Saturday, 13 December 2014

Follow the money

I don’t often write about universities on this blog, because to do so seems too inward-looking. But current developments underway in UK universities should be of real public concern. I’m referring in particular to a massive shift towards requiring academics to generate substantial amounts of grant income to fund their research. To understand why that matters, it’s necessary to understand a little bit about how research funding works in the UK (more precisely I should say England in terms of what follows, although there is considerable similarity in the rest of the UK). There are two main routes. One is the government funding distributed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) on the basis of the quality of research undertaken (hence it is called QR funding), with this quality being assessed by the Research Excellence Framework(REF), the latest results of which are due next week. The other route is research grant income (RGI) which may come from a variety of industrial, charitable and government sources, with the UK’s research councils (RCUK) being the most important as regards the latter.
With respect to QR funding, this is driven mainly by assessments of the quality of publications (but also by the wider impact of these and some other factors). Academics undertake QR funded research as part of their contractual duties and are not tied to any particular projects. RGI funding, by contrast, is based on bids to support particular projects. QR funding therefore offers considerable freedom of research focus, but it is not a ‘free for all’ since the REF assessment is stringent and, indeed, a source of much complaint from academics.
In recent months, many British universities have been imposing massive pressure on academics to increase RGI and in some cases have set very harsh targets on individuals to secure such funding, under threat of redundancy. Three cases in particular have attracted some publicity: those of King’s College London, Warwick University and Imperial. The latter example has a particularly tragic twist with the suicide of a Professor of Toxicology, apparently linked to the demands for RGI generation placed upon him, recalling other cases of suicide in organizations discussed in a previous post.
These issues relate to many others discussed on this blog and in my book, especially the general impact of the New Public Management and the ways that this has given licence to capricious managerial privilege and, for that matter, bullying. How this relates to universities are brilliantly explored by in a 2012 article by Yiannis Gabriel and, with respect to business schools, in a 2013 article by Martin Parker. But I want to focus on some more narrow issues here.
One is just about the financial rationale of what is happening. Suppose we want to be very ‘hard-headed’ and say something like “well, of course, research must pay its way: it’s high time these academics learnt to live in the real world”. Apart from any other problems with such a view, it neglects the fact of QR funding. Academics who publish work judged to be excellent by the REF generate income for their universities via HEFCE. Why, then, insist that only RGI money matters?
The other is even more important. Funding research via RGI requires that the funder be persuaded in advance of the research that it is worthwhile. That presents several very important issues, both practical and political. On the former - it’s very well-known that the value of research is often only apparent many years after it has been conducted. The computer applications of pure maths are obvious examples. On the latter – research that seems controversial or unfashionable will be a poor prospect for deliberative funding decisions. The two are linked, since it is almost inevitable that grant and project based funding decisions will be small-c conservative: they are based upon existing knowledge and understanding.
This has a particular significance when it comes to the funding of critically-oriented research about organizations and management. For all that academics may complain about REF, it has allowed such research to flourish to the extent – and it is a considerable extent – that it has generated publications deemed to be of high quality and hence generating QR funding. An approach based on RGI offers a much less propitious environment for at least two reasons. One is that the very fractured and fractious state of the field makes it hard to get consensus from referees on grant applications. Another is that, to the extent that RGI requires identifiable end users, critical research, whose ‘users’ are typically civil society at large, is likely to struggle.
Of course we are not in that situation yet, and that is one of the strangest aspects of this story. For it is not that QR funding has dried up. True, there have been for quite some time persistent calls that all government university research funding should be channelled through RCUK. But that is not yet the case. It is tempting, then, to read the preoccupation of university managers with individual RGI records as a matter of managerial control for its own sake, rather than financial exigency. If so, academics who have for so long complained about REF may find themselves in the ironic position of defending it in the face of the emerging landscape RGI targets.
That in turn should be a real worry beyond academia. I suppose it is just about possible to imagine at least applied scientific and medical research being funded by industry and research councils, and some humanities and social science research being funded by charities and research councils. But even in these cases much of value will be lost. It’s very difficult, though, to imagine that much in the way of critical organizational research will get funded, which means that one of the core areas of human existence will mainly get researched uncritically. If in doubt, look at the RCUK web page entitled ‘Research and Business: A Productive Partnership’ telling us that “the Research Councils are a source of ideas, knowledge, expertise, skills and research infrastructure for your business”. No mention of the public good there, you may notice, for all that the funds come from each and every UK taxpayer.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Now we are two

As I noted last year, this blog going live more or less coincides with my birthday, which is today. I am 50, the blog a more modest 2 years old (but, just as a dog year equals seven human years, perhaps a blog year is also similarly elongated). Anyway, last year I posted some blog stats and I thought it might be interesting to update these. Last year, all time page views were 3,367 with 390 in the month prior to the anniversary. Now, all time views are 7,055 with 364 in the last month. What that means in terms of how many different people read the blog I don’t know. The most read post is the one entitled The New Barons, posted in June 2013. I’m pleased about that, as I think it is one of the best posts I’ve done.
The breakdown of where people view from is also interesting (or should that be 'reasonably interesting'?). This is the current top ten list, with last year’s position and views in brackets:

United Kingdom (1)
2206 (1219)
United States (2)
1761 (647)
Ukraine (7)
350 (68)
Norway (9)
243 (65)
Germany (3)
216 (148)
France (6)
209 (73)
Russia (4)
198 (133)
Ireland (5)
147 (82)
China (8)
128 (67)
Netherlands (-)
98 (-)

So Ukraine and Norway storm up the charts, whilst the US records an impressive percentage increase without changing its position. Netherlands makes a first appearance, but Australia, 10th in last year’s list, drops out. What it all means, goodness knows. But it is in some indefinable way fascinating (to me).

