ADLER typewriter Model n°7 (Frankfurt / Germany). Unknown model date (probably ~1930/40). By Dake

Workplace Democracy, Participation and Power

Forrest ChristianChange, Reviews - Books, Wilfred Brown Leave a Comment

From Organizational Participation: Myth and Reality by Frank Heller, Eugen Pusicć, George Strauss, and Bernhard Wilpert. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 294 pp.

These experts (Heller is from Tavistock) have a brief mention of Wilfred Brown’s participative management at Glacier Metal Company.

In some individual cases the transition from autocracy to a variety of organizational forms where influence is more widely distributed can be achieved by deliberate intra-organizational processes, as for instance in the formation of the Scott Bader Commonwealth (Hoe 1978) or the democratization of the Glacier Metal Company (Jaques 1951; Wilfred Brown 1960). In the case of Scott Bader, the founder of the business was a devout Christian who, after a prolonged strike of his workforce. came to the conclusion that he no longer wished to be the sole owner. In the Commonwealth he created, every employee became formally a part owner and two potentially participative decision-making councils were set up. The Managing Director of the Glacier Metal Company, Wilfred Brown, was a very unusual person. He combined intellectual and socio-political interests (he was for a time a Minister in the British Labour Government with a very sympathetic attitude to social science which led him to engage a psychoanalytically oriented consultant, Elliot [sic] Jaques from the Tavistock Institute in London, to help introduce a participative-humanistic organization (Jaques 1951).

These two well documented cases, while not unique, are examples of substantial structural and to a lesser extent behavioural changes consequent on a policy decision by a Chief Executive Officer (CEO). In both cases the CEO stayed on the scene for sufficiently long to consolidate the structural changes and in both cases these changes survived the death of the founder for a number of years. [145-6]

I hear a lot of people pooh-pooh the importance of “leadership” in the CEO role (whatever that means). Myself being a grand pooh-pooh-bah on this. Companies don’t need great leaders, the thinking goes, because look at these democratic companies.

I still think that’s partly true, but over the last couple of years I’ve begun to see more clearly the importance of power. In the above cases, both Bader and Brown stayed with the newly participative company “for sufficiently long to consolidate the structural changes”. Alistair Mant told me once that the reason Wilfred Brown was so successful was that “he understood power”, and it was something that Elliott Jaques simply ignored. Brown’s ideas are more complex and less systematic, less elegant, because he was actually running a company and engineering always diverges from science, so to speak.

I am also reminded of the enormous power of George Washington, America’s first president. After he led the Americans to victory over Britain in our war for independence, Washington could have simple become Dictator For Life and no one would have thought anything of it. He had that type of power. But he chose a different way.

I think that there is something to these frankly strange men who have a keen understanding and appreciation of power. Brown certainly accumulated it in canny ways. Washington pursued it relentlessly and then gave it up with as much zeal.

If you want to free people from bondage, whatever that bondage is, you need to familiarize yourself with power.

A review of Organizational Participation: Myth and Reality is available from Administrative Science Quarterly, March, 2002 by Raymond Russell.

The full book is available on Questia if you are a subscriber.

Featured image of ADLER typewriter by Dake. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *