Thanks to Talking About Organizations Podcast, I have been Reading P. Fleming’s ‘The Human Capital Hoax’ (Episode 36). The basic claim of the paper is that human capital theory has opened the gates for the ‘uberization’ of the workforce. My main problem with it is that the author reasons from a few striking examples rather than from statistics or even patient ethnography.
It makes me think of Günther Ander’s works on automation, where he examines extreme man-machine interactions and tells us that in theory, man is not worth anything anymore. The (quite mainstream) narrative is that in the Fordist golden age, everyone worked in a large automobile plant with social security benefits, a large HR service, managers and unions, you know, the normal situation. The problem is that this image of normality is a pure artefact – it was made up by a fraction of the managerial elite in the middle of the 20th century. But the majority of workers still were employed in very small, barely automated workplaces.
Nowadays, we have a reverse image : the whole working class is to be seen as a congregation of über drivers, or something akin to it. There flow discourses that we sociologists know well: the fear of social atomization, anomy, the fall of institutions, the tearing of the social fabric, and so on. Durkheim was worried about exactly the same thing during the industrial revolution, when he lamented the crumbling of the Ancien Régime’s productive order. Just after that, he wrote a famous book on suicide, which might sound familiar to those who deal with burn outs and other psycho-social woes and tribulations of today’s workforce.
My fear is that the change from Fordism to uberism is nothing but a change in managerial ideology, rather than a change in actual productive organization. I’m always baffled by how hard it is for social sciences/management researchers to distinguish between the two. A very famous French sociology book about ‘The New Spirit of Capitalism‘, claims we entered a new era of capitalist ideology, based on a very scrupulous analysis of a large corpus of management literature. It is very well, but a change of ideology doesn’t mean anything if you don’t look at the way the lingua franca of consultants and management academics translate to actual management policies. We never really had the same work done for management tools and practices. So we have to keep talking about ideas.
Managerial ideology is created by a small elite that sets the terms of the debate on what organizations should look like. But most managers don’t really care about this ideology. Often, they could not comply to the last ‘management fad’ even if they wanted to. In the 70’s – 90’s Toyotism was omnipresent in discussions. Just like ‘uberization’ today. Saying workers should be married to their employer one day and saying they should hookup with whatever company they feel like the other is certainly a shift in the dominant discourses. But a lot of employers still need to attract and retain workers, and to try to stabilize the workforce because their business model needs it. They don’t care if they look like outdated industrialists, because they do not write in fancy journals or perform life changing Ted talks.
At the end of the day, these changes in dominant discourses are used to forge a distorted image of the workforce. They make you believe that everyone is a uber driver. And that dominant representation is normative. That means that discourses can have an effect on reality, by the intermediation of public policies and law. Politicians rarely have access to the world of the workplace. So when members of the managerial elite describe the workforce according to the Fordist or the uberist model, they have no choice but to believe them. Unless they listened to academics who still go in organizations, or union leaders, but, who’s kidding who? The problem is both academic and political. We cannot take for granted representations of work forged by the managerial elite, according to its needs. That is why we need empirical inquiries on the realities of work.
Greetings, and I hope you enjoyed listening to us debate the merits of centralization and decentralization in organizations on Episode 43, where we framed the debate using as lenses Federalist Papers #9 and #10, authored by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison respectively. If you have not had the chance to listen to the Episode, I encourage you to do so.
Although we took sides and argued in teams for the purposes of the podcast, we acknowledged both benefits and risks to organizations that choose either one as a preferred way of doing business. Both can also be guiding principles. De-centralization as a guideline or strategy is thought to promote innovation and greater participation. Organizations that de-centralize as a matter of course may view centralized hierarchy as old-fashioned, complacent, even ossified. So, what about the virtues of centralization? One of the main arguments for greater centralization in organizations is that it brings greater efficiency.
But What is Efficiency?
Ask different people what efficiency means to them and you are likely to get different things. In its most elemental form, efficiency is classic Taylorism — meaning more output for the same input. Taken further, this can lead to Holy Trinity of economics: better, faster, and cheaper. People often emphasize one over the others depending on the commodity or service in question or the location. I recall how efficient the train systems were when I lived in Europe in the early 2000s. At the time, you could always count on the trains running on time or knowing precisely how late a train may be. As applied to centralization, efficiency can also be a euphemism for consistency or reliability. When one goes to a McDonald’s anywhere in the world, one expects the hamburgers to have the same quality, served speedily and at low cost compared to other dining options. You may be thinking that this sounds a lot like effectiveness. Perhaps, yes. This is because while organizational science may separate efficiency from effectiveness, economists are more likely to use them interchangeably. In my experience, this is one of several reasons why efficiency is a confusing term. I will use the economic view as the basis for my talk.
So let’s address efficiency as an organization goal. With thanks to Dmitrijs for this insight, efficiency as an organizational goal is a relatively new idea. Prior to the late 1800s, organizations were not so concerned about efficiency as they were about continuity, power, or building relationships and networks with other organizations. The onset of industrialized competition changed the nature of competition, and organizations had to produce more and quickly, or lose out in the marketplace. The Efficiency Movement, which Frederic Taylor contributed to, fostered the adoption of scientific management beyond industry and into other types of organizations.
It is important to acknowledge that embedded within the concept of efficiency are contradictory ideas. Consider government services, such as drivers licensing. Consolidation of licensing offices is often done to save money and ostensibly make things more efficient by reducing the money spent on facilities and manpower in favor of a single larger regional office with modern capability. But to the public, such moves may have the opposite effect, causing citizens to have to drive further to the nearest office to renew their licenses and wait in longer lines. In such cases, the quest for efficiency seems rather one-sided, does it not? Certainly, the citizens are asking, “efficient for whom or in what way?”
But in the end, what I’m going to show is that no matter how you define or describe efficiency, your pursuit of it leads to one thing and one thing only. Some form of centralization.
Three Common Variables of Efficiency – Time, Cost, and Quality
At its core, efficiency is a measure of how much input produces how much output. For many years in manufacturing, the conventional wisdom was: you might want things fast, cheap, and perfect but can only hope to get two out of the three. The question became, “Which two?” If you are an organization providing goods or services and you emphasize fast and cheap but your customers expect perfect, you may think you are efficient but your customers may not and this difference in perception will likely impact sales.
The trouble is that even economists have different conceptions and definitions of efficiency and thus have multiple ways to describe it. Let’s look more closely at fast, cheap, and perfect – or put another way, time, cost, and quality. As consumers, we would probably all agree that faster, cheaper, and better are preferred over slower, costlier, and poorer quality. That is not exactly challenging any theoretical boundaries, is it? But do we always seek the best possible combination of all three? Experience tells us no, that we may use these measures to make choices between the goods and services we may buy, but in truth we accept a certain degree of inefficiency in many circumstances (as an aside, we touched on this in Episode 19 on organizational learning and bounded rationality). When hungry and in a hurry, eating at a chain burger restaurant, we prioritize fast and cheap so long as the burger’s quality is “good enough“ that it does not lead to health problems later. When we have more time and are not with tired and fussy children, we may be willing to pay more for a quality burger at a fancier restaurant, the kind with cloth napkins, and will be more willing to sit and wait for it. But when we visit a steakhouse? I don’t know about you, but my steak better be served exactly as ordered. I’ll accept the higher cost, which might be the equivalent of four meals from the hamburger chain. So again, as consumers, we establish a balance of these qualities of efficiency based on personal expectations that can vary in innumerable ways.
Two Models of Efficiency – Business and Productive
Let’s now situate ourselves in the organization producing the goods or providing the services. Assume we are a widget factory, and we produce 100 widgets per hour at a cost of $50 apiece, with each widget selling on the market at $100 apiece. Like our forebears who produced scientific management and other ideas, we want our factory to be more efficient, so we might pursue making things faster (like 120 widgets per hour) or find cheaper materials or labor to cut cost of production to $40 per widget, or do something to improve quality without affecting time or cost.
One model of efficiency is calledbusiness efficiency, the straight ratio of total measurable output to total cost. This is the way efficiency is often used in the financial industry. As applied to our factory, it represents the total amount of revenue over total cost. So, business efficiency over the year would be based on the costs of producing and revenues from selling 200,000 widgets. If sales go down, you produce fewer or lower purchase prices. If sales are booming, you produce more (perhaps spend the more for a new factory), or raise the price to increase revenue. In government service, the business efficiency view is similar, but the aim is to ensure the consistent and reliable delivery of service to all citizens who need it. The government may still be concerned about cost and wants those to stay down, but they are more likely to hear complaints if a worthy citizen had undue difficulties receiving service.
