Participatory and hierarchic governance

We all subordinate ourselves to, and participate in, groups. These may be states or other institutions at various scales: families, workplaces, corporations, education. In the context of a world in which “Absolutely everything is changing all the time,” at a recent Harvard Berkman centre seminar, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, (read his blog) President Emeritus of the IBM Technology Academy and visiting/adjunct professor at MIT and Imperial College, argues, for a mixed mode of social control in which participatory governance models and hierarchical governance models share the challenge of institutional survival in a social darwinian market environment where, “… you make mistakes you die”. The essence of the argument depends on one, metaphorised, aspect of darwinism: sexual reproduction; hierarchical governance can be crossed with participatory governance to yield a more robust hybrid. But, in the end, it appears that participatory modes of governance are only useful insofar as they produce innovation which enables adaptation for domination.

Simultaneously scary, inspiring, useful and banal, this is an excellent example of a totalising hegemonism, which only a representative of the really big and powerful can pull off. As he says, “Once you drink the Kool-Aid you understand this”.

Wladawsky-Berger is introduced as the “chief wise man” responsible for IBM’s embracing of open source software and a participatory governance model of innovation management. He assumes, and imposes, axiomatic agreement on his audience by asserting that: “There is nothing I’m saying you don’t already know.” Even if there is dissent from the argument it should remain within a theoretical paradigm.

He argues that there is “… a global integrated system in which we want to bring together all processes, all information and all people [my emphasis], not just within one enterprise but since an enterprise lives within an industry ecosystem, it is very important that they be linked to suppliers, vendors and everybody else.”

Presented with this, I believe “we” must ask, who do you mean “we”? Is this the “you”, the audience (me?) who have been bundled into agreement with him in the opening moves of the argument? Or are we everybody else?

Wladawsky-Berger’s theory, as presented here, has two axioms. The first could be, arguably, descriptive of a limited part of the world. The second is predictive and contains an imperative to action.

  • The world is global, integrated, market-facing, service-oriented, complex and unpredictable.
  • “It is a very existentialist world.” “The marketplace is brutal.” “You make mistakes you die.” It is a social darwinian world in which competition to control “ecosystems” is the way things are; if asteroids are killing you you must adapt.

Putting aside, for a moment, the very open question of whether the world really is “market facing and service oriented”, for Wladawsky-Berger, “Innovation is the only way to cope with this environment”. “Absolutely everything is changing all the time.” Innovation is what you need to do to survive. Innovation, he says, is essential to four things:

  • adapt to changes
  • go after new opportunities
  • ward off competitors
  • preserve leadership position.

This final point makes his argument problematic. The presumption that there is a teleology to evolution and that it can be directed (managed, controlled) for a particular, value-laden benefit – preservation of leadership position: innovation for domination – misunderstands Darwinism, or reduces it to metaphor. I might accept that innovation enables adaptation. I might also accept that struggle (going after opportunity/prey and warding off competitors) may be a part of an individual’s survival strategy and that individual survival is necessary if one’s genetic material is going to be passed on. But, he is at least conflating the individual with the species and then attaching a value (preservation of leadership position) to individual and species survival. Darwinian evolution is value-free.

The use of evolutionary theory as a metaphor for directed social behaviour, or a justification for domination has been problematic for many years: the British Empire embraced social darwinism as did early twentieth-century eugenicists and the Ku Klux Klan. But, it is not the only problem with this argument. The second is his use of the idea of systems thinking without a qualifier. It sounds as if he wants us to understand systems thinking as open-systems thinking; and, this would tie into the strand of his argument that derives from open-source software community governance as well as a certain, limited, openism which is displayed to IP: patent sharing. But, while he may have expanded the boundaries of his system, this is not the same as open-systems thinking. There are still many externalities, if you will: off balance sheet arguments.

In this world, deterministic models of control, such as might be applied to complex, manufactured, physical systems (e.g. engineering products; aeroplanes are his paradigmatic example), are inappropriate for dealing with “… unpredictable, human organisations.” He argues that, “We [again, who?] are trying to apply systems thinking to organisations where, by definition, the components of these organisations are people performing services for each other… But systems composed of unpredictable parts (people) are, of course, unpredictable.”

His touchstone example is the current blip in global financial systems. This moves him to anchor his argument in a wider discourse, citing the work of Carlota Perez (official website; Wikipedia). Perez (2002) argues that techno-financial cycles follow a pattern:

  • technological revolution
  • financial bubble
  • collapse
  • golden age
  • political unrest (taken from online extracts)

This pattern is caused by three underlying factors (Perez 2002):

  • “technological change occurs by clusters of radical innovations… that modernize the whole productive structure”
  • “functional separation between financial and production capital, each pursuing profits by different means”
  • “the much greater inertia and resistance to change of the socio-institutional framework in comparison with the techno-economic sphere”

And, she suggests that there have been about five of these since the industrial revolution. She is a bit imprecise about the first three. Coal, canals, railways and steel: “…the recurring sequence is hidden under many layers of unique factors, events and circumstances.” But, she is clear that the US stock market crash of 1929 heralded the previous collapse, and she sees the the dot com bubble as the “financial bubble” preceding the current collapse.

