Keep democracy in education

Modern Education was the Result of a Shotgun Wedding

I liken our dominant educational structure as the offspring of a shotgun wedding between industrialists who needed literate workers to operate their machinery, and progressives who wanted to lift up the common person from poverty and drudgery. It wasn’t an easy marriage, and the children are a tad dysfunctional now. The union was never able to clearly identify the guiding principle of education. One book that has influenced many of my opinions on public education is Kieran Egan’s, The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding. Egan says that Western education is based on three incompatible principles, where all three can never be achieved in a single system.

  1. Education as Socialization (age cohorts, class groupings, team sports)
  2. Education as learning about Truth & Reality, based on Plato (varied subjects, academic material, connection to culture)
  3. Education as discovery of our nature, based on Rousseau (personal sense-making, teacher as facilitator)

If you put emphasis on one of these principles, the others get ignored. The industrialists would have preferred education as socialization and the progressives would have leaned toward education as learning about truth. We have seen some attempts, like Waldorf schools, to develop systems that promote education as discovery of our nature, but that does not go well with a standardized curriculum, whether it has a corporatist agenda or a progressive one.

As Egan says:

“Socialization to generally agreed norms and values that we have inherited is no longer straightforwardly viable in modern multicultural societies undergoing rapid technology-driven changes. The Platonic program comes with ideas about reaching a transcendent truth or privileged knowledge that is no longer credible. The conception of individual development we have inherited is based on a belief in some culture-neutral process that is no longer sustainable.”

Shotgun Wedding 2.0

I think we may soon get invited to another shotgun wedding, this time between techno-utopians, with financial speculators as bridesmaids, and libertarians, who feel the state and teachers have screwed-up education. It’s education as socialization, but socialization to the dominant business paradigm. But any problems with the education system are a result of the governance and economic environment in which it resides. It is through democracy, all of us, that we can improve education. Public education does not need a VC-backed Silicon Valley start-up to be saved. It needs more of us to participate in it. It needs democracy.

deweyIf social business is merely a hollow shell without democracy then the same goes for the new social education, currently manifested as xMOOC’s, those backed by large institutions or private interests. Audrey Watters provides a good overview of the flaws around the notion that our new education couple will be any better than the last arranged marriage:

“Hacking Your Education advances the notion that education is a personal (financial) investment rather than a public good. The School in the Cloud project posits that education is a corporate (financial) investment rather than a public good. Why fund public schools when we can put a kiosk in a tech company’s annex? Why fund public schools when you can learn anything online?

The future that TED Talks paint doesn’t want us to think too deeply as we ask these questions. But what happens,when we “hack education” in such a way that our public institutions are dismantled? What happens to that public good? What happens to community? What happens to local economies? What happens to social justice?

As such, the vision for the future of education offered in Stephens’ new book is an individualist and incredibly elitist one. It contains a grossly unexamined exceptionalism, much like the Hole in the Wall which, at the end of the day, worked best for the strongest boys on the streets.

So despite their claims to be liberatory — with the focus on “the learner” and “the child” — this hacking of education by Mitra and Stephens is politically regressive. It is however likely to be good business for the legions of tech entrepreneurs in the audience.” —Audrey Watters

We have not yet been able to effectively integrate democracy and business. Our current education systems, while flawed, still have some democratic oversight. In a networked world, our society needs to be more democratic, not less. Just as some business leaders are beginning to realize the potential of democracy in the enterprise, now is not the time to remove democracy from education. If work is learning, and learning is the work, there is little hope for democratic business if education becomes a business. For our future to remain democratic, both education and business need to be based on its fundamental principles. We are at a crossroads. Let’s cancel this wedding.


Aligned principles for an open, networked society

Via Ross Dawson, here are Don Tapscott’s four principles for the open world:

Collaboration. The boundaries of organizations are becoming more fluid and open, with the best ideas often coming from outside.

Transparency. Open communication to stakeholders is no longer optional, as organizations become naked.

Sharing. Giving up intellectual property, including putting ideas into the commons, is a massive source of value creation.

Empowerment. Knowledge and intelligence is power, so as they are distributed, we gain freedom.

And, here are my three principles for Net Work, or getting stuff done in this open world:

Narration, Transparency and Power-sharing

Narration is making one’s tacit knowledge (what one feels) more explicit (what one is doing with that knowledge). Narrating work is a powerful behaviour changer, as long-term bloggers can attest.

Transparency is an easy concept to understand but much more difficult to implement in an enterprise. It means switching the default mode to sharing. This can be enabled by social media, but social media also make the company culture transparent. A dysfunctional company culture does not improve with transparency, it just gets exposed.

