Do we really need hierarchies?

Author: Cliff Southcombe

Do we really need hierarchies? I see so many voluntary sector organisations, social enterprises and Charities structured in a way that reminds me more of Dickensian time. The formula of members, Trustees/Board employing workers delivering to clients/beneficiaries is still the norm.

But are these structures the most effective way of delivering the best governance, creating the most effective decision making or harnessing the contributions of all those involved in or supporting the enterprise? Over twelve years ago when I started the social enterprise training for managers course the main complaints from managers were around the decision making process and the role of their governing bodies.

Also twelve years ago I came across Innotiimi in Finland. Here was a successful business that maintained that governing was best seen as a process not a structure. They harnessed the power of people working in teams and in pairs and all 50 or so workers contributed equally to the key decision making. They were led by an elected CEO (part time) with a limited term of two years and drew strength from the fact that within the organisation they benefited from the experience of several former CEOs.

We have much to learn from our co-operative traditions and current practices. Here in the UK its been interesting looking at how SUMA Wholefoods operate. Around 150 workers and not a single boss in sight yet they won the employer of the year award in 2013. In SUMA Jobs are rotated (everyone has three jobs) and the decision making is shared. Bob Cannell from SUMA expresses his dismay at the growing “CEO Cult” in the social enterprise sector. He will be pleased no doubt with the Otesha project UK that changed from having a CEO to having equal co-directors last year.

I understand that for many people the traditional way of working works for them. But I also suspect that the main function of hierarchies, certainly in the Private sector and maybe also in the public sector is simply to ensure that power and money flows to the top. Social enterprises have the option to move away from hierarchies and to look at the processes of governance and decision making as opportunities to engage and empower their founders, investors, workers, clients, communities and beneficiaries. In Innotiimi, Suma Otesha and no doubt many others we have examples of where flatter more inclusive and innovative structures seems to be working and working well.

Time for more social enterprises to stop trying to mirror the private sector, move away from Board meetings and CEOs and find our own style? Would be interested to learn of other social enterprises who have adopted different approaches to the process of governance.

Cliff is the Managing Director of Social Enterprise Europe