(Not Necessarily) Talking ’Bout a Revolution

[adapted from an email exchange with Axel at SMLXL]

It’s funny how bottom-up, transformative organisational change is usually portrayed as a gung-ho, networked culture youth thing…

When I worked for (as it then was) Yamatake-Honeywell in Tokyo, we used to go out to places like the Nissan car factories, where the kaizen quality control systems were entirely bottom up — individual guys on the line had almost complete freedom to find ways of improving process, and the organisation had very well organised systems and communities in the corporate hierarchy to make sure that those tweaks and improvements got picked up, assessed and incorporated. But there was no cultural change as a result — the insight of bottom-up improvement had been built-in into the most rigid corporate/cultural hierarchies in the world. The workers on the line were empowered only in that one, specific, process-improvement area. You might think that the same communities of practice would scaffold the collective action of, say, all the welders, who would then get together and form some kind of craft guild->union/mass action structure. But it doesn’t (seem to, I might be wrong!) happen like that in Japan — union activity seems driven from hard-left radicals, rather than bubbling up (like process improvements) from the shop floor…

So I think it’s a mistake to see the bottom-up thing as self-evidently the start of a great wave — it may well be contained within a particular area of activity within a business: which is actually, when I think about it, the cause of my reservations about ‘the IT guys loving blogs’ necessarily being an advance marker of the start of something big organisationally. The IT people love blogs because it’s cool tech, and because knowledge-sharing is part of their world: 90% of 90% of IT jobs is about engineering and problem solving: perfect domains for bloggish collaboration…

On the other hand, and with even less evidence, I still believe the Cluetrain credo, that communication across corporate firewalls (via blogs and so on) can (not will) fundamentally transform the relationship between brands and consumers. Still, that doesn’t mean that for a particular business, at a particular time, there is any clear route to actually using a given technology or strategy to get that scale of cultural change forced through… and although it would be nice to believe that it can really bubble up, I’m not yet convinced (see above). More on this later.

3 comments

  1. Having witnessed the same workers, my understanding is, as you say, that the almost complete freedom existed only because it was cocooned within a higher power and had rigid controls (much like giving a child a crayon and a piece of paper … create anything but don’t draw on the walls!)
    I get the sense that bottom-up can work with external limitations but not ones that impose a modification of the core intent … think radio and it’s censorship.

  2. and, oh, speaking of revolution today, those days of carefree censorshipless radio are over care of bottom-up idiots voting in top-down idiots. or was it the IT guys doing things sideways?

  3. ‘Create anything but I’ll break your fucking arms if you draw on the furniture’ is very much how those Japanese businesses felt. And the welder-drones bent over backwards with creative kaizen to show their appreciation. I suspect the same is the case in businesses ‘encouraging’ blogging rather than being honest about how fucking scary it is to their business model…

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