Distributed power enables faster reaction times so those closest to the situation can take action. In complex situations there is no time to write a detailed assessment. Those best able to address the situation have marinated in it for some time. They couldn’t sufficiently explain it to someone removed from the problem if they wanted to anyway. This shared power is enabled by trust. Power in knowledge-based organizations must be distributed in order to nurture trust.

In networks, cooperation trumps collaboration

In networks, cooperation trumps collaboration. Collaboration happens around some kind of plan or structure, while cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. Cooperation is a driver of creativity. Stephen Downes commented here on the differences:

collaboration means ‘working together’. That’s why you see it in market economies. markets are based on quantity and mass.

cooperation means ’sharing’. That’s why you see it in networks. In networks, the nature of the connection is important; it is not simply about quantity and mass …

You and I are in a network – but we do not collaborate (we do not align ourselves to the same goal, subscribe to the same vision statement, etc), we *cooperate*

We are only beginning to realize how we can use networks as our primary form of living and working. David Ronfeldt has developed the TIMN framework to explain this shift – Tribal; Institutional; Markets; Networks. The TIMN framework shows how we have evolved as a civilization. Ronfeldt sees the network form not as a mere modifier of previous forms, but a form in itself that can address issues that the three other forms could not. This point is very important when it comes to implementing social business (a network mode) within corporations (institutional + market modes). Real network models are new modes, not modifications of the old ones, and cooperation is how work gets done. Some examples:

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Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business are Hollow Shells without Democracy

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:

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democratization of the workplace

There was a most interesting thread on Twitter today. Bert van Lamoen (@transarchitect) in a series of tweets, said [paraphrasing several]: “Senge’s five disciplines provided instant utility for learning to organizations in 1990, yet learning organizations remain rare to this day. Hierarchy kills all learning. Our social systems are not designed to cope with complexity. Organizational learning is fundamental change. Today’s organization is not fit for organizational learning. Therefore, we need total redesign. Social and transformational architecture encompasses complexity and emergent change.”

In wither the learning organization, I linked to a paper on Why aren’t we all working for Learning Organisations? The authors, John Seddon and Brendan O’Donovan, open with a reference to W. Edwards Deming’s commentary on Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline (1990).

“Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers – a prize for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars – and on up through the university.

On the job people, teams, and divisions are ranked, rewarded for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by Objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.”

After explaining how double-loop learning gets managers to focus on the system and away from controlling people, the authors conclude:

Our argument is that Deming’s statements in his 1990 review of Senge’s work continue to hold true: it is the dominance of the command and control management thinking which, 20 years on, still prevails and prevents the development of more generative learning. It is only by studying an organisation as a system and creating double-loop learning that we might finally see Senge’s ‘learning organizations’ stop being the exceptional and instead become the norm.

Double-loop learning requires an understanding, and a constant questioning, of the governing variables and of course this is where learning abruptly comes up against command & control. Flattening the organization is one way to open communications and delegate responsibility, but asking employees to engage in real critical thinking [double-loop learning], and accepting the resulting actions, will not work unless there is a multi-way flow of power and authority. Critical thinking is not just thinking more deeply but also asking difficult and discomfiting questions. Without power and authority, these become meaningless.

The BetaCodex Network advocates first reducing hierarchy, and then making work independent of the formal structure, in order to increase the value creation structure. This makes sense, but who other than an enlightened CEO is going to make these changes? People like Semler are still outliers in the business world — “On his first day as CEO, Ricardo Semler fired sixty percent of all top managers.”
coping strategies
According to Charles Green this is how large-scale change happens:

Ideas lead technology. Technology leads organizations. Organizations lead institutions. Then ideology brings up the rear, lagging all the rest—that’s when things really get set in concrete.

We have the ideas (and some examples) on the great work that needs to be done at the beginning of this century – create new organizational models that reflect (and actually capitalize on) our humanity. We also have technologies that enable and support collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and connecting on a human level. The major obstacles seem to be that there are not enough good examples and that these organizations are not influential enough to change the dominant business ideologies.

To spread these ideas may require more than just mavens, connectors and salespeople to reach a tipping point. We may also need to identify the ‘Doers’ inside more organizations and find ways to help them become double-loop learners. We should engage the trustworthy, those people with strong intimacy skills who get things done.

Perhaps we have been focused at the wrong level. I know that my most successful consulting engagements have not been at the very top, but with people who are doing the work. If we can create a mid-level groundswell, without giving up on finding enlightened executives, we may get somewhere.

Unless the dominant command & control management ideology is replaced, then most organizational change initiatives will just be tinkering at the edges. I can see why some people could become jaded over time with every successive new management system that still does not produce real change. The democratization of the workplace has been my guiding mission for the past decade. Democracy is the foundation upon which the likes of  Enterprise 2.0 or the Social Business need to build, in order to foster double-loop learning organizations that can thrive in complexity.

