organizations

A Crisis of Confidence and A Triumph of Nonsense

Business is the most popular major at most universities and colleges around the world. In Canada, business-related programs enrol almost 20% of all post-secondary students. But business has always struggled to define itself as an academic discipline. Business schools started in the first part of the 20th century because of the need for managers in an industrial economy. It was assumed that scientific research could identify the qualities of a good manager, and that people could be trained to develop those qualities themselves.

Historians of management education have since pointed out that those assumptions were wrong. For one thing, the ideal manager in the early 20th century used a hierarchical “command and control” managerial style. But that type of management doesn’t work well in every situation or in every organization.  Collaborative and supportive forms of management can also be very effective, but most management training still assumes that managers have formal authority over the workers, and that managers should use that authority to control how the workplace operates.

There are some managerial skills that can be taught, such as understanding financial statements. But one of the most important skills of a good manager is being able to understand a situation and to respond appropriately – and that is mostly learned through experience. Even after nearly a century of research into management and organizations, we really can’t identify the “best” way to manage, or how to effectively teach that. And that’s a big problem for a very prominent and powerful academic discipline.

Two newly published essays have bravely spoken out in very blunt terms about the sad state of management education, along with suggesting some ways to start fixing it.  Both of these essays (more…)

…And More Change

In my most recent post, I summarized the recent “professional climate” report by the American Economics Association (AEA). This report surveyed the association’s members about sexism, racism, and other actions that were reflecting badly on economics on a profession and on the AEA itself.

There were many fascinating outcomes in the report, as detailed in the earlier post. But there’s one more set of results that I also want to mention. The report’s authors were curious as to how the “professional climate” they uncovered compared to the “climate” in other academic associations. So they identified similar surveys that had recently been conducted by similar organizations, and compared the results of those surveys to theirs.

The comparisons are presented in the report with the warning that the survey questions were not identical in every survey, that some of the guidelines for the surveys were different (e.g. the length of thetime period that the respondents were asked to report on), and that the characteristics of the respondents (such as gender and age distribution) were not consistent across the surveys.

However, even at a broad general level, the comparisons are very interesting. Here’s a quick summary, (more…)

Economics and Change

Esther Duflo has been chosen as one of the three winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in economics. Duflo, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was recognized for her research that explores how conditions of poverty can be most effectively addressed using economic principles. For example, a research paper she co-authored looks at whether giving high school scholarships, in a developing country that charges tuition fees for high school education, can affect students’ future educational opportunities and employment income.

In the words of the Nobel award committee, Duflo’s research is exceptional because of its “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. Duflo is the youngest winner to ever received the award, and is also only the second female winner.

The gender imbalance between male and female Nobel economics laureates is not surprising, since only 14% of university economics professors are women. But, ironically, Duflo’s win occurred just a few weeks after the release of a troubling report by the American Economic Association (AEA), the largest international association of economists. The report described a problematic “professional climate” in economics.

Several recent events, including a professor being elected to the AEA executive despite being accused of harassing employees and students, caused the AEA, and the economics profession in general, to be (more…)

Invisible Systems, Invisible Women

Reading one book right after another book can make you think differently about both books.

Caroline Criado Perez’ Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men and Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik’s Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do about It are both very insightful. Invisible Women describes, through numerous and very depressing examples, how a world that pretends to be “gender neutral” is still a male world, because gender does matter.

When gender isn’t considered in system development or product design, or isn’t separated out in data collection, outputs that are supposed to serve everyone often don’t work for women. For example, first-responder safety gear designed for “average” (read=male) bodies can actually be dangerous for women to wear, because the components don’t fit correctly and thus aren’t as protective as they need to be.

Another of Criado Perez’ examples (more…)

“Life Is Short and So Am I”

Although this blog is about work and organizations, regular readers might have noticed by now that I enjoy watching professional wrestling, and I enjoy reading books about it. Professional wrestling includes some very big organizations; World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the dominant professional wrestling company, had revenues of nearly $500 million US in the first half of 2019. So understanding the experiences of workers in professional wrestling is as worthwhile as understanding the experiences of workers in any kind of organization.

People who aren’t familiar with professional wrestling often look at the characters that wrestlers play and criticize what they see as stereotypes that promote racism, sexism, and ableism. I agree with a lot of those criticisms, and former WWE performers have also told  disturbing stories of the company’s attitudes toward female and minority performers. So I was really interested in reading Life Is Short And So Am I by Dylan Postl, who wrestled in WWE from 2006 to 2016. Postl has a distinctive perspective on stereotypes in professional wrestling because he’s a midget (Postl says he’s fine with that term).

