Wilfred Brown on Democratic Society

E. Forrest Christian Theory, Wilfred Brown Leave a Comment

Wilfred Banks Duncan Brown (Lord Brown)

Wilfred Brown’s structures for a decent work organization led to the speculations that I’m making this week. However, reading him again over the last two days, I’m not sure that these points are actually in his work. They are perhaps my own interpretations being read in.

Brown believed in Workplace Democracy. This wasn’t the simplistic ideas of others that you have heard before, because Brown wasn’t a simplistic man. He wasn’t an academic but a CEO tasked with building a profitable multi-national business who cared deeply about democratic principles and fairness. Brown advocated trio of structures within a organization to obtain the best results. The Executive structure would be organized pretty closely to what Jaques outlines inRequisite Organization. This management structure would have full management responsibility and authority. While controversial, nothing surprising here. It was in the other two elements that Brown changed Glacier.
The Representative structure (sometimes called “legislative”) was manifest in the Works Council consists of elected representatives from all groups in the organization, at every level. This includes management. The Works Council debated issues of policy, not management. Early on Brown used the Works Council to make management decisions. His opinion was that it was stupid (because he, as Managing Director / CEO, had the final accountability) and they had little interest in them. But they were interested in policy. What made up Policy vs. Management Decisions was a matter of long struggle, and probably changed with circumstances.

They did not vote out managers. The rights of refusal and dismissal of subordinates is reserved to individual managers and their managers.

The “vote” of these representatives was really a Veto vote. Any single representative could veto a change in policy, resulting in the current policy remaining in effect, much like the United Nations’ Security Council.

The Appeals process allowed a subordinate to challenge the decisions of his manager. I think that the appeals process underwent several changes over time, but it generally worked to defuse bad feelings about managerial actions. Brown notes that instead of the dismissal of a single worker leading to a strike, it could be handled within this process. Sometimes the appeal went the way of the manager; sometimes it did not.

So what does this have to do with democracy and churches?

Good question.

Brown actually doesn’t talk too much about civil society in his works, although Alistair Mant assures us that he was always very interested.

Right from the start, Brown was determined that the principles of social justice should determine the managerial leadership of the firm. Brown was a passionate believer in democracy in general (hence his interest in the Commonwealth Party) and in “industrial democracy” in particular. He believed passionately that people at work had exactly the same need for political representation of their interests as employees as they did in their role as citizens in the body politic.

The tie, for me, came in what seemed obvious to me: Brown’s model is a Presbyterian model of business. By that I mean that it mirrors many of the checks and balances that the Scottish church developed. Brown himself would be most likely appalled: from what I can gather, he was perhaps a Unitarian or Universalist, if in any way affiliated with organized religion. I’m not arguing that he was a Presbyterian but that, being a Scot, he was raised in a milieu where these ideas were common parlance. The Scottish church, perhaps because they had seen what happens when unchecked churchmen become the Great Leader (e.g., Mr. Cromwell), had developed a sense that rights and checks needed to be written, put into a constitution. The English had a similar ethic, and its from them that the Scots get the idea, but it was in the North that it married with a deep suspicion of leaders.

Mant also believes that the fact that Brown was a Scot (and Jaques a Canadian) played an important part, including the Constitutionalist part:

In the post-War years, wherever American thinking about management led England meekly followed. When parts of American academia turned against the Glacier/Tavistock view of reality, most of the English management movement followed suit. You go to England for eloquent charm (bullshit, if you insist) but you go to Scotland for strict role clarity and precise accountability. (In Scotland they say: the only time you need an agreement is when there’s a disagreement! – or, in other words, get it in writing – what the English might regard as “red tape”). It was Jaques’ great good fortune to observe that kind of uncompromising Scottish leader at work in Glacier. Brown understood the importance of formal arrangements – something the “human relations” and “group relations” schools were retreating from at the time. In the course of time, Jaques became a constitutionalist too, just like the managing director. Jaques had had a deep education but it wasn’t broad. Brown, who never went to university at all, taught Jaques history.

Let’s look at what that Scottish Presbyterian contribution was tomorrow.

Quotations from Mant, Alistair. 2005. “Elliott Jaques and Wilfred Brown: An appreciation of a remarkable partnership”. InReadings in Global Organization Design:
2005 Conference Proceedings
. Toronto, ON: GO Society.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

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    Alistair Mant has let me know that, in his opinion, the issue of workplace democracy, with all its messiness and dissension, “for WB was the heart and soul”, even in his later years. This would seem to contradict what Jaques told Bruce Hearn Mackinnon, that

    The experiences at Glacier and elsewhere have shown that if you’ve got a requisite organization with an appropriate accountability hierarchy, worker representation is not necessary. We found at Glacier that there was always agreement on issues, so that after a while it became a pointless exercise.

    I think “we” is used in the royal sense here, rather than in referring to both he and Brown, because it also did not seem to be Brown’s opinion in his writing. He certainly had the opportunity to remove Representation from his later works, which he didn’t. If someone knows something that I don’t, let me know.

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