“Why Hierarchy?” Keynote Conference Talk (Helsinki)

In November 2019 I was fortunate enough to be invited to give my first international keynote presentation at Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland. I was asked to speak at the event “Why Hierarchy?” by the MODe research group comprised of members from several universities in Finland. The talk, titled “A Democracy to Come? The Possibilities, Paradoxes and Pitfalls of Non-Hierarchical Organizing” explored the findings from a three year ESRC study conducted between 2016 and 2019 (and a wider democracy at work project conducted in part with my colleague Prof. Daniel King from Nottingham Trent University). In the talk I explored the obstacles facing democratisation of the workplace whilst considering potential solutions and ways forwards for practitioners seeking to reject traditional status-driven hierarchy. Our argument is that too much management research of workplace democracy is hyper critical because it presumes/desires purity (it finds sinners because it is searching for non [or rarely] existent saints). This often leads to paralysis for the sub-discipline as we always expect too much from those trying to “do” workplace democracy. Instead, we suggest that failures of democratic organizing are often merely paradoxes (for instance, we might wish to give up power at the same time as yearning for control). We suggest from our own experiences of democratic organizing that a way through paradox is to politicise it (to collectively organize, reimagine and transcend the paradox over time) towards progressive social change. Daniel and I are tentatively calling this the 5P’s of democratisation of work (purity to paralysis, to paradox to politicisation to progressive social change).

Me talking about the 5 P’s of democratisation at work

The talk was attended by around 150 people – a mix of academics and members of workplace democracies in the local area – providing an interesting mix of opinions and debate. The results of the study and their wider implications will appear in papers and a forthcoming book due to be released through Bristol University Press in 2021. Keep an eye on the website for more details about this as they emerge! If you would like to see the 45 minute presentation please click below (and move back to the start as it begins at 12 minutes for some weird reason *fixing shortly*)…

My presentation at Aalto University in full

It was my first time in Finland and while it was apparently not the best time of the year to visit (short days, rain, no snow, or sun!) I was still struck by the beauty of Helsinki. I was also impressed with the overall pace of life in Finland (it was recently ranked the happiest nation on earth) and after visiting a restaurant (Loyly) that was both a place to sauna and eat wonderful food I was not surprised at all. The Helsinki library was a great example of an inclusive space where anybody come to work and play (music, video games, instruments – all of which were free to borrow), and was housed in a stunning ship shaped building. I was also treated by wonderful hosts to a tour of the city where I encountered the most wonderful church Temppeliaukio Rock Church which was literally a holy place carved in to the solid rock of the ground. It was one of the most wonderous and peaceful places I’ve ever been to with a massive dome creating a unique acoustic and rain water naturally dripping down the stones inside making you feel like you were closer to nature. 

Temppeliaukio Rock Church
Helsinki Public Library

It was only a whistle stop visit to Helsinki but it enabled me to see a beautiful city for the first time and to make a connection with a fantastic research group who are working on very similar issues to myself. We are all attempting to work with practitioners and democratic workplaces to make critical management studies (our sub-discipline) more practical so that it can better understand how workplaces can more proactively and successfully democratize over time. The new connections I made will hopefully be the start of collaboration with the MODe research group on a number of new research projects for 2020! 

Aalto University, wonderful architecture (by Alvar Aalto – another reason to love the Fins – they name their universities after creative minds!)
Me at the start of the presentation!
Me, waxing lyrical about Gary Hamel’s wonderful work
Me taking a picture of the audience (after my talk)…I wasn’t quick enough to take one during!
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