A different, and perhaps opposing model is productive efficiency that focuses on benefits and costs per transaction or per unit produced. The emphasis is on time and cost, especially at the points of production. This perspective wants the assembly line to go faster, employ fewer people, or to use cheaper materials; or wants the retail store to sell the items faster while minimizing the cost of conducting the sale. [8:03 – insert this] We see this trend on-going in the US, as online sales mechanisms are seen as more efficient than costly brick and mortar stores with their limited shelf space. This makes it faster and cheaper to sell and deliver the product from the organization’s perspective. The quality of the product has nothing to do with the cost of providing it – a boutique brand widget is handled with the same productive efficiency as the cheapest one.
An important caveat with productive efficiency is what economists call the production possibilities frontier, which is the point where based on available inputs, no more of one good can be produced without reducing production of another good. That such a frontier exists is common sense. Consider a bakery producing both bread and muffins. When production is fully optimized, one cannot bake more bread without baking fewer muffins, because full optimization means that there is a resource (e.g., ingredients, mixers, ovens, whatever) that prevents increased production. Thus, productive efficiency can only achieve so much before a decision is needed about expanding the bakery.
The Triad of Inefficiency – Waste, Harm, and Overhead
But time, cost, and quality do not capture the whole picture. These are not the only variables we use to gauge the efficiency of an organization. There are also measures of inefficiency, which is not the precise opposite of efficiency. While time, cost, and quality may have some form of optimal balance, an organization can be completely and utterly inefficient in all three measures and still not be as awful as it could be. Above and beyond failure to deliver goods and services, organizations can be so inefficient that they can be destructive – to themselves, others, or the environment. Let me explain through a proposed trifecta of inefficiency variables – waste, harm, and overhead. Each have two dimensions.
The first variable of inefficiency is waste, both in input and output. Output first. Our assembly line might generate 100 widgets per hour, but if 10 of them are defective, one might not regard that line as efficient in comparison to a line that produces only 50 per hour with no mistakes. That is because 10 widgets worth of material is unusable, providing no benefit, and possibly its materials cannot be reclaimed or used.
There is also waste on the front end – the point of input. Let’s say that the assembly line, due to aging components or other factors, slows to 90 widgets per hour. Materials for production may accumulate in the warehouse. And what if that material was perishable in some way, like metal that rusts, or food ingredients that spoil. Same thing in government services, where offices may have to pay to correct mistakes and typographical errors on drivers licenses, for example.
The second variable of inefficiency is harm. I am not talking about harm brought about by low sales due to the poor quality of goods or services produced. I am referring to the second-order effects of production, of which there are two forms – harm at the point of production and harm from misuse or abuse of the product or service. The former is straightforward. If our widget factory is irresponsible and willfully pollutes the environment or injures its workers in order to sustain its 100 widget per hour rate, well guess what? Among litigation, clean-up costs, sullied reputation, and medical care for workers, the costs to the company skyrocket. The benefits of making 100 widgets is practically zero because modern consumers care as much about ethical practices as they do the product itself. Few people would buy from a company that shows reckless disregard to the environment. Likewise, governments risk litigation and censure if citizens are denied access to service voters think they are entitled to. Lawsuits can cripple local government budgets, but anything that causes significant inconvenience such as impeding access to services (like having to drive longer and wait longer in lines at the driver license center) can have repercussions, such as elected officials being voted out of office in democracies.
One may not think of misuse of a good as affecting efficiency, but indeed it does if the good’s benefit is reduced because of it. In essence, the good or service is viewed by some as inherently harmful. Consider debates in the US about firearms stemming from high-profile mass shootings. Social and political pressures aim to eliminate or restrict sales of such weapons, and counterpressures from other organizations seek to preserve their availability for their intended use. Or, the removal of the allergy medicine pseudoephedrine from drug store shelves because of it can be used in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine. The drug was renowned for its effectiveness and safety for its intended purpose, but its manufacturers became victims of collateral damage from a completely unrelated problem. The controls placed on the drug meant that manufacturers had to replace it with other, less-effective drugs.
The third variable are the indirect costs not directly related to producing the product or service. These costs are sometimes called overhead, resources devoted to anything other than direct support to the core organizational purpose of providing the good or service. This can be a very subjective measure, and it affects people differently from processes, facilities and infrastructure, or technologies. A certain amount of overhead is typically unavoidable, of course, to provide the manpower and capacity for adequate supervision of operations, innovation, and growth. It is also important when the organization must establish and demonstrate accountability, particularly if there is government regulation or other oversight involved.
This speaks to the first form of overhead — remote headquarters staff or people in high places. Layers of supervisors, and staffs such as planners, accountants, lawyers, quality inspectors, and other experts who are not part of the production process but enable it by aiding the decision making of organizational leaders. The costs of these enabling functions are far easier to measure than the benefits, which sometimes causes them to appear excessive to third parties. After all, the special expertise held by these members can be expensive, and not everyone recognizes the value of work they may be doing. While in past Talking About Organizations episodes we discuss the virtues and pitfalls of bureaucracy, the term ‘bureaucrat’ is almost always used as a pejorative in common language. Large staffs might be associated with inflexibility, or filled with people working more to protect their high salaries than to benefit the organization. They can make for easy targets when budgets get tight. But there is definite risk to cutting them if one is not careful, as the organization may lose valuable expertise and indirectly place disruption and stress on the workforce.
The second form of overhead is excess, which is even more subjective. Excess facilities and infrastructure are one form of excess, as evidenced in the world of retail where many brick and mortar stores are closing under competition from on-line shopping options. There is also the perception of excess in perks. Their unequal distribution can be sources of tension within organizations, such as between managers and workers, or between the organization and society, such as public ire expressed over balloon payments to fired executives. A common complaint follows: Why does the leader get a big office with a massive oak desk and high-back ergonomic chair? Folks on the front lines might only get folding chairs or no chair at all. Of course, this is a complex issue far beyond the scope of this sidecast, but suffice to say that rewards and incentives are certainly up for debate whenever organizations face tough times. And then there is excess in symbols associated with corporate image and identity. We see this in historic buildings, unique artifacts of an organization’s culture, or the long, close association with a particular local community. Maybe these things provided strength and meaning. Or perhaps they became symbols of inflexibility and old thinking, incurring costs without adding benefit.
A Third Model – Allocative Efficiency
And so we have six variables – time, cost, quality, waste, harm, and overhead. But the two best-known models of efficiency are only concerned with the first three. So we need a third model.
And this model is called allocative efficiency. An organization is allocatively efficient when it precisely aligns costs and outputs. In other words, the quantity of goods or services produced match the demand. The implication is that waste, harm, and overhead are minimized, because these impede the ability to match supply with demand exactly. Allocative approaches work well when the costs and outputs of production are known in advance or reliably predicted. But here’s the tricky part. Allocative efficiency is less concerned about time, cost, or quality, so long as they are as stable and predictable as possible. After all, that is how the resources are allocated, which is where the name of this efficiency model comes from. If indeed our 100 widget per hour factory can be kept running at precisely that pace with known costs and known profits for sale, then we can confidently build a budget. And that’s the key word – budget.
The public sector uses allocative efficiency as its driving model. Unlike the private sector, where currency is the measure of nearly all variables, government uses programs as its basic unit of measure. Programs combine currency with the legal authority and direction to spend. This is critical. Governments establish programs by determining the services and costs in advance so they match. Legislatures or chief executives designate precisely how much an agency must spend to provide a precise level of service. Regardless of how much things actually cost or how much benefit the citizenry needs, programs essentially predetermine the costs and outputs and wrap them in a legal boundary. We hope that the figures are right in advance, because if they are not and money must be reprogrammed, that constitutes a second legislative action. Governments typically make such transactions costly – maybe not in terms of money, but in terms of trust and confidence in the agency leaders responsible for proposing the budget in the first place.
