Democratic Workplaces

The WordBlu most democratic workplace list is out for this year, with several Canadian companies on it:


Axiom News

La Siembra


As my “not-yet-published” bio for our Cafe society reads, I’m rather interested in democracy:

Harold likes to analyze situations, sense patterns, and make sense of them. He enjoys acting as “adviser of last resort.” He works at the convergence of business, learning, organizations and technology. He finds working with NGOs gratifying. Most of his work involves democratization of the work force. He establishes self-sustaining communities. He believes “Open,” broadly defined and including resilience, diversity, and ecological models.

I’m also reading The Great Turning, which offers an excellent review of the development of democracy, from the original Athenian experience to the American revival of democracy two millennia later. As David Korten states in the section, America, the Unfinished Project:

We think of ourselves as a nation of problem solvers. To solve a problem, however, we must first acknowledge it. To this end, the following chapters take an unflinching look at the realities and implications of our national imperial legacy, the imperfections of our democracy, our reckless relationship with the natural environment, and the real and inspiring struggles for justice of people of color, women, and working people, to whom justice has long been denied.

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.

More on democratic workplaces

A little while back I mentioned democratic workplaces and WorldBlu. Some may find the notion of democracy in the workplace an interesting idea, but not really practical. To change your mind, listen to Ricardo Semler as he explains the flaws of our industrial work structures and what he has done with his company of 1,400 workers who vote for their bosses, only attend meetings that they want to and figure out their own remuneration plan. After 25 years in business, the company has had an average of a 20% rate of return, even with the economic turmoil of its host country, Brazil. It also has only 1% employee turnover.

Semler, author of Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace and The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works, says that historically no real change has ever come from inside an industry. In my mind this questions the whole assumption of letting the market decide what is best for society and gives a very important role to government – forcing innovation on industry, such as more fuel-efficient cars.  He says that the primary key to innovation is intuition, not analysis or faster processing or access to more information.


The main message of this talk at the MIT Sloan School of Management is that we need to undo our dominant  business models which are the legacy of military hierarchies because they are inefficient, ineffective, and stifle innovation. He uses the automobile industry as an example of an industry that has only made incremental advances in the last 100 years, still relying on the combustion engine and fossil fuels.

Even the ‘new economy’ has been undone by our hierarchies. Semler cites the example that many of us have learned how to send e-mails on a Sunday night but few of us have learned how to go to a movie on a Monday afternoon. As a result, we have unbalanced our lives. During the second half of this 48 minute video/audio Semler gives some examples on how his company has created a truly democratic and competitive company.

A second age of reason

Rob Paterson calls Al Gore’s latest book, The Assault on Reason, a manifesto for public media. In reading this excerpt from Time, I was fascinated by the interwoven threads of issues that I’ve been discussing on this forum. First of all is the need for public discourse, not just improving our existing educational systems:

So the remedy for what ails our democracy is not simply better education (as important as that is) or civic education (as important as that can be), but the re-establishment of a genuine democratic discourse in which individuals can participate in a meaningful way—a conversation of democracy in which meritorious ideas and opinions from individuals do, in fact, evoke a meaningful response.

There is also the issue of Net Neutrality, which Gore shows as critical to the future of The Republic:

We must ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible to all citizens without any limitation on the ability of individuals to choose the content they wish regardless of the Internet service provider they use to connect to the Web. We cannot take this future for granted. We must be prepared to fight for it, because of the threat of corporate consolidation and control over the Internet marketplace of ideas.

The extract reminds me of John McKnight’s thoughts on de Tocqueville’s 19th Century visit to America, and how my own work to create a Commons is part of an effort to re-create spaces for rational public discourse:

The book, Democracy in America, is, I think, the most useful book I know to help understand who we are. And he says, if I can summarize him in a rather gross form, that he came here and he found a society whose definitions and solutions were not created by nobility, by professionals, by experts or managers, but by what he identified as little groups of people, self-appointed, common men and women who came together and took three powers: the power to decide there was a problem, the power to decide how to solve the problem – that is, the expert’s power – and then the power to solve the problem. These little groups of people weren’t elected and they weren’t appointed and they were everyplace, and they were, he said, the heart of the new society – they were the American community as distinct from the European community. And he named these little groups “associations”. Association is the collective for citizens, an association of citizens. And so we think of our community as being the social space in which citizens in association do the work of problem-solving, celebration, consolation, and creation – that community, that space, in contrast to the space of the system with the box at the top and lots of little boxes at the bottom. And I think it is still the case that the hope for our time is in those associations.

