Boimondau was a company founded, owned and managed by workers. It was quite a famous French maker of watch parts after the Second World War. It reminds me a little of ideas about emergent democracy on the Web today. Current plans for emergent democracy could benefit from its lessons.
As you’ll see in Google, the story of the company is quite well known in continental Europe, but not so well known in the English-speaking world. I read about it in Hofstede’s book, Uncommon Sense about Organisations.
Briefly, the story of Boimondau is that it was founded during the War, operated in secret in occupied France and grew rapidly during the post-war boom. Everything was shared, including decisionmaking and humdrum tasks. The difference between the management salaries and workshop salaries was kept to a minimum. Workers were rewarded for their social contribution (participation in childrearing, community groups and so on) as well as their actual work for the company.
According to Hofstede, it basically went wrong over time as the economy weakened and the enthusiasm waned. Workers weren’t able to participate meaningfully in decisionmaking, because they didn’t understand all the technical issues of running the company. In fact, Hofstede says, all that happened was that workers were kept informed. They didn’t have any real input.
During the tough times in the early days, there was a lot of talk and discussion of company affairs. But the reality is that a lot of the discussion was just ‘pub talk’. The discussion hardly ever came around to making a decision. There was little point in making them anyway, because according to Hofstede’s source, the decisions made in this way were seldom carried out. (See the parallel with online discussions?)
The original cohort of workers who had been there at the beginning kept control throughout. The percentage of salary paid for social contribution gradually diminished from 50 percent to around 5 percent. There were stories about managers and sales people secretly enriching themselves. Over time, Boimondau became just another manufacturing company. Workers stopped bothering about the social aspect when the management stopped driving it. In the end, the company wasn’t wily enough to compete in the rapidly changing marketplace of the 1960’s.
The enthusiasm about Boimondau reminds me a bit of the enthusiasm for communities on the web. Sure, there is a lot of potential for new ways to govern, but we have to ask ourselves whether it will really be possible to buck the trend and govern things in a whole new way. I think the most effective way of applying new practices is to combine them with existing ways of doing business, rather than trying to strike out with something completely different.
We can learn something from the mistakes at Boimondau as we try to improve our democracy and our companies:
1. Management is a specialised business. You need specialised skills to do it. It isn’t really practical to get a big group of people involved in it.
2. On the other hand, it is as important to keep people informed as to get them to participate. If they are well-informed, and they are really unhappy about something, they can say so, or leave. Informing people isn’t the same as having them self-manage, however.
3. It is important that the group perpetuates itself by bringing new members in and promoting them. It’s very tempting to centralize power in the original clique.
4. The group needs to be constantly managed and nurtured. It is very hard to get it to be self-sustaining at the grassroots level.
5. Talk and discussion is only part of the deal. You need action too.