Broadening the purpose of quality and participation...
Finding community at work

Community is a belief in the collective. Together we can create a quality of life or set of services that individuals, operating alone, can not deliver. Simple and reasonable as this sounds, it is an alien concept to modern American life.

By Peter Block -- Designed Learning, Inc.

Certainly we have the skeletons of community. We live in neighborhoods, we work in organizations, we buy insurance to spread risk, we elect our own government. We surround these bones, however, with a cultural belief in the lonely hero, the triumph of individualism and a deep distrust of all things communal. Some examples of this reliance on the lone individual and distrust of things communal follow.

Distrust of government...

The institution most clearly designed to serve the interest of the community is government. Yet, even though we created this form of government we have a deep distrust in it. The instant we choose our own leaders, we become obsessed with their weaknesses, and want them to leave us alone. We think of government as if some one else owns it, and they are obviously paid too much to deliver too little.

Paring organizations down to the bone...

Organizations are a vital place where community gets expressed, yet we are shrinking them as fast as we can. For the sake of today's dollars, we downsize, outsource and export jobs.

Techno--withdrawal from society...

We are withdrawing inward with our passion for technology and the computer. We treat technology as the solution to the human condition, and the fewer people involved, the better. There is no longer any need to ever leave our homes. Between our lap top computer and our video phone, we can work, shop, communicate, learn and entertain ourself in the privacy of our living room. Eventually evolution will give us a large head, one ear the shape of a satellite dish, long fingers with the dexterity of Van Cliburn, and no body. Eating will consist of sound bites and megabytes, and having children will be courtesy of Barry Diller and the Home/Medical Shopping Network. Once the lenses and electronics of virtual reality get within our price range, we will be able to dial an experience. Reality will, in fact, become a concept. Put on the helmet, slip on the gloves, and life becomes a video arcade. We can create community without involving another human being. Something is wrong with this picture.

The promise of community

Community is an antidote to the isolation, entitlement and cynicism so dominant in the culture. There are a growing number of advocates for more community. The good news is that we are becoming sophisticated in the language of community, the no news is that we remain innocent of the experience of community.

How to create community is inherent in our efforts at total quality, work redesign, and organization development. These are in the forefront of the communitarian movement and they have the potential to give us the means to counterbalance our individualism. These strategies are based on:

Teams as the basic unit of delivery...

This recognizes our interdependence and that nothing gets produced and delivered by individuals working alone. Even the icons of individualism, the great scientist or artist, can not deliver their talent unless surrounded by a network of resources to support and communicate their efforts.

Real accountability is to our peers and customers...

Those immediately around us hold the day to day power to drive and limit our performance. Bosses have little power to define how we do what we do. We know how to manipulate bosses, so their evaluation does not really bother us. If a boss does not like what we are doing, we smile, thank them for the feedback, assure them we will work on the problem and go about our business. Start talking about peer evaluation, and we get nervous. They see through our manipulation, and therein lies their power. If we are to experience community, we have to get used to being accountable to those we can not control.

Customers are served by the decisions made by core workers, not management...

The trade--off between what is good for the customer and what is good for the organization has to be made at the moment of creating a product or at the point of contact with the customer. Placing the resources and the ability to choose in the hands of front line people are essential to the experience of community. Full operational literacy and the power to act is required from those who, up to now, have been in low power positions.

Service and partnership become the dominant values...

Organizations need to decide that they exist to serve a customer, serve an employee and serve a larger environment. If they do this well, they will meet their commitment to a shareholder and other financial stakeholders. This commitment to service represents a shift in values. Service in an era of entitlement, gets treated as surrender. Community needs partnership to replace the traditional emphasis on control, privilege, prerogatives and profit.

Systems are based on self governance and equity...

Patriarchal systems, with elites at the top and a managerial class holding on to their rights, breeds narrow self interest and increases isolation. Pay systems, human resource practices, information systems and financial controls which spread the gap between top and bottom destroy community. Strong community requires transparency and systems which put the tools of control, accountability and measurement in the hands of each person/team.

How we limit ourselves

Idealistic as it may at first seem, we know how to put all of these ideas into practice. We have successful models of high performing teams, self governing units and customer driven operations. Organizations exist where service is the driving purpose, and privilege and patriarchy is not tolerated. What discourages us is that we are not applying what we know -- The innovative practices which build community are still the exception. They exist in pockets of every organization... they are not mainstream. The question becomes what limits the widespread application of this new knowledge. Why, for example, when 75 percent of large companies have an employee involvement program, does it impact only 15 percent of their employees? Is it possible that the way we are pursuing organizational improvement may in itself be an obstacle to reform?

