Chance will favour the democratically connected company.