Reading the Schumpeter column in the latest Economist (possibly restricted content) had me rifling through my dim recollections of once having attended the Montessori-like Rudolf Steiner Schule in Munich, nowadays also known as the Waldorf Rudolf Steiner Schule (where Schule just means school).
Unlike Schumpeter’s implied assumptions about some kind of kumbaya-kind of hippie love-in, my recollection is of a much more disciplined approach somewhat antithetical to the anything-goes hippie philosophy that Schumpeter seems to snipe at contemptuously here and there in the column.
My days at Rudolf Steiner included being kept in the same physical classroom for most of my lessons, not as an exercise in open plan chaos, but to emphasise the notion that separate disciplines of knowledge are nevertheless interrelated – art, history, languages, sciences – to produce a well-rounded individual. In my case I must have been a distinct disappointment to my teachers because even then I was never going to be the model of the redoubtable Christian man Rudolf Steiner had in mind. I do think, though, that my ideas about the desirability of education aiming at facilitating the development of a well-rounded person who has not just technocratic grasp of skills, but insight and wisdom about knowledge, balanced by an ethical dimension, and at least respect for the idea of duty and honour as well as rights and entitlements, might all have originated at that school. Or at least in that era. And my subsequent brutalisation by the masters and some of the boys in the English schools I attended didn’t quite succeed in beating those ideas out of me.
In contrast, it seems, the principally North American examples cited by Schumpeter have far less to do with encouraging ethics, honour or duty, and much more to do with promoting an aggressive, anything-goes culture of exploitative, extractive, and ultimately nihilistically self-destructive capitalism. If that is a symbol of anything ‘progressive’, the meaning of that term has changed in my lifetime, and left me behind.
My own recollections are also about being largely self-determined, which I don’t believe pleased my teachers in Munich or England at all. There was always the idea that I should at least ‘play nice’, if not actually fit in and work well as a member, or even leader, of a group. Alas, I was never a sports team captain, and turned down my one and only offer of becoming a ‘prefect’. Schumpeter’s entrepreneurs may have followed similar paths, albeit spectacularly more materially successfully than I, but it still seems to me that their flirtations with Montessori progressivism, if that’s what they were really doing, had nothing at all to do with promoting team play beyond what was absolutely essential to enrich themselves most effectively. Not to put too fine a point on it, my Rudolf Steiner teachers, and Steiner himself, would have been appalled to be linked to such exemplars.
As a matter of personal experience and preference, I think functional teams are best off working in close proximity, but the benefits of any open plan arrangements are quickly diluted as more than ten people attempt to respect each other in an open space. I have favoured, under these circumstances, the idea of cells, which cannot be called that for the negative connotations, so let’s refer to them as ‘suites’. These might well be separated from other suites only by glass partitions, so long as those are relatively sound-proof (and impervious to the aromas of various lunch menus in larger groups).
I think functional teams must talk to each other quite regularly; at least twice a day – at the beginning and end of the formal working period. That becomes difficult if everyone is located separately, or other teams are co-located.
My cynical and misanthropic imagination, however, tells me that the supposed move away from open plan working spaces might have rather less to do with noise and other unpleasant intrusions than with the fact that there are now two generations of notional professionals churned out by universities which abandoned education in favour of merely technical training, and these people are so painfully ignorant and dull to speak to, that better educated and more ambitious people might seek to be isolated from their facile prattle about celebrities, gadgets, and personal non-events.
I suspect that many people with strategic rather than tactical responsibilities see the utility in addressing the troops and mingling as ‘one of the guys’ as necessary, but not in being constantly distracted by banality and trivia. They also see technically trained people as quite capable of carrying out instructions if well briefed, and there seems little need to get between the worker ants and their tasks. This is how I see Schumpeter’s Silicon Valley examples working their troops.
There are some painful, unfashionable truths about organisations. In many of them there are even senior managers who are none too bright, and being forced to work with them rather than independently can lead to mediocre outcomes, quite often expressed in the worst of all possible compromises for the sake of not bristling fragile egos. In such environments, capable people will have worked out quickly what the requisite upward arse-kissing requirement is, and that they need to move quickly and confidently behind the scenes to achieve outcomes. A drawback of that style, of course, is that a solo failure is conspicuously attached to sole blame, and that a reputation for being crudely, bluntly elitist will make cooperation very difficult to gain when it is needed. You might see Steve Jobs, Steve Balmer, Jimmy Wales. And maybe even Eric Schmidt as successful examples of that latter kind of individualist, surviving unpleasant abrasiveness by dint of economic success.
It seems to me that in terms of the ethical and civic dimensions of a well-rounded person envisioned by Rudolf Steiner, none of Silicon Valley’s filthy rich entrepreneurial elite have shown any inclination to allow morality or any sense of duty to stand in the way of tearing profits from any asset they can lay their hands on, steal, or suborn. In that sense any flirtation they might have had with Montessori principles seems to be purely coincidental, or targeted just at squeezing more productivity out of their workers. I think there is no evidence that Silicon Valley ethics, like US business ethics in general, and increasingly elsewhere around the world too, isn’t strictly limited to lip service to phrases like: ‘It isn’t against the law,’ and: ‘Just don’t get caught.’
I also rather doubt that many employees in those corporations were mentored to, or independently arrived at sudden realisations about ethics or responsibility beyond personal gain.
Perhaps Schumpeter was just looking for a way to rubbish the old Montessori aims as cheesecloth ineffectiveness. However, there isn’t much Montessori about open plan office space or nominal but meaninglessly flat management hierarchies. Schumpeter would have done better to look at what might have worked about the appearance of such approaches, like shaking up teams and middle managers to never let them become comfortable or moribund about tasks and goals via the symbol of staid or isolated physical locations.
Or perhaps Economist leader writers are too easily taken in by what is surely now a quite worn and transparent US corporate custom of giving something the appearance of being far more benign and innovative than it really is, like religious rhetoric masking the hypocrisy of the speaker, or patriotism masking the tyrannical intent of the rhetorician.
However, Schumpeter’s column does beg the question what would come of any sincere corporate adoption of the old Montessori approach.
Schumpeter (2013). Montessori management: The backlash against running firms like progressive schools has begun. The Economist 408(8852). Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/printedition/2013-09-07