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A model of democracy

Ubiquity, Volume 2003 Issue April, April 01- April 30, 2003 | BY Ubiquity staff 


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When can you have freedom, equality, moral reciprocity and a paycheck? Brook Manville on the surprising blueprint for organizational management.

When can you have freedom, equality, moral reciprocity and a paycheck? Brook Manville on the surprising blueprint for organizational management.

Brook Manville is a writer, consultant and Chief Learning Officer of Saba Software, a human capital solutions software company. He is the author (with Josiah Ober of Princeton University) of a new book articulating a vision for the organization of the future, based on the lessons of the ancient Athenian city-state: "A Company of Citizens: What the World's First Democracy Teaches Leaders About Creating Great Organizations" (Harvard Business School Press, 2003). Brook's professional work has combined both academic and practice-based experience in developing self-governing organizations, and his new book adds to the body of discussion about what "post-buzzword" empowerment might really mean for managing knowledge workers in the future. We recently interviewed him about his new book and discussed some of the implications of it for managing organizations today.

UBIQUITY: Explain to our Ubiquity readers what information technologists will gain by reading your book.

MANVILLE: For some 20 or 30 years now organizations have increasingly become more democratized. One of the big reasons for that is the so-called knowledge revolution. The individual practitioners who have specialized knowledge or talents have taken on a much larger degree of the organizational power. With that trend has come the so-called flattening of hierarchies and more consensus style management. What is missing, largely, is the process or operating business model needed in order to engage the knowledge workers in systematic involvement and participation in decision-making and strategy setting.

UBIQUITY: What's the business model for democratic organizations?

MANVILLE: The world's first democracy, Athens, which was an extremely high performing organization, with a high level of commitment and engagement that was very businesslike and efficient. Most business people, obviously, don't think about Athens when they think of democracy. The counterpoint that we're making by inviting people to look at this model is that in most organizational settings today, people talk about the need to embrace democracy. The mental models that come to mind, such as the US government, are usually inappropriate.

UBIQUITY: Inappropriate in what way?

MANVILLE: In the case of the United States, it's a representative government. If I can get on my soapbox, it tends to be increasingly dominated by special interest partisan politics and removed from the every day life of an engaged democracy. Second, it's a kind of playground experience where nobody's in charge and everybody wants to have a say and so nothing gets decided. There's this notion of mob decision-making that always sub-optimizes the end result. Although people love the values of democracy -- freedom and equality and that kind of thing -- they don't have an organizational model that they can point to and say this is how it should work. The Athenian model is very down to earth and practical. They operated according to basic principles, which we articulate in the book. We think these principles are universal for how an empowered community should work in order to be both high performing and effective.

UBIQUITY: Go through some of those principles right now.

MANVILLE: It's a three-part model. First, you need to have shared communal values, such as freedom and equality. We also stress a critical third value, which we call moral reciprocity. You as a member of the community are expected to make a particular contribution. We, as the community, in turn owe you some kind of professional growth and development. There is a virtuous circle that comes through understanding that the more you collaborate with one another the better it is for everyone. The organization performs better because you're leveraging a collective group of knowledge practitioners. This moral reciprocity goes along with the community values of freedom and equality. It creates alignment between the individual and the community.

UBIQUITY: What is the second part of the model?

MANVILLE: The second piece is structure. If you've ever studied democracy, you know of the need for a body for debate, dialogue and decision-making. You need a body for steering the group. You need a body or forum for resolving conflict. The Athenians had all of those with the overriding principle that there was no mechanism or structure that was different from the people themselves. The organization was the people. Again, our contemporary notion is that there is this federal government and if you or I die, it's still going to be there. It exists as an entity separate from the individuals, whereas for the Athenians the state and the people were not in any way differentiated. The notion in contemporary parlance is the people and the organization are one and the same and the structures are the outgrowths or the representations of the core processes that are needed for the machinery of decision-making and conflict resolution.

UBIQUITY: And the third piece of the model is?

MANVILLE: The third piece involves what we call practices. Practices are the behaviors, beliefs and ways we do things that make these somewhat more theoretical principles very real.

