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.


Written by katherinechen

July 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm

10 Responses

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  1. Dan Pink’s book _Drive_ mentions some interesting examples (sorry I can’t list them off the top of my head)….


    Robert Couch

    July 5, 2012 at 6:07 pm

  2. Hi,

    I work in a knowledge company (a Big 4 accountancy firm) and we are steeply hierarchical but fundamentally everyone does their own thing with their own expertise and knowledge.

    Twas always the way, I think. As Barnard noted: ‘It is surprising how much that in theory is authoritative, in the best of organizations lacks authority – or, in plain language, how generally orders are disobeyed.’(Barnard, 1938, 161, 162

    Mary Parker Follett’s wrote that an ‘order’ as merely ‘a symbol’ (Follett, 1940, 65). She wrote: ‘I may say to an employee, “Do so and so,” but I should say it only because we have both agreed, openly or tacitly, that that which I am ordering done is the best thing to be done. The order is then a symbol.’ (Follett, 1940, 65) ‘The best leader has not followers, but men and women working with him.’ (Follett, 1940, 262) The leader ‘knows how to encourage initiative, how to draw out from all what each has to give.’ (Follett, 1940, 247).

    But even Heny Noll who followed Taylor’s ‘orders’ about hauling Pig Iron must have have his own commitment to meet Taylor’s target. A whole bunch of individuals were hired to be a part of Taylor’s scheme but only Noll lasted. The other workers self-determined out and Noll self-determined in.

    Michael Polanyi (1951) The Span of Central Direction. Schlicht, Ekkehart. 1998. On Custom in the Economy. Clarendon Press; Oxford.
    Schlicht, Ekkehart. 2008. Consistency in Organization. Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics. Vol 164; pages 612 – 623.
    And my own: Brady, Malcolm and Walsh, Aidan. 2008. Setting Strategic Direction: A top down or bottom up process. Business Strategy Series. Vol 9; issue 1; page 5 – 11.Walsh, A. (2010). Two meanings of command? Command in the instrumental organisation versus coercive command. Studies in Emergent Order , 28-49.


    Aidan Walsh

    July 6, 2012 at 9:13 am

  3. KC: “However, my research on Burning Man suggests that these are not always necessary or desirable conditions, particularly if members value diversity.”

    … not always … And when or when not? This is fascinating, of course, the core problem in organization theory, really, because to develop any theory, we must first isolate the variables and that we have not done completely or consistently enough to share a paradigm.

    As a criminologist, I study police (and military). I believe that the military model (chiefs, … lieutenants, … ; Class A Uniforms; rules of engagement) is wrong for policing because it makes law enforcement into an occupying army, and that violates basic premises about civil society. However, in one context, the military model seems to have an element of success totally lacking in police work and showing in the repeated failures of police forces: incident response. The police treat incidents as exceptions and train only sporadically for them. For the military, even food delivery is an incident for coordinated response – and they do it so well.

    The point is that whether top-down, or democratic, or autarchic or monarchic, bureaucratic or voluntaristic, every organization faces problems different from others “like” it in undefined contexts. Why consider market competitors? And in which markets? (Plastic can compete with aluminum, but not in conductive wiring.) Size is easy, but apparent size might be irrelevant if a nominally large organization effectively has a plethora of actual management motifs.

    This is what I find interesting in Katherine Chen’s wider suggestion that ethnography has value in discovering the facts of organization theory. We can only look at what people do. Whether Alduous Huxley’s Henry Ford or Douglas Adams’ Ford Prefect, no one has ever invented a new mode of organization. The Biblical Moses might be astounded by a computer, but having witnesses the building of the Pyramids, he would understand both Microsoft and Apple perfectly.


    Michael E. Marotta

    July 6, 2012 at 11:00 pm

  4. Thanks for the suggestions and comments, Robert, Aidan, Matt, Michael! Matt, thanks in particular for noting a Brazilian firm.

    Aidan, some organizations that employ professionals are, to a degree, self-managed. Universities with strong faculty senates, for example, come to mind. And yes, authority is a two-way street and not necessarily based on hierarchy, as Follett argues.

    BTW, I forgot to mention one journal devoted to cooperatives – Journal of Cooperative Studies (



    July 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm

  5. This documentary about factories re-taken by workers after owners left shows how workers run the factories in a democratic way…



    July 9, 2012 at 2:40 pm

  6. Well… since self-management was an official doctrine of communist former Yugoslavia, there must exist a bunch of research from scholars of the era, that could be interesting from today’s viewpoint.



    July 12, 2012 at 8:13 pm

  7. […] of possible alternative ways of organizing, both conventional and unconventional.  In a previous post, I described game developer Valve’s preference for teams over hierarchy.  When teaching […]


  8. […] More self-managing organizations? ( […]


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