The effect of the allocative view of efficiency is that organizations are deemed efficient if they expend all budgeted resources while avoiding perceptions that the service was not provided as mandated. This view of efficiency can lead to some unintended behaviors such as how particular local government offices are forced to monitor the usage of paper clips and staples, while large federal government programs appear to exercise behavior deemed rather wasteful. A classic example of this is the use or lose culture in which government agencies must spend whatever they were granted by the end of the fiscal year or risk their budgets being cut the next year. The logic is that the agency was granted too many resources and … obviously … can afford to provide the prescribed benefits with less. So if your agency has funds at the end of the year, you better find a creative way to spend it! This has been known to be an undesirable practice, but the allocative efficiency model driving the budgetary process makes it really tough to avoid!
I could go over many particulars but suffice to say that the complexity, uncertainty, and political aspects of government programs make it virtually impossible to allocate resources properly in advance, and the demands for government services regularly outstrip the allocated resources. But this is what makes allocative efficiency so attractive – it provides concrete measures of input and output according to a standard defined by the government. Whether that standard is acceptable to voters is another question.
A Difficult Conversation that Converges One Way
My own experience suggests that these three models of efficiency – business, productive, and allocative – bring about natural tensions in organizational decision making because they measure organizational performance in conflicting, and often highly contested, ways. There is the so-called strategic or operational perspective expressed in the business efficiency model. This involves using definitions of efficiency to make important decisions about expansion or reduction, new products and new markets, or the discontinuance of either. Meanwhile, the productive efficiency model drives leaders immediately to attempt to put a price tag on everything. Costs on the production line, hiring, paying, training, human resources, logistics and transportation, everything gets priced in some way, which favors concrete things over the less concrete (reputation, community relations, fair treatment of workers, environmental stewardship, etc.). And then there are those employing the allocative efficiency model, where decisions are rooted in zero-sum language. Doing something new means removing resources from something else, or if that is too hard, then deferring the action to a future time when the budget is constructed anew. These three perspectives represent three completely different ways of framing problems and options. What looks good from a strategic perspective within one model may be technically problematic or wasteful in the others, and so on.
Yet buried among these perspectives is a common theme. Regardless of which form of efficiency an organizational leader favors, it ultimately drives the leader down a path of centralization. It just does so in different ways – by strategies and plans, by measures or performance, or by control over and distribution of resources.
This is why during the episode, I tried to argue that the natural tendency of organizations is to centralize, even when their desires are the opposite. The different drives for efficiency view centralizing authority and oversight as more efficient than options that diffuse them. Thus, once efficiency is essentially optimized and nothing more can be done, then inefficiencies creep in to the point where the organization has little option but to de-centralize. But this is disruptive and leads to much uncertainty as leaders cede control or try to make sense of the chaos they perceive within the organization. Members of the organization become uncomfortable with the churn of change, and may gravitate back toward the familiar old ways even though they may have previously cursed them.
Efficiency, pursued for its own sake, is not sufficient to govern organizational activity for two reasons. First, all three models of efficiency place greater emphasis on measurable costs of things and may not place enough value on hidden or intangible costs. Business efficiency ignores hidden costs, productive efficiency can’t price them, and allocative efficiency pretends they don’t exist.
Here’s an example – Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD. This is a policy in which firms allow employees to use their own computing devices in the workplace, which also encourages their use in telework outside the workplace. There are advantages, such that businesses do not have to buy the devices and they can maintain connectivity with their workers. At first blush, this seems like a very efficient proposition. But BYOD has serious disadvantages. There have been security breaches due to theft or carelessness. Employees are increasingly found using company resources for personal use, and companies can be liable for criminal activity conducted over their systems by employees. And there are compatibility issues between personal devices and the information technology architecture — such as when employees buy more advanced devices than the architecture can handle, or when the company upgrades the architecture but employees do not upgrade their personal devices in kind. How much are these hidden costs? One study showed that a 740-person company can face costs in excess of one million dollars a year when allowing workers to use their own devices for work-related activities. The costs have steadily increased as both employers and employees demand increased capabilities.
There is a second reason why efficiency for its own sake can be harmful to organizations and employees – and that is when budget pressures drive organizations toward allocative efficiency, which is the most risk averse of the three models. The strict emphasis on matching resources to requirements discourages what is most needed when budgets are tight, greater innovation. And innovation needs flexibility, money, manpower, and the willingness to try new things and exploit success. A resource management system built to be allocatively efficient erects many barriers to such flexibility, stifling such good ideas.
Over 150 years ago, political economist Frederic Bastiat said, “There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.” The same can be said for organizational leaders. Ultimately, what should be more important than just efficiency is effectiveness. What is it that the customer needs and to what extent is it satisfied? One would hope in a level economic playing field that the most effective companies would also be very efficient, but not pursuing it as an end in itself.
So, in conclusion, we should be wary of claims that centralizing business practices will make organizations more efficient. Leaders should ask, ‘Efficient, in what way? For whom? And what are the associated hidden and opportunity costs?’ If those questions have answers, then OK. Centralize. Otherwise, beware. Make sure what the organization views as efficient is aligned with the views of stakeholders, and perhaps steer the conversation back to the effective delivery of goods and services.
Near the end of Episode 41, we discussed the themes of member commitment to the organization and an organization’s commitment to its individual members. This arose in the context of our continuing discussions of the gig economy and its impact on our understandings of organization. The ‘gig economy’ was the subject of several previous episodes (such as Episode 18 on algorithmic management and Episode 36 on human capital) and was the primary focus of our first symposium, presented in three parts as Episode 40 including a keynote address and panels on defining and researching the gig economy and related phenomena. Without revisiting those discussions, suffice to say that our dialogue raised more questions and concerns about the gig economy than expressed support for it.
Speaking for myself, one of the reasons why I question the ‘gig economy’ is because I am very familiar with organizations whose central character and values are the precise opposite. I am talking about organizations, or their leaders, who have vested interests in high organizational commitment to its members. A story I evoked was that of Milton Hershey, the founder of both the Hershey Chocolate Factory and the small town that grew from it, then located in a rather remote spot east of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – about a half-hour drive from where I live.
Commitment – Two Ways
I’ll get to the story in just a moment, but first let me talk more about the idea of commitment. When the word commitment is used in organization studies, it is typically assumed that one is addressing member commitment to the organization. There have been many studies on the subject – I like to use the framework described by Meyer & Allen (1991) that presents it as a combination of three factors. The first is affective attachment, or how much the member likes being in the organization. One might hear, “I enjoy coming to work!” or “I feel great when I know that a customer has left satisfied.”
The second factor is a sense of obligation or duty to the organization. One might hear this expressed as “What I am doing is important” or “I have been entrusted with this responsibility; I will not let them down.” Them can be one’s bosses or customers, or perhaps if one is in the public sector, them is the public or the state.
And then the third factor is the cost-benefit analysis of staying in the organization versus leaving. Member commitment in this regard stems from a lack of better alternatives or an unwillingness to pursue them. An example of what one might hear in this form of commitment include, “The grass is NOT greener on the other side of the fence.”
There appears to much less written about commitment in the converse direction – of the organization’s commitment to the individual member. The literature present this form of commitment as organizational inducements. March and Simon (1958) and Katz (1964) said that organizations garner member commitment by providing inducements for them to stay. Along with rewards or incentives, organizations provide environments that members may find likeable and enjoyable, or that encourages desired behaviors.
Now, let me ask a question. Is higher commitment either way necessarily better? My read of the literature suggests that many authors associate member commitment to the organization as a favorable quality. But what about the other way? Is more organizational commitment to the member better? Are the terms more and less even useful to describe such commitment?
Milton Hershey and High Organizational Commitment to the Individual
Let’s now look at the story of Milton Hershey. He founded the Hershey Chocolate Company in 1905 after developing a formula for milk chocolate that was both high-quality and capable of being mass produced. That the Company is now a well-recognized international brand speaks volumes about his success. But this story is more about Milton Hershey the philanthropist, not the businessman.
Hershey wanted to do more than simply build a factory. He also wanted to form a model community to ensure that the needs of the workers and their families were provided for. For this very reason, he chose a remote location for this factory rather than an established city or town. Outside his chosen factory site, he founded the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania and included parks, schools, recreational facilities, churches, and other public amenities. He would thereafter commission for the construction of amusement rides in the park, which would eventually become Hersheypark, today one of the most popular amusement parks in the eastern U.S. Milton Hershey was also a big supporter of education – founding the Hershey Industrial School in 1909 for orphaned boys (and later girls). This school is now the Milton Hershey School and still serves needy children today.
