Bryan Behrenshausen's public notebook. Updated irregularly.

Mapping meritocracies

Of all the concepts that cluster loosely around this thing we call “openness,” “meritocracy” has for me emerged as one of the most interesting.

Theoretically speaking, meritocracy gestures toward a rich constellation of ideas and tensions that are not necessarily unique to open source communities, but that open source communities are uniquely suited to help us explore. And practically speaking, meritocracy underwrites a considerable number of the more compelling technical and programmatic innovations occurring in forward-thinking organizations today. Those innovations—the shape they ultimately take—promise to teach us something critical about evolving strategies and tactics of governance, broadly defined, in multiple organizational contexts.

Today, published new writing on meritocracy from Brook Manville, Forbes contributor, consultant, friend, and author of the book A Company of Citizens. Having spoken to quite a few self-proclaimed practitioners of meritocracy, Brook came to the conclusion that (surprise!) no one can agree on what meritocracy actually is:

It all seems simple and logical enough: open up competition, let the best prevail and reap the benefits of getting great results. But putting meritocracy into practice is not as easy as it looks. […] My interviews didn’t attempt to do a full practice analysis across all examples, but I got a glimpse of a range of implementation challenges, and more than a little variety of how different companies simply understand the concept.

Rather than bemoan that state of affairs, however, Brook celebrates it; he latches onto the term’s polysemy as an opportunity to prise open new directions and strategies for thinking about the political purchase of organizational systems predicated on something called “merit.” The result is a truly compelling little treatise that proposes a model for pursuing a systematic study of meritocratic systems—not for the purpose of arriving at some unified definition, but more so in order to begin the work of actually mapping meritocracies, understanding their contours and dynamics, and describing their many variations so we get a better sense of what they actually do.

“Meritocracy” betokens an incredibly dense problem-space that anyone interested in “open-style”organizations simply cannot sidestep. In fact, many “core” issues related to open organizational theory and practice—new relationships between leaders and the led, new models of authority, new questions about motivation and participation, dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, and more—crisscross it. At its heart, any discussion of meritocracy is a discussion of organizational governance and therefore a discussion of power relations.

I tried to express some of this in a response to Brook’s piece, which also published today. For now, I’ll shelve the question of whether that essay has any merit.

# February 21, 2017