Meanwhile, I am also fascinated by the online reviews of the book (indulge me, it’s my birthday) on Amazon, GoodReads and Google Books. They are scattered around and split between different editions and, as one might expect, vary wildly in their judgements. Thus, on one Google Books page:

“This is the least interesting book I have ever read, and I wouldn't be upset about it if Chris Grey did not try to pass it off as interesting. I do not recommend Chris Grey.”


“bleeeech! Way to preach about how you hate boring management books and then turn out to be one.”

I love both these reviews for their conflation of book and person, and the first in particular for giving me what is at least an accolade: it’s quite an achievement to be the least interesting book ever (and we can surely assume that the reviewer is widely read).

The reviews on GoodReads are mainly much kinder (four reviews, two 5*, one 4* and one 1*) including this gem from ‘Eryc’:

“This book blew my little mind. In the way that going to grad school for education caused me to see the deep and complex inadequacies of the public school system, this book has caused me to question much of my received knowledge and beliefs about organizations and, more to the point, corporations. Chris Grey's insightful analysis has unmoored me a bit and made me deeply worried about things that previously ‘seemed to me to be true’.”

Still, we also hear again from ‘Audrey’, yes:

“bleeeech! Way to preach about how you hate boring management books and then turn out to be one.”

Over on Amazon, things are mainly positive, too, with the reviews tagged to the 2nd edition split as follows:

3 star:





So according to ‘JS’:
“Fantastic read. It has certainly cast a new perspective on how I view Organisations and Organisational theory.”
‘Gavin Stokes’ “found this a very enjoyable read, not from the viewpoint of a course book, but simply as a well written book”, whilst for ‘Ronald G. Young’ it’s “the best critique of modern society I’ve read”. But, alas, ‘diel3n4’ pronounced it “boring” and ‘JAdams’ thought it was a difficult read and a waste of money.
It would be silly to pretend that I don’t prefer the positive reviews to the negative ones but ultimately I think that any reaction is better than none, and it’s just an unavoidable fact of the internet age that there are going to be a whole range of reactions. I do actually quite appreciate the way that the reviews on all the forums seem to suggest quite extreme reactions – people either love it or hate it (and, so far, there’s more love than hate). For a book that was, after all, written to be provocative perhaps the worst reaction would be the 3-star ‘it’s ok’ review which seems to be the one reaction I haven’t had so far.
Apart from these site reviews, I also continue to receive feedback in other forms, such as direct emails and many other ways. Two I have recently come across particularly pleased me. One was a long, thoughtful review by Martin Vogel on the blog of ‘counter-consultancy’ VogelWakefield, from which I will just quote the final sentence:
“Chris Grey challenges fashionable nonsense of both managerialist and oppositional varieties”
The other is a very brief mention in a UK Government Report evaluating public sector governance, citing the book in relation to the failures of change management (p.47, first paragraph of recommendations, if you care to follow the link).
What to make of these various reactions I don’t know, except that they confirm my view that this subject, organization studies, of which few have heard and fewer, probably, think of great interest is, indeed, capable of being both interesting and provocative (in good and bad ways) to many audiences. The book, and maybe this blog, taps into some of that but there is still a huge space available for accessible discussions and applications of organization studies if it could escape the horrible straitjacket of the ‘top journals’ it mainly inhabits.
Which brings me back to the blog and reflections on its anniversary. When I started it, I really had no idea what shape it would take but looking back on the posts I’m struck by the fact that they are in some respects far more varied than I would have expected. I thought that I’d probably spend a lot of time pointing out the latest case of unintended consequences of business decisions, or the inanities of organizational culture management. In fact, I mostly seem to post about politics, economics and history. Perhaps that isn’t so surprising. If the book has a message at all, it is that to study organizations is to study everything.

Friday, 21 November 2014

What's in a picture?