The Depression did not deter Milton Hershey. To keep his workers active, he initiated a building boom and built new offices and a hotel. And then later came Hersheypark Arena, which would be home to a second-tier professional ice hockey team, and Hersheypark Stadium, an outdoor sports and concert venue. The workers and families got freebies and discounts to hosted events.
Hershey, by the way, is not the only business leader of this sort. A few decades earlier, John Cadbury (like Hershey, also from a Quaker family) established both a chocolate factory and model community near Birmingham in the United Kingdom. They likewise built parks and recreation facilities out of their concern for the health and welfare of their workers.
Measuring Organizational Commitment to the Member
Now, which company would you want to work in? A ‘gig economy’ outfit in which the organization does little more than assign work and leave you in the lurch? Or, Hershey or Cadbury, who would provide you with stability, an ideal place to live, and a lifelong stream of perks?
Here’s the rub. The question is heavily biased according to an assumption that higher organizational commitment to the member is better. I admit to harboring such a bias. I am the son of an industrial worker turned factory owner whose business invests in its people to an extent that others within the same industry might not. Also, as a retired military officer, I am keenly aware to the extent that all-volunteer militaries stay ready and capable to fight because of the systematic way that military leaders ensure full organizational commitment to the morale, welfare, and readiness of the troops. Every Soldier’s life is valued.
Now, I could have asked may question in a different way. Which company would you want to work in? A chocolate factory where nearly every facet of your life is prescribed and you would do the same thing for many years with limited hopes of advancement? Or a ‘gig economy’ where you get to set the rules, work at your own pace, be independent?
Perhaps this means that terms like more or less might not be the only ways to measure organizational commitment to the member. The types of inducements and alignment with expectations of the members would seem to be important as well. But there’s no getting around quantity, is there? Organizations that invest in the welfare and growth of its members–such as fostering educational opportunities, maternal and paternal leave, or providing for an adequate pension—would seem to be better postured to sustain member commitment over those that do not. If one believes that organizations have a moral obligation to invest directly in the welfare of its members, one may be more likely to lionize Milton Hershey. And indeed, the legacy of this great man is very strong.
But there are also uncomfortable questions about the costs of greater inducements and the risk they pose to an organization’s competitive advantage. What if a company must reduce such inducements or risk bankruptcy? Would members perceive that as worse than if the inducements were simply low in the first place?
Organizational commitment to members therefore seems to be a rather complex topic suitable for additional research and exploration. Economics, morality, ethics, leadership, complexity – I mentioned these factors and I suspect there are other streams worth considering such as culture and identity. Perhaps the research questions could pursue an understanding of suitable, feasible, or acceptable levels and types of commitment to members, and conditions that drive changes to that commitment.
With that knowledge, maybe we can find ways to encourage leaders to follow Milton Hershey’s example more closely. Who knows?
 Meyer, J. P. and Allen, N. (1991). “A Three-Component Conceptualization of Organizational Commitment,” Human Resource Management Review 1(1), 61-89.
 March, J. G. and Simon, H. A. (1958). Organizations, 2nd ed. New York: Wiley.
 Katz, D. (1964). “The Motivational Basis of Organizational Behavior,” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 9(2), 131-146.
 Angle, H. L. and Perry, J. L. (1991). “An Empirical Assessment of Organizational Commitment and Organizational Effectiveness,” Administrative Science Quarterly 26, 1-14.
In past seasons, we discussed the extent to which publication practices valuing journal articles above books limit our understanding of organizational phenomena. We also debated how the peer-review process and its current emphasis on ‘theoretical contributions’ sometimes limits the capacity of authors to convey the empirical richness of their studies. For example, in Episode 27 on Andrew Pettigrew’s study of context and transformation of the firm, we lamented the focus on precise empirical study at the expense of more meaningful monographic treatments of organizational phenomena. We revisited that them in Episodes 29, 30, and it surfaced a couple more times in Season 4.
Enter Episode 39, where we explore a famous 1972 article in Administrative Science Quarterly from Cohen, March, and Olsen on the Garbage Can Model of Decision Making, which contained (above all things) a fully-documented computer program written in FORTRAN 66! The article also included details of how they designed the program what its outputs were. As we discuss during the podcast, this was far from an empirical study. They designed the model solely for exploratory purposes—to demonstrate an interesting concept that could apply to actual organizations such as colleges and universities of various sizes. It struck me because present-day articles devote so little time to the models in use, either mentioning minimal details in the text or providing a summary or introduction to them in an appendix. Certainly not something that could be replicated as is copy-pasted from the journal.
While the dialogue in our episode focused on the theoretical and philosophical questions that the and the implications it has for our understanding of current organizational phenomena, I was drawn to the model itself because it recalled a long-ago forgotten project of a similar vein that I was involved in back in 1996-97.
The Need – A Tool to Aid Executive Coaching
At the time, the U.S. military’s War Colleges came to recognize that in the Post Cold War environment, military leaders needed to be strategic thinkers capable of understanding an increasingly complex global environment. Soviet Communism was no longer the driving threat, and the U.S. found itself involved in a number of smaller conflicts around the globe (Somalia, Bosnia, and others). A U.S. military trained and ready to hold the line between west and east Europe had to reorient itself to produce leaders with the skills and competencies needed for a different environment.
A team of faculty from the U.S. Army War College (USAWC) and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF) was working on a program to coach and mentor the military’s future leaders. Leading the effort was ICAF faculty member T. Owen Jacobs, who with Eliot Jacques had developed stratified systems theory (SST). SST describes how as environmental complexity increases, a system’s complexity must increase in kind. For organizations, SST’s application has been in how hierarchical levels translate to vertical differentiation of complexity. Seven strata divided among three domains (direct, organizational, and strategic) describe how holding positions of leadership at progressively higher levels translate to higher-order responsibilities and time horizons.
The team employed SST as a basis for measuring the capacity of students in the two schools for assuming positions of higher leadership. Using available personality and psychological instruments (which at the time were limited and expensive), they measured personality traits, cognitive abilities, and emotional intelligence; analyzing the results and providing one on one feedback to the students. After doing this a couple years, the ICAF faculty determined early on that a worrisome percentage of budding senior officers only had the capacity to serve in direct leadership positions.
The problem they faced was simple. There were only four or five ICAF faculty members capable of performing the one-on-one feedback for what was a class of several hundred students. USAWC was similarly undermanned for the task. They needed to provide a way for any faculty member to interpret the results of the instruments and deliver useful one-on-one feedback to the students.
This is where I came in. I had joined USAWC a year earlier, serving in one of its non-teaching institutes as an artificial intelligence (AI) specialist doing various projects in support of the educational program. At the time, the Army had a robust AI program where captains like me went to grad school for AI and then served a utilization tour at various Army schools and research institutions. When the joint ICAF-USAWC team came looking for help, I was assigned as consultant.
I assessed that they were looking for an expert system, a fairly common AI application that often used qualitative methods. After a couple months of learning about the topic and instruments and interviewing the faculty and team, I collected a considerable amount of information about how the faculty went about their business. They generally went about their task in a certain way, looking at one instrument first to develop a quick picture, then moving on to the other instruments to look for confirming information. Because among military officers, some factors across instruments tended to correlate, they devised a lot of shortcuts. But overall, the findings they latched onto were results that seemed contradictory or unusual… in their words, ‘interesting.’ They would spend the majority of their time grappling with the unexpected, attempting to generating meaning from the results.
Unfortunately, what I recall winding up with in my data was a bunch of assertions and rules built on the exceptions but no easy sense of the whole thing fit together, such that an expert system could help non-experts derive similar conclusions. It did not help that there were disagreements among the team members about things such as what constitutes a ‘normal’ finding versus one that might be ‘concerning.’ One would like at a file and judge it one way and another would draw a completely opposite conclusion.
My approach was to build an expert system-like model that captured the rules and assertions (‘facts’ in AI-speak) that I had, and then tinkered with it to figure out all the other cases and exceptions that were not raised. Although expert systems are qualitatively-oriented, what I actually did was craft a model that looked a lot like the garbage can model. Here were a bunch of facts requiring interpretation; and there were a number of rules that did not apply perfectly but could. Running the model a few times on the de-identified data I was provided, I began developing possible rules for patterns that I believed the faculty would find ‘interesting.’ As I went through several iterations of this exploratory system, I fed ideas back to the ICAF faculty. If you found profiles that had this information, would you interpret it as ________?
