Monday, 4 October 2010

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 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.


  1. Great blog, if you could send me your notes from the presentation. I'd really appreciatie it.

  2. Interesting stuff. It's good to see co-operatives developing their own, disinctitive, management practices.

    It sounds a bit like something I came across at Uni, 'Complex Adaptive Systems', where the autonomy of the elements is taken into account to a greater extent and complicated plans are seen as stifilng creativity and adaptive ability. CAS is perhaps part-way between the systems thinking you oppose and the process thinking suggested by Stacey.

    Is there anywhere I can read more about the ideas in Stacey's work? I am not a member of a worker co-op, so the stuff about applying it is interesting, but not directly relavent to me.

    Here's the address of the Uni course if you're curious

  3. hi paul, yes you are right that CAS is part way to process thinking. But 'process' thinking is normally used to mean business processes in e.g. business process re-engineering systems management, which is very different from stacey's complex responsive processes of relating in networks.

    try amazon and abebooks. stacey's big book is a good tough read and the later one's are more accessible. ralph d stacey has a good presence on google thesedays too.

    good luck


  4. Hi Bob
    Good to see you at Co-op Futures. Just found some time for reading - for a change - and since we (Somerset Co-operative Services) have a strategy meeting coming up, I thought I'd revisit your systems prison paper.
    It really makes sense to me - I've always noticed the reality gap between doing a SWOT or PESTLE and what comes next. I was fine up to the table where you compare different systems based techniques but that was a bit too academic for me! And I really lost it when I got to naked JEDI management...!
    ok geddit now 'just effing do it' ha ha.
    I'm trying to come up with some ideas for our strategy day. SCS is a small co-operative development co-op, 4 members, working from home, only meet f2f every other month. I guess we need to be thinking about our conversations, how we can build a congenial space to hold them (I guess that's online as we ll as f2f?). But what are th other key points that will help us to build a financially sustainable co-operative business?

  5. Hi Kate,
    The key to stacey's ideas of what makes an effective manager is very simple.

    An effective manager encourages conversation between workers and tries to move conversation on when it gets stuck in repetition or breaks down into opposing ideologies.

    People working in their business know what they need to do if they are conversing widely with peers, customers, suppliers and in general. We don't normally make room for conversation except in annual awaydays (which are often cited as the best days of the working year by participants) so make 'conference coffee breaks' (the best bits of conferences) a normal part of everyday working.

    It sounds easy but it isnt when you try to do it. Let me know how you get on. I need to know how to do it as well.



  6. Was reading a book review and thought of this blog post.

    Richard Sennett. Together: The Rituals Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. Yale University Press, 2012.

    "Divided into three parts, the book addresses the nature of cooperation, why it has become weak, and how it could be strengthened. The author warns that we must learn the craft of cooperation if we are to make our complex society prosper, yet he reassures us that we can do this, for the capacity for cooperation is embedded in human nature. "

  7. Ran into this article which quotes sections from your 'introduction'

    Organizing P2P organizations
    April 7, 2011 — Poor Richard