Break Free from Our Systems Prison

As a worker cooperator I have struggled for years to use 'normal' management techniques in worker co-ops. Often they don't work. Members don't like them even when they...

As a worker cooperator I have struggled for years to use ‘normal’ management techniques in worker co-ops. Often they don’t work. Members don’t like them even when they have agreed a business plan, they feel oppressed and trapped by their own agreements.

The biggest problem has been strategic development. While ‘normal’ operational (next week) and tactical (next year) management ‘best practices’ are ok, I have never seen or experienced a ‘normal’ strategic development method being successful in a worker co-op in the UK. After several years of searching I think I may have found the reason. ‘Normal’ management methods are fundamentally unsuited to our open, egalitarian cultures. Indeed at their core, they are designed to suppress workers and privilege the vested interests of their controllers.
So, you say, we knew that, but the depth of this ideology is the surprise.

Ralph D Stacey of the University of Herfordshire claims that all major management schools are based on the idea of organisations being systems. From 1920s scientific management to 2000s complexity edge of chaos ideas. Systems thinking requires a separation between controlled and controllers even if they are the same people (hence the bizarre feeling of being oppressed by your own business plan).

This idea is revolutionary. Furthermore the IT revolution is driving changes in business which are making systems based management methods unworkable anywhere. We are being pushed towards Stacey’s alternative; to understand organisations as complex processes of relationships and communications between people, with little opportunity for prescriptive planning and executive control.

The picture of this “Complex Responsive Process” thinking in practice is much more sympathetic to collectively organised worker co-ops and other egalitarian workplaces. It encourages a much more co-operative way of organising and operating businesses which we can use much more easily than our investor owned or executive controlled competition.

What do we do? Stop trying to stuff worker co-ops into systems control and start to take advantage of the liberation of process thinking.

Because Stacey’s work is full of complex philosophical argument, I have written a less academic introduction on how we can apply these ideas to worker co-ops i.e. which management techniques are process friendly and which are systems prisons. You can read this document on my CBC website
(you will have to copy and paste the url, blogger won’t do a hyperlink grrr)

The paper was well received at the conference of the UK Society of Cooperative Studies recently. Delegates described it as a revelation of past mistakes and a clear path to a better way to govern worker co-operatives.

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