By the time we held a videoteleconference a month later or so, both my ideas and the team’s own deliberations had resolved a lot of the differences in perspectives. We came to the conclusion—one I still believe was right—that an expert system was not appropriate for the task. There was too much subjective judgment involved that needed to remain. An expert system would not be able to provide a suitable or acceptable interpretation of the data as a non-expert who has been appropriately coached. Thus, work on the exploratory model I built was done, and ultimately lost in the bit-bucket in the sky as I left the USAWC in the summer of 1997.
Two Benefits of Do-It-Yourself Modeling – Innovation and Transparency
Thinking about that experience and relating it to the Cohen, et al. article from Episode 39, I can draw a couple of conclusions. First, the earlier days of computing allowed a great number of scientists and technologists to do their own programming. Those that developed programming skills had the ability to craft small-scale elegant models to help them grasp complex or uncertain phenomena. When I look at the tools available to me during my doctoral program a few years ago, I was amazed how sophisticated and powerful they were—until I learned that they were so sophisticated and powerful that they did not provide much room for creativity. I would instead turn to basic spreadsheet programs to do certain mathematical tasks ‘my way’ and it worked out much better.
The FORTRAN 66 program in Cohen’s article looks indecipherable because FORTRAN 66 was a very rudimentary programming language. I had never used FORTRAN before, but once I figured it out using on-line resources, I realize fairly quickly how simple the model was. As we remarked in various parts of the Episode, it was amazing what the authors were able to glean from the results. For me, however, I might have considered some of their findings as a bit fantastic and even questionable had I not taken the time to study the source code to see what they were doing.
The second conclusion is that there should be room for more of these kinds of articles in today’s organizational literature. I find it an unsettling pattern how many classic works of organization science that we have explored in Talking About Organizations are assessed as being unpublishable today. Cohen et al. represents a very unusual case whereby full details of a non-empirical model are disclosed in a peer-reviewed journal. Similar approaches would seem useful as a first step for exploring complex longitudinal phenomena (and I would not be surprised if there are plenty of researchers out there doing just that).
I thank Pedro Monteiro and Craig Bullis for their helpful feedback on earlier versions of this post.
In my preparations for Episode 34 (Trist & Bamforth, 1951), I was reminded of a bus tour I took back in the summer of 2001 from Heidelberg, Germany to Krakow, Poland. Part of the tour included a guided visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mines (vee-LEECH-ka) located only a short drive from Krakow. The mines in Wieliczka were opened in the 13th century and produced table salt for almost 800 years until it was closed in 1996. With the end of the Cold War and increased tourism in Poland, While I had never visited a coal mine, the tour of the salt mines told me much about both the hardships of mining and the social fabric that bind miners together.
Salt mining is different than coal mining in some key respects (the rock is much softer and flowing water is seriously dangerous in a salt mine), but they have much environmentally in common. The mines are dark and cramped, much work is put into ensuring the mine’s safety and stability, and the hand-got methods used in Wieliczka resembled those described in the article – small teams working together on a short face.
But what made Wieliczka such a wonder was how the miners amused themselves – by taking the caverns they excavated and turning them into decorative rooms, complete with simulated tile flooring, beautiful statues and engraving in the ‘walls’, and (in some rooms) chandeliered lighting with full chandeliers constructed using salt crystals—created by dissolving the rock salt and forming them into a clear form of glass. The most famous of these rooms is the St. Kinga Chapel which includes electrically-lit chandeliers, a twenty-foot long engraving of the ‘Last Supper’ that closely resembles da Vinca’s famous painting, and a fully formed altar and pulpit. The miners also carved lots of statues, mostly religious figures but later ones were influenced by Marxism and desires for worker solidarity. I recalled the tour guide telling us that some workers took great risk in expressing their political views through the statues, and some were carved in secrecy.
What drove these miners to undertake such massive and glorious projects? This was the central question I asked myself when relating the Wieliczka story to Trist & Bamforth. It was clearly the social fabric that bound the miners together – mostly expressions of faith and unity that helped them endure the harsh environment. The upper levels had very simple rooms with crude statues, possibly due to both inexperience and natural erosion inside the mine. The sophistication and beauty increased as one got down to the middle levels where the cathedral and numerous other chapels and meeting rooms were formed. One could imagine how the impetus to create these works of art snowballed – some miners took initiative to overcome the dreariness of hard labor. As the mine was successful and the miners dug deeper, they experimented and tried new things. With each new chamber came an opportunity to try something new. And the cycle continued for centuries.
Trist & Bamforth described how the mechanization of the longwall method changed (some may say destroyed) the social fabric of the organization. I think it is useful to consider what they meant by social fabric. They included examples of how the workers bonded inside and outside the mine, such that their families would support each other in times of need. The new technology broke those ties and changed the relationships, leading to the loss of morale. Perhaps Wieliczka offers another perspective on social fabric, a freedom for members to express themselves and transcend the drudgery of the environment – perhaps not unlike the dedicated teachers at a school who put in the extra hours in service to their kids or the rare traffic cop who orchestrates busy intersections through a dance routine, rather than moving robotically when signaling the change in traffic flow.
Episode 35 presents our discussion of The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Russell Hochschild. This is a perfect segue from the discussion of a social fabric. With global knowledge of firms made possible by information technology, it is easier now than ever to judge organizations on the basis of their missions, purposes, processes, products and services, clientele, and other tangible factors. But what about an organization’s soul? Should it matter to we the consumers how firms, businesses, or governments treat their own members? How closely connected its members are? If one were to visit Wieliczka when it was still open and ventured deep down into the chapels, what would one think? My, how beautiful? Or My, how many excess workers are down here with all this time on their hands? Time for a right-sizing!
I would propose this – the soul of the organization is the degree to which it provides the will and abilities to promote the good in all its members and relationships. Saint Augustine might agree.
The below pictures are Tom’s, taken with a very old digital camera. Click for an enlarged view.
Model of a miner and his horse showing that animals were originally used to help transport the salt.
“Process and practice perspectives” are piquing the interest of a range of organisational scholars. The group that gathered at the University of Queensland Business School workshop last week represented the diversity of scholars interested in these approaches. Faculties of Management, Information Systems, Advertising and more were represented, as were Phds, Professors, ECRs; those who publish from a process and practice perspective, and those more familiar with positivist approaches – all attended with an open mind. This kind of diversity of scholarly backgrounds is rare at a themed workshop, and as you would expect, it added to the quality of interactions and liveliness of discussions over the two days.
As keynote Professor Hari Tsoukas reminded us, process and practice perspectives have more similarities than differences. They both allow us to investigate how organising happens and how the processes involved in organising are experienced by practitioners. Practice theories in particular emphasise everyday life – what activities are practitioners involved in, and how is meaning exercised through these routines and collectivities? Process philosophy offers a related perspective, with a greater emphasis on how temporality frames and arises from our experiences of everyday life. While some of the workshop was dedicated to discussing the difference between process and practice perspectives, the closing statements concluded that they are “two sides of the same coin”. Trying to distinguish them is perhaps less useful than figuring out how to put them to work in organisational research.
This practical concern was a central theme of the workshop. How can we do process and practice research, and, not insignificantly, how can we publish it? Keynote speaker Professor Paula Jarzabkowski offered several important insights here. Illuminating her points with examples from her large-scale ethnographic research on the reinsurance industry, Professor Jarzabkowski explained how she and her co-authors keep track of what “surprises” them in the field. These surprises often inform the basis of a project’s theoretical contribution. The trick is to note down what shows up as unusual during the process of doing research – by the end of a longitudinal ethnography it’s easy to get so immersed that the surprises melt away in retrospect. Emails between co-authors were one practical way in which these important surprising moments were recorded.
I have heard some scholars assert that longitudinal ethnography is the only way to study process. It was great to hear Professor Jarzabkowski challenge this assumption. Sure, if you are studying what is known as ‘weak’ process (e.g. A leads to B leads to C), it might be necessary to capture ‘events’ over time. However, ‘strong’ process refers to an understanding of temporality as central to all phenomena – life isn’t static, it is always on the move: every moment has come from somewhere and is going somewhere. From this perspective, every moment can be studied with a sensitivity to process, in terms of temporality. We can, Professor Jarzabkowski explained, study “process in the moment”. This is possible if we pay attention, for example, to how a phenomenon, in a moment of apparent stability, has come to be stabilized (e.g. a British institution appears stable, but an enormous amount of work has gone into making it appear that way). Professor Jarzabkowski argued convincingly for this way of looking at instances of a phenomenon in terms of process.
