Sociocracy is a method of governance based on valuing the equivalence of each person, the importance of focusing on aims, and transparency of information. Its principles and methods are derived from the Quaker tradition of peace education and cybernetics, the science of communications and control.
The Monarchies Are Gone, Now What?
The sociocratic idea of using something other than autocratic power to govern complex societies began in the mid-19th century, when Europe and America were emerging from monarchies and the struggle to develop alternatives was beginning. With very few exceptions, including the budding democracy in America, monarchies in one form or another, benevolent or oppressive, were the only form of governance—of anything.
“Sociocracy” was first used by French Philosopher Auguste Comte, a leader in establishing sociology as a formal study, who called for a society governed by sociologists who could balance humanism and critical analysis to set social and economic policy.
The root word for both “sociology” and “sociocracy” is from the Greek and Latin, “socius” that means “companion.” Sociology, as a combination of “socius” and “logy,” the study of, is the study of companions, or social groups. Sociocracy, as “socius” combined with “ocracy,” from the Greek “kratien,” to rule, means governance by companions.
While others spoke of a sociocracy, notably renowned American Sociologist Lester Frank Ward, there were no attempts to establish a sociocracy, unless inspiration for the French Revolution can be claimed.
(Note: Socialism, which advocates centralized ownership and distribution of wealth by the state, is unrelated to sociocratic thought.)
The First Sociocracy
It wasn’t until WW II began to engulf Europe, that the first practical application of a sociocracy was established. Before the war, Dutch Educator Kees Boeke and his wife, English Educator Beatrice Cadbury, had been active internationally in peace education, predominantly in the Middle East, particularly Palestine. When his efforts to convince Hitler to adopt more peaceful methods failed, he was deported from Germany and returned to Bilthoven, a small community near Utrecht, in The Netherlands. Needing a school for his children and to continue teaching, Boeke started the Children’s Community Workshop and began applying his Quaker egalitarian principles to its governance. Even when it grew to 400 students in 1945, the teachers and students continued to work together as equals to develop and manage the school, making decisions by consensus.
Boeke continued to write about the abuses of power that were becoming evident in democracies and considered sociocracy “democracy as it might be.”
A Sociocracy for Business
It was a graduate of Kees Boeke’s school, Dutch Engineer Gerard Endenburg, who discovered how to implement sociocratic ideals in the governance of a large organization in a competitive, results-oriented context. Endenburg’s family owned an electrical engineering company and in 1968, he became managing director. As an engineer, he found it frustrating that he could design remarkably successful electrical and mechanical systems but in managing people, it seemed impossible to produce satisfactory results for everyone—managers, workers, and investors. He knew from own experience and Boeke’s teachings that everyone’s needs had to be addressed in order to create a highly productive organization. Anything else was self-defeating.
While teaching radar technology in the Army, Endenburg had become interested in cybernetics which studied the ways that systems self-regulate, how they manage themselves successfully by self-correcting in response to a changing environment. Could cybernetic principles be applied in business?
In 1970 Endenburg reduced the size of his company from 160 to 100 employees and began using it as a laboratory to experiment with a new way of managing a business. His goal was to produce the environment of harmony and self-directed achievement that he had experienced at Boeke’s school and missed when he went to the university and later in the army. In the business he found it counter productive.
By 1978, Endenburg established the Sociocratisch Centrum, which in 2000 had about 15 employees. With over ten years of experience implementing ideas, evaluating the results, making corrections and starting over again, Endenburg had developed a revolutionary method for organizing and managing a business, and had begun to working with other companies to implement his method. His method wasn’t just an idea as Comte’s and Ward’s had been, nor a school like Boeke’s with its important but limited goals of group support and personal achievement. In a demanding, fast-paced business Endenburg had produced an organization that was, harmonious, self-regulating, and highly successful.
In 1984 Endenburg transferred his ownership, giving up his ability to control Endenburg Electric. This was the last step in transforming Endenburg Electric into a “free organization,” one with the ability to govern itself, with no owners and no autocratic control by a board of directors, and no danger of being taken over by another corporation without their consent. The labor laws In The Netherlands were amended to exempt sociocratic companies from the requirement of an employee union because sociocracy protected their rights more completely than a union would.
In 1995 when Endenburg stepped down as managing director, the company, still at 110 employees, had an annual income of fl 14 million, approximately US $5.6 million.
The First Sociocratic Centers
In 1978 Endenburg established the Sociocratisch Centrum in Utrecht (now in Rotterdam) and begun consulting with other organizations that wanted to organize sociocratically. He also began training consultants who travelled to The Netherlands to study with him and joined the faculty of the school of business at the University of Maastricht.
Centers that will oversee the certification of Sociocratic Experts are being established in seven countries. A network of sociocratic organizations, including SocioNet, is being formed to increase general awareness of sociocratic principles and methods.
Endenburg continues to be active in both the Centrum, as a consultant, and in decisions related to the growth in sociocratic organizations.
Sociocratic organizations exist in Australia, Brazil, the United States, Canada, and in many European counties. They include national and international associations, building and manufacturing companies, health care services, public school systems, villages, private schools, Buddhist monasteries, software companies, residential communities, colleges, a wholesale florist provider, veterinary offices, and consulting firms.
While it is impossible to count or even estimate the number of sociocratic organizations and the organizations that have been influenced by sociocratic governance, one number is clear. When John Buck and Sharon Villines began collaborating on the book We the People in 2002, Villines did a Google search to see what she could find on online. There were only 12 results, most of them duplicates for the Sociocratic Center in Rotterdam and for Twin Oaks, an intentional community in rural Virginia that manufactures hammocks and was an early adopter. The rest were mentions with no content; some, inaccurate to misleading.
Today there are tens of thousand citations. Perhaps not quite what one would wish for in a high-level research study, but it is an objective measure.