Towards Collaborative Community

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Essay: Paul S. Adler and Charles Heckscher. Towards Collaborative Community / (Book: The Corporation as a Collaborative Community)



This is an absolutely remarkable essay that charts the history of community within the capitalist form, from the earliest community oriented paternalism (the 'Gemeinschaft' model described by Tonnies), to the bureaucratic ('Gesellschaft') model described by Weber and Durkheim, culminating in the emergence of collaborative Community, existing in tension and contradiction within the hierarchical and market environment of for-profit companies.


The zig zag path of development

Paul S. Adler and Charles Heckscher:

(pp. 59-60)

Researchers who have studied the evolution of the popularity of various management techniques in management journals have consistently identified periods that alternate between a focus on employee commitment and a focus on managerial control:

  1. Commitment, 1870s–1890s: welfare work.
  2. Control, 1890s–1910s: scientific management.
  3. Commitment, 1920–1940s: human relations.
  4. Control, 1940s–1960s: systems rationalization.
  5. Commitment, 1970–1990: employee involvement.
  6. Control, 1990– : business process re-engineering and outsourcing.

The surface pattern is one of alternation; but closer examination reveals an underlying progression. Starting from a situation of ‘competitive capitalism’ and ‘simple control,’96 the sequence of commitment approaches aims successively deeper; the sequence of control approaches aims successively broader; and the latter have become increasingly hospitable to the former. First, relative to the commitment approaches, there is a clear shift from the earlier reliance on paternalism, to relatively impersonal, bureaucratic norms of procedural justice, to an emphasis on empowerment and mutual commitment, targeting progressively deeper forms of subjective involvement of the individual worker. And this sequence engaged progressively deeper layers of work organization: welfare work did not seek to modify the core of work organization; human relations addressed mainly supervision; employee involvement brought concern for commitment into the heart of work organization.

Second, the sequence of control innovations—from scientific management to systems rationalism to re-engineering—aims at successively broader spans of the value chain. Scientific management focuses on tasks and the flow of materials in the workshop. Systems rationalism aimed at a more comprehensive optimization of production and distribution activities. Re-engineering and outsourcing aimed at the rationalization of flows across as well as within firms.

Third, the relation between the commitment and control approaches seems to have changed: the control approaches seem to have become increasingly hospitable to commitment. Within two or three years of publishing a text popularizing a rather brutally coercive method of business process re-engineering, both James Champy and Michael Hammer published new volumes stressing the importance of the human factor and the need for job redesigns that afford employees greater autonomy. The undeniably autocratic character of much early re-engineering rhetoric and its rapid ‘softening’ compares favorably with more unilateral and enduring forms of domination expressed in post-war systems rationalism. It compares even more favorably with the even more unilateral and rigid rhetoric in turn-of-the-century scientific management: scientific management only softened its relations with organized labor after nearly two decades of confrontation.

The zigzag path of development in management technique appears to trace a vector that corresponds well to Marx’s notion of ‘socialization’: conscious control, and in particular in the form of collaborative community, characterizes progressively broader spans of activity."

Three Types of Community

Paul S. Adler and Charles Heckscher:

Three organizing principles and three forms of community:

"Abstractly speaking, we can identify three primary principles of social organization. Hierarchy uses authority to create and coordinate a horizontal and vertical division of labor—a bureaucracy in Weber’s ideal-type form. Market relies on the price mechanism to coordinate competing and anonymous suppliers and buyers. Community relies on shared values and norms.

Real collectivities embody variable mixes of these principles.

Moreover, real collectivities may best be mapped using the principles as three orthogonal dimensions rather than as three apexes of a two-dimensional triangle:

the fact that oneprinciple is a powerful factor shaping a particular collectivity does not preclude one or both of the other principles fromalso being powerful factors. However neither hierarchy nor market can actually function without at least some underpinning of community. Neither can function without a stable set of expectations shared by its members—that, for example, contracts will be honored and doing one’s duties will be rewarded. The form of community differs depending on its relation to the other two principles of social organization. When the dominant principle of social organization is hierarchy, community takes the form of Gemeinschaft. When the dominant principle shifts to market, community mutates from Gemeinschaft into Gesellschaft.We postulate that when community itself becomes the dominant organizing principle, it will take a form quite different from either Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft. Aspects of this new form of community can be discerned in the organization of science and the professions. Today, we argue, this new form is also emerging in the heart of the corporate realm.

