Participatory Organizations, Patterns, Processes & Tools — An Overview & Taxonomy

Posted on by Brandon Klein

By Christopher Allen — — Licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0

I have been both a practitioner in, and an observer of, participatory organizations for some time. This is my very opinionated guide as to some the best practices of participatory organizations based on my experience, and some to offer some possible shared language about those practices so that we can talk about them further.

First, why do I use the word "organization" rather than a broader word like "group" or a more specific word like "corporation"?

The definition of "organization" is "an organized body of people with a particular purpose, especially a business, society, association, etc.". As the word doesn't define how groups of people work together, only that they have a purpose--I find it suitably generic. I also think it is important to differentiate between groups of people that have a purpose as opposed to groups that do not. A mob does not have a purpose, nor do many affiliations who share something in common such as being red-headed or living in the same neighborhood. A community, an open source project, a non-profit, a corporation, are groups that all have a purpose. I want to focus on groups with a purpose.

Next, what do I mean when I qualify a subset of organizations by using the word "participatory"?

The definition of participate is "to take or have a portion" and the root of the word comes from the latin ‘participare’ meaning "to share in". Participation, more specifically in our western culture, also implies fairness in such sharing.

Thus a "participatory organization" is a group of people who share a purpose and share, in a fair fashion, the effort and the results of achieving that purpose. Organizations can come in many forms and sizes, can have a wide variety of purposes, work together in wide variety of ways, and can achieve many different results, but participatory organizations share.

There are a wide variety of terms for related practices: self-managing organization, flat organizations, cooperatives, collaboratives, etc. however, I've often found these terms too narrow — often focusing on a specific kind of group, a specific process or method, or share the work without fairly sharing the results of that work. However, there are many valuable things to learn from these related practices.

The advantages of involvement in participatory organizations are numerous, but there is a cost. In order to fairly share the work and the achievements from the work, there are a wide variety of practices (skills, knowledge, communications, methods, processes, and tools) that must be learned and used by the members of organization. These require both investment of time & energy to learn, as well as time & energy on an ongoing basis to function.

There is one particular personal bias that I have about participatory organization practices — I favor patterns over specific processes or tools. I feel too often practitioners get lost — a process that worked in one specific case causes problems in another, a great tool is too much effort or becomes a distraction, or either a process or a tool is manipulated by someone to cause unfair results. Focusing on patterns allows for flexibility to make sure that fair results are achieved.

Discovering common patterns in processes and tools is difficult — it requires learning differing shared languages and approaches, energy for real-world practice to experience them, time to deepen understanding & analysis, and sufficiently different examples of different disciplines to see what patterns they have in common.

This document shares my explorations so far into discovering patterns in a participatory organization practices, starting mostly with a taxonomy and inventory of existing practices. It is an opinionated guide--however, most of these practices I've not had sufficent time and experience with them to say that my early opinions are correct. Thus I welcome your own experience and am quite willing to change my mind.