Stop scapegoating meritocracy…
The problem with meritocracy in the IT sector is the way it is misunderstood and implemented, the belief that it will solve everything, not the idea in itself. There is a cultural aspect to communities that we think we can blame upon an implementation of an idea.
It’s just to take a look at communities that say they are a meritocracy and to evaluate them against the general population. If there isn’t a somewhat representative diversity then it’s obvious that there’s cultural aspects holding back the meritocracy… Now there’s always going to be some difference, for example any group of experts within a specific scientific field won’t present an identical diversity to the general population, and part of this will be to blame on broader cultural problems, and class systems, in the community at large, and even between countries.
The meritocracy in the Apache projects, like all open source projects, and the IT industry at large, really suffers from a lack of diversity, and this stems largely from white men permitting a culture to continue, one that is peculiar and hard-nosed. Apache has always valued community-building and diversity over code, and disdained itself from notions of exclusivity, something we’re loosing in github projects where the ego, self-image, and fragmentation, take preference. Apache has established code of conducts to encourage fair and friendly play, where projects only survive if multiple companies are involved, and commodisation of code is an explicit mission for the greater good, while github being even more the “bazaar” does not. For example ApacheCon last week placed extra emphasis on the importance of diversity, particularly gender balance, within the community, recognising that exerted effort is required from within otherwise the problem will only get worse. No one made fault of meritocracy because everyone knows it is a positive ideal, a way to implement a trust system among experts distributed across the planet, and has little to do with “privilege”.
The misunderstanding of meritocracy and privilege is often seen within corporations. The idea that you can blend corporate hierarchies and meritocracy together is nonsense. They are too very different implementations of trust with conflicting notions of communication and status. A true meritocracy will always means a flat and fluid hierarchy, with trust assigned to members who have learned a particular system or component, and current roles and status to those that are currently active. A corporation’s hierarchy will instead be one providing trusted communication channels, and a flow of decision and privilege, through the organisation. Corporate hierarchies can go further by rewarding those, typically white middle-aged men whose ego’s have started to worry about their status and success in society, an exchange of power and status for control. The problem with this is the power isn’t real, rather just a responsibility to pass on someone else’s power: real power can only be created or taken, not given; and the status isn’t much more than symbolic to the company’s own way of doing. Introduce bias and the notion of existing privileges and things do go bad. Far worse is that this makes the structure of the company built upon ego and fear, a need for control, something that couldn’t possibly be more detrimental to innovation, along with locking the company into a very limited and disillusioned system of rewards and career advancements.
If your organisation truly is implementing meritocracy then you’ll see a flat hierarchy at work, where everyone is heard. If your meritocracy lacks diversity, the barrier to being heard is too high, or the requirements to obtaining merit unfair, it is an issue of the culture you’re letting happen.