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Democratic principles making businesses more transparent

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When senior managers at Continuum, a design and innovation firm, decided to renovate their quarters in an old shoe factory west of Boston last year, they took what some businesses might consider a radical step: They eliminated most interior barriers, creating a vast open space.

"We do not have doors," says Freda King, a vice president. "It's structured that way to stimulate conversation and to allow people to work collaboratively. Anyone from the chief operating officer to our interns shares space and sits next to each other. You can stop in and have a conversation with anyone, anytime you want."

That egalitarian environment is one of the innovations that placed Continuum among 34 corporate recipients of a Democracy in the Workplace award this month. The recognition comes from WorldBlu, a Washington, D.C,. business specializing in workplace democracy. The international list features such industries as technology, manufacturing, telecommunications, retail, and media. It even includes a firm in Russia.

"Democratic organizations operate on freedom, not fear," says Traci Fenton, founder and CEO of WorldBlu. "They understand that the future of business is less about titles and more about meaning. They represent the new school of business design."

In hierarchical companies, the phrase "democratic workplace" can be an oxymoron. A top-down management style sometimes leaves workers with little voice or power. But with the growth of technology and the arrival of Generations X and Y in the workplace – a group that expects to be treated with openness – more businesses are reshaping themselves around such democratic principles as decentralization, accountability, and choice.

When the modern corporation began in the 1900s, Ms. Fenton says, it was typically based on a military, command-and-control model that often remains today.

Her own views of democracy underwent a transformation in college. A campuswide conference on the subject broadened her perspective beyond its role in government and politics. A student tour to Indonesia in 1997, when Suharto was in power, gave her a sobering view of what it was like to be in an undemocratic environment.

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