When I started thinking of a topic to write about for this post, the theme that immediately came to my mind was “shared ownership.” It has been a theme that keeps coming up as I reflect on some of the challenges and opportunities I see in the organizational contexts where I work. Shared ownership can involve the real material common property of resources such as in a workers-owned cooperative, or it can be more ethereal as in the sense of a community that shares the responsibility for the wellbeing of its members. Between these two extremes, there can be many variations. But the common thread is a sense of belonging, a realization that we are interdependent, and that what we do as individuals affects the whole.
This week, I learned about the death of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on economic governance. Ostrom showed how common resources, like “forests, fisheries, oil fields or grazing lands, can be managed successfully by the people who use them, rather than by governments or private companies.” The tragedy of the commons, as explained by ecologist Garret Hardin, has applied to numerous situations where we have lost many species and ecosystems because of private interests focused on maximizing their individual profit. However, as Ostrom demonstrated, it doesn’t apply to all cases. There are many groups and cultures around the world who have been successful in sharing ownership rights and responsibilities, finding the sustainable way of using the resources without depleting them. Shared ownership requires rules for how and when to access the resources, but above all, it requires trust: everybody needs to care for the commons, everybody needs to follow the rules. If someone pursues individual self-interest, the community as a whole suffers.
Ostrom identified some “design principles” for the management of common pool resources (or CPRs), including: clearly defined boundaries of the CPRs, rules for the appropriation and provision of common resources, participatory decision making processes and effective communication, monitoring for accountability, sanctions for appropriators who violate the community rules, accessible conflict resolution mechanisms, self-determination granted to the community by higher-level authorities, and trust and reciprocity among the members of the community.
From a social systems design perspective, these principles are guidelines for the design of multiple and diverse institutional configurations. Ostrom advocated for the design of organizational systems that use local knowledge to match the complexity, in terms of biological and cultural diversity, of each unique place. She disagreed with the view of a uniform top-down panacea involving private or public control of the commons. She proved that communities can self-organize for resiliency.
I find her work inspirational and enabling. It provides us with research-based evidence of the opportunities to design new organizational forms. In my work with social enterprises, the issue of shared ownership is becoming increasingly important. Even if the legal structure is not of a formal cooperative, businesses or nonprofit enterprises who want to excel in their social missions need the full engagement of their employees and collaborators. Nonprofit organizations can engage its board members, staff and the communities they serve in an exploration of their common future, making sure that their individual needs and visions are part of the life of the organization. A for-profit can create democratic and participatory processes, sharing financial information with its employees, being transparent about their social and environmental practices, and sharing profits or giving stock options to increase commitment and belonging.
Shared ownership is achieved when people feel they have a “stake” in the organization and its future, when they feel that the mission of the organization is aligned with their personal purpose, and when caring for the whole brings benefits to the individuals. Sharing ownership of a process or a purpose enables self-organization and the activation of the distributed collective intelligence. Shared ownership is a pre-condition for shared leadership.