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Democratic principles making businesses more transparent

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2007


When senior managers at Continuum, a design and innovation firm, decided to renovate their quarters in an old shoe factory west of Boston last year, they took what some businesses might consider a radical step: They eliminated most interior barriers, creating a vast open space.

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"We do not have doors," says Freda King, a vice president. "It's structured that way to stimulate conversation and to allow people to work collaboratively. Anyone from the chief operating officer to our interns shares space and sits next to each other. You can stop in and have a conversation with anyone, anytime you want."

That egalitarian environment is one of the innovations that placed Continuum among 34 corporate recipients of a Democracy in the Workplace award this month. The recognition comes from WorldBlu, a Washington, D.C,. business specializing in workplace democracy. The international list features such industries as technology, manufacturing, telecommunications, retail, and media. It even includes a firm in Russia.

"Democratic organizations operate on freedom, not fear," says Traci Fenton, founder and CEO of WorldBlu. "They understand that the future of business is less about titles and more about meaning. They represent the new school of business design."

In hierarchical companies, the phrase "democratic workplace" can be an oxymoron. A top-down management style sometimes leaves workers with little voice or power. But with the growth of technology and the arrival of Generations X and Y in the workplace – a group that expects to be treated with openness – more businesses are reshaping themselves around such democratic principles as decentralization, accountability, and choice.

When the modern corporation began in the 1900s, Ms. Fenton says, it was typically based on a military, command-and-control model that often remains today.

Her own views of democracy underwent a transformation in college. A campuswide conference on the subject broadened her perspective beyond its role in government and politics. A student tour to Indonesia in 1997, when Suharto was in power, gave her a sobering view of what it was like to be in an undemocratic environment.

After graduating, Fenton took a job with a division of a Fortune 500 company in Iowa. "I went to work that day all bright-eyed, ready to give," she says. But she was quickly disillusioned, sensing that she would be told what to do and how to do it. "My potential was not going to be tapped at all," she says.

She left after four months. Later, a two-year stint at the Nasdaq stock market convinced her that technology was creating a new model for business. In 2003, she established WorldBlu.

"The Information Age has brought us into a democratic age, an age of participation and influence," Fenton says. "People have influence because they have information. Because of the Internet, we have the ability to connect with others and engage with others about that information, and to mobilize and act on it."

A backlash against the greed practiced by companies such as Enron and Tyco has also sparked interest in a more participatory workplace, she says.

The need for change becomes apparent in statistics showing that 40 percent of employees say they don't have the decisionmaking authority they need to do their jobs well. And nearly two-thirds believe that decisions in their company are usually not made at the appropriate level, according to Bruce Katcher, author of "30 Reasons Employees Hate Their Managers."

"Employees should be encouraged by senior management to exercise more decisionmaking authority," Mr. Katcher says. He wants workers to feel free to say to their bosses, "Look, I can do that work, you don't need to do it."

Many supervisors don't delegate, he finds, because they cling to a false assumption that they need to amass as much power as possible. "The truth is, the more you empower others, the more power you'll actually have, and the whole organization will be more powerful. There will be more work being done," says Katcher.

Even companies with a top-down structure can improve employee productivity by training managers to delegate, he says.