UBIQUITY: Describe some of these practices.

MANVILLE: There is the practice of participation, which is the notion that everybody has both a right and an expectation to participate in a process. There is the practice of consequence or accountability where the people who make the decision are also accountable for carrying it out. The practice of deliberation is the notion that debate should be reasoned around certain beliefs that are for the good of the community and should resist partisanship. The notion of merit is that decisions should be made on the basis of what is the best answer and not personal advantage. The practice of closure is that debates should move to a conclusion in a timely way and that once a decision has been made, whether or not you argued against it, you are expected and obligated to get on board and support it. These things probably sound familiar to anybody who has thought about parliamentary procedure or democracy but the Athenians lined them up. As the way of doing business, it is a set of universal principles that is applicable to any kind of organization that is seeking to become more of a self-governing community and to empower and energize every member of the organization.

UBIQUITY: In Athens, the organization could be thought of as the end in itself. That is not typical of companies.

MANVILLE: I would say the organization was the end in itself in the sense that its mission was to survive and prosper. It did have a higher purpose, and that was to bring out the best of every member of the community. In other words, there was a value proposition, if you like, for being a citizen. Although that idea sounds foreign to a business entity, I think in many ways the pendulum is beginning to swing toward the notion that the results or the outcomes of the organization result from the encouragement and development of the people who belong. It's not that the Athenians never had things to get done. They had to fight a war or build a navy or create a dramatic festival or what not. They had projects but it wasn't this contemporary version of the organization where we need to create shareholder value -- the need to roll out products and then find people to plug them into. The purpose of an organization can be about building and developing the people and creating value based on human capital. You can have your cake and eat it too.

UBIQUITY: And building human capital is the more fundamental goal?

MANVILLE: That's right. There was an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review a couple of months ago by Charles Handy called, "What is a Business For?" He argues, as I do, that that, yes, businesses have to make profits and, yes, they have to earn revenues that exceed their costs. But if we only think about profits and shareholder value, we're diminishing much of what these things are ultimately about in terms of broader social goods. If we think about them as having multiple missions and starting first with the people, as opposed to the people as the plug-ins at the end, it's a whole different way of thinking about business. It can be very productive because the people are growing and developing and learning. They're going to generate more revenue, more innovation and so on.

UBIQUITY: It's always said that God and/or the devil are in the details. In thinking about the details of applying your ideas to real organizations, have you found large differences between applying them in organization X versus organization Y?

MANVILLE: Very much so. Democracy -- in the sort that we have construed -- is not the answer for every organization. Nor do we assume that all organizations are evolving towards this as the supreme form. Even in ancient times and of course in business today, there is what I call a broad ecosystem with many different players, with different forms, many of which are, depending on your metrics, flourishing and surviving. The Athenians were very successful for a long time. They were one of a handful of democracies in their age. They created astonishing results and performance but there were other organizational models that were also producing good results. Of course, the Athenians, ultimately, slipped under the power of other military states that were not democratic. So you can't say that it's the be-end and end-all for all. One of the things that we pointed to in the book is that the open software movement is a broadly democratic kind of governance. But there's plenty of good software that is not written by the open software approach, so to some degree it's based on the willingness of the individuals to come together to try and create this kind of organization.

UBIQUITY: Is this kind of an organization more likely to be found in -- for shorthand we'll say, Silicon Valley-type software houses -- than it is in, let's say, New York insurance companies?

MANVILLE: I think the model is probably more knowledge workers versus capital-intensive companies. Although there are opportunities even in capital-intensive companies, it's particularly germane when you have knowledge workers in the sense that the work comes out of their hands, their heads and their hearts. You get competitive advantage by somehow harnessing that in a way that creates passion and leverages everyone's talents as much as possible. The fundamental dilemma that we address, which strikes at the heart of a knowledge-based organization, is how do you on the one hand respect and at the same time take advantage of the knowledge workers' desires for freedom and autonomy. How do you create alignment based on everybody pointing in the same direction? That's the fundamental paradox of the knowledge-based organization. The notion is to somehow create a system or a way of working so that you have freedom and equality, but also community. I think that knowledge organizations and technology driven organizations are quite appropriate for this.

