Brazil’s samba schools: more than schools of management

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After watching a carnival parade in São Paulo this month, Henrique Meirelles, former president Lula’s central banker, endorsed what “academic studies have shown”. He was referring to the way that each samba school puts out 4,000 people to deliver a world-class show for (almost) no pay. In “a model of organisation”, as Meirelles put it, a full year’s work flares up in just one hour, the time it takes for a samba school to parade.

Samba schools are schools of management, to Brazilians at least, but they also hold a larger secret. Like many people in emerging markets, Brazilians are oriented towards groups. They are deeply distrustful of people they are unfamiliar with. The World Values Survey, a global network of social scientists, found that the share of Brazilians who trust people they meet for the first time is only about one fifth of that of Americans.

Trust, we know, is crucial to effective teamwork, which requires co-operation. But to avoid the “social trap problem”, everyone must believe they will win when everyone chooses to co-operate. If some suspect that others might not do their “bit” they will have an incentive to free-ride on the rest. Suspicion is more likely to arise when information is lacking, as when groups are large or made up of people who do not know each other.

This is where samba schools have an edge over mainstream managed corporations, where people are hired from the market.

On the other hand, at samba schools people are invited to join an organisation that has grown out of a community. They all know each other, or know someone who knows the other. Besides, groups are relatively small, which also helps to monitor individual contributions. While a samba school may put out a 4,000 strong parade, it consists of “wings” of about 120 people each. The wings are made up of smaller groups of friends or neighbours, seldom larger than 15-20 each. Small groups allow for scaling because they can establish the rules that match their challenge, and they are small enough to monitor engagement without metrics.

Small groups require substantial coordination, which is brought about by the clear goal of winning the carnival parade, and through a leadership style that is congruous with the culture of the group, including a strong sense of transcendence. Some may want to call this a religious sense, but it would be hard to pin down that sense into a known religion.

Spectators see only the parade, but the real pilgrimage takes place in working together throughout the year. This is where Victor Turner’s concept of “communitas” is developed. While winning is the goal, in any one year it would be very surprising if the winner was not among the first four in the previous year’s parade. This means that at every parade there are about eight samba schools with no real chance of winning. Nonetheless, they put out a year’s worth of unpaid labour. Winning the parade may be the goal, but it is not the driver.

Modern corporations cannot be run entirely as samba schools. For instance, they might need competencies that are not available in the community. But in country where people do not trust each other, as in many others of a collectivist bend, instilling some of the samba school organisational wisdom may generate the level of engagement that is currently lacking in Brazil. And it would not cost much, either.

Alfredo Behrens is a lecturer at the FIA Business School, São Paulo.

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