Our strategies for total quality, reengineering, and other change efforts have three elements that interfere with creating the communities we desire.

1.We have given primary attention to management and those at the top...

We believe that top sponsorship is essential. It is the top that we write about, romanticize, listen to, and seek approval from. We often treat the middle as the ones resistant to change and the bottom as people neither having the necessary skills nor wanting to take responsibility. This upward bias keeps the middle on the defensive and slows us from vesting real power in the people at lower levels. We have talked so much about empowerment, but so many efforts have been cosmetic, that the word no longer has meaning.

2.The knowledge of how to redesign, restructure and reform an institution resides almost exclusively in the hands of the professionals and a few line managers...

We have staff functions for total quality, reengineering and organization improvement. We have invested in the skills of staff people, who then apply them to their clients, the line organization.

The nuclear family in our workplace is a boss, forty subordinates and two work redesign consultants. We have not yet decided that fundamentally redesigning the workplace is the only sustainable value added by a manager. Until we make this choice, we will keep living with pockets of transformation led by a few exceptional managers.

3.Despite our best intentions, the strategies and tools of change are fragmented, program oriented and often in competition with each other.

We have parallel streams of: quality improvement, work redesign, organization development, employee involvement, customer satisfaction, management development and self--managing teams. These are often in separate departments, competing for the same attention, sponsorship and funding. They are treated as discrete processes with emphasis on their differences rather than their similarities.

Each was born at a different moment to meet a unique requirement. They are all based, however, on a common set of beliefs. They converge in their intention to support the elements of community mentioned above: teams, accountability to peers and customers, choice for the core worker, partnership and service over command and self interest, and transparent participative systems.

If the staff professionals do not integrate these ideas, we then shift the burden to the line organization. This integration is our task to accomplish. We need to connect all these processes into each of our practices. This will create the community among ourselves necessary to build community in our larger systems.

Final thought and simple solution

Inherent in this stance is the fact that achieving community is a political issue more than a personal one. If we just work on ourselves to become better at dialogue, more team oriented, and accountable to our peers, we will grow, but our institutions won't. Little will change. It is the way we think about organizing human effort that is at stake. It is organizing our institutions so that citizens can claim ownership of their immediate environment that will make the difference. This means developing new structures, distributing choice, and designing day to day practices which support partnership and a feeling of human connectedness. Two specifics can take us in this direction:

1.We have to learn how to bring large groups together in a way that enables them to control their own learning and experience the public discussion of problems and strategies. It is in the public dialogue that community is truly experienced.

2.All our actions should be to help line managers and teams learn to guide the improvement process on their own. The service disciplines (quality, organizational development, re--engineering, training...) are on their way to becoming a precious few. We in these disciplines should speed the process of turning our specialized knowledge into common knowledge.

Having the critical dialogues become public, and vesting the tools and choices in the hands of citizens who do the work and live in the neighborhood is what makes community a living possibility. Radical acts for demanding times.

This article was originally published in the Journal for Quality and Participation and is copywritten by the Association for Quality and Participation, 801-B W. 8th St., Suite 501, Cincinnati, Ohio 45203, Tel: 513-381-1959, Fax 513-381-0070: all rights reserved. You may download and print it for your own personal use. If you wish to share it with others by photocopying, e-mail or by placing it on another online service; reprint it in a newsletter, or reprint all or a portion of it in a book for resale, or in a packet included in a course for fee you should contact Ned Hamson, editor at the address or numbers above or at for permission.

"This is the time, we are the people, let's work together... Now!"

About the author:

Peter Block has earned a national reputation as an author, consultant and speaker. His books have consistently provided a clear and compelling view of where we have been and where we must and will go. In Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self--interest Block gives substance to the paths many know must be traveled, but have not yet had the courage or encouragement to do so. In The Empowered Manager... Block espouses his positive approach to organizational politics. He is also author of the widely praised book on the staff role in organizations, Flawless Consulting. Peter is a member of the Board of Directors of the AQP and is a partner in the firm of Block, Petrella, Weisbord, Inc./ Designed Learning, Inc.