Image: Tiffany window at Winchester House by Chris McSorley, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
[Ed note: This is the sixth of six articles in a virtual panel on Who should benefit from organizational research?]
by Hugh Willmott
Professor Davis asks: who should benefit from organizational research? Rather than taking for granted its beneficiaries, he usefully poses the question. To the extent that organizations research has a practical impact, it informs decisions made by business and governments, amongst others. In turn, as Professor Davis (2015) notes, those decisions ‘shape the life chances of workers, consumers, and citizens for decades to come’. This expectation provides what I commend as an answer to his question: there is potentially as large and diverse audience for knowledge of management and organization as there is diversity of stakeholders in the widely diffused practices of management and organization. The audience includes, but is not restricted to, managers.
There is perhaps some irony in how the established, critical case for challenging the role of business academics as ‘servants of [executive] power’ is now been joined by a pragmatic recognition that the audience of managers is diminishing. As Professor Davis reports, bean counters have (with scientific rigor?) assigned the status of ‘manager’ to 7 million Americans, but the number of employees who manage others is, in all likelihood, in sharp, and probably irreversible, decline. There is, then, some common ground between long-standing critics of managerialism and those now wishing to expand the audience (market?) for business academics.
Image: Geisel Library by Amerique, via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.0)
[Ed note: This is the fifth of six articles in a virtual panel on Who should benefit from organizational research?]
We are all indebted to Jerry Davis for his provocative piece. The issues he raises are frequent objects of discussion but have seldom generated such an insightful challenge to scholarship generally, and to the field of organization studies in particular. Yet I must confess some misgivings with this line of analysis. Let me explain why.
Davis’s argument raises two interrelated points. The first concerns the reward structure that governs academic publication. This reward structure, he contends, has unduly fostered the production of novel (“interesting,” or counter-intuitive) findings, even if these run the risk of being misleading, distorted or even untrue. This is especially the case, given the use of metrics that judge academic merit by virtue of “impact” (a faulty metric if ever there were one). Especially when individual careers (hiring, promotion, mobility) all depend on the individual’s metrics, the production of knowledge is now governed by a system that tends implicitly to pervert the development of knowledge, to lead away from cumulative knowledge, and even to fuel the generation of illusions. His chosen metaphor –the Winchester Mystery House— stands as an object example: a concerted, generations-long effort that serves little or no use, save as a program of job creation whose only product is the very embodiment of irrationality itself.
Davis’s second claim is that we now live in an era when the large corporation has undergone a major shift. Put simply, corporations no longer offer organization studies the same primary constituency as in the past, since the management of human beings has now been given over to computer algorithms, which govern fluctuations in corporate workforces without need for managerial intervention. Under such a regime, the study of management must reconsider the audience for whom it speaks.
Image: Winchester Mystery House by Cullen328, via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)
[Ed note: This is the fourth of six articles in a virtual panel on Who should benefit from organizational research?]
by Paul Hirsch
I agree with my colleagues’ statements and would just add the following.
It seems clear to me that research on organizations, especially by sociologists, does not have as a goal aiding managers in running their organizations. Indeed, many of the articles published in Administrative Science Quarterly, which Jerry edits, do not seem to have that in mind either. Of equal interest, of course is what role do organizations play in society, how do they treat their employees and consumers, how do they and their leaders come to achieve the power they exert, and what kinds of values and ethics do they encourage and transmit? It is true the field may look like the Winchester Mystery House – but considering the alternative proposed in the article we are commenting on (i.e. to do managers jobs for them better), I prefer we continue with the variety of topics, and multiple pillars and points of view found in our own academic version of that mansion.
Paul Hirsch is the James L. Allen Professor of Strategy & Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Image: Tower of London by Bob Collowân, via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)
[Ed note: This is the third of six articles in a virtual panel on Who should benefit from organizational research?]
by Nancy DiTomaso
At a time when there is a growing movement for “evidence-based” recommendations from research in the social sciences, medicine, and the policy arena among other domains, it seems strange for an article meant to raise critical issues about the state of the field to call for more focus on “truth.” While there is always room for better theory and better methods, as well as more clarity in writing, we need to be careful what we label as truth, and we need to safeguard the institutional procedures by which we determine what we think of as quality in scholarship.
Truth has never been objective, because it is always tied up with perspective and embedded in relationships of power, status, and numbers (as in numbers of people in the majority, not in terms of mathematics). Although there is nothing new about having those in power attempting to use their resources to define what is considered to be true, the current political environment, where there are such deep divides over not only interpretations of truth, but even of basic facts, should underline for us how difficult it is to use truth as a guideline for determining quality in our research. Indeed, a case can be made for the origins of science being the effort to break free from the strictures of power-bound definitions of truth. As such, the procedures that have been built up over time for the evaluation of contributions to science (social as well as physical), however flawed and imperfectly implemented, have grown out of the difficulties of determining what is good science, and indeed, what is therefore, true.
[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.
Image: Winchester Mystery House by russavia, via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.0)
[Ed note: This is the first of six articles in a virtual panel on Who should benefit from organizational research?]