She says: “Each technological revolution has led to the massive replacement of one set of technologies by another… Each involved profound changes in people, organizations and skills in a sort of habit breaking hurricane. Each led to an explosive period in the financial markets.”

Each revolution can be characterised by paradigmatization, or what she calls “common sense principles”, its “techno-economic common sense”, its “general logic”, its own “pragmatism” (see also Perez 2004). But, there is no one paradigm. “Each technological revolution is different, each paradigm is unique, each set of solutions needs to be coherent with the problems to overcome and with the logic of the techno-economic paradigm, its opportunities and its best practice.”

So, for Wladawsky-Berger, our techno-economic paradigm is digital: the Turing universal virtual machine economy. “This [global integrated system] is all the digital economy.” He cites the commoditization of digital components, which are permeating every aspect of society. The digital and physical world are merging through, for example, digital modelling and digital instrumentation.

The characteristics of this paradigm: innovation for domination, its “common sense pragmatics”, the corollaries of the innovation for survival theory, if you will, are that:

  • society is open and collaborative
  • business is global and diverse
  • technology is multidisciplinary.

Wladawsky-Berger suggests that business governance, in the past, was not subject to innovation, but that today the bulk of innovation is process, not product: culture innovation, policy innovation, and probably most importantly, “how to make money.” His question is, how can we apply innovation-based thinking to governance? But, there is an error. Governance has always been subject to innovation. Henry Ford was a great innovator of industry governance. The history of the oil industry is the history of – to say the least – innovative business governance. The bureaucratic revolution enabled by the mass production revolution was, as made famous by F. W. Taylor (1911), a revolution in governance as much as production. It is not as if governance was once “just something that happened” and now can be subjected to the common sense pragmatics of innovation for domination. Governance and domination have always be associated.

Every two years IBM surveys the chief executive officers (CEOs) of many organisations through their Global CEO study. The recent (2006) study asked CEOs, where was the source of new ideas in their organisations? Externally they replied, business partners and customers; internally: employees. So doesn’t this beg you to ask what is the CEO (and the CEO’s salary) for?

In the past innovation was the role of laboratories. But labs invent stuff and innovation is not about stuff anymore. Innovation is necessary for “fulfilling people’s desires so they pay you money so you can sell them anything.” Wladawsky-Berger’s hand is tipping. “Innovation is about fulfilling peoples desires so they will buy what you are offering… It is Freud’s question: what do people really want.” He sees social networks as a mine of innovative ideas: “reaching out to people as communities and get information and knowledge from them; get blogs from them, get wikis from them: lots of ways of extracting knowledge and insight from them. We reach out and see what you can learn from them.” We and you and them again: “If you want to be successful in the marketplace you need to reach into those sources of knowledge and see how you can tap them… You try to tap them in the most social networking way possible.”

To me this all seems one way: “you” i.e. the co-opted “we” of the hegemony takes knowledge from “them”, and uses it to maintain leadership position. IBM only gives when it is to their advantage. Patents and IP, it is suggested, can be not only proprietary but enabling. Sharing IP “protects your ecosystem… and attracts people to be a part of your ecosystem.” But, like the “we” above, whose is “your ecosystem”? Is he using “you” as the impersonal pronoun: “one”? But, which “one”? The royal “one”? The ones like us: IBM? Is he really addressing the audience directly: you are we are one on this?

So, what, in the end does this have to do with governance, really?

Only late in his argument does he bring in hierarchism and contrast it with participatory models. He describes three models of governance:

  • hierarchic: top down
  • distributed: bottom up
  • balanced.

Open source communities share code to facilitate collaboration and improve software. Open source software is better because everyone sees what you do so you do it well, document it and continually improve it. Proprietary systems: closed source, does not subject itself to public scrutiny and is poorer for it. So to get the best software use open source communities.

IBM’s advantage is no longer in the stuff of software, but in the protection of their ecosystem. He describes the governance of open source communities as “participatory”. The problem is “who is going to get them organised? Who is going to get things done?” He observes that participatory does not mean egalitarian in the Linux community. The “committers” are the management team. “There has to be a group of maintainers who take things from the community and do things with it.”

When it comes to investment, also, hierarchy trumps participation. $100M comes from the top. The top is to do with control of the money. “You need somebody who can write a $100M cheque. The job of bottoms up is to generate ideas and when the ideas are in a certain shape they meet the management team and the hierarchs have to select them and fund them and get them out there.

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