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Written by fabiorojas

April 24, 2017 at 12:42 am

book forum: the conversational firm by catherine turco, part 3

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A few weeks ago, I reviewed Catherine Turco’s The Conversational Firm. The book reports on field work conducted at a tech firm and the goal was to understand how social media was reshaping the internal structure of the firm. As I said before, it is a good book that is of strong interest to organizational ethnographers.

Here, I want to focus on one issue that bugged me about the book. Throughout the book, social media is treated as this interesting thing that allows communication to be less hierarchical and thus (possibly) nudge the firm in more democratic directions. What bugged me about this account is that Turco, I think, never considers an alternative explanation for why managers are democratizing things – laziness.

One of the things that you appreciate about firms is that entrepreneurs often lack the skills needed to run larger, more mature organizations. When firms are small, the entrepreneur is the person who brings endless energy and can jump in to many roles. This is simply not possible in larger firms. Successful entrepreneurs either exit the firm to focus on the world of start ups, or they must learn the art of delegating and managing people.

Social media and the egalitarian culture of modern firms allows entrepreneurs to avoid or postpone this difficult process. They don’t have to go through the process of establishing lines of authority and command, which is painful and results in hurt feelings. Social media may be less a tool for democratizing things and more of a way for firm leaders to postpone or avoid difficult personnel issues. It’s an important hypothesis that needs more attention.

So overall, good book. Strongly recommended to internet and society scholars and orgheads everywhere.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 10, 2017 at 1:57 am

independent book stores are back!!! a guest post post by clayton childress

Clayton Childress is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Toronto. While making the case for examining the relationships between fields and reuniting the sociological studies of production and reception, Under the Cover empirically follows a works of fiction from start to finish: all the way from its creation, through its production, selling, and reading.

Three Reasons Independent Bookstores Are Coming Back

 A couple weeks ago, Fabio had a post about the recent rise in brick-and-mortar independent bookstores, suggesting that perhaps they have successfully repositioned themselves as “artisanal organizations” that thrive through the specialized curation of their stock, and through providing “authentic,” and maybe even somewhat bespoke, book buying experiences for their customers.

There’s some truth to this, but in my forthcoming book, I spend part of a chapter discussing the other factors. Here’s several of them.

Why the return:

1)     The Demise of the Borders Group, and Shifting Opportunity Space in Brick-and-Mortar Bookselling.

This graph from Statista in Fabio’s original post starts in 2009, lopping off decades of retrenchment in the number of American Bookseller Association member stores. Despite the recent uptick, independent bookstores have actually declined by about 50% since their peak. More importantly, it’s worth noting that even in the graph we see independent bookstores mostly holding steady from 2009 to 2010, with their rise starting in 2011. Why does this matter? As Dan Hirschman rightly hypothesizes in the comments section of the original post, the bankruptcy and liquidation of the Borders Group began in February of 2011, and is key to any story about the return of independent bookstores. To put some numbers to it, between 2010 and 2011 the Borders Group closed its remaining 686 stores, and between 2010 and 2016 – after spending decades in decline –651 independent bookstores were opened. It’s a pretty neat story of nearly one-to-one replacement between Borders and independents since 2011.*

Yet, if anything, this isn’t as much a surprising story about the continued prevalence of independent bookstores themselves, but rather, a story about the continued prevalence of paper as a medium through which people like to consume the types of books that are mostly sold in independent bookstores. When Borders liquated people didn’t predict that independents would take their place, but that’s because they had mostly misattributed the bankruptcy of Borders to the rise of eBook technology and Amazon. That story was never quite right, though. Borders last year of turning a profit, 2006, mostly predated these supposed causal factors. Instead, Borders’ rise to prominence came through a competitive advantage in their back-end logistics operations, which they then never really updated, and by the mid-2000s they had turned from a market leader to a market trailer. Borders also invested more floor space in selling CDs right when that market started to decline, and then turned that floor space into the selling of DVDs right when that market started to decline – their stores were always too big, and they seemed to have a preternatural ability to keep on filling them with the wrong things. As for the rise of Amazon and online book sales in the decline of Borders, they did play a role, but not the one that people think. In perhaps one of the least prescient moves in the history of American bookselling, as online bookselling started to take off, Borders decided to not spend resources investing in that market, and instead contracted their online bookselling out to Amazon, helping them on their way to dominance of the market. Oh, you dummies.

So, while it was mostly back-end distribution problems, stores that were too big, and a series of bad bets that tanked Borders, its demise was never really about a lack of demand for print books, which allowed independents to fill that market space after Borders disappeared. For independent used book stores (which have always had as much of a supply problem as a demand problem), advances in back end supply systems have in fact made them more viable.