A world without bosses

Can your organization work without bosses? In the documentary, Ban the Boss (one hour BBC video) Paul Thomas shows that most organizations can run just fine without bosses, or at least without traditional, hierarchical bosses who tell workers what to do.

Gwynn Dyer explained that historically, hierarchies were the result of a communications problem, in Why the Arabs can handle democracy.

A mass society, thousands, then millions strong, confers immense advantages on its members. Within a few thousand years, the little hunting-and-gathering groups were pushed out of the good lands everywhere. By the time the first anthropologists appeared to study them, they were on their last legs, and none now survive in their original form. But we know why the societies that replaced them were all tyrannies.

The mass societies had many more decisions to make, and no way of making them in the old, egalitarian way. Their huge numbers made any attempt at discussing the question as equals impossible, so the only ones that survived and flourished were the ones that became brutal hierarchies. Tyranny was the solution to what was essentially a communications problem.

We have been able to communicate with each other better and better for the past half century, and now with mobile communications we need even fewer intermediaries to get work done. Many bosses don’t have a clue what is actually happening at the front-end, as is clear in the BBC documentary, and as I wrote in network walking.

Bob Marshall alerted me, via Twitter, to this documentary that shows just how difficult it can be to change attitudes and beliefs about work. In this case, the obvious place to start a boss-purge was at the vehicle service bay, with nine skilled mechanics “supported by” eight managers. The workers wound up keeping one manager, but on their terms. Other departments were more difficult.

Could you imagine if workers were allowed to vote their bosses in and out? Well they can now in Blaenau Gwent, Wales; as they have been able to do at Semco SA for decades. Listen to Ricardo Semler explain how Semco organizes work and “staff determine when they need a leader, and then choose their own bosses in a process akin to courtship”.

Yes, there is a different, and better, way to get work done, with fewer managers. If all you have are general management and supervision skills, your work days may be numbered.

Leadership emerges from network culture

Even five years ago it was not the norm to work at a distance. Employers wanted to keep workers on-site, when it made no sense, as this post from 2005 noted: virtual work, but we need you onsite. Virtual work is no longer limited to mostly free-agents, as many salaried employees today work at least part-time off-site. It’s becoming the norm and bringing change with it, even though that change may not be visible.

When people work at a distance, an implicit shift occurs. They have to be trusted to get the work done. Management also shifts from measuring time to measuring results. A new culture emerges. It becomes more trusting. Trust is the glue that holds creative organizations together, not rules and regulations.

Culture is an emergent property of people working together. Leadership is also an emergent property, I am becoming more convinced, as I recently wrote. This post received a lot of attention and Johnnie Moore referred me to an interesting, though rather expensive, book on Managing Without Leadership:

I propose that we consider the phenomenon of leadership in like manner, and conceive of it as part and parcel of organisational practice. In a naturalistic redescription of the phenomenon, we might view it as an emergent, self-organising property of complex systems. There would then be no need for engaging in more leadership studies: instead, we could redirect our attention to the study of the fine-grained properties of contextualised organisational practice.

Donald Clark also passed on a post he made a few years ago on Leadership Training:

Leadership Training: Complex behaviours and skills are reduced to simple geometric diagrams, a pyramid here, an interlocking circle here, a four quadrant typology there. Leadership training became a byword for contradictory theories and over-simplification. A few choice quotes are thrown in, preferably from historically famous leaders, some interactive exercises, straight out of traditional management courses and you’re off.

One way to look at leadership in our complex work world is through the lens of improvisation. In improv, nobody is in charge and leadership is shared. John Moore [not Johnnie] says that from improv, one can also learn how to:

  • be a passionate follower;
  • be a better listener and reactor;
  • make instinctive decisions and deal with the consequences;
  • trust others; and
  • make others look good

These all seem like good advice for organizational leadership as well. Everyone can practise improv skills and everyone can exert leadership in the organization. John Moore says that a major benefit of embracing improv skills for business is that failure is an option, which aligns with Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, that advises organizations to Probe-Sense-Respond in order to manage in complexity.

Dave also underlines the fact that over half of your probes will fail and hence the need to have a culture where failure is an option. It’s what Dave calls “safe-fail”: “We conduct safe-fail experiments. We don’t do fail-safe design. If an experiment succeeds, we amplify it. If an experiment fails, we dampen it.” Failure is not just an option, it’s a common occurrence.

As networked, distributed workplaces become the norm, trust will emerge from environments that are open, transparent and diverse. As a result of improved trust, leadership will be seen for what it is; an emergent property of a balanced network and not some special property available to only the select few. This shift may give us the real democracy our organizations need to realize their full creative human potential.

The democratization of the enterprise

My About section used to include this paragraph, written a while back and still reflective of my professional perspective:

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 cubicle farms, cookie-cutter job descriptions, generic work competencies and boring, dead-end jobs. I especially enjoy working with any organization that is open to change.