UBIQUITY: What is your educational background?

MANVILLE: I have a Ph.D. in history from Yale. I taught for about four years at Northwestern University and then I went into the media business. From there I got into electronic publishing and then I got into consulting and now I'm back in technology and human capital management.

UBIQUITY: You now are a chief learning officer at Saba. Tell us about the organization of Saba.

MANVILLE: Saba is by no means an Athenian democratic kind of organization. However, many parts of the Saba world are relevant to this. First of all, as a technology and knowledge-based company, there is a fair amount of consensus decision-making. In addition, part of my job at Saba is to develop a series of customer communities. These communities provide a flow of new ideas from our customers and also give us a vehicle to dialogue with customers on an ongoing basis about things we're working on. We wanted to make Saba's community something that was part of the overall value proposition in that customers were joining a knowledge network of fellow practitioners, and not just buying a piece of software. A lot of our customer community work has to do with the exchange of best practices, learning and professional development.

UBIQUITY: How are your customer communities organized?

MANVILLE: We set up the communities on self-governing models. Saba serves as the facilitator, but not the leader. There's a rotational leadership model in terms of the stewardship of the communities. The communities elect their own officials, or their own leaders, if you like. Most of my Saba customers have not read my book, but they know about the principals of merit and closure and transparency that are part of how you make collaborative decisions in a group. The decision-making is made around many of the same principals.

UBIQUITY: One can imagine everything going well in the spirit of a glass is half full. One can also imagine that going terribly wrong.

MANVILLE: There is no question that democracy is hard work and that it involves some risk. Again, if you look at Athens itself you'll see that they had their ups and downs. Their history, even in their so-called democratic period, was punctuated periodically by factualism and revolution. It was by no means smooth sailing at every step of the way. What we argue is that the democratic values and processes made them extremely resilient so that even though they made some colossal mistakes and ended up losing the great war against Sparta, after a few years the democracy was restored and went on for another 100 or so years. They had enormous capacity throughout their history to bounce back because the citizens had an enormous franchise in the community that was one and the same as them. They had no one else to blame, if you like. If you look at any democratic environment, including our own (even though I decry the American model as the pure form) we have a very durable government. We had our own civil war. We had all sorts of travesties along the way -- the McCarthy period, the Vietnam War, et cetera -- but it's still an extremely strong society because of the bedrock of values that keeps people ultimately engaged in the higher vision.

UBIQUITY: What do you think of people who say that it's unthinkable that many countries in the world would ever appropriately adopt democracy?

MANVILLE: Well, this is an extremely contemporary debate. It seems to me that if you are not raised in a democratic tradition then it is much harder to develop and evolve democracy than if you have a context for doing so. Frank Fukuyama wrote a very interesting and controversial book called, "The End of History and the Last Man." In the book he argued that the world is evolving towards democracy because it's ultimately a higher form of human engagement and we will see more over time as opposed to less. Recent history suggests that that seems to be happening. Totalitarian governments are slowly falling away.

UBIQUITY: How does technology play into that?

MANVILLE: Technology is a big part of the story. Once you make the information to support decision-making accessible and transparent, it's very hard to maintain totalitarian regimes because everybody knows more about what's going on. The global communications revolution, together with the values that go along with higher engagement of individuals, is pressing the world towards more democracy. Will we see every nation on earth have democracy by the time you and I die? I doubt it. But I suspect the score card will have more checks than not versus when you and I were born.

UBIQUITY: What do you think of such things as software filters and let's say, the new Microsoft software, which will place more control on what can be forwarded and downloaded by employees? Do you have strong feelings about that?

MANVILLE: It's of a piece of this larger debate about is to the advantage of organizations to control and limit their employees or is it preferred to give them more freedom and provide the structures in which their freedom can product more value and engagement.

UBIQUITY: Could the answer be, well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't?

