community, culture

Rebuilding companies as communities


The brilliant Henry Mintzberg. I've got to meet this guy some day.

Holy smokes, Henry Mintzberg is at it again! The guy who predicted the economic collapse in 2006 (why is he not more famous, I don’t get it?) has an article in the July/August issue of the Harvard Business Review suggesting that the cultural framework of the corporation is completely broken.

And, according to Mintzberg,  the way to fix it is not by thinking like a corporation, but instead by thinking like a community. From the article:

Beneath the current economic crisis lies another crisis of far greater proportions: the depreciation in companies of community– people’s sense of belonging to and caring for something larger than themselves. Decades of short-term management, in the United States especially, have inflated the importance of CEOs and reduced others in the corporation to fungible commodities…

And it’s is a two way street… When a corporation treats its employees like simple assets to be hired and fired as the share price rises or falls, the employees treat the corporation like… a corporation.

The end result? Disengaged employees who don’t care about the business, and the business (and the shareholders) suffer for it. So for heaven’s sake, Henry, tell us how to fix it!

The corporation must view as a priority the idea of building a vibrant community of employees where everyone feels like they are part of something bigger than themselves and everyone is passionate and energized. Mintzberg points out that young companies (probably in many cases started by people with a shared vision) usually have this community, but tend to lose it as they grow up.

Mintzberg coins a new term “communityship” which is kind of a mashup of leadership and shared vision. He says the ideal state is where there is “just enough” traditional leadership to set the direction, but once people get and internalize the vision, the great ideas to support it can come from anywhere in the company.

Hey, that sounds a bit like the way open source works. In fact, Mintzberg calls out “Linux, and other open source operations” as examples of where “communityship” is already happening today. Definitely… we’ve been in the community-building business at Red Hat for a long time, and we’ve built an internal culture based on similar ideas. What’s more, we’ve proven this practice doesn’t only just make happy, engaged employees. It can also be the core of a profitable, successful business model as well.

I’ve explored some of the Red Hat / Fedora thinking around communities in other posts in this blog including the one entitled Red Hat Nation, which still seems to get clicked on a lot.

Oh, and there’s a lot more in the Mintzberg article, so rather than spoil it, I’d suggest that you support the great ideas in the Harvard Business Review by picking up a copy.

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About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


3 thoughts on “Rebuilding companies as communities

  1. Hey Chris,
    Thanks for pointing at this. Since I left Capstrat, my sub to HBR has dried up.

    I will go get this. Mintzberg is one of those prescient luminaries that never gets credit because he is figuring out and saying what the folks at the top want to prevent from coming true.

    Red Hat, in my mind, has done a better job of embodying communityship than anyone else. Good work.

    What if there was an index of companies that practiced this and over time we could see the financial impact of those embracing this important disruption.

    Posted by Steven Keith | July 3, 2009, 10:26 am
  2. I helped found a community organization in North Plainfield NJ before moving to PA a couple of years later.

    The impetus came from the organizing strategies of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which, with the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy, pioneered the analysis of the legal status of corporations as a driving force in the disempowerment of citizens within their communities.

    In other words, a hundred or so years of legal precedents from the US Supreme Court have transferred the powers of decisionmaking traditionally thought of as residing in citizens hands. within their municipal corporations, into business corporate “citizen” hands.

    The conflict and power imbalance plays out in communities when they attempt to stop harmful corporate activities from occurring within their borders – mountaintop coal removal, longwall mining, sludge dumping, big-box stores, etc. – and discover that they actually no longer have the authority to refuse such activities, because their refusal – as a human community – robs the corporation of its property rights, and in the weighing of self-governance rights on one side and property rights on the other, property rights prevail in U.S. courts.

    I found Mintzberg’s article really interesting, because it appears as though at least the conceptual framework of the community self-governance movement and the cutting edge thinkers of the corporate governance field are converging.

    Even their goals are the same: the communities CELDF works with are trying to create sustainable, livable futures for themselves by protecting their people from harms, and the corporations are also trying to survive in the present and thrive in the future.

    The question will become whether the internal “community” of workers within corporations actually permits corporations to scale back and transform their physical activities so they can stop crushing regular communities in the normal course of doing business, or whether the changes corporations adopt in the coming years simply make them more effective at extracting resources, externalizing wastes, and crushing citizen democracy when people try to exercise it within the communities where they live.

    Posted by Katherine Watt | August 22, 2009, 7:53 am


  1. Pingback: Summer reading list for Dark Matter Matters « Dark Matter Matters - July 4, 2009

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