In relation to the important issue of publishing, both Professor Tsoukas and Professor Jarzabkowski stressed that as organisational scholars, our research is not contributing to social theory. We can productively use social theory to frame and inform our research, but at the end of the day we need to contribute to our own fields (e.g. organisational theory, advertising, Information Systems, etc.). Studying the works of practice theorists and process philosophers can be wonderfully enriching, but we need to keep an eye on our audience and the kinds of contributions that will resonate with them. This focus means being prepared to make compromises in the review process. It is worth triaging to an extent – what is your main message, and where are you willing to concede? We heard that we will likely be asked to remove traces of the research process, including accounts of how social theory has informed our work, as we progress through reviews. Though pragmatic, this sounded somewhat painful. For those like myself who are new to publishing process and practice research, forewarned is forearmed.
The panelists Professor Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic and Professor Kai Riemer, along with conveners Dr Paul Spee and Professor Jorgen Sandberg (a former TAOP guest), also shared their experiences and reflections on conducting research from a process and practice perspective. Professor Riemer recollected that a practice perspective, informed by philosopher Martin Heidegger, helped him and his co-author Professor Robert Johnston see how technologies were taken for granted by practitioners who used them, to the point where practitioners could not easily communicate the significance of their technologies to the researchers. Practice theory offered a way of accounting for and theorising this observation. Professor Cecez-Kecmanovic shared how a process philosophy perspective has added insight to her study (co-authored with A/Prof Olivera Marjonovic) on the way in which an Australian educational website, which collates and compares the national performance of schools on standardized tests, enacts unintended consequences for how students, teachers, and teaching practice are understood and performed as “good” or “bad”. This example prompted discussion on how process and practice perspectives can serve to highlight ethical issues, such as the effects of categorization and marginalization.
On top of the informative keynotes and panels, the workshop also featured interactive discussions, feedback on work-in-progress, roundtables, and conversation over dinner on the stunning Brisbane river. The two days allowed those who were new to process and practice perspectives to voice questions, concerns, and puzzlements, for example, Professor Andrew Burton-Jones expressed an interest in knowing more about the role of “representation” in process and practice theories. For those already adopting these perspectives in their research, questions focused around publishing, and how we can push the conceptual agenda further. Personally, I felt that performativity emerged as a theme of significance for understanding the intersection between process and practice perspectives. Some who attended this excellent workshop will see each other again at the 9th Annual Process Philosophy Symposium in Greece (PROS). There was also mention of the UQ Process and Practice Perspectives workshop becoming an annual event – let us hope that this imagining becomes a reality!
The University of Queensland Business School Workshop Process and practice perspectives on organisation studies: Similarities and distinctiveness
Conveners and organisers: Professor Jorgen Sandberg and Dr Paul Spee, the University of Queensland,
Dr Anna Stephens, the University of Queensland
Keynote Speakers: Professor Hari Tsoukas, University of Cyprus and Warwick Business School, & Professor Paula Jarzabkowski, CASS Business School and the University of
Panel members: Professor Kai Riemer, the University of Sydney, Professor Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic, University of New South Wales
Sponsors: UQ Business School and the University of Queensland
This review is offering as a summary of the work, which we recommend you read before listening to the Episode – but we all do recommend that you read the actual book, if at all possible, as it is as accessible and insightful as it is brief.
The book is an updated study of managers conducted by Henry Mintzberg based on observing 29 managers at all levels of organizations across a range of industries and organizational structures: business, government, healthcare, and pluralistic organizations such as museums and NGO’s. It is a condensed version of his earlier book – Managing, which was published in 2009. Both books address management as actually practiced, which the Author finds to be quite different from how it is taught and written of in academia. Simply Managing is designed to be of greatest use to practitioners, with its entertaining style and lots of boldface type to clearly emphasize the key points. As a manager in the US Navy for 30 years, I found much of the book’s insight and grasp of the challenges inherent in being a manager to resonate with me.
In Chapter 1 of the book, Mintzberg used his observations to debunk the conventional notions of what management is and what it is not. For all the changes in the professional world of management practice, Mintzberg concluded that the nature of management has not changed substantially in the 40 years between the publication of The Nature of Managerial Work – his seminal book about managerial practices – and Simply Managing. The practice of management is still messy, confusing, frustrating, and on many days, still immensely satisfying work. This has certainly been my experience, particularly the personal satisfaction one can derive from taking a tangled mess of priorities, a team I didn’t choose, and more things to do than could ever fit in a single day and negotiating a workable plan that people could believe in and follow. Like Mintzberg, I have always believed that the distinctions that management authors try to make between leadership and management are artificial. Any person in a position of authority over others who cannot do both is a menace to work with and a chore to work for. Instead, Mintzberg calls for executives to provide both leadership and management in the spirit of what he calls ‘communityship’. During Episode 14, Henry noted that effective organizations have a sense of community where members actually care about each other. It is precisely those kinds of organizations that I found most satisfying to be in as a manager.
Chapter 2 reviews the myths of managing, which Mintzberg labels as folklore. These include: managers are supposed to be reflective and systematic planners (too much interruption and need for action for this one to be true!), managers need information presented formally in reports and graphs (most managers prefer informal communication because of speed and context), managing is all about hierarchy and who works for whom, and managers control things like time and people (most managing is covert, through mutual obligation). I have three myths of my own to add that did not make the cut (Henry noted that he wanted to keep the book short): 1) people want to work for transformational, take-no-prisoners, managers (people trying to be “transformational”, like Steve Jobs, don’t listen well and can be very polarizing), 2) people just want to be told what to do (no they don’t – they just want other people to be told what to do), and 3) management is about making decisions (yes, but sometimes deciding not to make a decision is the best course of action – see Episodes 7 and 8 on Chester Barnard).
Mintzberg then presents a model of managing in Chapter 3. It is his attempt to create one diagram that collects all the pieces of managing together. The model is intended to show how action, or action through others, is supported by information. This is done through linking, dealing, and communicating. According to the model, managers get things done through framing (establishing context) and scheduling their time for what they think is important. Managers make decisions, of course, but not all decisions are alike; there are many kinds, including: designing, delegating, authorizing, allocating resources, and deeming (imposing targets on people). Thinking back to my own practice, a couple of other important decisions managers have to make are: when to act and when to leave things alone, when to leave a struggling subordinate in place (with more help, possibly) and when to remove them because they are damaging the entire organization. Mintzberg argued that some deeming is necessary, but he went on to declare that a little goes a long way in organizations. I agree with him that too much deeming leads to one of the greatest pathologies of management: managing by remote control. Another pathology from deeming that I would add is management by fiat. I have found that people don’t support or respond very well to manager’s priorities if they don’t believe that those priorities matter. Finally, Mintzberg called for a dynamic balancing the 13 competencies he described in the section on ‘comprehensive roles of managers’.
Chapter 4 presented a critical view of management, one that only look at one of, or a few of its many varieties at a time at the expense of the fuller picture. A manager cannot be successful by focusing on just a few skills and ignoring all others as if they were somehow less important. Mintzberg argued that all the factors of management – external context, organizational form, level in the hierarchy, nature of the work, pressures of the job, and characteristics of the person in the job – have to be considered together. One of the things that makes managing so challenging (and definitely not simple) is that it is so multifaceted. Henry wrote “what you do as a manager is mostly determined by what you face as a manager, which is not independent of who you are as a person” (Chapter 4, The Yin and Yang of Managing, paragraph 15). He then noted that management simultaneously exhibits aspects of craft, science, and art. Personally, I think it is much more craft than art, as it takes *lots* of practice.
Chapter 5 is the most important part of the book, according to Henry. In it, he reviewed the paradoxes that are inherent in the practice of management. He refers to these as either ‘conundrums’ or ‘tightropes’. The latter one is a good term because I have often felt, as a manager, like I was trying to keep my balance while walking above a congregation of hungry alligators. The conundrums identified by Mintzberg are: superficiality, delegating, measuring, (over)confidence, and acting. I recognized all of these and can think of more: being loyal to your leadership’s agenda and goals versus clearly communicating problems that may make those goals impossible to achieve, permanently derailing people by removing them from positions of authority versus leaving them in place where they impact the morale of the entire organization, and, finally, listening to the doomsayers who predict your change won’t work versus implementing the change because you believe it is the right thing to do. As Mintzberg noted, the conundrums are always going to be presents, and so they can only be reconciled but never resolved. Like the varieties of management identified in Chapter 4, a dynamic balance between the opposing sides of the paradoxes is often the best a manager can aim to accomplish.