Further to my recent post on the perils of Twitter, another British politician has come a cropper because of a tweet. This time the victim (or villain, depending on your take) is Emily Thornberry, who tweeted a photo of a house displaying large St George’s flags (i.e. the English flag) and with a white van parked outside. The context of this is a little complicated to understand outside of England so I will try to summarise it.
The house that was pictured is in the constituency of Rochester and Strood, where there was a by-election yesterday which was won by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) who are opposed to British membership of the EU and to what they believe are too high levels of immigration. If you want some background, I have written about UKIP elsewhere, and also about British debates about immigration. UKIP have recently attracted high levels of electoral support, first in European elections and now in two by-elections where they have won seats in the British parliament.
Whilst being a party of the Thatcherite Right, they have a populist appeal that is increasingly attracting traditional working-class Labour voters in a way not dissimilar to the way that Thatcher herself was able to do in fact. This is where the tweeted image becomes important. The English flags can be taken to reference a particular strand of working-class English nationalism. ‘White van man’ is an expression connoting a stereotypical working class tradesman – not, actually, the traditional industrial working class, then, but perhaps a skilled, self-employed worker. Again, very much the segment of the working class that Thatcherism appealed to, and now UKIP. Thus Thornberry’s tweet was widely interpreted as derogatory towards working class voters, and she resigned her position as a member of Labour’s front bench.
This interpretation has great purchase because it plays into a narrative whereby Labour politicians (and politicians in general) are depicted as an out of touch ‘metropolitan elite’ who are alien to working class sentiment and interests. That Thornberry is an MP for Islington, stereotypically a part of London associated with multi-culturalism and 'trendy lefties', compounded this. It is an aspect of the cosmopolitans and locals split I discussed in another post, and has it counterpart in many countries apart from Britain
This situation is fraught with strange ironies – the UKIP leader and its two MPs are all men educated at elite, fee-paying public schools who used to work in the City of London, and so hardly horny handed sons of the toil, and UKIP are notably cool on trade union and employment rights whilst being four-square behind global free markets and deregulation. Elitist Emily Thornberry, by contrast, grew up on a council estate and went to a State school.  As for the Labour Party, its leader is simultaneously denounced as a left wing firebrand and as having abandoned its left wing roots. That is all part of the long-term consequences of the Blairite New Labour project, and is another topic.
What I want to focus on here is something different. It is that the tweeted picture was instantly read in a particular way. It had no accompanying text other than to say that it was taken in Rochester, so it was almost entirely a matter of the picture being interpreted in the way that it was. Other interpretations were surely possible. It could have been taken to mean that this was a working-class seat that Labour should be aiming to win (they have held it in the past), for example. Or it could just be seen as the habitual Twitter post saying ‘this is where I am today’. But John Mann, a Labour MP, criticised Thornberry’s tweet because he said that the symbols of the English flag and the white van were emblematic of traditional Labour values, so she had insulted traditional Labour voters. This seems truly peculiar: if it is the case (which I doubt) that these were symbols of Labour values then how could it be ‘insulting’ for a Labour politician to depict them?
That it was read the way that it was I think points to another irony of the present political situation. It is a pervasive trope of UKIP supporters that they are hamstrung by ‘political correctness’ and are not ‘allowed to say what they really think’ as a result; in particular that they are ‘not allowed to talk about immigration’ (bizarre, since it is constantly talked about). Yet what this episode shows is something quite different. Let’s assume that the picture did indeed mean something like: ‘look, this is the kind of people who vote UKIP: English nationalists from the self-employed skilled working class’. Would this really be so awful? Isn’t it the case that, as UKIP themselves say, they attract such support? Is it so terribly derogatory and sneering to say this, and yet fine to ‘sneer’ at the ‘middle-class metropolitan elite’? Isn’t the real ‘political correctness’ in play that any implicit criticism of UKIP support is immediately positioned as unacceptable?
We seem to be a long way from organization theory, I know, but that is not really so. What lies beneath all of this is the nature and consequences of global capitalism and in particular the international mobility of what management textbooks would call the human resource. Politics in Britain, as in many other countries, is struggling to come to terms with what this means – in terms of employment, wages, employment protection, welfare, healthcare and communities. These are serious issues for all of us and yet no politician seems able to discuss them seriously. Into that gap has stepped, in Britain, the beery, blokeish populism of UKIP but that offers no realistic answers. That would not matter, except that by positioning elitism in terms of things like the supposedly sneering nature of a tweeted photo this populism makes it all but impossible to discuss the actions of the real elite, who do not tweet but buy and sell our companies, jobs, lives and livelihoods and for whom welfare, healthcare and community are entirely irrelevant. UKIP have nothing to say about this, of course, but nor do any of the main political parties in Britain.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Times (they aren't a-changing)

One of the arguments in the book that has caught the most attention is my claim that the rhetoric of unprecedented change, and its use to justify organizational change, is bogus and, moreover, that attempts at change management usually fail (pp. 90-100).
In this context, I had an interesting experience this week whilst stuck on a delayed train for two hours, during which I read The Times from cover to cover. In particular, I read two articles that seemed to sum up this issue (they are pay-walled, so I can’t give links as I usually do). The first was part of a special section on ‘The Agile Business’, and was entitled ‘Change is necessary to survive and grow’ (Charles Orton-Jones, The Agile Business Supplement p.3, The Times, October 14 2014). Here, all the clichés I enumerate in the book were present: incessant improvement is vital in today’s world, an incoherent nod to Darwinism, some examples from the software industry, a lot of wordy rhetoric about the 'oblivion' awaiting those who don't heed the message. So far, so boring – although it does bear saying that since this kind of talk has been around for 35 years or more then the torpid, flaccid corporations it is supposedly aimed at will invariably have been the ones that embraced the same message before. So, truly, this is the revolution that never happens.
Be that as it may, the other article that caught my eye was ‘Watchmaker that defied the passing of time’ (Jenny Hirschkorn, The Times, October 14 2014, p.49) which told the story of luxury Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe. In the 1970s and 1980s the received wisdom was that mechanical watchmakers had no future in the face of quartz watches; that European and US watch markets were finished and the future was China; that watchmakers must diversify from production because the future was retailing. Patek Philippe ignored all of this (the article calls these “counter-intuitive decisions”) and as a result is now prospering as the demand for mechanical watches increases, the China market collapses, and keeping out of retail has enhanced the exclusivity of the product. That the firm was family-owned may be significant; that it remains so surely is; that it is the last family-owned watchmaker in Geneva even more so.
It’s easy to see that had Patek Philippe followed the change mantra it would now no longer exist, except, perhaps, as a brand name shell, like so many British businesses that took the prescribed path. This is one of what I would argue are many cases where the criticisms of ‘critical management studies’ are actually highly relevant to the practical concerns of sustainable businesses. We will never know how many companies have gone to the wall by following the breathless mantra: change or die. But we can be sure that those who champion the mantra of unprecedented, constant change will continue to claim it as an unchanging verity.

