Imagined corporate communities
While allocating the forty-eighth rank to 'Imagined Communities' 1 in 'The All-TIME 100 Nonfiction Books' written in English since 1923, Ishaan Tharoor wrote: "Benedict Anderson… details the means by which we come to think of the modern nation-state as 'a deep [egalitarian] comradeship' despite the fact that social and economic inequalities remain, often as bad as in earlier ages of sovereign kings and monarchies... Imagined Communities remains the most clear-eyed tract on how people came to see themselves as 'national' beings, an identity that Anderson and scholars since have shown relies on far greater fictions than truths." I am not aware of a similar analysis of the fictions that make up corporate communities and would like to attempt one.
As Jan Lucassen explains: "From prehistory until today, a number of solutions have been devised for organizing work. Until some 12,000 years ago … work [and its fruits were] divided among small communities … based on reciprocity. [Around 5,000 years ago, after agrarian societies led to the formation of cities and then states, other forms of labour relations emerged] alongside reciprocal labour relations. These can be broken down into self-employment and tributary labour – complemented later, after the emergence of markets, by free wage labour, slavery and employership." 2 I cannot pretend to even an approximation of Lucassen’s sweep and depth here. For our purpose, the camera needs to start rolling in the centuries just preceding the Industrial Revolution. "…[L]abour intensified after 1500 with a simultaneous and serious expansion of the market economy. Apart from all sorts of hybrid forms … market economies [were] based, on the one hand, on the predominantly free labour of the self-employed and wage workers … and, on the other hand, on the almost exclusively unfree labour of slaves." 3
Each of these labour sources relied predominantly (though not exclusively) on one of three incentives. The classification enunciated by the Tillys is both simple and intuitively appealing in this regard. "[T]ransactions vary in the relative weights and asymmetries of three classes of incentives: coercion, compensation, and commitment. Coercion consists of threats to inflict harm, compensation the offer of contingent rewards, commitment the invocation of solidarity… Coercion, compensation, and commitment have distinctive heartlands but fuzzy boundaries… [and] thread through every aspect of the world of work." 4 Very obviously, coercion was the prime driver of slave labour and compensation was the mainspring of free wage labour.
"In the last two centuries, labour relations – now primarily market oriented – shifted radically. The share of unfree labour fell sharply… [T]o work in an industry that was increasingly concentrated in factories … [t]he crucial question was how to motivate people who were not used to being under the direct supervision of a boss to carry out productive labour under entirely new circumstances. This is the issue of work incentives." 5 For a long time after the commencement of the Industrial Revolution, factory work was incentivized almost entirely through compensation, though the threat of coercion did loom in the background. Soon after the turn of the last century, Taylorism stamped out any remaining vestiges of initiative and innovation on the part of workmen as well as the commitment that came from craftsmanship and creativity. "Frederick Winslow Taylor did not intend to create a movement that would be inimical to questioning and grass-root innovation but the way his 'scientific design of tasks' was taken forward in industry after industry and country after country, it clearly had a chilling effect on workmen thinking for themselves and expressing disagreement when they wanted to. '[T]he right person for most of the non-managerial jobs Taylor designed was someone with limited imagination, boundless patience and a willingness to do the same repetitive tasks day in and day out.' 6 A perfect descriptor of Chaplin’s 'Modern Times'!" 7
Commitment through imagined corporate communities
Clearly the state to which Taylorism brought industry was hugely sub-optimal. The ratios of the supervisory effort to output, the cost of inspection to quality achieved as well as the individual ingenuity available to those deployed at work were all extremely adverse. Almost a century ago, a micro-current of opposition to the Taylorean wave that engulfed the world commenced. Elton Mayo and the Western Electric Company are etched in the college memory of every HR practitioner and industrial psychologist. Were they driven by the purely altruistic desire to improve the lot of the automaton worker created by Taylorism? Very likely not. 8 That, however, only strengthens our argument that the movement they heralded found favour with smart managements worldwide because it became possible to manage far greater numbers with much less force and intimidation which, in turn, also meant releasing bubbles of commitment to waft corporate performance yet higher.
The Mayo movement continued to gain converts in the Western world based on the cost-effectiveness of the supervisor-substituting commitment it propagated. Far higher gains were awaiting discovery in the domains of quality and incremental grass-root innovation and these were unleashed by the Japanese machine that changed the world. 9 It is not surprising that the ultimate in productivity gain could only come in an environment where employees did not fear losing jobs when they went all out to cut cycle times and waste.
The new model was accepted, almost without thinking, by the sunrise industries that arose towards the end of the twentieth century. Information Technology and other forms of intellectual work are notoriously difficult to reduce to a single thinking mode and the task of checking whether the most productive thinking process has actually been used in task performance is near impossible. The quality and elegance of these results are even less amenable to evaluation because standards are far more slippery to create or apply. Finally, the educated and market-valued employee in these industries would revolt outright if anything approaching a Taylorean leadership style were used.
