What can online group work learn from sociocracy?

I’ve been taking a course on Sociocracy – Sociocracy Empowered Learning Circles by Sociocracy For All – Sociocracy is an interesting way of governing an organization. It is sometimes also called Dynamic Governance. Why would I be taking a course on sociocracy? I recently joined an organization that uses sociocracy as its way of governing. I find it a fascinating way to make decisions, but also to create proposals and create policy. It provides a great balance between giving everyone a voice and empowering individuals or small groups (called circles) to make decisions on behalf of the larger organization.

Here is a video clip that outlines what sociocracy is. From an online teaching perspective, I think having students start at about minute 5 when it talks about the operations of the circle (which would be like the operations of a team). I also think the part about rounds is really important, as it would give the student team a way to ensure that everyone’s voice gets heard.

Group decision making is an interesting challenge. We all are familiar with the democratic ideal of one vote per person. This leads to governance that is sometimes called “the tyranny of the majority”. Another type of governance that is common is called “consensus”, however that can become “the tyranny of the one”, that is, one person can derail all progress with their objection. Sociocracy attempts to avoid both of these by giving everyone a voice in the decision making process, but also setting up rules that only allow objections if the proposal will not meet the intended goal. One term we use a lot is “is it within your range of tolerance”? Part of me still wonders if this will lead to suboptimal decision making – but I also see that what is ideal for one person is not ideal for someone else – there is always some form of compromise happening.

Now I find myself wondering, how might the sociocratic practices be useful in the online group work experience? I currently teach a few different things – one of which talks about the need to come together with a solid group agreement – but I wonder if teaching aspects of sociocracy might help online teams. I wonder if things like the process of rounds – would be something that students would be willing to try within their groups, and then having tried it, would it help them perform better as a team? Is the process too heavy for a simple class project?

The Wikipedia article mentions the idea that in sociocracy, that consent and consensus are two different things, and that decisions are made by consent not consensus. That, I think might be the key part of what might help students groups make more effective online decisions. What is the difference? In consensus, the goal is to have everyone in full agreement of the proposal. With consent, the proposal needs to be good enough, but it does not require everyone to fully agree to it. One way that this has been express is as “Sociocratisch Centrum co-founder Reijmer has summarized the difference as follows:[12] ‘By consensus, I must convince you that I am in the right; by consent, you ask whether you can live with the decision.'” (Wikipedia).

In this week’s lesson, we went through a process called “picture forming” as a way of coming up with a proposal. I found myself thinking that this could actually be a really useful process for students in figuring out how to come up with ideas for their group projects/presentations. It involves giving everyone a chance to provide their thoughts, first about what “dimensions” should be included in the project. These are usually stated as questions, and do not include opinions. The second part involves making suggestions around different ideas. Once everyone in the group has had a chance to get all their ideas out, then one person can take all that information and generate a proposal, which the group then can consent to (or object to). Either way, the process ensures that everyone in the group gets a chance to provide their ideas about what the presentation needs to include as well as ways in which the presentation can be developed. Here is a short video that explains it:

My question is to the instructors who are reading this: Do you think this would be a useful tool to give students to help them with their group projects? In what ways would you introduce it?

I'd love to hear your thoughts

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