Wage Slaves


I recently had the good fortune of meeting Katz Kiely and learning about the Behavioural Enterprise Engagement Platform (BEEP) that she’s building. After that meeting I listened to Katz’s ‘Change for the Better‘ presentation, which provided some inspiring food for thought.

Katz’s point is that so much human potential is locked away by the way we construct organisations and manage people. If we change things to unlock that potential we have a win-win – happier people, and more productive organisations. It’s not hard to see the evidence of this at Netflix, Amazon (especially their Zappos acquisition), Apple etc.

The counter point hit home for me on the way home as I read an Umair Haque post subtitled ‘Slavery, Segregation and Stagnation‘. His observation is that the US economy started based on slavery, then moved to a derivative of slavery, then moved to a slightly different derivative of slavery. Student debt and the (pre existing) conditions associated with health insurance might not be anywhere near as bad as actual slavery, but they’re still artefacts of a systemically coercive relationship between capital and labour. Coercion might have seemed necessary in a world of farm hands and factory workers (though likely it was counterproductive even then), but it’s the wrong way to go in a knowledge economy.

Adrian Cockcroft puts it brilliantly in his response to (banking) CIOs asking where Netflix gets its amazing talent from, “we hired them from you and got out of their way”. He goes on to comment:

An unenlightened high overhead culture will drag down all engineers to a low level, maybe producing a third of what they would do, working on their own.

Steve Jobs similarly said:

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

So the task at hand becomes to build organisations based on empowerment rather than coercion, and that starts with establishing trust (because so many of the things that take power away sprout from a lack of trust).


One Response to “Wage Slaves”

  1. 1 Julian

    Reminds me of an observation from Salmon Khan’s “one world schoolhouse” where he points out that the western education system is based on a Prussian model that was designed in style and substance to produce an obedient but more educated working class who could be more productive, but still responded to hierarchy and demagoguery. One can see how this leads to the type of organisational structure described.

    It’s definitely changed over the last decade from my vantage point. The success of firms that empower employees is a strong evolutionary message; that when not mistranslated into procurement requests for bean bags, can be the basis for positive change.

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