Immigration matters

I have written several times on this blog about immigration, because it is so intimately linked to organizational life in many countries. In the UK, almost all workplaces now contain a wide mix of nationalities, especially from the rest of the EU. But of course immigration is deeply unpopular, and has fed the growth in support for UKIP in the UK, and many other anti-immigration parties across Europe.
This puts mainstream politicians in a very difficult situation in a democracy. Some voters are anti-immigration for reasons that are out and out racist, but not all anti-immigration sentiment is racist (although it does not follow, as some claim, that none of it is). Instead, it arises from concerns about jobs and wages, and about space and public services. Yet as regards EU migration, which is what animates current debate in the UK, the number of immigrants into the UK is about the same as that out of the UK – around 2 million people. So in the absence of free movement within the EU, the UK population would be about the same, meaning no difference in terms of space. And in terms of public services, it probably reduces usage because immigrants to the UK tend to be healthy, working-age people whilst many emigrants from the UK are elderly retirees.
So far as jobs and wages are concerned, the effect of immigration is limited. There is not a fixed pool of jobs in an economy (this is the ‘lump of labour fallacy’) and, empirically, the effect on wages is negligible, and such effect as there is mainly attributable to illegal employment practices. Moreover, the idea that immigrants claim benefits is a myth: immigrants overall pay more in than they take out of the benefits system. So too is the idea of ‘health tourism’ – that immigrants come to the UK in order to access free medical treatment. It’s notable that the fears and myths about immigration are always most strongly held in places where immigration is low. Thus the UKIP vote is much lower in, for example, London, than it is in rural parts of Yorkshire
But it is almost impossible for politicians to counter these various fallacies and myths, even when they know that that is what they are. At the same time, any well-informed politician will know that economies such as the UK’s need more, not less, immigration because of their ageing demographic.  The consequences of that demographic are accepted by people when it comes to policy on health or on pensions, yet not when it comes to immigration and employment. An anti-immigration policy would spell disaster for the UK and many other old industrial democracies.
So no responsible politician could advocate draconian limits to immigration; yet no sensible politician can ignore the extent of anti-immigration sentiment amongst voters. It is this disjuncture which feeds the populism of UKIP and similar parties. Populism may be popular, but it entails pandering to people by giving superficially appealing and easy solutions which are in fact detrimental to those same people.