2)     Independent Bookstores are the Favored Trading Partners of the Publishing Industry.

Starting during the Great Depression, in order to keep bookstores in business, book publishers began letting them return any (damaged or undamaged) unsold books, meaning that for nothing more than the cost of freight bookstores could pack books up to the ceiling without taking on much financial risk on stocking decisions (if you’ve ever been curious why so many bookstores seem so overstuffed with product, here’s your answer).

It was the beginning of a long history of cooperation between publishers and sellers, and the cooperation has never been more friendly than it is between publishers and independent stores. Publishers and bookstores want the same thing: for people to go into bookstores looking for the books that are actually in stock. With about 300,000 new industry-published books coming out per year, that’s no small feat. For this reason, cooperation between publishers and independents is key, and they rely on an informal system of gift exchange, the details of which I go into in my book.

With the rise of chain bookstores such as Walden, Crown, Barnes & Noble, and Borders, this cooperation became formalized as “co-op,” a system in which publishers nominate their books, and if they are chosen for co-op by the seller, then pay to have their books placed on front tables and endcaps across the country. The basic shorthand is that it costs a publisher about a dollar per copy to get their book on a front table at Barnes & Noble, which is very roughly the same amount that an author gets paid per copy to write the book in her advance (talk to any publisher for long enough and they’ll grind their teeth while noting this).

From the cooperation system with independents the chains developed “co-op”, but a publisher’s relationship with Amazon is closer to coercion. With the chains, publishers can decide to nominate for “co-op” or not, but as soon as publisher sells a book on Amazon they’ve already entered into an enforced “co-op” agreement, in which usually around 6-8% of all of their revenue from selling on Amazon is then withheld, and must be used to advertise on Amazon for future titles. This tends to gets talked about less as “coercion”, and more as “just the way things are” –it’s what happens when you have a retailer that dominates the space enough to set its own terms.

As a result, while book publishers like independent bookstores because they believe them to be owned and staffed by true book lovers (Jeff Bezos was famously disinterested in books when launching Amazon – books are just fairly durable objects of standard size and shape and therefore ship well, making them a good test market for the early days of ecommerce), they also do everything they can to support independent bookstores because their trading terms with them are most favorable to publishers. In their most extreme forms, we can see publishing professionals collaborate in opening their own independent bookstores, but more generally, they engage in subtler forms of support: getting their big name authors to smaller places, and maybe over-donating a little bit to the true cost of printing flyers, and covering the cost of wine and cheese for when the author gets there. Rather than doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, however, publishers do it because independent bookstores are good for them to have around, as they’re the only booksellers who are too small and diffuse to make publishers do things.

3)    A Further Reorientation to Niche Specialization at Independents

Here we get to artisanal organizations, and the independent bookstores that are sticking around (or even more importantly, opening) have mostly given up aspirations of being generalists. In Toronto, we’ve got an independent bookstore which specializes in aviation, another for medieval history, and a third which has found a niche for discount-priced theology.* They’re like the Cascade sour beers to Barnes & Noble’s pilsners. While it’s definitely a trend, it’s not one I’d trace back just to 2010, as instead, the artisanal organization market position is one that independent bookstores have been relying on at least back into the 1980s.

In addition to just being niche, while independent hardware stores and grocers were going the way of the dodo, independent bookstores were also able to both capture and foment the formation of the “buy independent” social movements of the 1990s. It’s not many retail outlets that can successfully advocate for their mere existence as a public good. For instance, when was the last time that the New York Times unironically quoted somebody referring to the closing of an independent laundromat halfway across the country as a civic tragedy? As generalist independent bookstores have come to terms with their inability to compete on breadth with Barnes & Noble and Amazon, we see not only a transition to niche sellers, but also more sellers overall, as each one tends to take up a smaller footprint and have lower overhead costs than the independents of the past.

***

Of course, while there has been a rise in the number of independent bookstores in the 2010s, we shouldn’t overstate it, or be certain that it will continue. At the end of the day –and nobody likes to admit this –we’re talking about a segment that makes up less than 10% of industry sales and is still way down from its peak. It took one of the two major brick-and-mortar chains going out of business for this return to happen, but if Barnes & Noble goes under, it will upend any balance left between Amazon and everyone else. Yet unlike the industries for music and journalism, a preference for analog books among a major segment of the market doesn’t seem to be going away. Maybe if Barnes goes under we’ll instead be graphing the rise of brick-and-mortar bookstores by Amazon, and romantically pine for the good old days of Barnes as the industry villain.