To summarize the argument below, we can contrast the new form of community with the two earlier ones on three fundamental dimensions:

1. Values: Community is first a set of value orientations shared (more or less) by all members of a group. Everyone can assume that the others will orient to those values and can therefore predict their actions and responses. This forms the basis for trust among individuals and order in social interaction. Collaborative community is distinctive in its reliance on value-rationality—participants coordinate their activity through their commitment to common, ultimate goals. Its highest value is interdependent contribution, as distinct from loyalty or individual integrity.

2. Organization: Community is also a social structure, specifying the boundaries of reference groups, the appropriate forms of authority, and the division of labor. Collaborative community is distinctive in social structures that support interdependent process management through formal and informal social structures.

3. Identify: Community cannot be effective as an organizing principle if it is merely an external constraint on people or a socially sanctioned set of values: it must become internalized in personalities and motivational systems. Collaborative community is distinctive especially in its reliance on interactive social character and interdependent selfconstruals: rather than orienting to a single source of morality and authority, the personality must reconcile multiple conflicting identities and construct a sense of wholeness from competing attachments and interactions."

Gemeinschaft: traditional community

"In its traditional (Gemeinschaft) form, community itself had a sacred quality. As To¨nnies (1887) argued, Gemeinschaft had a hierarchical structure, in which individuals and subunits are related in clear chains of subordination to the superordinate leader whose authority derives from tradition or charisma (per Weber). The core values are therefore those of loyalty and deference.

In such a social structure, horizontal relations, such as the relations of husband and wife, of doctor and patient, even of merchant and client, are defined indirectly, in terms of status obligations and their ‘fit’ within the larger system rather than through direct interaction or negotiation. In effect, the proper relationship between two parties can be read directly from their respective social roles. Challenges to status or violations of obligations of deference are a deeply feared threat to order. Those who are honorable, in other words, are trustworthy. A large system of sanctions, especially the force of reputation in the community, centers on the performance of these obligations.

This form of community is necessarily closed and particularistic, and this closure is reflected in the nature of social identities. Identities under Gemeinschaft typically trace a sharp differentiation between insiders and outsiders. They are conformist, because conformity defines insider status. They have hierarchy built in. Friendships and romantic relationships do exist in traditional societies, but if they cross the boundaries of the status system they are seen as grave threats to order.

Clearly such a form of community leaves little room for modern markets, let alone systematic innovation. Under Gemeinschaft conditions, these processes must be organized informally and in the interstices of the system."


"The development of individualism was an upheaval that shook apart the traditional order. It ‘took degree away,’ freeing people from the strictures of status and therefore destroying the basis of trust in the status order. In its place it put as the basis of trust the integrity of the individual; trust became based on the consistency—generally the rational consistency—of action. It led to the necessity of forming an independently coherent sense of the self, distinct from social roles and institutions.

One core insight in both Weber and Durkheim is that the move to individualism did not mean the elimination of the shared moral beliefs, or even a relaxation of them. It involved rather the development of a new content to the moral order. Both associated this change with Protestantism, which created a moral imperative for individualism. Both stressed that individualism in this sense was not a matter of the expression of an essential ‘human nature,’ but quite the contrary, a socially determined obligation which created heavy burdens on personality: an obligation to be rational, self-interested, and consistent. It is in this sense that Gesellschaft is not the negation of community but a form of it. The individualism in Protestantism produced enormous pressures for the rationalization of motivation and the acceptance of individual responsibility, and (as Durkheim noted) the overload could easily lead to pathologies such as suicide. On the one hand, this value system—of which Protestantism is only one manifestation—supported and framed a market economy by freeing action from the constraints of status and by requiring a consistent moral person who can be responsible for promises and contracts.14 On the other hand, the second insight we take from Durkheim and Weber, as well as from Marx and other critics of modernity, is that this modern value is inherently incomplete and contradictory because it disconnects values from relationships. It breaks the communal ties of traditional society by separating people from each other. It does not provide a framework for lateral relationships of colleagueship and collaboration; indeed, it radically separates individuals from each other and connects them (in the Protestant version) directly to God or (in secular versions) to their own private grounding of values. Values aside from individualism itself thus become personal and private rather than ways of connecting to others. Gesellschaft is thus inevitably associated with subjective alienation. The communal dimension cannot be removed from human relationships without a loss of sense of self and of meaning. It is not surprising, then, that traditional community has continued to flourish in the interstices of the larger, cooler set of Gesellschaft associations, nor surprising that the two remain in tension. National and local communities draw people together, but they also limit the scope of markets and are essentially contradictory to the ethic of individualism.