In Chapter 6, the final chapter of the book, Mintzberg noted that for all its complexity, challenges, and conundrums, it is still the real people who have to manage every day. Which is something they do despite their inherent flaws, a healthy dose of which everyone has. In a very creative approach to analyzing management failures, Henry used a format inspired by Tolstoy’s quote from Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own particular way.” This was followed by a review of personal failures, job failures, fit failures, and success failures (yes, that’s right!). These are examples of particular ways in which managers can fail. My personal favorite from the list is ‘job failures’, where people are put into impossible situations where no human without superpowers can succeed. I thought I was the only person that had ever had this problem – where success was not my chief concern, just mere survival. Accordingly, I found Mintzberg’s description of impossible jobs very validating.
Further in this chapter, he provided a framework for effectiveness based on Lewis et al.’s (1976) No Single Thread: Psychological Health in Family Systems. The threads of Lewis et al. parallel the framework for managerial effectiveness in context presented in Simply Managing. These threads are: energy level, reflectivity, analysis, level of sophistication, collaboration, productivity, and integration. The final two sections of the chapter address selecting, developing, and evaluating managers; neither one of which is done all that well in many organizations, according to Mintzberg. The trouble is that, in my opinion, much like the managerial challenges Henry illuminated in the book, this is really hard to do! So most of the organizations I have worked for made do with what they have either because it was the corporate tool, or because what they had was “good enough.”
To summarize, I found the book to be thought provoking, comprehensive, and reassuring on many levels. While it can be appreciated by anyone, it is particularly valuable for practicing managers- its target audience. Throughout the book, Mintzberg gave voice to the frustrations and paradoxes that I have often felt as a manager, but was too busy balancing on the tightropes to notice happening all around as well. Particularly useful for practitioners is the model of management described in Chapter 3. It offers a means of framing the challenges associated with all the different roles a manager has to fill. The threads that describe aspects of managerial effectiveness in Chapter 6 were also very insightful and should prompt considerable reflection by the managers. They certainly did for me.
This post is about podcast as a platform and about how you can apply this platform to your teaching practice. While I will write from the perspective of a lecturer in a traditional University setting, I do believe that at least some of what I am going to say will be usable in other contexts and roles
If you spend enough time in a lecture theatre or a seminar room of a large University, a couple of things are likely to become fairly obvious. One is that neither the students nor their tutors, despite being present, really have to engage with anything that’s going on and, Two, that the lecture theatre or seminar room where the class takes place can be a really awkward environment to learn in. In my experience, these two hold true regardless of whether you are a student or a teacher, and seem especially befitting in the case of Bachelor’s degree candidates. I am certain we’ve all been there at least once – tutors reading from slides to an audience who’d rather be anywhere else (or a combination of either one).
Of course, the exact opposite holds true as well – super engaging classes with super-star teachers who entertain, teach and mesmerize their students all at the same time. I am not one of these people, but neither am I someone who puts the class to sleep. Having worked with one of the aforementioned paragons of teaching practice I have jumped around the class playing games and doing plays with students, but found it to just not be my cup of tea – not least because I believe that the most rewarding and inclusive learning comes from the more or less autonomous solving of problems. Breaking paradigms on stage while adapting Shakespeare for management is great (it really is!), but there are other ways to unlock creativity and channel it towards learning outcomes too. I suspect that I am not alone in my disposition towards teaching so, for those of us who genuinely care about developing their students but do not want to put on a charade that is a forced “creative education” (i.e. if it does not come naturally – just don’t do it), technology is here to help!
And what a great help it can be! The Internet is an ultimate one-on-one form of communication – it is there just for you and you alone, and it will do (mostly) what you will ask of it. Podcasts are a manifestation of that as they are on-demand, always available anywhere, free and very pleasing to the ego (you basically have people tell you stories that you want to hear whenever and wherever – much like in the case with children). Apparently, learning via a podcast is called m-learning (m for mobile). M-learning is a form of E-learning, but only in a sense that it is through E that M is made possible. According to Saylor (2012), m-learning significantly boosts exam performance and cuts drop-out rates dramatically. In all honesty this seems about right, but for my money, the best aspect of m-learning is that it is easy and does not ask the learner to compromise their time – podcasts can be consumed while doing a myriad of other activities. My favourite time to consume podcasts is while driving, for example. So, to summarize, podcasts are great! Now, what can you do with them?
From my experience, there are two ways how you can infuse your teaching practice with this amazing resource. The first one is to give your students a selection of podcasts to listen to. This is probably most common and there are, indeed, great recordings of important lectures out there (especially on iTunes U). That being said, unless you are going to share Talking About Organizations with your students, please don’t do this as it will almost certainly not work. Why not? Refer back to first paragraph where I spoke of engagement. This also applies to should you record some podcasts yourself (to supplement the lecture materials or similar). In any case, best not to.
The Second way of using podcasts for teaching is rather more exciting! You get students to produce their own podcasts as part of their assessment. Here is how this can be done with very minimal effort/disruption:
Have part of the module assessment approved for groups presentations (usually can get up to 50% in the UK) – this will be the podcast. The rest can be done via exam or individual essay, or whatever else you need to do. In my experience, it is best to lead with the individual assessment in Term 1, and finish with the podcast in Term 2.
Divide the module into groups of five-ish and assign different topics. It is important that they do not have repetition in their assignments.
The task can be formulated as such: to produce a 15 or 21 minute podcast (15 minutes is approx a 3000-word script and 21 minutes is approx a 5000-word script, but encourage to record and include expert interviews or anything else) on the assigned topic/question. The content must include an overview of the topic, state the relevance, touch on the main debates and close with the implications. The podcast must display production value by delivering clear, understandable and engaging audio track as well as an opening and closing jingle music.
Students go away and do their research (more on this just below), record the podcast (anything that can record voice is sufficient), edit it with free software such as Audacity and submit either on the University server or literally anywhere else (e.g. Dropbox, Google Drive). Just make sure the submissions are in .mp3 or the files will be just enormous.
Now, the grading for this is two-stage. First, you grade as you would a presentation. Second, have the students grade each others podcasts (this is why they ought to be on different topics) on a scale of 0-5. Using ‘stars’ for this would be most familiar to them as this is how its usually done literally anywhere.
Calculate average student score for each podcast and apply the following weighing: 0 for Zero, 0.8 for One, 0.9 for Two, 1 for Three, 1.1 for Four, and 1.2 for Five. Then multiply the mark you have given during Stage one of the grading process by whatever is the student weighing the podcast achieved. For example, if your mark was 70% and the podcast achieved 4 stars, then the final mark will be 70 x 1.1 = 77% ! Done! Students will appreciate the novelty of the task and an element of peer assessment (or so they say!) and you have fewer marking to do none of which is monotonous.
What do the students get out of this? Quite a lot, to be honest. In terms of mechanics of putting the recording together they would need to:
Do the research on the topic, both superficial and more in-depth to identify debates and come up with implications;
Write a script, which will require them to come up with a story that is not only informative but also engaging (e.g. begin with formulating a problem, follow up with an illustrative case study/anecdote, give general background, state main issues/criticisms/problems with the general theory, follow this by main debates and tie up by answering the initial problem and saying what the implications are);
Record the script, which is an exercise in public speaking, diction and presentation;
Edit the podcast, which develops technical skills and aesthetic sensitivity;
Listen to and grade all the other podcasts thus learning about the remaining topics.
In curriculum-speak this would translate as 1) (and also 5) developing in-depth knowledge of the subject area, 2) developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills, 3) developing leadership and public speaking skills, 4) acquiring presentation skills. To make things more fun you can then actually post the podcast on iTunes every year for added impact/exposure.
Podcasts are fun, simple, relevant and incredibly rewarding things to make! The same can no longer be said for traditional forms of assessment and/or module delivery. Did you know that something like 33% of all Americans have listened or are listening to a podcast (the survey was in 2012 I think)? How amazing is that?
