Ruminations on Empowerment within MNCs

Yesterday in my Leadership in Organizations class we discussed the concept of empowerment up and down the organizational chart — basically giving even the ‘lowest’ rungs on a corporate ladder the ability to make their own decisions and take control over their jobs. I could not help but think about my visit this January to the Kanan Devan Hill Plantation, a major tea grower in Kerala that used to be owned by Tata.

What is truly unique about this company is the fact that when Tata sold it, it did so to the employees themselves. Now it is almost completely owned by the very people who plow the fields, oversee the factories, drive the trucks, and so forth. This sort of particapatory ownership can at times seem to be almost like Marxist capitalism, but the corporate stewardship that such a structure promotes existed long before the sale. In fact throughout its history, the owners of the plantations continually built and provided services that the workers and managers required in the valley — including schools, clinics, railroads and so forth.

In modern captialist theory, we have often tried to fully separate the roles and relationships of management and labor — a tension that Marx no doubt ‘capitalized’ on when developing his manifesto read round the world. But one anecdote that my professor mentioned yesterday which I found particulary interesting was that of what Lee Iacocca (former CEO of Chrysler) did to pull the company out of bankruptcy. HE PUT THE UNION LEADER ON THE BOARD OF THE COMPANY.

This act flew in the face of all management theories of his day, but was critical in making the car company’s turnaround a success during the 1980s. Let us hope that similar unconventional ideas that actually promote inclusion and greater holistic approaches to management-labor relations will actually be given the time they deserve as we look to rebuild the global economy today.

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