Is collaboration tech bad for office autocrats too?

Last week across the tech world, a wave of colleagues returned from SXSW, inducing some jealousy in those of us who couldn’t make the event. But besides bringing a bit of envy to the office or social media chatter, returnees from Austin also brought back intriguing ideas to spur conversations back in their daily lives.
Lilly Hanscom, communications manager at collaboration platform Podio, for instance, got in touch with an audio recording of a thought-provoking SXSW panel discussion called ‘Decentralized Organizations: Do They Work?‘ She thought it was a cool unpacking of the underlying philosophy that animates her company, but it also fits right in with the preoccupations of WebWorkerDaily.
In it, Thomas Malone, director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence and author of the seminal 2004 book The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style and Your Life, lays out how cheap, ubiquitous communication (i.e., the Internet) is empowering more workers to make decisions for themselves. Like a faint echo of the argument that new communication tools have been bad news for dictators around the world the last few years, Malone explains that getting more information to more people at work is also bad for office autocrats and good for knowledge-worker freedom and productivity (it’s a long excerpt but worth it):

It’s now possible for the first time in human history to have the economic benefits of very large organizations, things like economies of scale, and at the same time to have the human benefits of very small organizations, things like freedom, flexibility, motivation and creativity. And the reason that’s possible is because a new generation of technologies – email, the World Wide Web, the internet in general – are reducing the cost of communication to such a low level that it’s now possible for huge numbers of people even in very large organizations to have enough information that they can make sensible decisions for themselves instead of just following orders from someone above them in a hierarchy who supposedly knows more than they do.
It’s the technology, by reducing the cost of communication, that’s making this possible. But just because something is possible, doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen. What I think will actually drive the change in this case are the business benefits of people making more decisions for themselves. When people are making their own decisions, for instance, they’re often more highly motivated – they’ll work harder if it’s their own thing rather than just what somebody tells them to do. When people are doing their own thing, they’re often more creative. They’re willing to be more inventive, try more things, just be more innovative. They’re able to be more flexible if they can decide what to do in their own situation instead of just following rigid rules. Finally, people who are making their own decisions often just plain like it better.
Now, those benefits of decentralized decision making aren’t important everywhere in business. In some places, like making certain kinds of semiconductor chips, the most important thing is economies of scale. And in those cases, cheap communication may lead to even more centralized decision-making, but, and here’s the key point, in our increasingly knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy, the critical factors in business success are often exactly the same things as the benefits of decentralized decision making: flexibility, motivation, creativity, innovation. That’s why I think that even though it won’t happen everywhere, we’ll see  in more and more parts of our economy, more and more decentralized decision making, more and more human freedom.

Other members of the panel went on to offer examples of what this movement toward office democracy could look like in practice. Kat Steinmetz, human resources manager of Burning Man, for instance, explained that the annual gathering has six founders, but no CEO, and decisions are made by consensus. That takes longer on the front-end and can be frustrating, explained Steinmetz, but results in faster implementation as all parties really buy in to a decision once it had been made.
Or, if Burning Man seems a bit far out of the corporate sphere to be really relevant, Zach Ware, campus community development director at Zappos, offered examples of how decentralization is affecting his firm, starting with space design. Their offices, he said, have no walls, to be a literally, as well as metaphorically, flat organization, and their new Las Vegas headquarters offers both internal and external coworking spaces to nurture community.
Finally, Second Life founder Philip Rosedale shared a radical but doable example of workplace democracy in action. At Linden Lab, bonuses were crowdsourced, meaning that the 300 employees were given an equal share of the bonus pot and asked to give away the money to their colleagues in any way they saw fit. The result was a rational allocation of bonus money and a very empowered workforce, according to Rosedale.
And how about Podio? How are they experiencing this tech-driven trend away from command and control at the office? Hanscom explained in an email that, “Podio was born out of the belief that the people who do the work of companies should have the power to choose how they do that work and that software (or any work tool) has an inherent value. If you force tools and processes on them that they have not had a hand in deciding upon, you are dehumanizing, disempowering them.” Their office is also open plan, they’re flexible in terms of remote working, and “we eat lunch together every day,” says Hanscom.
Is technology bringing more democracy to your work life?
Image courtesy of Flickr user Dplanet.