book forum: the conversational firm, part 1 by catherine turco
This Spring’s book forum is dedicated to The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureacuracy in an Age of Social Media by Catherine Turco. The book is based on an ethnography of tech company and focuses on the communication practices within the firm. Turco’s main goal is to understand how social media have shaped the way that people talk or interact within firms. As is my normal practice with book fora, I’ll summarize some major points of the book in the first post. Then, in subsequent posts, I will describe the strengths and weaknesses of the book.
The Conversational Firm is the result of about a year or so of participant observation in a “high tech firm.” The focus of the write up is how the use of internal forms of communication reshape bureaucratic authority and power. The subtitle is slightly misleading. The focus of the field work is not on social media as an average person understands it. It is not, for example about how employees gossip about work Facebook or Snapchat. Rather, it is about internal “wikis” and bulletin boards. The book is about how open ended and highly egalitarian forms of communication might be changing firms. So the book is filled with discussions of how workers discuss projects, argue about who is in charge, and otherwise negotiate the social world of the firm.
The book’s main theoretical contribution is to argue that these forms of social media are, in fact, redefining authority and order in the firm. The book highlights its case by contrasting it with older theories of bureaucracy that focus on top down hierarchies and clear social divisions between managers and workers. The book is to be commended for taking seriously the view that technology has a real impact on firm organization.
That’s the summary, then will delve into the good and the bad. If you’d like to follow the conversation, please buy a copy of the book. It’s a pleasure to read and will be of interest to organizational studies scholars, ethnographers, and work & occupations people.