[IRC-DEV] A Model of Democracy

Jesus Cea Avion jcea at argo.es
Mon May 19 23:58:41 CEST 2003



A Model of Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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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