This is the text of my contribution to the AoM CMS division newsletter for February 2023
It was probably fitting that I attended the AOM CMS award ceremony via Zoom from the wrong side of the Atlantic, given that so much of my PhD ethnography took place through a computer screen and across time zones. Even before the pandemic forced many ethnographers online, I had been following the work of the Open Food Network’s global organizing team via video meetings at all hours and a Slack that never slept. Through this experience, I learned how deep the connections formed online can be, how these connections support an organization that is porous, and thus simultaneously vulnerable and resilient, and how this all contributed to a form of democracy that centers revisability of the network’s rules, procedures and strategy.
If democracy generally refers to self-governance – giving ourselves our own rules – the revisability dimension of democracy specifically addresses the potential for rules to become out-dated and ill-suited to today’s organizational composition. Democratic revisability involves keeping coordinating rules and decisions continually open to modification by the relevant community. I argue that this conception of democracy is central to anarchist and prefigurative organizing, but has been undertheorized to date.
In my exploration of democratic revisability through the Open Food Network’s imperfect realization of this ideal, I identify two key components. Transparency is the backward-looking aspect that enables participants to understand the intentions behind the organization’s rules, and thereby assess the degree to which their effects are aligned with these intentions, or indeed whether the underlying intentions are still held as valid by the organization. Editability is the forward-looking aspect that enables participants to rewrite these rules in order to realign them with the organization’s present intentions. Revisability is particularly important for democratic organizations as the legitimacy of such organizations’ rules derives from their ongoing endorsement by participants, and this endorsement is most clearly evidenced by the fact that they are genuinely open to revision.
I suggest that revisability has been overlooked in the literature to date because it seems to be incompatible with effective coordination, or even the organizational form itself – we might think “what meaning does a rule even have if I can simply choose to change it rather than follow it?”
In this dissertation, I hope I have demonstrated that democratic revisability is not in fact incompatible with effective coordination: we can have effective coordinating rules that are at the very same time revisable, partly thanks to the affordances of new information and communication technologies.
In my continuing research, I explore the challenges of maintaining revisability in complex organizing, particularly in relation to software development. This research is based on observation of a network of participatory cooperative grocery stores that, like the Open Food Network, aim to prefigure a sustainable and socially just food system. My heartfelt thanks go to both organizations for making this research possible. This dissertation would neither have been possible without my excellent supervisors: Thibault Daudigeos and Stéphane Jaumier at Grenoble Ecole de Management, and Bertrand Valiorgue at Université Clermont Auvergne. Finally, thank you to the CMS division for providing this platform for my work! I am so pleased to be part of this community of scholars working to realign the mechanisms of management with intentions we can endorse in good conscience.