It’s been a long time now since you authored the book, The Great Game of Business, back in 1992. I remember reading it entirely in one afternoon, I was so excited about what it described! You folks at SRC were actively doing what we at my company had only dreamed about: creating a business of owners. Your impact on our company made a tremendous difference in the worklives and outside lives of lots of people. And I’m writing now to tell you that I’m seeing the possibilities once again. This time, it’s in the rural communities of the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua.
If I was excited to come across your book in ’92, then I felt positively ecstatic a few years ago to discover that it had been translated into Spanish. We immediately acquired copies and began the advocacy for open books as a means to cultivate long-term, sustainable development. We shared the idea with established coops, with development agencies, a national association of cooperatives and anyone else who would listen.
But the reaction tended to be the same as that which you originally experienced when first sharing the notion with companies here in the U.S.: leaders saw it as a threat, managers could not accept the possibility of broad-thinking peasants, and in our case, there may have even been some nationalism at work as Nicaraguans may have doubted the applicability of a North American business invention. So we simply continued to reference the concept with groups as we interacted with them, we continued to tell the story of the transformational potential of open books, and hoped that the seeds which were planted might take root.
Then, last month, I think we may have achieved a breakthrough of sorts. Winds of Peace Foundation provided the major underwriting of a “certificate program” for cooperatives. The participants were mostly rural producers and members of cooperatives, with some development people, as well. Some of them had heard us talk about open books previously, but only in a generic way. This time, they were exposed to more detail and actually performed some exercises to illustrate the process. By going slowly and with care, many of them seemed to warm to the belief that they could and should “know their numbers” and the processes behind them. (Their excursion into open books has even been written up by researcher and certificate program developer Rene Mendoza, in the magazine, “Confidencial.”)
I wonder if you knew back in 1992 that the idea of open books contained as much transformational power as it has proven to hold. You wrote about empowering people and changing their lives at work through open books, you wrote about companies harnessing resources that were previously dormant, you even wrote about the intrinsic impacts that this kind of participation engenders. But could you have foreseen entire cultural shifts that could result? Did you contemplate what it might mean in changing the dynamics between the “gatekeepers” of knowledge and the producers who often naively relied upon them? Having the book translated into other languages constituted a step of faith in that direction, but did you actually anticipate that rural cooperative members- often uneducated and inexperienced- could take control of their organizations that had long been under the influence of other voices?
In Nicaragua, some of our partners are beginning to rethink the cultural norm of autonomous leadership that has existed for generations. They have begun to experience a confidence in both their need and ability to know the critical equations of their businesses. I know that you might identify with the feelings I had when visiting one cooperative, exploring with them the reasons for their success when so many of their neighbors were struggling. The reasons were many, but when they reported having read your book (which we had earlier placed with them) and having implemented some of its lessons, I knew that the magic of the game was as real in Nicaragua as it has been in the U.S. More importantly, they did, too. If you really did anticipate the universality of open books, then you are, indeed, prescient.
As with any methodology that shakes up the status quo of authority, knowledge and position, this process will take time, repetition and success in order for it to take hold as a new way of life. You have preached that reality continually from your own experiences. Winds of Peace will need to stand with the early adopters of open books and provide the necessary resources for continued training and access to experienced voices. But if the commitment is there, we will be, too.
I can only hope that the cooperatives who show interest in embracing open book management can create the kind of network among themselves that you were able to create with open book organizations in the U.S. That opportunity for organizations to come together and share their experiences, their difficulties and their solutions have really helped to expand the open book reality. Those networks have made it easier to deal with problems and false starts before they become too big to handle. Being available to one another is not only a help to those who are struggling, but also to those who are succeeding, still wanting to achieve more.
So thanks again. Your idea worked for my former company over the years and now stands the chance to work transformations once again, this time in a more difficult context. But great ideas have a way of surviving even the most challenging circumstances, and my belief is that one of your many future site visits just might include a stop in Central America, to see the Nicaraguan version of Le Gran Juego de los Negocios….