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Wally Bock

Thanks for the reporting on the conference, Steve. The biggest initial issue that I see is that the term "democratic workplace" covers a lot of ground. Right now, it might cover some or all of a number of different issues/structures. I prefer to think of a "workplace of the future," without the word "democratic."

Who chooses the boss? Today bosses in most companies are selected by those above them.

How long is the boss a boss? Today most bosses are created "bosses forever," much like Roman Catholic priests.

How are decisions made? Hierarchies are good at mobilizing resources to achieve a goal. Groups are better at allocating resources to opportunity.

How are rewards and punishments meted out? Today, in most workplaces, this is done by bosses in accordance with a policy of some kind.

How is work distributed? If no one is compelled to do any particular task, how does the scut work get done?

We have some models out there to give us an idea of what's possible and what's likely to work. My favorites are Gore and Semco because they're large and industrial, though Semco is in a number of businesses.

Both have been around for a while but Ricardo Semler is still alive and Gore has just barely outlived the founders with their son as CEO now. We don't know about how succession will be handled.

The move to "democratic" workplaces is one strand of a movement toward greater control over worklife and different ways of conceiving how leadership works. In the end, the most helpful answers for what works may come from anthropology rather than management or organizational development.

Steve Roesler


Your last line is the one that really hits home. I hadn't specifically thought about anthropology during the conference but was keenly aware that traditional management and organizational development weren't really in play.

For those old-school skeptics who think it's all about the inmates running the asylum, nothing could be further from the truth. Every speaker involved in a "democratic" organization emphasized that success is dependent upon well-defined responsibility followed by strict accountability.

This is for the highly committed, not the faint of heart.

Mile High Pixie

Steve, does the democratic workplace theory relate to the concept of ROWE as described by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson in their book "Why Works Sucks and How to Fix it?" I know the concept of ROWE is that it's the results that count, not the time in the office or the "face time" of years and workplaces past, and it requires that workplaces treat everyone equally and like adults--not flex-time granted due to seniority. Reading your description above of workplace democracy makes me think of that book.

Steve Roesler


Yes, it does. Cali and Jody were there.

The idea of managing according to results has been around for a long time, as has most of what we are talking about in "democratic" workplaces. Actually, the last time I had a real job (1983:-) we managed according to results--not time in office. And that was at a Fortune 50 company.

But those experiences are few and far between. There has to be a total commitment to clearly-defined results, an exceptional sense of personal responsibility for one's part in that, and the relinquishing of the need to control others like so many chess pieces in a board game.

Now that you've got me going again, perhaps it's time for a longer post on the topic...

Wally Bock

I think there are several things at work here. The people talking about a "democratic workplace" are looking at the way we work through the lens of political democracy. ROWE is part of a manifold background trend toward workers having more control of their environment.

Most of our management theory-in-practice for the last century has been based on the idea of people as "interchangeable parts." We need to change "interchangeable" to "unique" and "parts" to "partners." We've also valued "efficiency" over effectiveness and "formal process" over "creativity."

In some ways we're talking about a return to the pre-industrial workplace. We're also talking about a movement that is bound to reap strong opposition from unions and those who want to regulate the workplace.

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