January 21, 2013
Enabling Democracy and WSDEs with Technology

“In the 21st century, you’d think that we would have…” Fill-in-the-blank – Flying cars, whole meals in tiny capsules, equality, peace on Earth, time travel, BCS playoffs. You know – the kinds of ideas we envision when we talk about the future. Wishful thinking helps us aspire for a brighter future for the planet and all those living on it. And yet, in a world with unprecedented mobile and digital social connectivity, it’s shocking that we don’t talk more often about using technology to bring democracy into the 21st century.

Technology can enable democracy in ways never before possible, allowing us to overcome familiar, centuries-old challenges. You know these challenges. We create these communities where people are supposed to act and provide feedback, but they aren’t informed on the issues or they don’t participate thanks to lack of information, incentive, logistics, or resources. The challenge only grows when there’s a dearth of leadership and a broader spread of issues.  All too often those with wealth, power, or simply a loud voice drown out those who should be heard – stockholders get the most attention out of the stakeholders, so to speak. It’s a familiar story for democracy, and it’s one that resonates across our country from the work place to the highest levels of our government and those around the globe.

Democracy At Work promotes the concept of the Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprise (WSDE). When every single employee of a WSDE is a member of its board of directors, a true workplace democracy is born. Like other types of democracies, though, WSDEs will need to utilize technology to succeed in understanding the voice of the workers, especially on larger scales, in order to grow, expand, and gain success in the 21st century. It’s all about the workers’ voice in a workplace democracy and so effective technology must be in place to collect and understand it in a way that matters.

In today’s social technology world, people are emotionally comforted by connecting online, at the office, or around the dinner table. But are these messages making their way to the decision-makers? Or do these sentiments simply get lost in all the noise? Facebook, Twitter, the comments section on the bottom of news sites – all great technology, but not designed intentionally for democracy. WSDEs face a similar challenge for realistic execution, especially on a large scale.

WSDEs allow workers to know, process, and make decisions based upon shared company knowledge for a more representative and satisfied workplace. Imagine how the work environment evolves when a company is operating as a democracy and the worker-owners can engage in democratic decision-making. How would you change the company? Under a WSDE worker charter, leadership may be required to bring certain issues to a vote. In other cases, just getting feedback from every single employee might be required or part of the culture for operating the business. But how do you manage such democratic decision-making? Technology.

The scope of decision-making in a WSDE is limitless with technology. A new production machine is positively impacting overall profits. Should wages go up? Should hours go down? The WSDE is re-negotiating a health insurance plan. What is the most important priority for workers? Network coverage? Deductibles? Services? You have an idea for a new policy for rotational roles and responsibilities to keep things fresh and interesting. Will others support you? How do you make all this happen across hundreds or even thousands of people? Technology.

Theoretical democracy isn’t just one person, one vote; it’s making sure each person has input into the decisions that govern or manage them on a regular basis. Whether it’s leading a simple vote, gathering feedback, or driving organic change, managing the logistics is both a requirement and a challenge for a WSDE (or any democracy for that matter), especially larger ones. But humans did manage to put a robot on Mars, so we must have some technology we can utilize to make this an efficient, effective, and realistic process.

Modern innovations provide many untapped opportunities for managing and implementing a democracy, especially when it comes to informed involvement, feedback, and decision-making. Importantly, technology can serve to address basic pre-requisites of a strong democracy: 1) an engaged participant, 2) an ideally informed participant, and 3) a way to manage the logistics of both for democratic decision-making. These are root challenges to any democracy including WSDEs, but they can be addressed. 21st century technology provides a greater capacity for enabling workplace democracy and general democratic principles than at any other time in our history. With the right systemic innovation, we can overcome these obstacles.

What might such innovation look like? Imagine a world where you vote or give feedback to the leaders in your life – your WSDE, government, union, professional association, or any other membership organization you’re in – with the tap of a finger on your smart phone. You can learn more about the issue at hand, raise common concerns, see how friends or colleagues are voting on the same question, add comments to your tapped response, share with social networks, and even receive rewards for participation. Group leaders can receive comprehensive response reports, maximize direct engagement, and even have their members tap to send feedback to their elected representatives instead. This example illustrates how, with technology like an app, it’s possible to remove the obstacles we’ve been raised to believe are immovable, and, in doing so, enable unprecedented social change. Fortunately, this isn’t just an example and we are currently working to bring it to life.

This is our moment and this is our time. Regardless of how technology is used exactly, it will play a critical role in either delivering or eliminating true democracy of all types and sizes as we move forward. As such, it is critical to the workplace democracy movement. We can’t ignore the opportunity we have with today’s technology to enable stronger democracy. It’s up to us to shepherd it into the future. It’s up to us to bring democracy into the 21st century.