David Jennings has been interested in non-hierarchical ways of organising since he did his MSc in occupational psychology at Sheffield in 1986.
David cites Charles Landry’s book, What A Way To Run A Railroad, (Comedia, 1985) as a great analysis of the reasons co-operative working often failed. The gist of this book was that a lot of people were creating their own organisational ‘cramps’ and restrictions that were counter-productive.
“In the UK, there’s always been opposition to co-operative ways of working. But if you look at other countries, such as Sweden, you’ll see a deeply democratic culture that looks more favourably on this sort of thing. Volvo, for example, did a lot of experimenting with semi-autonomous work groups.
“The main problem with genuinely co-operative organisations is that they’re simply not scaleable. Perhaps if [the co-ops of the 1970s] had had wikis and microblogs, and a more cellular structure, they would have been more viable. Now, technology is actually catching up with ideas that have been around for a generation.”
In the wake of the co-operative movement of the 1970s, and no doubt as a reaction to the popularity of charismatic but ego-driven leaders of the 1980s, thinkers such as Peter Senge and Arie de Geus started to develop ideas around distributed leadership – leadership as a process, not trait; something to which everyone in an organisation could contribute.
Meanwhile, (so David tells me), collaborative software was developing. There was something called computer supported co-operative work (CSCW), developed by software engineers in conjunction with psychologists and ethnologists.
CSCW – also known as groupware – was a sort of early social media. By the early 1990s, programmes such as Lotus Notes were marking the beginning of people meaningfully working together online.
David mentions a paper published in 1989 called “Why groupware applications fail” by Microsoft researcher Jonathan Grudin, where Grudin looked at the personal versus the social benefits of CSCW.
As David recalls, one example addresses the disastrous uptake of early online calendars:
“Bosses would have access to invidual employees’ calendars, and get their secretaries to schedule in meetings. The only way people could get out of those meetings was by saying they had something else on that they’d not put in the calendar. Employees realised that by keeping their calendars up-to-date, they’d actually loose more than they’d gain, so it wasn’t worth it.”
The technology we have today may or may not have altruistic values, but it is far more user-centric: to re-invent a phrase, we could call this the developers dilemma: do you meet the selfish needs of your individual user, or aim to serve the greater good? The trick is to compromise neither.
As David puts it, “if you can make the social benefit a by-product of the selfish interest, then it’s much more sustainable. That’s the beauty of something like book-marking on del.icio.us”
And, remembering the failings of the 1970s co-operative movement, maybe a bit of selfishness is a necessary thing.