Notes from the post-print transition, 3: can members of a cooperative be ‘more equal’ than others without turning it into Animal Farm?
Generals only ever exist as temps in Switzerland, in the army in which all Swiss men must do a stint of compulsory training and service. As the Wikipedia explains:
General (Gen) – General (Gen); général (gén); general (gen); generale (gen): The rank is only assigned during time of war, when the Federal Assembly chooses one general to command the entire Swiss military. Otherwise the word “general” is not used.
This convention seemed worth drawing attention to after we read late last month, in The New York Times, about research confirming what everyone knows: that while people think equality ideal, they quake at the prospect of dispensing with a hierarchy. They fear that it amounts to inviting in chaos with open arms. This clichéd view of flat organisations — and of cooperatives — will soon look fuddy-duddyish and irrelevant, as young innovators we have mentioned here fashion tools to make collaboration and collective decision-making swifter and less fraught.
The second half of Matthew Hutson’s article – ‘Espousing Equality, but Embracing a Hierarchy’ — showed that other organisers have the same idea as the Swiss military of using transitional hierarchies as means to particular ends.
Increasingly, companies are valuing diverse input and turning to flatter structures. But even companies that supposedly deplore the value of hierarchy have status and power differentials, formally or informally.
The video game company Valve seems like a symbol for the flat organization. Valve posted its handbook for new employees online in 2012. “We don’t have any management, and nobody ‘reports to’ anybody else,” it says. […] Yet Valve has temporary team leaders who help coordinate projects, and employees rank one another when calculating compensation.
The design firm IDEO also aims for flatness but retains an element of verticality. “The idea of a flat hierarchy is a little bit of a myth that we even tell ourselves within IDEO,” Duane Bray, a partner, told me.
For instance, employees progress through four “levels of impact”: At the “individual” level they focus on their core skill set; at the “team” level they start to have responsibility for others; at the “portfolio” level they look at how collections of projects come together; and at the “enterprise” level they connect globally and take all of IDEO into account in their decisions.
Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, has written about the dysfunctions of hierarchy and encourages his M.B.A. students to pursue flatness — but not to its ultimate end. “It’s often useful to have at least one person who serves a role of leader,” he said, “even if that role is more of a coordinating function.”
Making the pigs temporary hierarchs in Animal Farm – to do particular jobs or serve particular functions with an expiration date, then revert to equality — could have dispensed with this objection of T. S. Eliot’s when he, like other top-tier publishers, rejected George Orwell’s manuscript: And that is all we have to say in this entry – using the slow season to experiment with ‘morselizing’ thoughts, research findings and arguments, a neologism apparently invented by a wonderfully named Canadian professor of media studies, Sidneyeve Matrix.
That seems exactly the right prescription for our new attention spans, shorter than the life of a firefly, and our endlessly interrupted reading — about which Tim Parks was recently complaining in The New York Review of Books.