Friday, 10 October 2014

On Twitter

New technologies always throw up new vocabularies. Recently, we have learned the term ‘twitter storm’ to denote a surge of typically acrimonious comment on the twitter social media site. We also now have ‘trolls’, and this is an interesting example of how the new language has become old enough to mutate. A few years back a troll was someone who posted deliberately provocative comments on internet forums in order to garner a reaction – the implication being that the poster did not really think these things. Increasingly, though, a troll is understood to be someone posting offensive, abusive or threatening remarks, with no suggestion that this is done purely for effect.
Of course trolls tweet and tweeters troll, and we have seen the effects this can have this week with the apparent suicide of Brenda Leyland. She had been tweeting abusive messages to the family of Madeleine McCann, the child who disappeared on a family holiday in Portugal seven years ago. The dead woman had been confronted by a journalist a few days before her death. This in turn led to the journalist becoming the subject of a vitriolic twitter campaign. And recently twitter trolls who made rape and death threats against feminist campaigners were jailed.
Meanwhile, in the fallout from the sacking of cricketer Kevin Pietersen – which I posted about a while back - continued when he published his autobiography this week. Much of the controversy concerns tweets that he sent, and a bogus twitter account set up by his then team mates in his name which reduced him to tears. His former team mates immediately took to twitter to give their reactions.
Twitter is not, of course, just the domain of trolls and celebrities. In September 2013 some 200 million users worldwide sent 400 million tweets per day. It has become a near-compulsory conduit for political and corporate leaders. Really quite important statements are released on twitter by, for example, British Prime Minister David Cameron, as they are by Barack Obama. No self-respecting Chief Executive fails to tweet, nor any corporate PR department. And twitter can also provide a vehicle for whistle blowers, trade unions and activists.
We should not however conclude that this is just a neutral technology that may be used for any and every purpose. It is a very particular medium with very particular rules, most notably the 140 character rule. In this way it has a very particular effect: it is a vehicle for simplification. Much has been made of the issue of anonymity and the way this encourages ‘trolls’ to behave in ways that they might not otherwise do. But it makes all who use it behave in ways they would not otherwise do, by stripping out all nuance. The two are linked: for the trolls, ethical sensitivity is flattened out; for the ‘responsible tweeters’ complexity is flattened out.
This is not an elitist lament for ‘dumbing down’. Twitter and other social media are not egalitarian, despite the claims of starry-eyed internet libertarians. They give the illusion of a voice for everyone, but their very ubiquity means that no voice is heard. Sure, anyone can open a twitter account or a facebook page or set up a blog, but that does not mean that the old structures of power have disappeared. Would you be reading this blog if it were not for my book and its publisher? Would that book have been published if I did not hold a university position? There is no democratization in social media, but there is a very powerful illusion of it. Everyone has a voice, so no one can be heard.
So when several friends and colleagues have suggested that I should start to tweet, not least to publicize this blog, I haven’t been keen. When I ask to see how they use twitter I am always amazed that they see a value in it. To me it just seems meaningless. I can’t imagine gaining anything from ‘following’ them, even though they are people who I like or whose work interests me. So by the same token I can’t imagine that anything could be gained by me tweeting.
Perhaps you will think that I am just a Luddite. But that is a convenient term to imply a blanket rejection of new technology normally used by those uncritically accepting new technology. I prefer to think that the Emperor has no clothes and that twitter stands as testimony to a shallow populism dressed up as democratic participation and an egotism dressed up as open communication. It seems to me to have several very unpleasant effects and no redeeming qualities at all. It is not just another medium of communication, neutral in itself, it entails an emotional, political and intellectual infantilisation of communication.
That, I think, is the image we should have of tweeting: an endlessly, insatiably egocentric infant spewing out its thoughts and feelings at the instant they occur. The trolls are not so much a side-effect as an exemplification of this: far from being an anomaly they define the ideal-type of the tweeter. But unlike infants they claim a right, albeit one detached from any kind of defensible ethics or politics. As Brenda Leyland said when confronted about her tweets: “I’m entitled to do that”. That is not to revile her. A few days later she was dead, caught in desperation between the infantilised, simplified world of 140 character tweets and the adult world where words, politics and ethics are more complex.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Managing terror

Probably the biggest international event at the moment is the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS), which has taken over large chunks of Iraq and Syria and is enacting widespread horror including the filmed beheading of American and British hostages, as well as brutal, wholesale massacres of the local population accompanied by torture, crucifixion and rape.
It has become commonplace to talk of such Islamist terrorists as being a throwback to the Middle Ages, and in fact the British Prime Minister today referred to IS in just those terms. But as the political philosopher John Gray explained in his 2003 book Al Qaeda and what it means to be Modern this is a serious misnomer. Whilst the barbarism of such groups may recall Mediaeval religious fanaticism, Gray argues that they are both a product of global modernity and make extensive use of the products of that modernity: their reliance on social media being one example of the latter.
I recalled this today as I read a quite astounding and chilling article in Le Nouvel Observateur entitled “Etat islamique: le bilan comptable des massacres” [Islamic State: the balance sheet of killing – my translation]. The article reports that IS is making use of many of the techniques of corporate management – annual reports, balance sheets, marketing strategies and so on – and indeed publishes an account of its activities and resources.
It is tempting to conclude from this that management is simply a set of techniques, neutral in themselves, that may be used for good or evil purposes, and there is some truth in this. But it also suggests that despite its espoused rejection of ‘Western modernity’, IS sees the need to legitimate itself and to express itself via the deployment of those techniques (that is to say, they are not simply neutral techniques, but have a political significance). In fact, more generally, the proclamation of itself as a ‘State’, with territorial holdings and ambitions, shows that IS has a desire or need to embrace Modern forms of rule.
If that is so, then it also creates new vulnerabilities. In one very obvious way this is true: by becoming an identifiable group in an identifiable space, IS is much easier to attack militarily than would otherwise be the case. The organizational theorist Charles Perrow, in his book The Next Catastrophe, argues that the key way that the risk of terrorism can be reduced is to disperse strategic hubs (power plants, airports etc.). But this cuts both ways: if terrorists concentrate themselves spatially then they become more vulnerable as well. It is potentially easier to deal with Islamist fanatics if they locate themselves in a war zone than if they lurk undetected within wider society.
This applies not just to territorial vulnerability, but to organizational vulnerability. It was often said of Al Qaeda (e.g. Marc Sageman’s 2008 book Leaderless Jihad) that it derived strength from being a dispersed network and an organizing principle, rather than being a terrorist organization in the conventional sense like, say, the IRA. If, as AQ morphs into IS, that is now being supplanted by a more orthodox command-and-control organization that suggests that it may be vulnerable to all of the problems and failures that management and organization in more familiar corporate settings are prey to; problems and failures that have been so exhaustively documented by ‘critical management studies’ (CMS). It might be that disrupting the financial and managerial systems that they have adopted could be a more potent weapon against IS than air strikes. It might even be that the insights of CMS could have a role in countering the threat of IS now that they have configured themselves as not just a ‘State’ but as what Le Nouvel Observateur calls “Etat Islamique Inc.”.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The real welfare scroungers

I have posted elsewhere on this blog (e.g. The New Barons and Impoverished by outsourcing) about the consequences of public sector outsourcing, picking up on some brief comments in the book (e.g. p. 86-7 and 124-5), but I want to return to it with a particularly egregious example that has just been reported, relating to the sub-contracting of the UK Probation Service:

“Taxpayers will face a £300m-£400m penalty if controversial probation privatisation contracts are cancelled after next May's general election under an ‘unprecedented’ clause that guarantees bidders their expected profits over the 10-year life of the contract.”