Perhaps these local spaces, linked through online communities, will be the seeds of a second age of reason. One can hope.

And then, 24 hours later, Rob follows up with this post, identifying variants of a new model for our age:

In Software, it is called Open Source. In banking it is called Microcredit. In business it is called eBay, or Google, or Southwest or Starbucks. In gaming it is called Second Life or World of Warcraft. In academia it may soon be called Wikipedia. In politics it was the Dean Campaign. On the web it is called Blogging or Web 2.0 or Social Software. In office design it is called the Commons.


Seth Godin calls it sheepwalking. I remember a non-job I had at defence headquarters, where I had to go to work but there was nothing to do most days. I could go on leave but I would use all of my allotted days and then I would still have to ‘go to work’ for the rest of the year. It didn’t matter that I had nothing to do, for I had to be at my place of duty. I was a sheepwalker, but within a year I was able to plot my way out and start my new vocation in the learning field.

Godin discusses how easy it is to develop sheepwalkers:

Training a student to be sheepish is a lot easier than the alternative. Teaching to the test, ensuring compliant behavior and using fear as a motivator are the easiest and fastest ways to get a kid through school. So why does it surprise us that we graduate so many sheep?

And graduate school? Since the stakes are higher (opportunity cost, tuition and the job market), students fall back on what they’ve been taught. To be sheep. Well-educated, of course, but compliant nonetheless.

Hugh MacLeod succinctly describes the situation that we all face, “The price of being a sheep is boredom. The price of being a wolf is loneliness. Choose one or the other with great care.”

Ever since I became a free-agent, there was no doubt which path I would follow, and I’m much happier today than I was as a sheepwalker some 15 years ago. Life still has its challenges — what I call the financial rollercoaster of working for yourself — but you’re alive and awake all of the time. The challenge now is to get some sleep when new ideas are spinning all around me.

One of the reasons I’m all fired up about the potential of informal learning on the Web is that it can let us be wolves in our learning. We have the means to connect with other members of the pack all over the world. We don’t have to revert to sheepdom so that we can be scheduled for the next course or workshop or whatever the all-knowing organisation has decided is best for us — “I don’t need your course, I’ll learn it on my own and I’ll find others who are willing to help me”.

In reading Jay Cross’ recent article, Stephen Downes basically asked what’s the underlying theory of informal learning. For me it’s clear — informal learning is linked to critical thinking and that is to question authority, seek the truth, and question our own perceptions of reality. Thinking for yourself may be subversive for the organisation but it is necessary for individual growth, as with any child growing into adulthood.

Like raising children, fostering independent learners may not give organisations their desired results, but it will give society the best results. Who knows, perhaps democracy may come to the business sector some day.

Democracy in the Workplace?

More on Tom Malone’s new book “The Future of Work”, this time from Fortune Magazine. According to the author, Malone expects that pervasive information technology will force businesses into becoming more democratic. Malone envisages four potential organizational models:

Loose hierarchies (e.g. open source)
Literal democracy – voting for your boss
Outsourcing through specialized guilds
Markets within organizations

I have not read Malone’s book yet, but it is now high on my to-do list. Via Stephen Downes, who makes this pertinent point in yesterday’s OLDaily – “… if democracy is actually the best form of governance, why don’t we use it in our institutions?”

Leadership for the Information Revolution

Peter Levesque, in Democracy & Socioactive Software and Technology [dead link] discusses the effect of the Internet in connecting an unprecedented number of people, who in turn have created a variety of community-based initiatives, such as open source, open content and more flexible copyright rules, like the Creative Commons.

He continues on the Cluetrain thread that markets are conversations, and these conversation must be genuine. This should mean that corporations have to “get real” in order to connect with their markets, as many communities do. But Levesque goes on to say that communities have not been as successful as corporations in producing certain kinds of societal benefits.

Levesque calls for new leadership for the information revolution. “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.”

I would suggest that business models that will allow the leadership to prosper will be essential. These potential leaders, from the “aggressively intelligent citizenry”, need to be free from corporate non-disclosures or government gag orders, and the most effective business model could be the free agent working within a peer network. As tenure was essential for academic freedom, so an unfettered business model may be necessary for future leaders. If all individuals had the rights of today’s corporations, what kind of societal benefits would ensue?

Thanks to Stephen’s OLDaily for pointing to this.