The main solution in modern times has been to wall off community, especially the family, in a ‘private’ sphere, where it can provide comfort and solidarity without threatening the larger system.15 But this way of dealing with social interaction—through the separation of public from private and the reliance on informal links for community—is adequate only when the density of interaction is low enough that people can distinguish a large realm in which their actions do not affect others, and when there is no need for intensive collaboration. As these conditions change—as the intensity of interdependence and the needs for collaborative effort increase—the separation breaks down. Then there is a need for a socially ordered form of lateral, cooperative relationships. That change has been visible both at the societal level and within the economic sphere."

Collaborative Community

"Neither the traditional nor modern forms of community are adequate for groups that seek high levels of adaptiveness and complex interdependence. In such situations trust is particularly important, because people depend a great deal on others whose skills and expertise they cannot check; autonomy and ‘rugged individualism’ give way to an increasingly dense web of interdependence, and there is a growing need for stable cooperative relations among highly differentiated actors. But in such situations trust is also particularly difficult to achieve, because it can no longer be based on tradition or on personal acquaintance and experience. 16 We believe that close scrutiny of contemporary firms reveals the emergence of a new type of community that can square this circle. Collaborative community forms when people work together to create shared value. This increasingly characterizes societies in which the generation of knowledge, often involving many specialists, has become central to economic production. In this it is fundamentally unlike the two forms we have described above: the traditional, where values are assumed to be eternally embodied in the existing community, without the need for shared ‘work’ to achieve them; and the modern, where values are removed from the public realm and left to individuals, with community being merely a place where individuals can pursue their own ends by participating in a shared game. In a collaborative community, values are not individual beliefs, but the object of shared activity; they have to be discussed and understood in similar ways by everyone. The basis of trust is the degree to which members of the community believe that others have contributions to make towards this shared creation.17 Adler’s chapter invokes this idea under the label ‘object’: a collaborative community emerges when a collectivity engages cooperative, interdependent activity towards a common object.

The institutions of collaborative community are centered on defining the core purposes and regulating interactions so that the right people can contribute at the right time to advance the process of value-creation. In a dynamic environment purpose must be distinguished from eternal ‘values,’ which are timeless statements of what the group is. Purpose is a relatively pragmatic view of what the group is trying to achieve, given the environmental challenges, in the foreseeable future. Agreement on purpose or strategy is crucial: members of the community need to both understand it in depth and be committed to its achievement. This means that rather than being left to a small cadre of leaders, the purpose must become a matter for widespread discussion. One can see this result clearly in corporations: in the last few decades strategy has often moved from a confidential preserve of top management to a key desideratum for all employees.

When value and purpose are discussed, they may also be contested. This is possibly the most difficult aspect of the difficult move to collaboration: finding ways to debate core orientations while still working together. Whereas in the Gesellschaft community working together is a more or less accidental by-product of an interplay of individual interests— coordination achieved by an invisible hand of the market or by a nexus of employment contracts—in the collaborative community it involves a deliberate and deliberated commitment to shared ends. But deliberation at this level is hard to manage. Even in voluntary organizations, it can easily slide into polarization or factionalism which shuts off discussion.

Moreover, in the capitalist firm, there are deep structural challenges to collaborative community. First, the power asymmetry between managers and employees generates anxiety, deference, and resentment. Second, the external goals of the firm are deeply contradictory—to produce useful products and services (‘use-value’ in the parlance of classical political economy) and to create monetary profit (‘exchange-value’). In capitalist firms, collective purpose is therefore contradictory in its very nature. Nevertheless, there has been a slow elaboration of mechanisms for

deliberation—forums in which employees are invited to ‘push back’ against their superiors, and where the contradictory nature of the firms’ goals is acknowledged and confronted."

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