Accompanying these economic and technologically driven compulsions to create a mind-map of solidarity and striving for a common goal were efforts to build justifying philosophies. To take just one example, Organisational Citizenship Behavior (OCB), subtitled 'The Good Soldier Syndrome' by Dennis Organ, held considerable sway in the last two decades of the twentieth century. 10 Organ wrote: "[C]itizenship behaviors are important because … [t]hey provide the flexibility needed to work through many unforeseen contingencies… Because citizenship behavior goes beyond formal role requirements, it is not easily enforced by the threat of sanctions. Furthermore, much of what we call citizenship behavior is not easily governed by individual incentive schemes, because such behavior is often subtle, difficult to measure, may contribute more to others' performance than one's own." 11 The model was questioned soon thereafter by several less idealistic thinkers, not least for assuming citizenship behaviour was truly voluntary. 12 Our purpose here is not to judge the morality or voluntariness of OCB but to underscore its effectiveness in managing labour supervision and coordination at minimal cost.
Cynical questioning of the kind exemplified by Vigoda-Gadot did not prevent the mainstream of subsequent HR thinkers from finding ever more refined bases for solidarity-based commitment. A very recent example is the use of purpose to weld the troops together into an effective fighting force for the organisation. Ranjay Gulati, is among the most persuasive purpose proselytizers. "Gulati considers deep purpose not just another management tool, but 'a foundational principle for organizing that reflects your company’s very sense of self.'" 13
Gulati and others (see Mourkogiannis) 14 have insightfully pointed to one of the three hallmarks of an Imagined Corporate Community. The three are:
• Imagined altruistic purpose which, as Mourkogiannis defines it, emerges when a company believes profits will follow if it has placed customers, employees, and others first.
• Imagined superiority over groups outside the corporation and camaraderie with people within, even if one hasn’t met all of the latter and is unlikely ever to do so. "An imagined community… function[s] by defining boundaries and policing them; boundaries shaped by the dual axes of similarity and difference." 15
• Imagined reciprocity between employees in the organisation as well as their leaders and trust that those who can decide their fate will do so fairly. 16
If this section leaves you feeling the creation of Imagined Corporate Communities is something of a 'con', I must emphasize that is not necessarily the case, At the same time, the ease with which some of the torchbearers of employee engagement used the same torches to light their way to emplocide in recent times, tells us the reality of the Imagined Corporate Community was less than sacrosanct for them. 17 By the time our academic model builders had started placing the purpose portcullis to keep less noble aims from occupying the corporate castle so carefully designed by them; shareholder exceptionalism artillery was blasting its way through the postern and forcing castellan after castellan to switch back to a more primitive mode of work organisation.
The great corporate divergence
There is a gradually widening, but generally overlooked, crevice developing between HR theorizing and reality. It is a credibility gap which threatens to destroy the hands-free, imagination-powered model of managing people that has prevailed, virtually without questioning, for so long.
Hypocrisy has never been entirely alien to CEO and HR speak. 18 Perhaps what has caught us off-guard this time is the ubiquity of the malaise and the height from which our idols have fallen. As Pfeffer notes:"[CEOs] economize on the effort they spend in thinking and decision-making… [They rely on] what others do, to guide one’s own behavior… A good way to fit in is to follow the crowd… As shareholder capitalism replaced stakeholder capitalism, once-rare layoffs have now become commonplace… There is an oft-repeated shibboleth that people are a company’s most important asset. Layoffs demonstrate the hollowness of that statement. No wonder trust in management is low and declining loyalty and engagement are a common condition in today’s workplaces." 19 Moreover, these are not some hole-in-the-wall outfits. Like the true-blue cases quoted in Good to Great or In Search of Excellence, these seemingly model organisations have taken decisions that have come back to haunt their enthusiastic admirers. 20
Layoffs, of course are the end point of smaller spurnings of mutuality. The entire process often starts with treating loyalty as a mug’s game which no smart management need reciprocate. 21 The message starts becoming increasingly obvious when companies outsource what were thought to be core competencies or GIG them. 22 Signs of the malaise are usually accompanied or preceded by unconscionable differentials between top and bottom tier compensation, benefits and treatment. One of the reasons most employees find it so difficult to spot the Imagined Corporate Community eroders, is the continuing patter of top management assurances about everyone being a happy family which will share thanksgiving supper once the immediate crisis is over. Turkeys, of course, are never well-advised to anticipate Thanksgiving but, unless employees learn to distrust and call such CEO’s naked emperors, the extent of the divergence will remain concealed.
