Sunday, April 01, 2007


Corporate Democracy?

WorldBlu is a "business" (sic) based in Washington, D.C. that specializes in workplace democracy. It gives Democracy in the Workplace awards to corporations that run their shops in a suitably enlightened way. It recently honored Continuum, a design firm near Boston that "eliminated most interior barriers, creating a vast open space." Personally, I am skeptical how this might further "workplace democracy". Note the "most" qualification above. That alone is enough to make one suspicious. Most companies knock down "interior barriers" merely to save costs, filling the resulting "vast open space" with cubicle farms and the like. WorldBlu could simply be awarding Continuum for its spin. Continuum vice president Freda King trumpets, "We do not have doors... It's structured that way to stimulate conversation and to allow people to work collaboratively. Anyone from the chief operating officer to our interns shares space and sits next to each other. You can stop in and have a conversation with anyone, anytime you want."

Mmm-hmm... Sure. Somehow I've heard this all before.

According to the founder of WorldBlu, Traci Fenton, 20th century corporations were "typically based on a military, command-and-control model that often remains today." (That is undoubtedly true. Decimation is a military concept, too - all the way back to Roman times - and it lives on in the practice of downsizing.) Fenton asserts that The Information Age changed things. The Internet empowered the little people by giving them the facts, arming them with the means to demand "workplace democracy." (On the other hand, one must also realize that The Information Age made business ever more bureacratic, and bureaucracies have never been a friend of democracy.)

WorldBlu's Fenton insists that managers can spread their own power across an organization, as well as empower others, by delegating as much as possible to their subordinates. (Then again, there is the school of thought that believes in the Law of the Conservation of Power, which states that the more power you give to others, the less power you keep for yourself.) Other hallmarks of "workplace democracy" include "self-managed teams" that apparently control their own billing, "open town forums" where employees and managers can share ideas, and "hiring as a collective activity."

The article warns that "even advocates of democratic workplaces agree that they do not work for everyone." Some people need "structure". (What the article does not mention is that some people are allergic to bullshit as well. I am at least glancingly familiar with all of the democratic - or shall we say pseudo-democratic - corporate tactics above. The blend of collectivization and semi-autonomy bred by this approach often takes itself way too seriously, and more closely resembles the defunct Soviet Union than it does the good old U.S. of A. One thing I've noted is that, the more "democratic" a corporation imagines itself to be, the more quickly you will be ostracized if you make an even mildly iconoclastic remark about the system. Groupthink is the lifeblood of such organizations. The purported "democracy" thrives only by infusing the rank-and-file with the same authoritarian mindset as their masters. Sometimes there is more camaraderie among corporate underlings when they are all aware that the management sees itself as neither their ally nor their equal.)

"Democratic principles making businesses more transparent" from The Christian Science Monitor

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