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

Empowerment, a management fad?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on April 19, 2010

A term that is used in many circumstances, is empowerment. It is used on so many occasions (both verbally and in written text), that I feel that it is misused more often than that it is used correctly. Or is it just a management fad, like BPR or TQM?

Empowerment refers to increasing the spiritual, political, social or economic strength of individuals and communities. It often involves the empowered developing confidence in their own capacities. […] Empowerment is the process that allows one to gain the knowledge, skill-sets and attitude needed to cope with the changing world and the circumstances in which one lives.

Ok, that’s what Wikipedia reads. The post of Mike Griffiths recently triggered (or empowered?) me to rethink empowerment. I can recall some papers I’ve read some years ago at the university about the subject. I also remember the debate it triggered there, because it can be interpreted in so many ways.¬†Empowerment can refer to both individuals and communities. It refers to empowering a person or the collective. How does this work? Some questions come to mind here:

  • Is empowerment something that benefits only people without any power?
  • Who is powerful enough to empower others?
  • Who knows what is needed to empower someone? (perhaps only the unempowered)
  • Who or what benefits from empowerment?
  • Why is the term interpreted in so many ways?
  • Is empowerment of an individual or group a prerequisite for self-organization?

Without answering these questions immediately, I’d like to look at some real world examples where I think that empowerment is taking place. These places have some things in common. These places generally have a leader that leads the company quite different that the common leadership practices. They are not alone and unattainable¬†at the top of the pyramid, they make sure that employees are involved not only in their own tasks and responsibilities, they know what their clients want and make sure that their employees know as well. These and some other characteristics are practices by only a few leaders, leaders that dare to make extraordinary decisions, that give control to their employees. Companies that have some similarities with these characteristics are Zappos and Semco, for example. These are companies that make quite ordinary products, have great results, but run their companies not like their competitors do. I’d like to call these companies examples of the real empowering companies. You just feel that you would like to work for them. That makes a company a great company, if you ask me.

To come back to some of the questions I posed earlier in this post, for example the question ‘Why is the term interpreted in so many ways?‘, I can say it depends heavily on who used the term. It can be the manager that tries to make others only work harder instead of really making them really more responsible for what they do, or it can be the employee that feels like not having enough resources or information he or she needs, or to feel more involved. If empowerment is a management fad, is hard to answer. I think it can easily be or become a management fad, but some core-principles that can be attributed to empowerment are really valuable and here to stay. These are universal, humane and part of the science of empowerment.

Another question I asked in this post is ‘Is empowerment of an individual or group a prerequisite for self-organization?‘. Perhaps it is. Empowered employees are able to manage themselves, both individually or in a collective. Maybe it is self-management, however, I prefer to make use of self-organization, for obvious reasons. In the problem statement I stated some time ago, I made an assumption by stating ‘how to […] empower employees for self-organization?‘. It seems this assumption still stands for me. To be continued…

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.