more self-managing organizations?
Hello fellow orgtheory readers! Orgtheory was kind enough to invite me back for another stint of guest blogging. For those of you who missed my original posts, you can read my 2009 series of posts on analyzing “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic research, ethnography – what is it good for?, and writing up ethnography.
Those of you are familiar with my research know that I have studied an organization that mixed democratic or collectivist practices with bureaucratic practices. Here’s a puzzle: although we operate in a democracy, most of our organizations, including voluntary associations, rely upon topdown bureaucracy. However, this doesn’t mean that alternative ways of organizing can’t thrive.
Valve, the game developer behind Portal, has attracted much buzz (for example, see this article in the WSJ and various tech blogs entries, such as here and here) about its self-managing processes. The company prides itself on having no bosses, and their employee handbook details their unusual workplace practices. For example, instead of waiting for orders from above, workers literally vote with their feet by moving their desks to join projects that they deem worthy of their time and effort. Similarly, anthropologist Thomas Malaby describes how Linden Lab workers, who developed the virtual reality Second Life, vote how to allocate efforts among projects proposed by workers. Sociologist David Stark has described how workers mixed socialist and capitalist practices in a factory in post-Communist Hungary to get work jobs done, dubbing these heterarchies.
Interestingly, several of the conditions specified by Joyce Rothschild and J. Allen Whitt as allowing collectivist organizations to survive may also apply to these workplace organizations – for example, recruiting those like existing members and staying small in size. However, my research on Burning Man suggests that these are not always necessary or desirable conditions, particularly if members value diversity.
Although these self-managing practices may seem revolutionary to contemporary workers, orgtheory readers might recall that prior to the rise of management and managerial theories such as Taylor’s scientific management, workers could self-determine the pacing of projects. Could we make a full circle?
Any thoughts? Know of other interesting organizations or have recommendations for research that we can learn from? Put them in the comments.