Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

Participative management

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on August 25, 2009

RipplesThe post ‘Self-organization defined‘ generated so much discussion, it has fed me with many new insights. Thanks so much. Your visions about self-organizing, participation, management, organizations, emergence and others are well argumented and show deep understanding, and luckily you don’t always agree. I hope I was not the only one who learned from the discussion.

One of the things that made me think was that self-organization is something we just do. It can’t be managed or empowered. Employees always self-organize, albeit with given constraints and power relations. Stephen rephrases part of my problem statement with saying:

How can we change the constraints and power relating so that different patterns will emerge from the self-organization?

One of the directions we should be looking at is the concept of participative management. And that makes me think of the framework of Wenger again, which is always about dualities. Of course he applies the framework to organizations as well. For example, this is how Wenger describes the dimensions of organizational design:

  1. participation and reification – trade-offs of institutionalization
  2. the designed and the emergent – two sources of structure in organizations
  3. the local and the global – combining local forms of knowledgeability
  4. fields of identification and negotiability – institutional identities as key to organizational learning

All dualities are interesting and can be discussed thoroughly, but regarding the post where I tried to define self-organization I will give the most attention to the second duality, the designed and the emergent. An organization is the meeting of two sources of structure, the designed structure of the institution and the emergent structure of the practice. One can question whether the structure of the practice can be designed, or if constraints and rules can be designed, or if the constraints are the structure. Anyway, one of the questions Wenger asks himself here are what the obstacles are to responsiveness to the emergent. In other words, what keeps the emergent from being acted upon? Or how can emergent patterns be recognized?

One of the things we should investigate is the concept of participative management. For example at Semco, they believe that Semco is different from most companies that have participatory management because employees are given the power to make decisions. Even ones, with which the CEO wouldn’t normally agree. That is of course their vision, but I believe that managers that participate not only in the processes he or she is required or expected to do so, but in other processes as well, influence the constraints of emergent behavior by others. These processes or practices can be on the work floor, on other departments, or wherever in the company in order to participate and know more about other aspects of the company.  By doing that, these other employees get to know more of management problems and opportunities as well, which can stimulate more emergent behavior, or if you like self-organization, or more initiatives from the self. Does that influence culture (thanks Paula for mentioning Zappo) as well? Can it be called designing by participation? Does it create conflicts that recognizes problems? Does it foster innovation? Does it create more responsibility? These are other questions that pop up by writing this down.


10 Responses

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  1. John Tropea said, on August 26, 2009 at 05:33

    I think this is where it’s all leading to Bas, great term “participative management”, which also rings a bell with Stephen Billing’s post on change participants/recipients

    I think that this enterprise 2.0 movement is overlooking the simple act of “participative management” (management2.0 if you like)

    The theme coming through in all of this is self-organisation and co-creation happens in our organisational conversations whether we like it or not.
    You like me have participated in these conversations of late (I’ll list the links for others)

    People have interpretation mechanisms, background, interests, etc…which will means communication is a dance, it’s constantly becoming interpreted, given meaning…

    Given this reality, a managers plan is not often going to reach their desired outcome, as they are dealing with people (conversations) not robots. But not only that, they are dealing with the way things are practiced at ground zero, and if they are out of touch with that, then they will understand why their outcomes have not been met or are unrealistic.

    So as Stephen Billing alludes to, the approach is for managers to be at ground zero like a coach on a soccer field. The coach understands as much as he can what’s it’s like being on that field, so his plans always have that practice in mind.

    I like what Stephen says in his post, an organisation is a social object

    He talks about the importance of managers focusing on the moment, and in conversations, and making sure meaning is understood, as in the end the reification (outputs) are based on these conversations.

    “Too often managers allow themselves to be distracted from observing what is going on around them in front of their noses because they are focusing on big pictures, on the future vision, or on abstractions such as corporate values.

    As a leader of change, you will be most effective if you concentrate on what is going on around you and make it your practice to participate in conversations with the people you influence.”

    In another post stephen talks about influence by interaction

    “Senior managers cannot design the culture that they want, nor can they engage other specialists to design the desired culture. They can only influence culture through their interactions with others.

    No wonder leaders say that communication is so important.”

    I’m really finding this thinking common sense, and it’s a wonder we have had to go through things like knowledge management to attempt to fill in this enterprise gap, where the layers of hierarchy are out of touch with each other

  2. Bas Reus said, on August 27, 2009 at 09:57

    Great example when you mention the coach on the pitch. Funny though, that these coaches also are called managers. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson or manager Arsène Wenger. And we feel that managers as we discuss them in organizations should participate more, while managers on the soccer field do it everyday in a more natural way.

