Semco – Is it Workforce Chaos, or Genius?

This weekend at the bookstore I was flipping through a book by Richard Semler, CEO of Semco. This company is remarkable because, well it's problemably easier for me to quote something.

Ricardo Semler's best selling book Maverick, together with his two Harvard Business Review articles, chronicles the development of what's described as "The world's most unusual workplace": a Brazilian company that "has no receptionists, secretaries, standard hierarchies, dress codes, or executive perks…a company that lets you set your work hours and even your salary…where the standard policy is no policy." [7] Semler is the flamboyant and inspirational CEO in his mid thirties who, in just ten years, transformed the company into what is now being touted as "a model for the 90s and beyond." Semler's work is much admired. He is celebrated as a role model of a CEO who bucks all the rules and succeeds, but one who's behaviour and success seems to defy explanation.

Weird. Cool. Actually, I'm not sure.

I've thought a lot these last few months about business structure, particularly how biological models can be applied to corporations. I think most corporate theory is too simple. It labels people A or B, X or Y, it assumes they hate work, it assumes they love it if properly motivated, whatever the theory proposes, it tries to fit employees in one or more boxes, and make recommendations according to the characteristics of these boxed employees.

But it's bogus. Employees don't fit into categories because any lines you draw are arbitrary. Employee traits fall along a continuum. They are "fuzzy." So the point is really to think about bigger systems. If you design the systems correctly, the employees will find their niche and flourish or perish, just like a real ecosystem.

I've often wondered if someone could build a company where capital and labor were allocated to projects by individual employees based on some sort of internal market. Roles would be based on desire, skill, and peer evaluation. There would be feedback mechanisms that increase the further out of equilibrium something gets, so that it always comes back to where it should be. I don't have it all pinned down but, I think about it all the time. problemably too much. Finding out about Semco only made me think about it more. I'm not sure Semler has the right answer, but he is moving in an interesting direction.

For some good links about Semco, check out this, this, and this.