The neo-liberal theory behind outsourcing public services, which grows out of the general assumption that markets are efficient, is three-fold. First, that the private provider bears the risk and profit is the reward and incentive for this. Second, that providers who do not deliver will lose their contracts. And third that private providers will deliver at lower cost.

The probation case is the latest and perhaps most flagrant demonstration that the first is simply not true. It is not true in a general way – because, in the end, if a private provider fails then the State will ultimately have to step in, as happened when G4S failed to provide adequate security for the London Olympics, for example. But it is true in a more specific way, as well. For the providers of these probation services will get their profits come what may. For a long time now, research has shown how risk transference in this context is a myth – best documented in the case of Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) as, for example, in this study by Ball, Heafey & King (2003).

This in itself blunts the second rationale, because there is no downside to losing a contract if the provision fails. And in case it might be thought that a firm which keeps failing to deliver will no longer be awarded new contracts, then that too is false. Even whilst under investigation for fraud in relation to previous contracts, the same firms are in the running for new contracts (see also p.87 of book for older examples).

As for lower costs, these are achieved in two ways. One is simply by reducing the number of staff and their wages, which saves money on one government budget but increases the costs on other budgets, such as unemployment and tax credits. Beyond that – and the probation service is again an example – all the difficult, complex and expensive cases are left as in the rump of the public service provision.

There are simply too many examples of public outsourcing failure for it to be remotely credible any more in the terms that it is justified. On some internet discussion forums I have seen, apparently in all seriousness, a last ditch attempt to do so through the argument that these failures are the consequence of public sector incompetence in drawing up contracts. It is a breathtakingly circular and unfalsifiable argument: outsourcing must work because private is better than public and if it doesn’t work then it proves that private is better than public. One might admire the audacity of such market ideologues but, really, this no longer has any discernible roots in market ideology. It is better understood through another meme of the neo-liberal right: welfare-scrounging. It is the welfare-scrounging of the super-rich, living voraciously and vicariously off the hollowed-out shadow state.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Scottish inter-dependence

The referendum on Scottish independence is, obviously, the biggest news story in Scotland at the moment, but also in the UK, and it is important for the whole of Europe as well. Like most people I assumed until recently that, in line with the opinion polls, the outcome would be a clear vote against independence. Now, again according to the opinion polls, the vote will be very close.
The debate about the vote is inextricably bound up with economics and business. Issues such as whether an independent Scotland would be able to use the pound, and if so how substantive would independence be; whether businesses would re-locate away from Scotland; whether businesses would price goods differently; what would be the future of the oil industry have all been endlessly discussed.
For out and out nationalists, it hardly matters: and independent nation trumps all other considerations. But this throws into sharp relief what meaning attaches to ‘independence’ and ‘sovereignty’ today? The interconnectedness of the global economy, and the associated institutions such as the EU, IMF, World Bank, UN and so on make it difficult to sustain a narrative of national self-determination.
Yet self-determination clearly has purchase. In contrast to the often apathetic view of politics in the UK and elsewhere, the referendum has galvanized an enormous political energy in Scotland, with 97% of the population registered to vote, and turnout predicted to be between 80 and 90%. People care because this vote matters.
The main reason why it matters is because Scottish public opinion is to some degree to the left of UK politics as a whole. It remains a Labour Party heartland, but it is not neo-liberal New Labour that it supports, it is the social democratic ‘Old Labour’ Party of trade unions, workers’ rights and welfare. The New Labour project was predicated on the idea that its traditional vote would have nowhere to go except Labour, which could therefore tailor itself to floating voters in marginal English constituencies and if it got those votes and added them to the captive heartlands a majority could be secured. This is exactly what brought Tony Blair three election victories.
So what is happening now is that traditional Labour voters in Scotland are switching to independence on the basis that a UK Labour government will never reflect their views, whereas an independent Scotland could become governed by a Labour government that did not accept the neo-liberal position of New Labour. That is not entirely unrealistic – in contrast to the aspirations of those Old Labour voters in England who are switching to the Thatcherite UKIP for the same reason but with absolutely no realism at all. If I lived in Scotland, I’d be tempted to do the same. But I hope that the Scots do not vote for independence because the consequences for the Left in England will probably be calamitous: the end of the Labour Party and a permanent neo-liberal majority, although it’s also true that the shock waves of Scottish independence might re-configure English politics in unforeseeable ways.
New Labour took the Labour Party into a cul-de-sac, with the most likely consequence being no Labour at all. In retrospect it looks completely unnecessary: by the time of the 1997 election any alternative to the Tories would have been voted in. But its short–term electoral success gave it justification. The consequence has been to eviscerate social democracy in the UK, an outcome which would be cemented by Scottish independence. That is not just a matter of parochial concern, since, without Scotland, the UK is far more likely to leave the EU, and what happens in the EU has inevitable, if unpredictable, repercussions outside Europe, as, for example, the people of the Ukraine can testify.
What this suggests is the global connectedness is a two-way street. Nationalist appeals to sovereignty may be increasingly meaningless because of global connectedness, but global connectedness means that nationalist sentiment can have effects well beyond national borders. The only people to have a vote in the Scottish independence referendum are those currently living in Scotland; the effects of what they decide will have consequences around the world.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Insanely hot

