organisations as vocational communities


Nearly fifteen years ago I was an active participant in an experiment. It was loads of fun, but it was serious. It was an experiment in doing business differently. Some of us lab rats are in the above photo. Chief experiment designer Paul Steele took the photo. We built a business without a rule book. Our basic operating idea was that work was more than a job. Work should be an expression of who we are. We should not have to check out our true selves when we turned up. Work should be social. I should do the things I’m good at to make the world better. We came to refer to it as a vocational community.

A vocation is more than a job. It is often associated with ‘calling’ and at times attracts a spiritual connotation. A vocation is a contribution that expresses who we are. We bring our whole selves to it. And it is purposeful. So a vocation facilitates us contributing our best to society.

A vocational community is therefore a ‘container’ that facilitates people living out their vocations collectively, recognising that we can achieve more in concert than we can individually.

A vocational community can be recognised from the following attributes:

  1. People have authority to make decisions about the most important aspects of their role. This is more than delegated power, it is autonomy to create and be more than what is required to be a cog in the organisational machine.
  2. People can bring and be themselves; styles, relational connections, hobbies …
  3. Activity is purposeful and is connected to a greater positive contribution for which the community exists.

Relatively few people have ever experienced work in an environment with these attributes. The dominant organisational model is better described with the antitheses of these. The assumptions behind current organisational practices include:

  • Bosses know best and therefore make the most important decisions,
  • Non-professional aspects of people’s lives are a distraction at work,
  • People’s role at work is to play a predefined role in an organisational hierarchy in service of the organisation’s mission.

This thinking served us well in the past. But once you have experienced a vocational community there is no going back.

Here’s a brief account of a vocational community I helped design and lead. The Ergo Story. We made lots of mistakes, some of them significant, but even back then in the early 00s, we knew that the old ways were broken and while a few businesses were tinkering, few were modelling what we wanted to be. Thanks to everyone who was part of those experimental days, may there be more and better ways to experience what we tasted then.

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  1. Pingback: competent participation vs. ownership | Col Duthie

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