The limits of meritocracy (on the subject of Linus Torvalds’ resignation)


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Linus Torvals’ resignation on Linux has opened a debate about the limits of meritocratic organizations. The survival of the organizations that bet on meritocracy depends on the correct analysis of the problems that this resignation makes visible.

Supporters of native digital forms of organization feel very comfortable contrasting the agility, efficiency, and effectiveness of our organizational models with the limits of classic organizational models. However, it is difficult to find valuable reflections on the very limits of these “new” organizational forms… until now.

Linus Torvalds has abdicated as Linux Benevolent Dictator for Live.

It’s hard to explain the importance of Linux to someone who doesn’t know it. It is an anomaly that Linux does not move the desktop of your computer (the only market in which it is a minority) because it runs the world.

Linux moves most servers (it runs the Internet) and practically all supercomputers (it moves science), in addition to being (even as a captive) in the world’s most used operating system: Android.

In his resignation statement, Torvalds begins by recounting a series of prosaic events: A scheduling problem prevented him from attending a Linux meeting that obviously could not be held without him. He ends up making a personal reflection on life, and human relations that have, in turn, opened a thought throughout the free software community and beyond on the limits of certain forms of native digital self-organization that boast of meritocracy as a fundamental principle.

One of the consequences of this event has been the attention given to the PostMeritocratic Manifesto that has been there since May, and that has been signed by Patricia Torvalds (Linus’ daughter).

  • In our opinion, this manifesto is correct in the description but not clear enough in the prescription. The version of the meritocracy that regulates some digital native communities is not the objective measure that is intended, much less the panacea. And that’s when we talk about code. As soon as we leave this auditable terrain and enter other productive sectors, meritocracy can become a dystopia. The “ethics of care”, although necessary, will not solve this bug. Kindness is basic in any human relationship, self-esteem is important for personal fulfillment, but none of this replaces competence.
  • A debate on the subject should start by not ruling out meritocracy in the way it has been implemented in this type of organizational model. The problem is not the hierarchy in individuals that imposes that meritocracy, but the hierarchy of merits. The manifesto points timidly in that direction when it says that hard-skills should not be valued more than soft-skills. But he does not put it in terms of the ecosystem but emphasizes inclusiveness in an abstract community. We consider that there are more valuable capacities than others because we consider that there are more substitutable capacities than others, and this does not fit with a systemic view of the organization. In a dynamic team, there is a relational dimension within the team, and with all its network, that escapes competency analysis and affects the entire ecosystem. There are no parts of an ecosystem that can be extracted and replaced without altering the whole ecosystem.

Each system is unique and unrepeatable, which is why good experiences of collaboration and self-organization are so difficult to reproduce. If the organization cannot function without coffee, fair and necessary is to recognize the merit of the one who makes sure that we have the coffee we need, when we need it, in the way we need it, and fulfilling the biological and psychological function that it has to fulfill at an individual and collective level. It may seem like a mere witticism, but we firmly think that the survival of the organizations that bet on meritocracy depends on it.

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