The historically hierarchical world of business has not been quick to bring democracy inside its corporations and companies, in spite of all that has been said about “open communications.” Now technology is changing all that. As companies strive to gather data from throughout their organizations and send information back right to those who need it—at all levels—a degree of democratization is the inevitable by-product. It cannot be stopped.
“This year’s focus is really on democratizing planning by making optimization tools easier to use and more accessible throughout the enterprise, enabling customers (fleets) to become true ‘learning enterprises,’” Newth Morris, Telogis founder and president, Telogis Route and Navigation, told attendees at the company’s annual user group meeting. His vision of the role technology can play in creating vibrant, always improving organizations is absolutely infectious.
Morris is not the first person to envision businesses made better by communication technologies that welcome everyone into the information pool, either.
Even before technology became the shortcut to more democratic businesses, companies were looking for ways to capture untapped intellectual resources within their organizations. Back in 1990, for example, the Harvard Business Review published an article titled “Democracy is Inevitable.” The authors observed that “there are signs that our business community is becoming aware of democracy’s efficiency. Several of the newest and most rapidly blooming companies in the United States boast unusually democratic organizations. Even more surprising, some of the largest established corporations have been moving steadily, if accidentally, toward democratization.”
But it was not all roses, of course. Is it ever? By the end of the decade, worries were beginning to surface about the unintended consequences of so much information sharing. For example, The Economist published a special report in the fall of 2009 called “Power to the people? Managing technology democracy in the workplace.” While the report devoted pages to the simpler issues of employees using technology for personal purposes, it offered more worrisome cautionary notes about security and “a descent into [organizational] chaos.”
Six years on, the discussion about technology and democracy in the workplace continues, soaring hopefully up to utopian heights and diving into black pools of doubt, depending upon where you happen to look. About the time Newth Morris was singing the praises of technology, author Neil Kokemuller was penning an article called “The Disadvantages of Workplace Democracy for Demand Media.” He observed that “by giving employees a strong voice, you may risk taking decisions out of the hands of those that are most qualified. Plus, employees may abuse their democratic voice and align against the influence of management and create a virtual mutiny.” You get the picture.
Today, companies (and countries) are reminded everyday of both the enormous benefits and the terrible problems that access to powerful information-sharing technologies has created. Until the day that every new system comes with a Moral Compass app, however, the responsibility to make right choices, to manage well, and to do good remains where it has always been—with humans.
Wendy Leavitt is Fleet Owner’ s director of editorial development. She can be reached at [email protected].