    Soccer players can fight for their position on the field by showing their skills on the training, and sometimes discuss the coming game with the manager. But then it’s the manager who decides, he can only pick 11 players that start the game.

    Meaning is negotiated, by means of participation and reification. The manager talks with the players, how they feel, what they should work on, what their roles are for the coming match, and so on. He also acts on what he knows from previous games, that’s his basis. The players can prove him wrong (if needed) on the training and on the matchday.

    Can managers in organizations learn from managers in sports? At least they participate in a different way.

  3. Tom Gibbons said, on August 27, 2009 at 20:47

    Interesting question about learning from sports coaches. I think the way you are describing it above, some good learning could come about but there are some watch out for’s I think as well and they are captured in an older blog entry I did some time ago…

    In terms of participative management you might get a whole range of perspectives here as well but perhaps my own story can be of value as well.

    About 20 years ago now when I was working in a larger organization I was directly involved in a company wide effort to increase employee participation. We called it Employee Centred Management and it also had a strong component of the Quality movement of the time. We were also quite involved with creeating a Learning Organization so Peter Senge’s work was focused on as part of this. It was a big effort driven from the very top of the organization. It was a learning lab for pretty much all of us and we learned a lot! And interestingly we even helped sponsor a talk by Ricardo Semler (Semco) at a local conference! In his talk he offended a number of people by saying that they couldn’t do what he was doing, not because he was so wonderful, but because his company was not their’s, the context was different. Many of the audience were looking for his magic answer.

    One of the really good things we learned in this initiative was that the term itself, participative management, needed to be continually discussed and defined based on the various contexts in which people were working and interacting. Initially we just used the term and then found out, sometiimes painfully, that some people thought it meant they should have input into every decision made, others thought that they should only participate when asked by management, others thought it meant they should only participate after a decision was made and then point out how bad the decision was and on and on.

    We did spend a lot of time at one point trying to define what we called Employee Centred Management meant in the organization and that was pretty much a waste of time. We eventually got to the point of understanding that each location and in most cases each department had to figure out what it meant for them, from an operating perspective and then things could move forward, or in some cases not move forward.

    It was many years later that I discovered this was a real example of local interaction defining a larger scale intention. At the time we just muddled through and forward and now I think I would be much more comfortable that muddling through and forward is perfectly fine with things like this.

    For me, the important thing is that you cannot define a thing like participative management globally. The intent might be something like ‘getting more input into our decsion making process’ and then that intention can be made sense of at the local level. The larger organization would certainly want to interact with those local entities to see how things were moving forward and that would be part of the entire process.

    We certainly learned a lot more from this experience but hopefully this lession fits with this context…..

  4. Bas Reus said, on August 31, 2009 at 10:28

    Wow Tom, great story. You even got Ricardo Semler have a talk! I just read his book and I’m really intrigued by his story. This post was also inspired by the book.

    Nice to read that even the term participative management needed to be negotiated continually based on the various contexts. That is where you touch the difficult part of participate management I think.

    What is the context? What do we mean by participative management in which circumstances? Valid questions. And there’s probably not a single answer for it. I think we have to look for circumstances where groups of employees can make more decisions for the group, and where the management of the group is distributed over group members and maybe another manager that is not directly a group member.

    Are we then talking about distributed management?

  5. Arthur Shelley said, on September 4, 2009 at 01:08

    Great leaders create the right envirionment for what I term “conversations that matter”. These have a specific purpose, but not a predefined outcome. The outcomes and outputs
    emerge through the interactions between the participants in the conversation. Too many meetings are predetermined and this is why participative management is so rare.
    Managers are sobusy “managing” that they don’t allow real participation (primarily this is arisk of losing control- the key perceived function of management).
    Best of luck with you participative style, we need more leaders like this to inspire a new paradigm.

  6. Bas Reus said, on September 4, 2009 at 18:13

    Thanks Arthur. I certainly agree when you say that outcomes shouldn’t be predefined. Interaction and participation through collaboration are more important then they are perceived by many managers nowadays. However, some goals or guidelines should be set, although multiple outcomes could be acceptable.

    Collaborative processes are continuous as well, it should lead to more collaboration, participation and interaction. The question is, is this never-ending loop of participation resulting in outcomes that are accepted by more people, and in better outcomes? That’s what I would like to find out.

