The creative campus and institutional democracy

 Greg Bryant
 University of Oregon
 Updated February 2017
The biggest threat to innovation is managerialism.

This essay began in discussions regarding the reorganization of information technology workers on campus in 2016, but the general principles apply to the entire university community.


We believe in human potential, and we want to free the creativity and productivity of the campus community. For this to happen, we need to promote autonomy and agency. We need to eliminate wasteful autocratic managerialist hierarchies and unecessary elitism. We need to promote the most-enlightened and best-supported practices: group self-management, through cooperation, agreement, free inquiry, and collaboration.

Whole industries in computing emerged from the observation that groups are most effective and inventive when they are self-managed. Collaborative software, groupware, source control systems like git, crowdsourced content like wikipedia, reputation systems like eBay, configuration management and workflow systems ... all are predicated on the notion of group success through individual empowerment.

For engineers with autonomy, there is no divide between "creative" and "routine" tasks, because automation means making routine tasks easier and more pleasant, to free people for human-driven quality improvement and other activity. Creative people who do the routine can overcome its routine qualities, and do better work, if allowed the time and motivation to create the right tools. This is how true 'best practices' emerge.

Because we are insufficiently engaged with this idea, we are losing critical educational opportunities -- and this is true of most universities -- by not having a self-organizing culture of investigative technology workers who are free to initiate and contribute to world-class projects. Layers of managers exacerbate this problem, isolating workers further from the university community, from each other, and from real progress.

In a sense, it is the face-to-face community -- and its qualities of free association and inquiry -- which most needs to be protected by the institution, because this is the university's sustainable competitive advantage over purely online collaboration and learning.

In short, we are talking about extendeding and encouraging the culture of academic freedom to the entire university community. The self-organization of such a community of scholars is unlikely to agree with the idea of strict management by administrators. The latter should look to see what they do that genuinely helps their colleagues, and not consider 'telling others what to do' or 'enforcing order and work' to be part of their position descriptions.

What should we do?

We all need to do what we can to improve communications, carve space for free action in the university interest, and eliminate managerialism on campus. We need this so the U of O can be a fertile environment for world-class projects.

Anything you can do may help, if it helps to promote autonomy and workplace democracy on campus.

For my part, I'm trying to launch an extreme initiative.

Ultimately, I hope that all units self-manage and cooperate for the good of the university community. Here are some of the recent and ancient writers and researchers who support this idea.



Workplace democracy
Flat organization
Worker self-management
Participatory management
Industrial democracy
Agile & Scrum don't go far enough

Business press:

Generally worker autonomy
1986 The new product development game
1992 Improvement Communities
2001 The Agile Manifesto
2003 Iterative and Incremental Development: A Brief History
2003 The flattening of corporate management
2003 Flattening corporation
2007 The Roots of Scrum
2011 Fire all the managers
2011 The end of the middle manager
2012 Eliminating Middle Managers
2012 Graveyard of obsolete management ideas
2013 Hierarchy is overrated
2014 Abolish middle management
2014 Eliminating middle management
2015 Get rid of all the bosses
2015 Flat management
2015 Why managers hate agile
2015 The end of middle management?
2016 The new workplace is agile
2017 ScrumPLoP

2015 Machines replace middle management
2015 Replacing middle management by APIs
Note: we want something rather different than this anonymous, automated approach. But its existence points to the problems with extreme managerialism. Instead people should simply agree on what is to be done. We don't want the machine turning people into chess pieces. It's bad enough when a manager does it to an employee.

Organisational democracy
craft beer

Scholarly articles:

Organizational democracy
1999 Worker Autonomy and the Drama of Digital Networks in Organizations

Also see:

1983 -- Edward T. Hall, 'The Dance of Life', 1983, Chapter 6, "The East and The West"
1977 -- Christopher Alexander, et al, "Self-governing workshops and offices",
... 'A Pattern Language', p. 398, 1977
1956 -- Willian H Whyte, Jr., 'The Organization Man', 1956
1974 -- Ted Nelson, Computer Lib / Dream Machines, 1974
1968 -- E.F. Schumacher, "Buddhist economics", Resurgence, 1968
1945 -- Vannevar Bush, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 'Science the endless frontier', 1945
... relevant excerpts
1916 -- John Dewey, "Academic Freedom" in 'Democracy and Education', 1916
1620 -- Francis Bacon, Novum Organum Scientiarum, 1620, Prefatio
... "Utcunque enim varia sint genera Politiarum, unicus est status Scientiarum,
isque semper fuit & mansurus est popularis"
... "For however various are types of political systems, there's only one for Science;
it always has been and will remain democratic."