Professional wrestling has a long history of midget wrestlers, going back to (more…)

Unionizing Comics

I probably stopped reading comic books in the middle of my teens (although I love comic strips in newspapers), so my knowledge of the comics industry is pretty outdated. However, I’m always interested in unionizing campaigns for any type of worker, so I was intrigued when I came across the Twitter account Let’s Unionize Comics. Sasha Bassett runs that account; she is a Ph.D student at Portland State University and a self-declared “all-around pop culture junkie”. She has also conducted a survey of workers in the comics industry about their working conditions and their workplace concerns. Sasha graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the comics industry and her vision of how it could become unionized.

Fiona: For readers who may not be familiar with how the comics industry works, can you describe its structure? For example, is it dominated by major companies, or is there a significant number of independent firms? Do comics artists work on their own and then try to sell their work, or are they usually commissioned to do specific projects?

Sasha: The structure of the comics industry is complex and fairly non-standardized. The market is absolutely dominated by (more…)

Al Snow’s “Self Help”

Professional wrestling is a fascinating industry. From my perspective as someone who does research on organizations, professional wrestling doesn’t work the way a successful industry is supposed to work, but it somehow manages to survive. There’s practices within the industry that are questionable – such as World Wrestling Entertainment’s classifying its “Superstars” as independent contractors rather than employees – and there’s things that happen in wrestling that shouldn’t happen in any kind of organization. And even though there’s a fair amount of regular turnover, as some wrestling companies close and others start up, and as wrestlers move from company to company, there always seems to be enough devoted fans for professional wrestling to keep on going.

As a kid, Al Snow was one of those devoted fans – and he went on to spend more than 35 years in the wrestling industry. I’m really happy that he’s written an autobiography, because I loved his work as a performer. However, Snow’s story is particularly intriguing, because (more…)

Human Resource Management and Mistreated Workers

Jobs in “human resource management” – the part of organizations that manages employee-related functions such as hiring, training, and pay  – are becoming more professionalized. Professional designations such as Certified Human Resource Professional, which require human resource (HR) practitioners to demonstrate specific HR-related knowledge and skills, are becoming more common among HR staffers. But at the same time, working conditions for many employees are becoming worse.

This doesn’t make sense, because most human resource management (HRM) professional associations have codes of practice that explicitly state HR professionals should promote ethical and fair treatment for workers. For example, the guidelines of the US Society for Human Resource Management’s code of professional responsibility include “strive to achieve the highest levels of service, performance, and social responsibility” and “advocate for the appropriate use and appreciation of human beings as employees”.

Also, the concept of “socially responsible HR” has emerged as part of discussions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – the idea being that organizations have responsibilities to society as well as to their stakeholders, and that HR practices within the organization should align with an overall CSR strategy by encouraging fair treatment of employees. So if organizations have publicly committed to making positive contributions to society, but at the same time are allowing their own employees to be disrespected and mistreated, why aren’t HR practitioners doing something about it?

Two research studies – one from 2013, one just published – have explored that very intriguing question. The two studies (more…)

‘Fed Up’ and Emotional Labour

The genesis of Gemma Hartley’s new book Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward was an essay she wrote for Harper’s Bazaar, titled “Women Aren’t Nags – We’re Just Fed Up”. The essay described her own experience of inequality in how she and her husband did, or didn’t do, housework – and the reaction to the essay showed that it wasn’t just her who was tired of doing everything. The essay went viral, and that led to the book.

Well, I’m fed up too, but not from doing emotional labour. I’m fed up with writers who grab a catchy-sounding term from social science research and misuse it for their own purposes. Hartley certainly isn’t the only author who’s done this, but what she calls “emotional labour” is clearly not what a substantial body of research says is “emotional labour”. That’s not only misleading to readers, but also insulting to the many researchers whose work has produced fascinating insights into this aspect of the workplace.

It’s telling that when Hartley mentions the first in-depth research investigation of emotional labour – Arlie Hochschild’s 1983 book The Managed Heart – she omits the book’s subtitle. The full title of the book is (more…)

Good Jobs and Bullshit Jobs

Recently, the New York Times Magazine had a special theme issue on “The Future of Work: What Makes a ‘Good Job’ Good?”. As it happened, the issue came out while I was reading the new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by anthropologist David Graeber. This was a lovely bit of symmetry, because both the book and the articles in the magazine address similar questions: with more automation in the workplace, why are we not working fewer hours? If we know as much as we do about organizations and work, why are so many workers so unhappy? Shouldn’t work be getting better, instead of getting worse?

These are very big questions with complex answers. I won’t try to cover everything that’s discussed in the book and the magazine articles, and have a wide-ranging but superficial discussion; I recommend that you read the book and the articles for yourself. But I’m going to pull out a couple of themes that I found particularly fascinating.

Both the book and the articles look at the worsening relationships between workers and employers and show that this trend isn’t just anecdotal. Surveys of job satisfaction over time show (more…)