Information Obesity: The web site

Chapter 7: Critical theory

7.1 Decision making - inclusive or exclusionary? [pages 112-115]

THINK: Think again about the activity systems in which you are a participant. These will affect your working and everyday lives in ways both direct and indirect:

  • What goals drive your activity? Who has set these goals and do you know how this was done, in other words, whether a decision-making process took place, and whether and how this process, and the goals themselves, are reviewed?
  • What values are shared by members of the activity system? Are these openly discussed and/or set down in any kind of formal way?
  • What level of participation do you have in decision making in and around the system? What form does it take? What formal right do you have, if any, to affect these decisions? What informal processes are there?
  • What information drives all these processes? Who collects it? Is it quantitative information (like performance figures, balance sheets) or more qualitative (customer opinion, informal feedback from students or clients)?

For example, in my job as a lecturer at a university, I have formal responsibilities over the running of my course (the MA: DTCE) and therefore quite a lot of autonomy when it comes to deciding on the shape and content of the course. Here, however, I must also account for the wishes, skills and availability of the other members of the team. Also, we have a formalised route by which student concerns can also be accounted for and addressed, known as the "Curriculum Development Team", which takes decisions about the short- and long-term development of the MA: DTCE. Three student representatives sit on this committee, which also gives them some experience of democratic decision making and allows them to appreciate some of the other constraints under which the course is run. (This is a way of instilling certain values and goals into the decision making structure, and helping the information flow more freely through the MA: DTCE system - compare this with the example of Mifflin Co-op outlined below.)

Image from showing reference to 'Towards 2015' mission statement

As is true of most jobs, as we start to move away from my immediate field of responsibility and out into the wider organisation which supports them, my ability to directly participate in decision-making reduces, but there is still a sort of formal flow of information up from my course into the department (the School of Education), faculty and university. However, as it goes up, the information comes less and less to represent "real people", and becomes instead a kind of abstraction, a set of figures on a balance sheet for example (see the second example in Chapter 13 for more here). Note also the "Towards 2015" mission statement of the University of Manchester, which currently guides the strategy of the whole organisation: you can read this for yourself

Another route for my influence over the university, and in some ways the higher education sector as a whole, is my membership of a trade union (the UCU). Some individuals are more active in union work than others, with many people "consuming" the benefits of a union rather passively. However, despite their status constantly being attacked and undermined by both laws and media stories in many (though not all) countries, unions remain a significant way in which employers and policymakers can be influenced, and a level of participation in important decisions thus negotiated.

Regardless, some decisions which may have a profound influence over my job are taken in completely exclusionary ways. One good (or, rather, bad) recent example is the UK government's decision to force non-EU citizens who wish to work and study in the UK to pass increasingly stringent admissions tests and to carry identity cards. Whatever you think of this initiative the fact is that it will inevitably result in a reduction of overall overseas student numbers in the UK - for making any system harder to enter will result in fewer entrants. Whether this will affect Manchester and my course remains to be seen but no one is feeling particularly optimistic about it. The UK government have taken this step unilaterally, in response to pressure placed on them from certain powerful media interests, and seemingly uninterested in the impact this will have on the (previously highly competitive) university sector in Britain.

Reflect then on your own situation, as I said. If you too work in HE it may be that you see similarities between your situation and mine: or perhaps you read yours very differently.

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7.2 An example

For an even more specific example let me first quote John Gastil's excellent book, Democracy in Small Groups (1993, New Society, Philadelphia). This is a very interesting discussion of some of the real-life issues faced by organisations which want to try to take decisions in a more inclusive, consensual way. It looks at both the positives (like empowerment, inclusion) and the negatives (potential conflict, concealed hierarchies) of such an approach to decision-making, and illustrates them with reference to "Mifflin Co-op", a retailer in Wisconsin which was organised in such a way. There are many possible parts of the book which can be quoted and I recommend reading it all, in fact. Here I am necessary highly selective, but this is a passage which shows some of the ways that values, goals and processes can be revealed, and designed into the formal and informal structures of decision making (it is on pages 111-112 of Gastil's book; all names are those of his interviewees, members of this organisation):

"One might expect that members of an egalitarian cooperative would all possess highly developed communication skills. The reality is that there are openly acknowledged skill differences among the workers at Mifflin Co-op. Some staff are comfortable and skilled in group settings, but others are relatively reserved and inarticulate. Some are able and willing to jump into a heated debate, whereas others hesitate to enter such a discussion. When skilled and extroverted staff talk among themselves during a meeting, quieter members can feel intimidated....

"Sam explained that some members, usually newer ones, have not yet overcome patriarchial and hierarchical norms that stunt the development of the skills necessary for democratic decision making: 'A lot of people are very used to being led... It's easier to be led than... to be in the forefront.' Amy concurred:

We come from cultures that are not democratic.... Our educations have often been regimented, and we have not been taught that our individual opinions are important to the larger group. Decisions about how our society functions were made long before we were born, and we're made to fit in - not to value the different visions we create.
Participating in a democratic experience is rare, but powerful. We all bring the dynamics of our past into the process at Mifflin. We come with unacknowledged personal agendas and different levels of need for hierarchy. We have different levels of personal or political commitment to the worker-managed workplace, and we have different levels of desire to take responsibility for it.

"...More agile speakers may have more success interrupting, holding the floor, and redefining the discussion. Over time, these individuals could become even more skilled through practice, while less skilled group members could become increasingly reticent. Some group members can become accustomed to talking, while others become resigned or accustomed to remaining silent.

"To prevent this, the co-op tries to develop the abilities of those with weaker communication skills by drawing them out and encouraging them to speak their minds during meetings. Louis explained that new members need to become used to being a part of a participatory democracy. The staff tries to empower new members by 'actually asking people [to speak] and making it a very friendly environment, so that people feel free to discuss things'...

"Staff stressed the means by which more reserved members can enter a heated, fast-paced debate. The meetings are typically informal, with people speaking whenever they wish, but if a member clearly signals a desire to speak by raising a hand, the facilitator will call on that person when the current speaker is finished. Also, Laura pointed to round-robins, in which group members can give their opinions in turn. These can be used at any juncture, but they are often used towards the end of an intense discussion. These remove the heat of debate and give members a clear, uninterrupted opportunity to express themselves."

From this extract it seems apparent that egalitarian decision making is not only a process, but a value and goal shared by the members of Mifflin Co-op. Certain things are designed into the decision-making process in order that information can flow as freely as possible around this team, emanating from all members, not just those with a sort of natural propensity to talk and contribute.

Neither I, nor Gastil (or his interviewees) make any claim that Mifflin is somehow perfect; but he and I offer it as an example of how a more consensual, inclusive approach to decision making can be implemented between smaller groups of people. I also think that the MA: DTCE's Curriculum Development Team, while far from perfect either, is a move in this direction.

THINK: could you implement more consensual decision making in your everyday working (or non-work) life? What obstacles lie in the way of this? Are they procedural (rule-based) - based on the denial of information - or in the lack of skills of activity system members? How might they be overcome? And how about on the larger scale? What information does your "local" context have to feed up into higher levels of the organisation? What policy decisions taken in a non-inclusive way (like the student visa issue I mentioned) might undermine your work?

These are all big questions of course - but nevertheless that is why they are important, and you can think about them with reference not only to chapter 7 of Information Obesity but most of part 3 and sections of part 4 as well. In the end, the ideal is of (as I say on page 115) communities working out their own solutions to the problems they face. That this often seems so distant is a measure of the power of hierarchical thinking and its being embedded - as a process, value and indeed goal - in many of the organisations within which we must live our lives.

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