Academic careers reward publication, and our system of journals often privileges novelty over cumulative insights. Judgments of quality are difficult and time consuming, and so we rely on proxy measures of “impact” that are easily gamed. Paradoxically, journals have evolved a sophisticated set of standards for evaluating research claims, but they reward being “counterintuitive.” As a result, while there is a lot of sound and fury, it is difficult to point to many areas of settled science when it comes to organizations.
Things are about to get worse unless we evolve new standards rooted in a clear sense of who and what organizational research is for.
The changing nature of organizations means that we need to reconsider who our constituencies are, as “managerial relevance” is becoming an elusive goal. Enterprises today bear little resemblance to the postwar hierarchies that animated early research. Some of the best-known companies have few employees to manage, while some of the biggest rely on computer algorithms to schedule, monitor, and evaluate. This raises a fundamental question for our field: who should benefit from organizational research? Answering this question can help guide standards of evaluation for research.
[Ed note: This is the final of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
In this closing essay of a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology I want to suggest a direction that was only briefly hinted at in two of the preceding 13 essays: More engagement with political economy. Harland Prechel argued for a need to focus on how political-legal institutions shape managerial behaviour and Jerry Davis discussed increasingly precarious employment for the working class. The broader subfield is also largely silent on issues of political economy, with a very few notable exceptions including Neil Fligstein and Jerry on financialization, Mark Mizruchi on the corporate elite and Harland on big business and the state.
In my view there is much to be gained from engaging traditional organizational theory with political economy focused on structures and dynamics of profit seeking, capital accumulation and class relations. A turn to political economy can help to grasp the deeper structures and historical dynamics underlying the mid-range phenomena that are typically the focus of organizational theory.
[Ed note: This is the 12th of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
Organizational sociology, I would argue, has become increasingly sophisticated over the years; but it has done so in ways that make it less interesting to non-organizational sociologists and, hence, less able to survive outside the hothouse microclimate of a self-styled organizational studies program. From my particular vantage point in a sociology department on a campus without a business school, the problem is this: Most of my students – graduate as well as undergraduate – arrive in sociology with interests that they do not see as organizational: Globalization and development, health and medicine, environment (yes indeed Chick!), social movements, inequality, urban structure, science and technology, occasionally law. But only rarely “organizations.” I (like most readers of this blog, I suspect) see all these topics as profoundly and thoroughly organizational. But how do I make that case to the next generation of sociologists?
Of course, I can share my excitement for the ins and outs of organizational ecology and institutional theory, resource dependence and network embeddedness, even institutional economics and competitive strategy. But these conversations all too often end on an awkward note: “Wow,” says the student, “You really seem to like this stuff. So what does org theory tell us about [insert a “non-organizational” topic from the list above]?” I pause and gather my thoughts: “It tells us that organizational practices are institutionally constructed and constrained; that outcomes are shaped by cultural and political forces; that interorganizational exchanges are embedded in social networks; that organizational boundaries are porous; that workplaces are rife with interpersonal dynamics and informal structures and biases; that…” “Wait,” says the student, sounding as though I’ve just plucked away the football that he/she was about to kick, “so why should I study organizations, then, instead of studying institutions or culture or politics or networks or small-group processes?”
[Ed note: This is the 11th of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
A response to the question of what is the future of organizational sociology first depends on understanding how the institutional and organization environment has changed.
In commenting on changes I make some assumptions, i.e., an open systems perspective and competition for attention occurs in an ecology of institutional space.
Below is a partial natural history of observations, not necessarily in an event sequencing order or from systematic research. I don’t know much about blogging and assume that the purpose is to be provocative to raise questions that generate discussion.
[Ed note: This is the tenth of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
I was happy that the Organizations, Occupations and Work Section sponsored a panel discussion at the American Sociological Association meeting this year (2014) on this topic—one that has long been of concern to me. I’m old enough to remember when organizational sociology was a major focus of our discipline and occupied a central place in the programs of leading sociology departments. In its modern guise, this field emerged slowly in the late 1950’s, grew to prominence during 1970s, and was still strong well into the 1980s. We then witnessed the sad spectacle of the majority of graduates of these programs being snatched up by business schools, with others moving into various administrative or policy programs. These graduates continue to teach and study many aspects of organization, but their agenda has been curtailed by the context in which they operate and is often inflected by the dominance of economics in these settings. In this brief essay, I propose to respond to and amplify the comments of the some of the panel members, in particular, Howard Aldrich and Lis Clemens.
I was surprised (shocked!) to hear Howard opine that organizational sociology could have no future because it had no past! For evidence, he pointed to the fact that most of the contemporary research on organizations published in the leading sociology and management journals deals with contemporary organizations, mostly located in the U.S. I think this observation is empirically biased because it excludes the large and rich array of studies published as books and monographs. (Sociology is fortunate enough to be a two-literature field: we still write and value books as well as articles!) But, whether or not the evidence is confirmatory, it is irrelevant to the issue of concern. A review of what contemporary sociologists are currently doing tells us nothing about the past history of our area of scholarship!