Organization Studies – Down and Out in Britain if not Europe

IvoryTower[Ed note: This is the second of six articles in a virtual panel on Who should benefit from organizational research?]

by Stephen Ackroyd

The question who should benefit from academic organisational research is probably best answered by the single word: everyone. But it is a silly question, because almost nobody actually does benefit from it. In Britain industrial and organisational sociology, as this area of study was originally conceived, has not developed an appropriate institutional position through which it could benefit anyone – except, of course, the academics themselves. Today any organisational research that is useful is done by managers and practitioners themselves and often also by consultants.

The research done by academics has almost no use at all. For reasons that have most to do with their complacency and lack of value commitment, academics studying organisations in the UK have largely failed to develop an institutional location from which they could be helpful to others.

In the immediate post- WWII period in Britain, the Labour government was well-disposed towards social science and sponsored a good deal of research it assumed would be practically useful. The support it gave was focussed on the reorganisation of the key nationalised industries of coal and steel. These basic industries had been run down during the hostilities to the point of collapse, and it was widely realised in government that much would need to be done if they were to be put back into shape and to allow industrial growth to re-emerge. Part of this remit was dealing with the organizational problems – and particularly the appalling industrial relations – which so beset these industries in the past. A surprising amount of money was channelled into this work.

In the process the Department of Social Science at Liverpool University became, in effect, the industrial research department of the Government. Uniquely, at the time, the extent of the subsidy provided allowed many staff to be free of teaching and to concentrate on research, and some well-known names benefitted in their careers as a result. Why this high point of influence for social science in Britain was never again approximated is not difficult to work out.

It was not lack of funds. Research money was forthcoming in the following decade after the change of government, much of it originating in America and routed to Britain through European redevelopment agencies. Nor was the change of government decisive to limiting the reception of research. Although the returning Conservatives assumed that the only thing to do with nationalised industries was to return them to the private sector, this de-nationalisation policy was found difficult to accomplish in practice. Coal and steel had been nationalised in rather different ways. Government had simply acquired the shares of the steel companies, whilst it had fully nationalised coal.

Even the apparently simple process of returning the ownership of the steel companies to their owners proved to require extended negotiation, and was only partly accomplished in the 13 years of Conservative administration after 1951. The leading edge of the British steel industry remained in public ownership, and the management were receptive to research. Coal presented by far the more intractable problem, but the whole industry remained in public ownership and research into the coal industry was sustained into the 1960s. However, what is remembered is not the Liverpool research, but that by the Tavistock Institute in a consultancy relationship with the National Coal Board – which originated socio-technical systems theory.

It has to be acknowledged that there was a failure of the research undertaken to deliver useable results. If one was to fairly summarise the results of this work, the main conclusion would be that the situation in these industries was found to be enormously complicated (which it was) with numerous unions and many difficulties standing in the way of effective communication. But we knew this already. The research was too scholarly and too circumspect to be practically valuable.

Almost equally important to the lack of practical effectiveness was the fact that the interests of key participants changed and people moved on. At best there was failure to recruit and retain the next generation of researchers. Some applied social science at Liverpool did have continuing influence and the ear of governments, but this was in the areas of social policy and public administration, as opposed to industrial and organisational research.

The next generation of researchers into industrial organisation also received high levels of subsidy in the shape of research grants, and again a high proportion of the available money was channelled in their direction. But the leading researchers now were members of staff at the elite universities and considered themselves theorists and scholars who undertook research. Applied researchers seeking practical applications they were not. Of course by this time government would not have directly sponsored research anyway and research funding had fallen into the control of the self-appointed leaders of the social science community. This next generation of researchers’ work was primarily interested in class dynamics and the changing basis of the political affiliations of workers. At this time too (1970s) the first explicitly organisational research was undertaken, but this was also mainly theoretically driven and had little obvious practical application.

By the time the labour government briefly returned to power (1964-71), social science had been firmly institutionalised in British Universities, including the elite foundations. It surprises people today to rediscover that the Labour party was, in its higher educational policy, opposed to these institutions and put its weight behind founding alternative higher education institutions in the shape of the polytechnics. Polytechnics were supposed to develop applied research because the elite colleges (obviously) would not. In a relatively short time, however, the distinctiveness of the polytechnics and their applied and technological emphasis was lost.

The complicity of all the teachers in higher education in this failure to develop an alternative to the traditional (theoretically based and scholarly) version of what higher education could be is clear. Thus the struggle for the relevance and the usefulness of social science was lost at this early stage (actually by the early 1970s). The lure of being accepted as part of the intellectual establishment was apparently difficult to resist. The next generation of industrial and organisational researchers was divided between those who basically were content with continuing with theoretically serious (but politically neutral) research and a smaller schismatic group who considered themselves political insurgents. The insurgents were even stronger in their condemnation of applied research than the traditionalists: any kind of applied research (and especially consultancy) was capitulation to the forces of capitalism.

In the 1980s and ‘90s the social science of work and organisation in Britain fell into a complicated tribalism, a set of warring factions with an alarming tendency to fractionate further and further into smaller bands of like-minded individuals. A scholarly fad – a misapplication of the ideas of a philosopher and sociologist of science – gave impetus to the idea of ‘alternative paradigms’ and legitimated the possibility that there are several equally valid approaches to organisations. This fell rapidly into a further proliferation of ideas and approaches.

Surprisingly, perhaps, none of the cliques who run the petty fiefdoms into which the field of organisation studies now resolves adopted the aspiration to undertake research of direct use in organisations themselves, or still less to feed to policy-makers with a stream of results and advice that would help produce effective public policy.

In organisation studies today we mainly research and write for each other, as there is really nobody else who gives a damn.  Nor do we work and publish in the spirit of wishing to help each other. Instead we usually hope we will be first with some thought or finding and in this way we seek to show just how good we are. Everyone elides the fact that our audience is a very small group of like-mined folk who form our particular coterie.

Unfortunately we organisation studies folk are a small and disparate group distinguished only by its firm grip on a minor business school franchise. Our organization studies franchise has the obvious benefit of seeming to be useful even though it actually has no practical purpose and allows us to do pretty much as we wish. To the general public, “organisational studies” and even better “organisational research” do sound like bona fide areas for research in which academics might legitimately involve themselves. It is taught in business schools, so it must be useful, mustn’t it?

The glaring and awkward truth is, however, that our subject has no practical value, and its contribution to culture generally conceived is negligible. There must be many of us who inwardly cringe when asked such things as: what exactly are you a professor of? The honest answer is: not much.

Stephen Ackroyd is emeritus professor, Lancaster University Management School.Stephen Ackroyd is emeritus professor, Lancaster University Management School. 

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