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?