The mirror cracks
We have now reached a stage when the road before commercial enterprises triverges. It is tempting to ignore the two deviating paths, one of which seems to take us back where we came from and the other appears frighteningly steep and risky. Far easier to continue on the straight and well-travelled path we have followed for the last few decades, despite the increasing frequency of 'Commoditisation Cliff Ahead' road signs. The temptation, in fact, is to increase our speed, while we hurtle towards reinstalling compensation as the motivational monarch in place of the dethroned commitment. As Walt Kelly wryly noted: "Having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts." This would, however, be a very shortsighted policy. There is just so much time before the large mass of employees realize that the Imagined Corporate Communities they cherish are precisely that: figments of their imagination with no backing in terms of corporates willing to stake their survival or even accept significant depletions of resources or reserves to honour the reciprocity of the bargain.
Far better then, to turn back and substantiate the Imagined Corporate Community through a sustained effort to eliminate the gap between familial preaching and emplocidal action. It is too late already? I am no prophet (or if I am it is of the Laocoönian variety which has a rather short expiry date!) but I find it hard to imagine that the likely loss of Imagined Corporate Communities will prompt hard-headed shareholder champions to take any remedial steps. Moreover, this path loops backward. So, it is likely to lead us to a similar trivergence at a later date with another generation of CEOs wanting to earn their imagination callouses. By then smarter employees will agree with King: 'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on both of us.' 23
What about that steeper path that looked so unappealing at first sight then? Could it reveal a Shangri-la after the initial strain of the climb? The road to Corporate Democracy will be rough but there really is no alternative for regaining lasting commitment once the great divergence stands revealed. 24 Moreover, only under such a system of power sharing can Aggregate Long-term People Happiness be central to the corporate mission. 25 Isn’t this a steep 'ask'?
Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend…26
It will take much longer but who can imagine a Real Corporate Community taking less time to build than Rome?
1Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, Revised edition, 2006.
2 Jan Lucassen, The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind, Yale University Press, 2022.
3 Jan Lucassen, The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind, Yale University Press, 2022.
4 Chris Tilly and Charles Tilly, Work Under Capitalism, Westview Press, 1998.
5 Jan Lucassen, The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind, Yale University Press, 2022.
6 James Suzman, Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020.
7 Visty Banaji, Twinkle, Twinkle, Leadership Star, Can You Unlearn What You Are?, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 433-440, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
8 Kyle Bruce and Chris Nyland, Elton Mayo and the Deification of Human Relations, Organization Studies, March 2011.
9 James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos, The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production-- Toyota's Secret Weapon in the Global Car Wars That Is Now Revolutionizing World Industry, Free Press; 2007.
10 Dennis W Organ, Organizational Citizenship Behavior: The Good Soldier Syndrome, The Free Press, 1988.
11 C Smith, D W Organ and J P Near, Organizational citizenship behavior: Its nature and antecedents, Journal of Applied Psychology, 1983, Vol 68, No 4.
12 Eran Vigoda-Gadot, Compulsory Citizenship Behavior: Theorizing Some Dark Sides of the Good Soldier Syndrome in Organizations, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 36:1, 2006.
13 Ranjay Gulati, Deep Purpose: The Heart and Soul of High-Performance Companies, Penguin Business, 2022.
14 Nikos Mourkogiannis, Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
15 Alan Finlayson, Imagined Communities, from Edwin Amenta, Kate Nash, and Alan Scott, The Wiley-Blackwell companion to Political Sociology, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2012
16 Visty Banaji, The Great Reciprocation: Loyalty is a two-way street, People Matters, 11 July, 2022. (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/the-great-reciprocation-loyalty-is-a-two-way-street-34519).
17 Visty Banaji, Countering the Merchants of Emplocide, People Matters, 10 February, 2023. (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/employee-relations/countering-the-merchants-of-emplocide-36862).
18 Visty Banaji, HR Speak, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 400-407, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
19 Jeffrey Pfeffer, The Layoff Contagion Is Hurting Us All, The Information, 30 March 2023.
20 Visty Banaji, Learn Leadership Lessons from Leaders, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 417-424, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
21 Visty Banaji, The Great Reciprocation: Loyalty is a two-way street, People Matters, 10 July, 2022. (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/the-great-reciprocation-loyalty-is-a-two-way-street-34519).
22 Visty Banaji, The Future of Work Requires Work, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 215-221, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
23 Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Scribner; Reissue edition, 2020.
24 Visty Banaji, A Company of People, By People and For People, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 534-541, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
25 Visty Banaji, HR’s Business Should Be Happiness Raising, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 488-496, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
26 Christina Rosetti, Up-Hill, from Goblin Market and Other Poems, Dover Publications, 2000.