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? [PDF]. 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, reward 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.”

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 “Doer”s 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.

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8 Responses to “Democratization of the workplace”

  1. Paul Angileri

    A very thought-provoking post, thanks.I’ve witnessed the process first-hand, where there is a frenzy of the new early on, and then reality sets in as the organization moves beyond its first few wins and its creative genesis, into the quarterly-numbers phase where unpaid overtime is the unwritten rule and a rigid hierarchy assumes control. In other cases, I have seen the rigid hierarchy serve as the ultimate core of the daily process (basically out of necessity), but with some democratization in communication structure to try and advance ideas or solve (very expensive) short-term problems.

    I do think that those less hierarchically inclined will have less difficulty transitioning into a more democratic (and mobile) workplace, than their counterparts. Just how democratic things become won’t be known for quite some time.

  2. Amanda Fenton

    Hello Harold!

    Sharing some synchronicity… I was doing some reading on leadership/complexity this weekend and came across this quote by Meg Wheatley. It connects to your bit about “perhaps we have been focused at the wrong level”…

    “That thinking led me to a more populist position than I had ever held before. I gave up on the idea of change led by senior executives. I started looking for people inside the organization who were interested in change, encouraging them to do what they could, but not to wait for people at the top — to just act within their own domain. I believe there’s still a possibility of creating beneficial results on these “islands of hope” within the larger companies.”

    When I saw Meg speak last fall she showed the Berkana two loops model, and described how much of her current work is with the “walk outs” within the existing systems. That really resonated with me… there are folks who are activists within their current system; ones who haven’t walked out completely, but are trying to create – not tweak – from the inside.

    Find the doers – or in Berkana’s languages – name, connect, nourish and illuminate – and keep us posted on those enlightened executives you find!

  3. Will Thalheimer

    While I do wish more people in more organizations were empowered to utilize all their talents and work toward more of their own goals, saying hierarchy kills learning is a gross oversimplification at the least and most likely a complete misreading of the human animal.

    As Jonathan Haidt says in his recent book, the Righteous Mind, human’s evolved successfully at least partially by living in dominance hierarchies, which enabled some groups to out-compete other groups. People also band together in reverse dominance hierarchies to thwart the powerful who abuse their position of power. Perhaps this is what the world needs now and needed in the original Gilded age. But still, to say that hierarchy kills learning is just too sweeping.

    Research shows that groups actually do better in being creative if they have good leadership, so there may be some benefit to some hierarchy. Being creative is a form of on-the-job learning, right? So if leaders can channel creativity, they are improving learning. Leaders and followers imply hierarchy.

    In another line of research, leaders who demonstrate transformational leadership behaviors—as opposed to transactional leadership behaviors—tend to enable their groups to have more success because they are getting more input from their direct reports. This is empowerment, but not really democracy. Still, it shows that hierarchy, as exemplified in leader-follower relationships can be successful in enabling groups to learn and perform well together.

    And, going back to the first Gilded Age concept, wasn’t it FDR at the top of the hierarchy that enabled enough creative solutions to get the US out of depression?

    Finally, Argyris, the double-loop learning guy, not only didn’t fight hierarchy, but he thought that organizational learning required it!! Here’s what he said:

    “The ?first step is for managers at the top to examine critically and change their own theories-in-use. Until senior managers become aware of how they reason defensively and the counterproductive consequences that result, there will be little
    real progress. Any change activity is likely to be just a fad. Change has to start at the top because otherwise defensive senior managers are likely to disown any transformation in reasoning patterns coming from below.” From Harvard Business Review, May 1991.

    Bottom line is that while I cheer on the move toward personal empowerment, it’s just too damn simple-minded to say hierarchy is bad for learning.

    –Will