 *If you’re a cynic, or even just a careful optimist, you’re also going to want to factor in the 80 stores Barnes & Noble has closed since 2010. So, since 2010 that’s a loss of 766 big brick-and-mortar bookstores which were selling a lot of books, and a gain of 655 generally much smaller brick-and-mortar bookstores which are generally selling many fewer books. Yet the number of physical books sold hasn’t really declined, and has actually increased for three years running (for reasons that are the subject of another post). In any case, the difference has been made up by Amazon.

**H/T to Christina Hutchinson and Chanmin Park, two undergraduate students in my Culture, Creativity, and Cities course, for these examples. You can see some of their work on bookstores, as well as other students’ great (and in progress!) work from this semester on Toronto martial arts studios, Korean and Indian restaurants, religious centers, food festivals, and so on here.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street

 

Written by fabiorojas

March 30, 2017 at 12:21 am

book forum: the conversational firm by catherine turco, part 2

This month, we are reviewing Catherine Turco’s Conversational firm. Earlier, I summarized the contents. The book is an ethnographic account of a tech firm that uses social media for internal communication. Turco’s main goal is to advance the argument that social media has substantially altered communications and hierarchy inside firms. Now, I’ll highlight some strong points of the book and next week I will raise critiques.

First, the book correctly points out that the interactional order of firms is now quite different in the social media age than before. In a world of paper based communication and face to face meetings, it was relatively easy to control who knew what. In contrast, it is now possible for modern firms to have much more wide ranging discussions. The project manager really does have (some) direct access to the CEO. This is truly remarkable.

Second, the book discusses the possibility that authority may be redefined in this situation. If everyone at work has a wiki where they can discuss the firm’s issues, then managers may end up giving away power to others.

For me, these two lessons point to an important issue in organizational design – the importance of social media as a tool for “flattening out” the organization. This has gotten a lot of attention among business writers and management scholars. The lesson I take from Turco’s book is that the story is complex. On the one hand, yes, social media democratizes the culture of many firms. But on the other hand, this is not straightforward or even desirable in many cases. The “internal” public sphere of a firm may not be the best place to settle policy. By allowing the middle of the organization to define issues, it may or may not be valuable or constructive.

Next week: Why didn’t Turco talk about laziness?

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

Written by fabiorojas

March 24, 2017 at 3:12 pm

bookstores aren’t dead yet – an example of the artisinal organization

bookstore.PNG

A few years ago, people predicted the end of bookstores. Major chains were closing – Borders, Waldenbooks, and many more. Amazon ruled the world. But a funny thing happened. The independent bookstore business refused to die. Recently, it seems to be expanding.

The chart about is taken from a business data website called Statista and it indicates that the independent bookstore is carving out a niche. How can this happen? My guess is that bookstores are now “artisinal organizations” – entities that create value through service, curating products, and providing an “experience.”

This is made possible by the technology of the book itself. A paper book, with pictures and an attractive cover, is still a highly desirable product. At its best, the physical book draws you into its world in a way that different than the computer screen. And there is the social aspect of reading, of hanging out with other book worms.

The physical independent book store – or any other artisinal organization  for that matter – will not bounce back and replace it’s high tech or mass produced counterpart. But in a large economy, it is now possible for subcultures to pop up around niche businesses that provide an “artisinal” version of a product, much as it has happened in food. And that’s a good thing.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

March 17, 2017 at 12:09 pm

Posted in books, fabio, uncategorized

brayden king discusses the importance of organizational theory

In Contemporary Sociology, Brayden King reviews recent works and offers his opinion on the state of organizational sociology. A few choice clips:

There are numerous institutional reasons that organizational sociology has moved toward the periphery of the discipline, including the lack of sociology jobs in the subfield and the fact that many organizational sociologists, this author included, are no longer housed in sociology departments but in business schools. But if we put aside the questions of where and how organizational sociologists are trained and get jobs, at the heart of the problem is whether organizational sociology has anything new to say to sociologists who do not study organizations. If organizational sociologists are becoming irrelevant, it is because we are increasingly disconnected from the conversations most central to sociology as a discipline.

And, after describing recent work on the decline of the “classic” organization:

If public corporations are disappearing for their lack of functionality and because the elites that once steered them are disconnected, then there is clearly an opportunity for organizational innovation. Sociologists, less tied to a strict normative imperative of maximizing wealth than economists are, are well positioned to offer insights about the future of organizing. Doing so would surely make the work of organizational sociologists more relevant to sociology as well, inasmuch as it would reconnect our subfield with sociology’s fundamental concerns about improving communities and societies.

Read the whole thing!!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

Written by fabiorojas

March 10, 2017 at 12:05 am

book forum: the conversational firm, part 1 by catherine turco

truco_book

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.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

March 8, 2017 at 12:01 am