Some years ago, a senior person at a university where I then worked told me how he had met the then boss of Tesco, a supermarket chain that was at the time the doyen of British business. Breathlessly, he enthused about how each year they made 3% efficiency gains. That’s what we should be doing in universities, he declared. Do more with less!
I was reminded of this conversation because l came across a quote where, faced with declining performance, a subsequent Chief Executive of Tesco acknowledged that it had been “running too hot for two long”. What this means in ordinary language is that they did not have enough people to staff the tills and stack the shelves and, as a result, they are now taking on 8000 new staff. To put it another way – those efficiency savings turned out to be anything but efficient, and the business is now paying the price.
It is a pattern which can be seen repeatedly across both private and public sector organizations, reflecting the contested nature of what efficiency means, which is a major theme of my book (e.g. pp. 130-132). In the public sector, what often happens is that ‘efficiency’ means reducing costs in one budget only to find that they re-appear in another. To take just one of literally countless examples:
It seems such an obvious point, evidenced by so many cases that one might have thought that the lesson would have been learned. But whilst on holiday last week I caught a TV show (I don’t recall the details, so can’t link to it) in which a panel of business leaders discussed the challenges facing the global economy. And what did they have to say? Well, it won’t be a surprise. That businesses in a globally competitive world had to become leaner, fitter and ever more efficient. In short, that they had to ‘run hotter’.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Tragedy in the organizational village

It is difficult not to be affected by the disaster of the Malaysian airliner the crashed, apparently having been shot down, in Eastern Ukraine. That is true emotionally – when contemplating how the death of so many can come out of, literally, the clear blue sky – but also in a basic factual sense: almost all of us are affected in some way. The victims came from at least 11 different nations, the vast majority Dutch. I just heard a news report saying that the investigation would involve amongst others Malaysia, since it was their airline, the United States, since the aircraft was built by Boeing, and the UK, since the engines were built by Rolls-Royce.

This begins to point to the huge array of organizations in some way involved in this single event. They include national governments, of course, as well as international bodies like the EU and the UN, but also airport authorities at Schiphol and Kuala Lumpur, Eurocontrol and a multiplicity of other agencies which manage air space – the International Civil Aviation Authority, the European Civil Aviation Conference and the European Aviation Safety Agency being just some. Then there are the news agencies reporting on it, the many bodies providing commentary to the media upon it, and the social media organizations like Twitter, Youtube and Facebook where, as with any contemporary event, there is a mass of comment and reporting.

And then we come to the victims, who as well as being individuals and family members were intimately involved in organizations of all sorts. Many were going to a conference in Australia on AIDS and so were members of multiple medical and advocacy organizations, including the former President of the International AIDS Society. It’s being reported that several others were employees of Shell Oil. Some were students and on the news today I heard representatives of their universities and sports clubs commenting on their loss.

Ever since the term ‘the global village’ was coined (or, anyway, popularized) in1962 by the communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan it has been a cliché. And, like most clichés, it captures a truth. Perhaps the truth is not so much one of the personal interconnections of a village but of organizational connections. I wrote in a recent post about ‘cosmopolitans and locals’, but perhaps that has become an inadequate distinction. Something like 300 million people pass annually through Europe’s five busiest airports. Whether they are globe-trotting executives or 10-day holidaymakers they may all have felt a chill when learning of the MH17 crash. Through the dense webs of organizational connections we are all becoming both global and local. Where is the global and local when a fan of provincial British football club who has been to every one of its games since 1973 dies on a Malaysian aircraft, built in the United States, over Ukraine, on his way from Holland to New Zealand?

Monday, 14 July 2014

Which 'establishment'?

Britain is engulfed in another scandal of the ‘political establishment’, this time relating to allegations of a cover up of allegations of child abuse amongst politicians and possibly others, predominantly in the 1980s. This comes in the wake of other scandals about child abuse in institutions such as the BBC, the Church and, going back to politicians, those about fraudulent expenses claims that emerged in 2009.

It is clearly right that these matters are scandalous and that they should be investigated. At the same time, the way in which they are being configured is misleading and potentially dangerous. It feeds into a kind of anti-politics agenda, much in evidence on the political right, that the whole of the polity is irredeemably tainted (thus, a poll shows that UKIP voters are by far the most likely to think that the inquiry into the cover up allegations will not deal with it properly). Apart from the obvious fact that there is no reason to think that any and every politician has been engaged in these crimes, it poses an equally obvious question: if political representatives are to be treated as uniformly morally corrupt, who should wield political power? It is very easy to see how against a background of indiscriminate assumptions of guilt a kind of populist, anti-establishment ‘strong man’ could become an attractive proposition. Since ‘they’ are all as bad as each other, where would be the harm?