MANVILLE: That's got to be an answer because again, some things are contingent, right? In an era of terrorism and all the other horrible things that go on, you can't necessarily tolerate total openness all the time for everybody. Even the Athenians had to clamp down and shift the blend between freedom and equality from time to time. The thing is they made the decisions themselves to do that. Again, that's a very contemporary debate today. Should we scrutinize certain ethnic groups in our own midst? There's a lively debate about whether that's on balance a good thing or a bad thing. I think the key thing is if you engage the citizens themselves around that, as opposed to just having it be mandated by some homeland security agency, you will develop consensus around what's the right thing in today's world. I think the same thing happens with organizations.

UBIQUITY: Are you a fan of the Dilbert comic strip?

MANVILLE: I think Dilbert is one of the most interesting barometers of what I'll call the democratic revolution going on in business today. The story of Dilbert again and again, strip after strip, is, "I am being treated like an idiot and I'm actually much smarter than the people who are trying to give me orders." That's the joke of Dilbert. Scott Adams, who was a software engineer at one of the Telco companies, writes it. He just couldn't believe a lot of the silliness that went on there. That is his well of experience that he continues to write comic strips from. You have very talented bright people who are in technical jobs and they are usually told, "Just sit there and write the code. We'll figure out what's good for you."

UBIQUITY: Does the coder always know more than the boss?

MANVILLE: Not always; the two just know different things. That's actually an important point. A subtlety that gets lost in many democracy discussions is that democratic does not mean that every single role in every single process is in itself purely democratic. For example, the Athenians would democratically make a decision about whether or not to go to war, but once they went to war every single decision about, "Do we turn left or do we turn right at this mountain pass?" was not put up for a vote. Generals were in charge. People did what they were told. They had an architecture for decision making. They knew that under certain circumstances it wasn't feasible to have a vote. There's a misunderstanding that we have this black or white vision of democracy. It's either everybody always has a say all of the time about everything, or else people are treated like slaves and told what to do. The answer is obviously in the middle. What I'm arguing in our book is that it's shifting more to the left, but with care and qualification because not all decisions should be open to debate all of the time.

UBIQUITY: One final thought experiment. Picture an organization, and then accept the assignment of going there and looking around as you might have in your McKinsey days. We're still telling them what they ought to start thinking about doing. What we're asking is if you were parachuted into some organization, what would you tell them? You can pick any organization.

MANVILLE: You're asking great questions because it's the inevitable, "What comes next and what do you actually do with this stuff?" I think that the book was written, to use your phrase, as more of a mind-stretcher or thought experiment than a handbook. It has some handbook-ish things in it. But its main purpose was to try to parachute people, conceptually speaking, into a world that operated democratically. Just to break out of one's current assumption set about what it means to be part of an organization. I think the right place for organizations to start would be to use this as a text or as a starting point for a series of conversations around how they are making decisions and how they are governing themselves. Some of the values, practices and structures can be inspirational for changing or improving the way that certain decisions are made or certain groups operate. One of our beliefs is that you can't wholesale blueprint one model off of another because the world is always different.

UBIQUITY: But you can borrow from it, right?

MANVILLE: Yes, you can you borrow from it. You can adapt from it. A lot of the application may very well be in parts of the business without necessarily trying to incorporate everything from top to bottom. For instance, I gave you an example before about Saba. Saba is not currently run like an Athenian democracy. But in part of Saba where I'm working in terms of building customer communities we're adapting many of these principals. I've seen cases where teams or working groups can adopt a lot of principals and practices, even though within the larger organization there still may be a rather traditional hierarchy. So around a project or a business unit, there's validity that comes from working this way.

UBIQUITY: So what's the key thing to remember?

MANVILLE: I think to some degree it's to not try to solve the whole problem large-scale all at once, but to look for small opportunities or beginning opportunities where you can adapt some of this thinking. But again, the starting point is really to engage people around: What would it be like? How would it be if we actually started working in a more democratic way? Because one of my watch words through this whole thing is that you can't impose this from above. It's got to come from the citizens themselves. The real way to make this work is to have people engaged around inventing it themselves. Hopefully this will be a bit of a roadmap. But at the end of the day there will be different versions of it based on how people want to adapt it to their situation. My metric for success is if people start to take this seriously enough to think about it in their world and what it might mean that would be plenty of thanks for the work that went in to it.


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