The other Two Cultures

What are the implications of reducing bureaucracy? Bill Vlasic of the New York Times asked that question in his piece about how General Motors is trying to get rid of needless form-filling and shed its “hidebound, command-and-control corporate culture”. GM is trying to shift from a company where dissent was marginalised to a culture of openness and honesty.

I agree wholeheartedly with Johnnie Moore, when he says:

My feeling is that what appears to be happening at GM needs to happen in a lot more places. It often seems to me that everytime we experience a crisis, the solution is to write more rules. […]

The intention is good, but the practical effect is to engulf people in explicit, complicated systems and reduce their freedom – based on an unconscious assumption that everyone is not to be trusted. We give ascendancy to people who are really great at theory and effectively degrade practice. I think its rooted in the idea that one person or a group of people can effectively oversee a system and control how it works with written instructions.

In order to get things done people have to find elaborate work arounds for the rules, often with anxiety. The result: it’s actually harder to create real trust the human way, using our judgement and instincts.

This reminds me of theories of management that I stumbled once on Wikipedia, Theory X and Theory Y, which were proposed by Douglas McGregor in the 60s. In Theory X, management assume that employees are “inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can”. In Theory Y, managers assume that employes “may be ambitious and self-motivated” and enjoy their work.

Whilst reality tends not to fall into two neatly opposing mindsets, the framework is still useful, especially when think about how social media fits into a corporate culture. One could extend the theories thus:

Theory X companies are inimical to social tools, because they simply do not trust staff. Concern that people will ‘abuse’ the tools in some way leads to attempts to control employees’ access to them. The company’s public blog winds up with an editorial committee, only approved managers are allowed an internal blog, and access to sites like Wikipedia or services like Twitter are curtailed. Social media projects generally fail in these cultures, if they are ever started in the first place.

Theory Y companies, on the other hand, are ready to trust their staff to do the right thing. Social software is made available to all, small talk and social uses of the tools are allowed (sometimes even encouraged), and people build stronger relationships with colleagues which increases trust and ability to collaborate. Departmental silos are broken down, communication across time zones and locations improves, duplication of effort is reduced. Social media projects generally succeed in these cultures.

Of course, in reality, corporate cultures are not homogeneous. One department may have a much more open, collaborative and sharing culture than another. The question is whether Theory Y cultures are nurtured and growing within a wider Theory X company, or are they seen as aliens to be disposed of?

(The other Two Cultures, in case you’re wondering, are CP Snow’s.)