I had two main goals in life when I was little. First, when I grew up I would have a house with dozens of rooms to hold my many interests. Second, I would own a complete set of the most up-to-date edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. I attribute both aspirations to having a mom with a deep appreciation for learning. For the longest time, I thought she was magic for having memorized the alpha notations on the encyclopedia spines. If you asked her how long katydids lived, her response would be “Go get the ‘hia to loc’ volume, it’s the ninth one.”
Fast forward a few decades and I’ve eschewed the consumerism and real estate goals for a simpler life — but the daily pursuit of knowledge has stayed with me. I no longer lust after those volumes because I have something bigger and better: an inexhaustible supply of data and information via the Internet.
I’m not the only one with insatiable curiosity. We’ve become a society of information addicts. When we want to know something, we want to know right now. And we have zero tolerance for lack of transparency or access. Social networking, blogs, and online magazines have taught us to be suspicious of partial answers. No problem. We’ll just Google it to get the rest of the story.
It’s no wonder the work environment is going through so many changes. We can’t shift as a society and expect leadership models developed in the 1950’s and 1960’s to be effective with today’s workforce.
The Fall Of The Alphas by Dana Ardi takes us through the agrarian and industrial ages, to our modern-day information age to make the following argument:
The information age demands a new approach to organizing groups of people, as well as to functioning within those same organizations. The Alpha paradigm no longer fits today’s world. We need a new approach to business that doesn’t rely on seniority and other strict traditional patterns of advancement and growth; an approach that gives employees and customers the ability and opportunity to acquire information and express themselves; and not least, an approach that promotes greater teamwork, both internally and externally. Did anyone say Beta?
Contrasting the traditional Alpha structure (think ‘top dog’ and hierarchy) Ardi defines Beta this way: The communitarian, horizontal alternative to the individualistic, hierarchical Alpha paradigm. Beta creates networks rather than silos. Beta de-emphasizes secrecy, and focuses instead on the pooling of information, ideas and opinions.
Wow. Sounds like us, doesn’t it? She goes on to use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to demonstrate the sameness and differences between Alpha and Beta work environments. The base, or primary, needs don’t change, but when we get into the third tier, the one where we seek affinity and relationships, this is where a Beta organization begins to distinguish itself. In the esteem and self-actualization tiers, the Beta organization leaves Alphas in its dust.
Another way the author differentiates the two is by pointing out that Alpha organizations are by their very nature elitist. I can attest to this from my own experience working in sales organizations. Elitism can manifest in the form of tolerating inappropriate behaviour from the highest producers while professing to hold everyone to the same standards of conduct.
What’s A Leader To Do?
The author’s stated goal is not to “transform established, successful, conservative companies. Rather, to help organizations position themselves to succeed with today’s workers, and in today’s new business environment.”
I’ve pulled out a few more lines from the book to better describe the distinguishing features of a Beta organization.
- Beta companies are communities, not armies. They are made up of shifting, project- or process-based teams instead of rigid functional silos.
- Instead of focusing on people who have the best metrics, companies need to recognize the facilitators within the organization.
- “Craftspeople” need to be as valued and rewarded as managers.
- The short definition of Beta: communication, collaboration and curation
The book appears to be light reading when you pick it up but is actually quite deep and academic in places. I found it challenging to make it through the first two chapters (‘Corporate Anthropology’ and ‘Plows and Primates’) but it picked up after that. It’s not a quick read. I recommend it for leaders and leadership teams who are open to change and confident enough to question current methodologies. Ardi provides practical examples of ways in which organizations can exemplify Beta behaviours.