Using podcasts for teaching also defeats the issue of engagement (simpler, more convenient and, as an assignment, frankly mandatory) and the space that it a lecture theatre or a seminar room (podcasts are produced in (home) studios, require problem solving and can be consumed anywhere and at any time). And it is incredibly easy for you, as a tutor, to incorporate them into your teaching practice! Try using podcast as a teaching tool and you will be giving your students a very tangible and relevant skill and an interesting final product they’d be able to share and show. Not to mention that you will significantly improve your quality of life during exam period!
All this is based purely on my personal experiences of producing TAOP and applying exactly what I described above on two modules at the Warwick Business School, UK. With that in mind, please get in touch to tell me what you think of all this, whether you’ve tried something like this and to what effect, and if you’d like to discuss any of this in more detail.
To Learn More:
Saylor, M. (2012). The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything. Perseus Books/Vanguard Press.
What can I say? Your discussion about Mary Parker Follett’s (1868 – 1933) thoughts about “The Giving of Orders,” with a focus on her notion of “the law of the situation,” is such a delight. The way you each share your thoughts and listen to one another, occasionally modifying your own thinking, after hearing and considering the thoughts of your colleagues, was like watching Follett’s ideas take form and evolve during the course of the conversation. To top off this experience, I listened to Johan’s summary last. Sensational!
Albie M. Davis
Thank you for developing such a novel and contemporary way to learn about and contribute to something as essential as how to work together in groups, whether they be families, schools, community meetings, the workplace, national governments or the United Nations.
I first “met” Follett in 1989 in the Schlesinger Library, which was then part of Radcliffe College (for women) and is now The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. I asked a librarian if she knew who Follett was, for I did not know if she was alive or dead. The Librarian handed me Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett, and let me know that she had died in 1933. However, when I flipped open her book and landed on the chapter on Constructive Conflict, a talk she presented before a Bureau of Personnel Administration conference group in January 1925, I thought, “She may have passed on, but her thinking is the most alive of anyone I know.”
Since your episode was so engaging, I made a few notes about what I might say if I were there. I hope you will forgive me for stepping into your exchange with the way I have come to think about “the law of the situation.” This is a concept that has arisen slowly for me over the years, and probably will continue to change, but it is where I am today.
One of the things I love about Follett is the way in which mid-stream in her writing and talks she can modify her thinking. And another quality comes when she herself gets “swept up” in an idea. Below is one of my favorite Follett’s trips. I call this “The Surge of Life.” It is from The New State, page 35.
The surge of life sweeps through the given similarity, the common ground, and breaks it up into a thousand differences. This tumultuous, irresistible flow of life is our existence: the unity, the common, is but for an instant, it flows on to new differings which adjust themselves anew in fuller, more varied, richer synthesis. The moment when similarity achieves itself as a composite of working, seething forces, it throws out its myriad new differings. The torrent flows into a pool, works, ferments, and then rushes forth until all is again gathered into the new pool of its own unifying. (NS35)
I love the phrase “the law of the situation,” however, “law” does suggest a certain static quality. If you add up statements by Follett, it is clear she doesn’t see the world standing still. And in her third book, Creative Experience (1924) she makes it clears that:
A situation changes faster than anyone can report on it. The developing possibilities of certain factors must be so keenly perceived that we get the report of a process, not a picture, and when it is necessary to present to us a stage in the process, it should be presented in such a way that we see the hints it contains of successive stages.(CE9)
I agree with what sounded like a semi-consensus among your team: Follett only occasionally laid out a “how to” list of steps and stages. She trusted the readers or listeners to figure that out themselves. And, it is thrilling to think that you are interested in tackling some of the challenges that face humanity in a world bursting with technological possibilities.
I admire the élan with which your team is creating your Talking About Organizations podcast, site and blog, and I look forward to your individual and collective insights into Follett and all those who shed light on how people can tap the creative energy spawned by the differences among members in a group.
With anticipation and appreciation,
Albie M. Davis served as Director of Mediation for the Massachusetts District Courts from 1981 to 1999. In that role, she helped develop community-based mediation programs which trained volunteers to provide mediation services instead of taking their conflicts to court. In this role, she trained mediators as well as mediation trainers. When she left her court position to move from Massachusetts to Maine, she expanded her interests from mediation to mixed media, and began to paint in oils and watercolor, as well as serve as a conflict resolution consultant/coach for the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2013 she returned to Boston and with a three-country team, (France, Canada and the USA) co-authored and co-edited a book, The Essential Mary Parker Follett: Ideas We Need Today. Additionally, she wrote an article for the Negotiation Journal which explored Follett’s influence on James E. Webb, the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the period when the USA geared up to put a man on the moon.
Organization studies has a peculiar relationship with history, including its own history. On the one hand, it routinely invokes woefully inadequate claims about history (new eras, unprecedented developments and so on). On the other hand, it makes ludicrous claims about its own history – the narrative of scientific management giving way to human relations theory (discussed in the book) being an obvious example. On the third hand, it ignores and is ignorant of history, so that many a supposedly cutting-edge research paper simply replicates, without any awareness of so doing, things that have been known for decades.
These failures are not, at least as regards the first and second cases, necessarily meaningless. They reflect, in part anyway, the ideological operations of organization studies as a handmaiden of managerialism, suggesting, in the first case, that there is an underlying logic that justifies managerialism and, in the second case, that managerialism is part of a specifically progressive logic. In other words, what is by scholarly standards bad history is not simply understandable in terms of bad scholarship.
But what about the third case? Here I think that there at least four factors in play. One is that those conducting research in organization studies (myself included) are often not trained in that discipline, but in something else, such as economics, sociology, anthropology, or, as in my case, politics. Thus there is less sense of a socialization into a canon than might be the case. That is changing, as more people come through an organization studies training, but that may not make much difference because of the other factors. These are, first, that the notion of a ‘classical canon’ is anathema to the postmodern sensibility that has been influential in recent organization studies, at least in Europe. Second, that because most organization studies takes place in business schools, which are typically culturally in thrall to the new, classic studies are easily dismissed as old hat. And, third, because the pressure to publish supposedly novel contributions – especially ‘theoretical’ contributions – disinclines researchers to seek out or admit to the classical roots of their discipline.
Yet against that background, I have a sense that things are beginning to change. Consider, for example, John Hassard’s (2012) superb analysis of the Hawthorne Studies, adding significant historical flesh to the point in my book (p.41) about the continuities and interconnections between ‘scientific management’ and ‘human relations’. Or Ellen O’Connor’s (2011) re-appropriation of the lost foundations of management and organization studies.
This optimistic sense has been provoked by two things over the last week or so. One was attending a seminar by Paul du Gay where he presented his (2015) paper ‘Organization (Theory) as a Way of Life’, which not only makes out the case for re-considering ‘classical organization theory’, but also mounts a robust challenge to the metaphysical theoreticism of recent organization studies. The other was learning of an initiative by a group of doctoral students in organization studies to read and discuss classic texts. The podcasts of these discussions on the Talking about Organizations website are enthralling and sophisticated dissections of (so far) the writings of Taylor, Fayol and Maslow.
Although, of course, I would not compare my own work with that of those mentioned here, I do see it as having some affinity with what they are doing. I, too, am dismayed by theoreticism and am also seeking to re-connect with classical writings and traditions in organization studies, both in my book on the organization of Bletchley Park (Grey, 2012) and my forthcoming book on secrecy (Costas and Grey, 2016).
I am sure that many other writers, not referenced here, are trying to do something similar. I certainly hope so because although I don’t suppose the first two ways that organization studies relates to history are redeemable, the third surely is.
This blog post has originally appeared on Chris Grey’s blog and has been syndicated here with his kind permission. Chris is a fantastic author and researcher, and his work is what got Dmitrijs into organization studies in the first place, so do check him out in the unlikely case that you haven’t yet! One of his books, A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Studying Organizations first published by Sage in 2005, is now in its third edition and has been translated into Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and Swedish.
Costas, J. & Grey, C. (2016). Secrecy at Work. The Hidden Architecture of Organizational Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Du Gay, P. (2015). ‘Organization (Theory) as a Way of Life’, Journal of Cultural Economy 8(4), 399-417.
Grey, C. (2012). Decoding Organization. Bletchley Park, Codebreaking and Organization Studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hassard J. (2012). ‘Rethinking the Hawthorne Studies: The Western Electric Research in its Social, Political and Historical Context’, Human Relations 65 (11), 1431-1461.
O’Connor, E. (2011). Creating New Knowledge in Management. Appropriating the Field’s Lost Foundations. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.