Evaluating Historical Research in Business

I started doing research in organizational and business history for no other reason than I like to try to figure out why things are the way they are. I have no formal training in historical research – I’ve learned what I’ve learned mostly from experience, and from very helpful suggestions from more experienced researchers along the way. But I’m also working within an academic discipline that doesn’t have a strong record of historical research, and that only considers certain kinds of historical research to be legitimate or worthwhile.

That background made me very interested in Jeffrey Smith’s recent article “Writing Media History Articles: Manuscript Standards and Scholarly Objectives”, which was published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. While Smith is specifically discussing research in media history, I found that a lot of the issues he discusses in the article are true for research in business history as well. And many of the issues he identifies resonated with my own experiences of trying to get research in business history published in academic journals. (more…)

Society, Power, and “Hack Attack”

Nick Davies’ book Hack Attack  is a powerful read. It’s the story of Davies’ investigation into the phone hacking conducted by several of the British newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International. The investigation led to a judicial inquiry, several criminal convictions,  and the closure of the News of the World newspaper. And since Hack Attack was released last year, eight victims of phone hacking have filed a civil suit against the Mirror group of newspapers for invasion of privacy – a suit that is currently being heard in a London court.

Davies’ book describes the details and scope of the hacking – and how the hacking gradually became exposed, thanks to several anonymous informants – but also illuminates (more…)

My New Book

I’m very pleased to announce that the 4th edition of my textbook Industrial Relations in Canada, published by John Wiley and Sons Canada, is now (more…)

A Step Forward

As an adult figure skater, and an avid skating fan, the world figure skating championships are always an incredibly exciting event for me to watch. The 2015 world championships in March were particularly interesting, because they were the first world championships of the four years leading up to the 2018 Olympics. As usually happens after every Olympics, many recent world and Olympic competitors have retired or have decided to take a break from competition. So the 2015 world championships were one of the first opportunities for skaters to begin establishing themselves as potential contenders for 2018.

But something else important occurred at the 2015 world figure skating championships. It’s something that didn’t get a lot of attention in the media, but it should be acknowledged. And that’s the fact that Eric Radford, who won the pairs event with his partner Meagan Duhamel, is the first openly gay skater to win a world championship. (more…)

Musical Gifts and Kindred Spirits

In the movie Almost Famous, one of the characters gives this advice about life on the road: “If you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.” To me, that quote encapsulates two of the great things about being a music fan – that music itself is your friend, and that music can connect you to fascinating people all over the world. Serious music fans can be quirky and prickly, but if they recognize a kindred spirit, they can share some incredible discoveries.

I’m currently reading Respect, David Ritz’s new biography of Aretha Franklin. The book is remarkable not only for its blunt portrayal of Franklin’s life, but also for its thorough depiction of the many musical styles that influenced Franklin’s work. And what made me think about the wonderful community among music fans is the book’s description of Franklin’s early career. There are two references in there that would mean nothing to me without (more…)

All About Work’s Third Birthday

Today marks the third anniversary of the launch of All About Work. Writing and managing the blog has been a tremendous learning experience for me, as well as being a lot of fun.

In the blog’s three years of operation, its posts have received a total of nearly 95,000 hits. The most popular posts to date have been: (more…)

Amanda Lang, the CBC, and Journalistic Standards

Amanda Lang, CBC News’ “senior business correspondent” and the host of the CBC-TV show The Exchange with Amanda Lang, has recently been the subject of some controversy. In the last few weeks of 2014, it was alleged that she violated CBC’s conflict of interest policies by accepting paid speaking engagements from companies that she then “favourably” covered on her TV show. Then in early January it was alleged that she had lobbied within CBC News to downplay a story about the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) outsourcing jobs held by Canadian workers, when in the past she had given paid speeches at RBC-sponsored events. It also emerged that Lang was involved in a personal relationship with an RBC executive.

In a newspaper op-ed column, Lang denied the allegations of improper influence and defended her integrity – a response that was not well received. CBC subsequently banned its on-air staff from making paid appearances at non-CBC events, and, last week, announced that an “internal review” had found that Lang’s coverage did not violate CBC’s “journalistic standards”.

This series of events was deeply distressing to anyone who cares about the integrity of Canada’s publicly-funded national broadcaster – especially when the allegations involving Lang came directly after the allegations of workplace harassment by CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, followed by multiple criminal charges being laid against him. What was also distressing in Lang’s case was that both she and the CBC didn’t seem to understand that a perceived conflict of interest can be as damaging as an actual conflict of interest. Lang’s dismissing the allegations as “malevolent” and “utterly unwarranted” was ill-advised, and in my opinion only made the situation that much worse.

I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with much of Lang’s television work. But recently, while looking for something else entirely in the CBC’s online video archives, I came across a recent interview on her show that was so appalling (more…)

When “Best Practices” Aren’t Best

Anyone who went to business school around the same time I did remembers “excellence”. Specifically, that was Tom Peters’ book In Search of Excellence, which described how companies could improve by copying what great companies did well. That book sparked a management fad of benchmarking – which then morphed into the idea of “best practices”. But now, unfortunately, it looks like the very sound ideas behind “best practices” are being lost and corrupted by corporate doublespeak.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve come across more than a few examples of organizations using “best practices” as a reason to reduce or cancel services. The explanation usually goes something like this: the organization has “benchmarked” itself against similar organizations, or looked at other organizations’ “best practices”, and allegedly found that other organizations are doing less of a certain thing, or doing that thing less expensively. This then becomes a justification for the organization to downgrade its own offerings.

This use of “best practices” is not what was originally envisioned. Although Peters has admitted that his investigation of “excellence” was not as rigorous as it could have been, nevertheless his book had a powerful practical message.  (more…)

Management and Leadership Lessons from Skating Parents

As an adult skater, and as someone who only started skating seriously as an adult, having a parent involved in my skating career is something I missed out on entirely. But for many parents, having a child in skating is like managing an organization. The parent has to recruit and hire staff to work with their child (coaches, choreographers, off-ice trainers, dance teachers, costume designers); they have to schedule their child’s training and other activities related to the sport; they have to make sure the child gets to everything on time and is prepared for the activity they’re going to; and they are the “investor” in the business, i.e. the one that pays for everything (which can be very expensive).

And the questions that skating parents often struggle with are very similar to the questions faced by many business leaders and managers. How intensely should they be involved with someone’s progress or skill development, particularly if that person is going through a difficult time? How can they facilitate a positive experience for everyone involved in the organization? How can they help people become independent and responsible, and to develop the ability to make the best decisions for themselves? (more…)

Public Sector Pay, Private Sector Pay, and the Fraser Institute

Last year, some of the research produced by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute received some serious criticism. The Institute claims its work is based on “careful, accurate, rigorous measurement”. But the International Labour Organization – an affiliate of the United Nations – released a report which outlined extensive calculation errors and questionable methodologies in the Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World database. And it was also discovered that data for the Institute’s “survey of mining companies” were being collected through a website that was open to anyone, regardless of whether they knew anything about mining.

You would think that criticism like this would make the Institute look a little more thoughtfully at how it conducts its studies. But judging by its new report, Comparing Government and Private Sector Compensation in British Columbia, the Institute isn’t being any more careful with its work. The research presented in this report has numerous problems that contradict the Institute’s claims of “rigorous” and “transparent” methodologies – and which make the results of the research unreliable, to say the least. (more…)