businesses organized around social values be successful? And, given longevity and economic
success, can such companies continue to hold onto their values in an increasingly
competitive and global market?
These questions form the basis of communication studies
Professor George Cheneys most recent book, Values at Work, in which he
describes fundamental changes under way at the Mondragon worker cooperatives in the Basque
region of Spain.
Cheney, who also is an adjunct professor of management communication at Waikato
University in Hamilton, New Zealand, visited the Mondragon cooperatives and conducted
interviews with employee-owners in 1992, 1994 and 1997. While primarily for students and
scholars in the fields of communication, sociology, management, economics and political
science, his observations also should interest managers and people concerned with worker
co-ops and the question of workplace democracy in general.
Founded in 1956, the Mondragon co-ops are among the oldest and most successful cases of
worker ownership and self-governance in the world, Cheney says. They were founded on
principals of democracy, equality and solidarity and developed highly successful internal
organization and communication schemes to reflect these core values.
A lot changed for the co-ops in 1992, however, Cheney says, when the countries of the
European Union dropped their borders to the flow of capital, labor, products and services.
For [the co-ops] it meant much larger markets than ever before and much more
competition from the big boys, Cheney says.
As Mondragon and other businesses around the world are discovering, there are enormous
pressures to broaden activities and expand corporate base in order to compete on a global,
or at least continental, scale. As the corporate mission shifts, so does the internal
structure of the organization.
Cheney says that at Mondragon there has been a deliberate introduction of management
styles from outside rather than an attempt to build on proven traditions and that this is
leading to some dissent within the cooperatives. He has observed a shift away from
decision-centered forms of employee participation and increases in centralized management,
more bureaucratic communication, and the uncritical adoption of management slogans and
Mondragon may be drifting toward becoming just another set of market-driven companies,
Cheney says. But is this the unavoidable result of responding to the demands of a global
marketplace, or does it represent a lack of commitment to finding creative ways to
maintain core democratic values?
We dont have definite answers to these questions yet, Cheney says,
but they do serve to point out the need for vigilance if we are to continue striving
for genuine workplace democracy. What good is having values if you cant stay
in business, but what good is success if you have no values?