I share this vision with Mark Dowds, whom I’ve only met once but we’ve stayed in touch through the magic of social media. Here’s a great presentation by Mark, founder of Brainpark, on 8 reasons to democratize the workplace.

The entire presentation is well worth watching to understand why these are important, but for the attention deficient, here are the eight reasons:

  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

Mark (@MarkDowds) has a great sense of humour and I’m sure you’ll find his presentation enjoyable.

Our aggressively intelligent citizenry

In 2004 I commented on an article by Peter Levesque calling for new leadership for the information revolution. He said that communities have not been as successful as corporations in producing certain kinds of societal benefits as a result of the internet’s enabling connectivity. “I suggest that the leaders will be found among the aggressively intelligent citizenry, liberated from many tasks and obligations by technology freely shared; using data, information and knowledge acquired from open source databases, produced from the multiples of billions of dollars of public money invested through research councils, universities, social agencies, and public institutions.

It seems that some of that is happening now, as reported by Stephen Downes:

Congratulations to the Canadian government (yes, you Mr. Harper) for allowing And even more to the point, congratulations to Michael Mulley for making it happen. And from David Eaves, “‘Parliament IT staff agreed to start sharing the Hansard, MP’s bios, committee calendars and a range of other information via XML by the end of the year.’

This is great news. Having this data in XML, an open interchange format, means it’ll be far easier for this and other sites to use Parliamentary data, and will really lower the barrier to creating new and innovative ways of sharing information on our democratic system.” It goes without saying what a valuable resource this would be for schools, especially with the XML data feeds.

However, my conclusion from 2004 pretty well remains the same – our management and corporate models need to change even more to allow our “aggressively intelligent citizenry” to lead in business. They need to be free to express their opinions, without fear of losing their livelihood. They need to be able to share data (including information & ideas, which are now represented as data) and build upon them, without fear of being sued.

We are an information society, moving into a knowledge society, while a few corporations own our data and can make profits off it for a very long time. The problem is that we cannot grow as a creative knowledge society without the free flow of ideas. Patenting ideas slows down our collective ability to learn.

Open government data is one step forward, but we also need open business data, especially ideas. From Intellectual Property, Information and the Common Good (1999):

The fundamental problem with intellectual property as an ethical category is that it is purely individualistic. It focuses on the creator/developer of the intellectual work and what he or she is entitled to. There is truth in this, but not the whole truth. It ignores the social role of the creator and of the work itself, thus overlooking their ethically significant relationships with the rest of society. The balance is lost.

Social media, social learning, social business – these all influence the social role of the creator and the work, and cannot be clearly delineated in our hyper-connected society. In a networked world, we need to divorce data from physical property. If not, we will have the worst of both worlds: corporations freely aggregating our crowd-sourced data and then selling it back to us. It’s happening already with Google, YouTube, Facebook and all the other social media sites that use our data, legally own it and profit from it.

Parliament is slowly opening up and communities are waking up, but our wealth-generation models are lagging behind, in spite of the few good examples from WorldBlu. What good is an aggressively intelligent citizenry without access to its own ideas?

An educated and informed citizenry

Rob Paterson thinks that Canada and its government are moving beyond the nation-state and that coalitions may become the main model for future governments.

Meanwhile, the Internet, airwaves and coffee-shops across the nation are engaging in a sort of dialogue. Unfortunately it is not always an informed dialogue and this is a sad state of affairs. How can the electorate engage in the political process when too many do not understand it? In New Brunswick public education there are no classes on civics or government. Our sons learn about politics at the dinner table; thankfully. For instance, there is a lack of understanding about the duty of the Official Opposition, as they’re not just the party that came in second place:

The duty of the Official Opposition and other opposition parties is to “challenge” government policies and suggest improvements, and present an alternative to the current Government’s policy agenda.

There have also been many comments based on the “fact” that the current PM was elected as such. Our Prime Ministers are not elected, only Members of Parliament are elected, and the government’s right to govern is based on the confidence of those members:

The Prime Minister and the Cabinet are responsible to, or must answer for, their actions to the House of Commons as a body and must enjoy the support and the confidence of a majority of the Members of that Chamber to remain in office. This is commonly referred to as the confidence convention.

If the Government is defeated in the House on a key (“confidence”) question, then the Government is expected to resign or seek the dissolution of Parliament in order for a general election to be held. It is not always clear what constitutes a question of confidence. Motions which clearly state that the House has lost confidence in the Government, motions concerning the Government’s budgetary policy, and motions which the Government clearly identifies as questions of confidence, are usually recognized as such.

There is no doubt that a democracy depends on an educated and informed citizenry. We now have easy access to information, but we need to continue with the education.