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Today's Dilbert:

Holacracy hasn't yet had its Word Induction Ceremony at the OED, nor at any other dictionary I can find. Even the urban dictionary is still ignorant of this coinage. However, it has a website, holacracy.org ("Purposeful organization through social technology"), which offers a TEDx presentation, as well as a link to GlassFrog™ Holacracy Software ("GlassFrog is the ultimate Holacracy companion. At once secretary, record keeper, archivist, Holacracy coach… GlassFrog supports your entire Holacracy practice").

And ASTD ("The world's largest professional association dedicated to the training and development field") is so far ahead of the curve that that they have a "Word Wiz" definition of Holacracy that's dated four days in the future:

Needless to say, there's been some press coverage of the Zappos thing, which I managed to miss, and a Wikipedia article, which explains that

Holacracy has been compared to Sociocracy, a system of governance developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Sociocracy had a significant early influence during the incubation of holacracy, though Holacracy has increasingly differentiated away from it since then. Holacracy is designed for organizations and fundamentally differentiates the roles of the organization from the people working in it.

The Wikipedia entry for sociocracy, which was also a new term to me, explains that

The word sociocracy is derived from the Latin and Greek words socius (companion) and kratein (to govern). It is English for the word sociocratie, coined in 1851 by Auguste Comte, a French positivist philosopher (who also derived the word sociology from social physics) and later used by the U.S. sociologist Lester Frank Ward in a paper he wrote for the Penn Monthly in 1881 and later still by Dutchman Kees Boeke, who applied the concept to education. In a wider sense, sociocracy means the rule by the "socios," people who have a social relationship with each other – as opposed to democracy: rule by the "demos," the general mass of people.

The OED does have an entry for sociocracy, which offers a different sort of etymology

< socio- comb. form + -cracy comb. form, probably after French sociocratie (1852 in Comte).

and a different gloss:

(A system of) government by or for the benefit of society as a whole; a state or society governed in this way.

The creation of  hola- as a replacement for socio-, demo-, aristo-, pluto-, etc., feels like a back-formation from holism and holistic. Since these derive from Greek ὅλος "whole", just as e.g. the demo- in democracy derives from Greek δῆμος "the common people", you might think that the right analogy would be holocracy rather than holacracy.

But apparently the morphological history is a bit more tangled. The Wikipedia article explains that

The term holacracy is derived from the term holarchy, coined by Arthur Koestler in his 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine. A holarchy is composed of holons (Greek: ὅλον, holon neuter form of ὅλος, holos "whole") or units that are autonomous and self-reliant, but also dependent on the greater whole of which they are part. Thus a holarchy is a hierarchy of self-regulating holons that function both as autonomous wholes and as dependent parts.

So that linking -a- in holacracy was influenced by the -a- in holarchy, which was a more conventional coinage from hol- as in holistic and -archy as in monarchy, hierarchy, squirearchy, etc. It turns out that holarchy and its associated holons have had their own day in the management-consulting sun, including for example the idea of "Holonic Manufacturing Systems", and the coinage holonocracy. If Zappos had adopted holonocracy, someone in the Dilbert strip would probably have mis-heard it as colonoscopy, so maybe the shorter form with linking -a- is just as well.

Wikipedia also gives us the secular history of holacracy:

The holacracy system was incubated at Ternary Software, an Exton, PA company that was noted for experimenting with more democratic forms of organizational governance. Ternary founder Brian Robertson distilled the best practices into an organizational system that became known as Holacracy in 2007. Robertson later developed the Holacracy Constitution in 2010, which lays out the core principles and practices of the system, and has supported companies in adopting it.

We're also reassured that Holacracy is highly buzzword-compliant:

In its emphasis on iterative governance, adaptive processes, and self-organization, holacracy draws inspiration from Agile software development principles and the Lean manufacturing process. Holacracy is highly compatible with stakeholder theory as its board structure allows for multiple stakeholders to be represented in the governance of an organization and for multiple organizations with shared interests to be linked at the governance level.

Today's Dilbert follows up on yesterday's strip:

This naturally raises a question — is being ridiculed in Dilbert is the ultimate sign of success, or the beginning of the end?


  1. richardelguru said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 6:52 am

    Probably both

  2. peterv said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 7:24 am

    A minority of people in the multi-agent systems community in Computer Science/AI have been talking about holons and holonics for some years. Have never understood what was wrong with the word "agent" for what the word "holon" purports to describe.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 9:47 am

    I wonder whether people pronounce "holacracy" the same way they'd pronounce "holocracy". Lots of people, including me, pronounce "genealogy" the same way they'd pronounce "geneology".

    [(myl) Surely holacracy rhymes with democracy, anyhow?]

  4. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 10:53 am

    Some scientists at Harvard have developed a system in which robots somehow work together without any direction from "above." According to this article, it's patterned after the way termites work together:

  5. bks said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 11:08 am

    In the 60's we called it "collectivism".

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 5:14 pm

    To my ear, holacracy ought to have the same a sound as alacrity, not the o sound of democracy. But I suspect people will pronounce it as holocracy anyway.

    Or maybe if we're lucky, nobody will be pronouncing it at all in a few years.

  7. Rahul said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

    Being aware of the existence of the prefix holo-, I could only assume that holacracy meant rule through Spanish greetings.

  8. Zythophile said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 6:33 pm

    No no, holacracy is rule via celebrity gossip.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 5, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

    MYL: I wasn't so sure holacracy would rhyme with democracy for most people. But I'm sure it doesn't rhyme with autocracy.

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