One answer to that lies precisely in the fact that these scandals have emerged and are being investigated. It may be slow, imperfect and in all kinds of ways unsatisfactory but, still, it would be unlikely to happen but for the many checks and balances, and the plural voices, of democratic and civil society. Cynically ascribing corruption to the political system in general may sound sophisticated and worldly, but in fact it is the opposite: it is naïve about the likely alternatives to, and inattentive to the sophistication of, that political system.

There is another problem, too. The way that this is being presented as being about the ‘establishment’ – meaning politicians, police, civil servants, clergy, media and so on - is a highly misleading and in many respects outdated way of understanding what ‘the establishment’ is and where power lies. It is the global elite and transnational corporations who are the true establishment, and they lie far beyond public inquiries or, even, the law. It is easy to whip up populist sentiment against what are, certainly, local elites but in doing so the rather harder targets are equally easily ignored. For that matter, the many interconnections between these local and global elites – for example the relationship between former politicians and civil servants and the outsourcing firms who receive government contracts – are also ignored.

I hope that no one reading this will think that I am arguing that present and past child abuse scandals should not be investigated and the perpetrators, or those who protected them, brought to justice. I am not.  But in doing so we should keep a sense of proportion about what it means for the viability of democratic political institutions and an awareness that beyond the easily-identifiable traditional elite lie a new elite whose names are rarely in the newspapers and whose actions are rarely scrutinised.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Reviewing organization studies

I have recently been doing a lot of reviewing for academic journals which is an increasingly depressing experience. Almost every paper I review has an entirely mechanistic and soul-destroying approach. A literature review is conducted to establish the current state of knowledge. But there is no real engagement with that literature, it is just carefully presented to establish some synthetic deficiency. Then there is a dense section on theory and the claim of some wonderful theoretical advance. There is a cautious and careful statement of methodology, stressing its technical aspect. Then some findings and a crafted statement of contribution.
Occasionally, there is some glaring inadequacy in these ritualistic moves that, as a reviewer, one can point out. Far more often, there’s not really anything wrong with it … except that it’s awful and pointless and boring. Those might be considered good grounds to recommend rejection but, bizarrely, that is not so. Sometimes I say something like that in my reviews but, when I do, it is invariably discounted (for those who don’t know the process, normally journal editors send reviewers a copy of their decision letter* along with the comment of all reviewers, so one can see what weight has been put upon one’s comment). In any case, I rarely state it so baldly since I understand very well the reason why authors write their papers that way. It’s not even that these papers are ‘bad’. They are just dead.
The reason why academic research in organization studies has got this way are multiple, but they have led to a situation where each and every journal paper is supposed to make a theoretical advance (even though there have only been a handful of such advances in the field in the last fifty years, say; and few of these have come from journal papers) and to be empirically robust (even though almost all of them are based either on statistical analysis of variables that are meaningless, or present as ‘thick description’ a few quotes from some interviews). The possibility that academic research might disclose something interesting and hitherto little known or not known at all about how people live is not so much forgotten as derided.
As an author, submitting papers to journals, I see this all the time. When I started this job, reviewers’ comments were confined to a brief statement of criticisms and suggestions. Now, I receive whole essays as reviews demanding of a 10,000 word article more than a series of books could reasonably be expected to deliver. And if I re-write and re-submit the paper – and sometimes, now, I just say that I won’t do so given the absurdity of the demands – it is meant to be accompanied by a response to reviewers running to as many pages as the paper itself, and grovelingly thanking the reviewers for the damage they have forced me to do. I say damage because although reviewer comments are occasionally helpful, more often they require endless detours, bolsterings and circumlocutions which strip out any clarity of argument. This is very obvious when you read journal papers because you can almost always see the joins as authors struggle to accommodate reviewers' comments, and is one of the reasons for their unreadability. ‘Ah, that’s just the game’, my colleagues tell me. Well, yes, indeed it is, and if we play it then we end up with precisely the boring and forgettable papers that are published.
Because that, really, is the point. All of this is supposedly about quality. By being so ‘rigorous’ it will ensure that each paper is of great merit. I know people who become almost orgasmic with glee when they get an acceptance letter from a top journal. People who don’t work in this field won’t understand this and may not believe it, but it is true. It is ridiculous of course. Even within the narrow terms of  professionalised debate it is ridiculous. The average citation of a paper in the organization studies field is less than five. But here is something interesting – and it is not meant to be as self-aggrandizing as it sounds. In my career I have published many papers in what are now called ‘top journals’ which would probably not begin to meet the criteria that those journals now apply. Yet very many of them are highly cited (I will spare you my Google Scholar i10-index) whereas the papers being published through this routinized, professionalised  journal process we now have disappear without trace.
Almost everything that happens every day in every country in the world is bound up with organizations. It is exciting, important and vibrant. But the academic study of organizations is not just dead but deadening. Organization studies might very well be called organizational necrophilia**.

*These editorial letters are themselves masterpieces in mediocrity ('I want you to satisfy all the reviewers' comments' - no sense that an editor might make a judgment on their validity or, even, acknowledge their incompatability) and sanctimony (the dominant trope being a lordly injunction to authors to consider this ‘a high risk rewrite’).

**Post-script: Since first posting this it has been nagging at me that it connects with something else, which I now remember is an excellent post on Yiannis Gabriel's blog, entitled Are any academic journals still alive?