Sunday, December 14, 2008

Voluntary Associations

USA secondary schools tend to inculcate a sense of rank and privilege among football players, but without setting up payroll and rewarding in monetary terms. The rewards come as perks, with the promise of payment later, if the player makes the cut and becomes a star athlete, a route open only to a lucky few.

Likewise, the business world or "private sector" as some call it, is able to cut across pay scales using voluntary formations recruited from many walks of life within a company. These might be actual sports teams, or community service squads. Perhaps a small group of health professionals joins an "away team" to provide much needed services in trying circumstances.

People who might not come face to face in the everyday workflow, now become pair programmers in some silly exercise (silly in the sense of transient, not in terms of intent), thanks to the workshop context, possibly run by outsiders. Disrupting entrenched patterns of bureaucratic communication may be the life-saving tactic in many a dying business. Relationships formed in a workshop may persist to positive effect. New possibilities arise as a result.

All too often, the infighting and feuding that led to these unproductive relationships have mostly faded from corporate memory, and yet still the CFO and CSO hardly ever sit at the same table (for example), to the detriment of all concerned. Volunteer opportunities may counter such semi-paralysis, break the ice, restore fluidity to the workplace.

This Centers Network I sometimes write about, was an example of such a voluntary association that cut across obstructive fences at a citywide level. As a Logistics Supervisor for seminars and trainings, I got to interface with hotel managements, soap opera stars, even the wife of a big city mayor (one of the seminar leaders). In my walk of life as a math teacher in New Jersey, I'd not have had these networking opportunities, with individuals of talent and with a desire to serve.

Thanks to my volunteer hours with the New York Area Center, I met this guy Harry (pseudonym) who distrusted his business partner, was co-owner of some bar. Whereas a lot of us might think owning a bar in Greenwich Village might be some dream come true, the bees knees, Harry just wanted a settled family life like he saw in Sears-Roebuck catalogs. Last I knew, he'd joined the Church of the Latter Day Saints in hopes of fulfilling his dream.

There's this somewhat ridiculous misperception that to be involved in volunteer work is by definition to be taking time away from one's legitimate (i.e. directly compensated) professional responsibilities. Even basic R&R is a part of self-pacing however, which is why taking paid holidays may be a job requirement (i.e. not so voluntary). But here I'm talking about work, sometimes quite difficult and challenging, outside the usual routines.

You'll find this bias in movies like Mary Poppins, where the banker dad is obviously too puffed up with self-importance to take his own personal or spiritual growth seriously, let alone directly raising his children (the Victorian model was to interpose a trained professional, a nanny, invariably of the female persuasion and optimally French speaking).

In some business subcultures, "volunteer work" was associated with "charities", and was therefore viewed as something the women should look after, as somehow less important, more marginal, whereas the males, the "real bosses" (aka soulless monsters) would have only their selfish money-making as a professional focus, never mind about Ubuntu (Sangha).

Anyway, I could go on and on, but I'm guessing my readers are likely familiar with these somewhat knee-jerk habits of thought, characteristic of an antediluvian way of thinking. I'm glad we're no longer of that mindset, at least not among most Wanderers and/or Quakers I work with (both good examples of voluntary associations). We know we're not just spinning our wheels when we go "off the clock" as it were, to more freely associate, engage on committees, take field trips or whatever.

Let's remember that community service used to be a major point of those "artificial persons" before those clever lawyers railroaded their "corporate personhood" philosophy down our throats, on the back of the 14th Amendment.

Not surprisingly, a next generation, better informed about past mistakes, equipped with more hindsight, is brainstorming new business models that mix in these democratizing, self-steering components right from the get go, thereby creating a new crop of "agile" companies, more nimble, less crash-prone, less trapped in self-defeating design patterns.