  7. sbilling said, on September 23, 2009 at 07:51

    Thanks Tom for your most interesting story. It doesn’t surprise me that the meaning of the term ‘participative management’ had to be constantly negotiated.

    Participative management sounds like something that is quite desirable, setting aside for a moment concerns about the definition of the term.

    I wonder how realistic it is though. It seems to me that to be thinking about participative management is somehow to avoid or miss the reality that there are power differences between people when they are interacting in organisations. To me, it is more realistic to acknowledge the power differences and work within the constraints presented by these differences. Rather than ignore or miss them through a concept that seems alluring but does not really represent reality all that well.

  8. Tom Gibbons said, on October 2, 2009 at 17:28

    Hi Bas… just getting back to some of your posts. I also left one on your newest post but as tmsamericas.

    I did want to loop back to this one though since you ask the question about results and does participative management produce better results?

    If I could go back to my story above. The company I worked with grew and developed into the largest and most profitable dairy company in Canada as we worked with our participative management effort. We were recognized as a great success and were even mentioned in Senge etc. Fifth Discipline Fieldbook! During this time we also closed a number of plants we had purchased since we were over production capacity. We closed these plants about as well as you can imagine but I doubt those involved would consider it such a success.

    The dairy industry in Canada was fairly insular and then Unilever showed up and started buying up market share after purchasing one of our competitors. We sold our ice cream division to Nestle and our milk division to a Quebec competitor to focus on the high margin cheese and milk by product area. It was at this time that our amazing HR function dismantled itself since not so many of us were needed. I departed at this point. Then with lots of cash around from the sale of 2 divisions a hostile takeover emerged with a hated competitor. Not wanting that to happen the company went and found a ‘white knight’ in the name of Parmalat to buy the rest of the company.

    So, how the heck in this story do you define success or positive outcome? The plants left behind are still operating, the executive management group left with a lot of money since their shares had to be bought back by Parmalat. The company no longer exists as it was but what it is now is not involved nearly as much with anything like we were doing with participative management. All of the head office management was gone in 2 years time, of course making room for new people.

    I suppose the point here is, certainly for me, is that there is only one rational reason for higher levels of participative management. With more input you have access to more perspectives on what to do as your organization changes. These additional perspective create a higher potential for successful (however defined) responses to these changes. However, it does not guarantee success. There are simply too many other variables and definitions of positive outcomes to make a causal link to participative management. At some point it is a subjective decision to do anything in this area. It seems there are definite signs that people want higher levels of participation, but I have yet to see any data that can make a rational business case for doing anything about this.

    And I think the reason for this is that participation always happens at a local level and its outcome is primarily unpredictable. Thus any stories of success are unique and not easily replicated; they are subjective and this was exactly what Ricardo Semler said that frustrated so many people in his presentation.

  9. Bas Reus said, on October 3, 2009 at 16:32

    Hi Tom, thanks for your story. Experience in real-life always puts things in perspective. So many variables play a role in what happens, many of them can’t be controlled, but can be anticipated upon. Like you say, more input means access to more perspectives, and that should influence decision making in a positive way. But success cannot be guaranteed. It never can.

    The story of Ricardo Semler is exactly what you say here. Success stories are subjective and not easily replicated. I’m glad it can’t. If success can be replicated, success loses its value. It becomes a commodity. That’s not realistic.

    But one company is not the other. Positive outcomes are of course not only influences by external factors. That makes participative management still important I believe because it can be influenced from the inside. Realistic or not.

  10. John Tropea said, on October 5, 2009 at 09:19


    thx for your 2 great comments.

    It seems when we put a label on something there’s loads of room for interpretation and ambiguity, but a phrase like ‘getting more input into our decision making process’ is much more precise.

    It seems we are kind of talking about the myth of “best practice”, which I guess is more suitable to a stable/predictable environment, rather than a complex one like you mention above.

    And you talk about the realism of ” local interaction defining a larger scale intention”

    Definitely agree, and glad Snowden makes this clear in one of his KM guiding principles:

    “As far as possible the approach adopted will be to stimulate local activity rather than impose central solutions”

    Arthur says:
    “have a specific purpose, but not a predefined outcome”

    I referenced a post by Venkat on this exact same thing…he experienced traditional KM practitioners incorporating these new tools, but still in the old management style
    Here’s my post (note my thinking has evolved in relation to some parts of this post)

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