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interstitial bureaucracy: high performing governmental agencies operating in ineffective governments

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Back in February (which now seems like an eternity from a fast-disappearing alternate reality), sociologist and organizational researcher Erin Metz McDonnell virtually visited my graduate Organizations, Markets, and the State course to talk about her research on high performing governmental agencies in Ghana.   McDonnell initiated an electrifying and dynamic discussion about the applicability of her research findings.  She also shared her experience with the opaque process of how researchers form projects that contribute to public knowledge.

Many of her observations about organizing practices are particularly timely now that the US and other nation-states face extreme challenges that demand more proactive, rather than retroactive, preparations for pandemic conditions.

Here’s a digest of what we learned:

  • Why Ghana? Prior to graduate school, McDonnell went to Ghana on a Fulbright award.  These experiences helped her question conventional organizational orthodoxy, including generalized statements about “states do this” built on research conducted in North America.  Using such observed disjunctures between the organizational canon and her lived experience, McDonnell refined research questions.  When she returned to Ghana, she identified high performing governmental units and undertook interviews.

 

  • Why did McDonnell include other cases, including 19th century US, early 21st century China, mid-20th century Kenya, and early 21st century Nigeria? McDonnell discussed the importance of using research in other countries and time periods to further flesh out dimensions of interstitial bureaucracy.

 

  • How did McDonnell coin the term interstitial bureaucracy? Reviewers didn’t like McDonnell’s originally proposed term to describe the habits and practices of effective bureaucrats.  “Subcultural bureaucracy” was perceived as too swinging 1960s, according to reviewers.

 

  • What can Ghana reveal about N. American’s abhorrence of organizational slack? McDonnell explained that high performing bureaucracies in Ghana reveal the importance of slack, which has been characterized as wasteful in N. American’s “lean” organizations.  Cross training and “redundancies” help organizations to continue functioning when workers are sick or have difficulties with getting to work.

 

  • Isn’t staff turn-over, where people leave after a few years for better paying jobs in the private sector or elsewhere, a problem? Interestingly, McDonnell considered staff turn-over a small cost to pay – she opined that securing qualified, diligent workers, even for a few years, is better than none.  (Grad students added that some career bureaucrats become less effective over time)

 

  • What can governmental agencies do to protect against having to hire (ineffective) political appointees? McDonnell explained how specifying relevant credentials in field (i.e., a degree in chemistry) can ensure the likelihood of hiring qualified persons to staff agencies.

 

For more, please check out McDonnell’s new book Patchwork Leviathan: Pockets of Bureaucratic Effectiveness in Developing States from Princeton University Press.  Also, congrats to McDonnell on her NSF Career award!

is 2020 the “drop your tools” and “do-ocracy” epoch?

In Karl Weick’s (1996) analysis of the Mann Gulch disaster and a similar fire at South Canyon, he differentiates the organizational conditions under which some smoke jumpers survived, while others died when wildfires suddenly turned.  According to Weick, the key turning point between survival and death was the moment when one firefighter ordered others in his team to “drop your tools.”  Among other organizing challenges, this order to leave expensive equipment violated smoke jumpers’ routines, even their central identities as smoke jumpers.  Indeed, some did not comply with this unusual order to abandon their tools, until others took their shovels and saws away.  Post-mortem reports revealed how smoke jumpers who perished were still wearing their heavy packs, with their equipment still at their sides.  Those who shed their tools, often at the urging of others, were able to outrun or take shelter from the wildfires in time.  Weick’s introduction states,

“Dropping one’s tools is a proxy for unlearning, for adaptation, for flexibility…It is the very unwillingness of people to drop their tools that turns some of these dramas into tragedies” (301-302).

 

Around the world, some organizations, particularly those in the tech and finance industries, were among the first to enact contingency plans such as telecommuting and spreading workers out among sites.  Such steps prompted consternation among some about the possible meaning and aims of such actions – is the situation that serious?  Is this just an opportune moment for surveilling more content and testing outsourcing and worker replaceability?  What does all this mean?

 

Meanwhile, other organizations are investing great efforts to continue regular topdown, operations, sprinkled in with the occasional fantasy planning directives.  (Anyone who has watched a class of undergraduates and then a class of kindergarteners try not to touch their faces will quickly realize the limits of such measures.)  Without the cooperation of organizations and individual persons, critics and health professionals fear that certain organizations – namely hospitals and the medical care system – can collapse, as their operations and practices are designed for conditions of stability rather than large, sustained crises.

FlattenthecurveScreen Shot 2020-03-09 at 11.27.45 AM

 

For organizational researchers like myself, these weeks have been a moment of ascertaining whether organizations and people can adapt, or whether they need some nudging to acknowledge that all is not normal and to adjust.  At an individual level, we’re all facing situations with our employers, voluntary organizations, schools and universities, and health care for the most vulnerable.

 

For the everyday person, the realization that organizations such as the state can be slow to react, and perhaps has various interests and constraints that inhibit proactive instead of reactive actions, may be imminent.  So, what can compensate for these organizational inabilities to act?  In my classes, I’ve turned towards amplifying more nimble and adaptive organizational forms and practices.  Earlier in the semester, I’ve had students discuss readings such as the Combahee River Collective in How We Get Free (2017, AK Press), to teach about non- and less- bureaucratic options for organizing that incorporate a wider range stakeholders’ interests, including ones that challenge conventional capitalist exchanges.

 

To help my undergraduates think through immediately applicable possibilities, I recently assigned a chapter from my Enabling Creative Chaos book on “do-ocracy” at Burning Man to show how people can initiate and carry out both simple and complex projects to meet civic needs.  Then, I tasked them with thinking through possible activities that exemplify do-ocracy.  So far, students have responded with suggestions about pooling together information, supplies, and support for the more vulnerable.  One even recommended undertaking complex projects like developing screening tests and vaccines – something, that if I’ve read between the lines correctly, well-resourced organizations have been able to do as part of their research, bypassing what appears to be a badly-hampered response CDC in the US.

 

(For those looking for mutual aid-type readings that are in a similar vein, Daniel Aldrich’s Black Wave (2019, University of Chicago Press) examines how decentralized efforts enabled towns in Japan to recover more quickly from disasters.)

 

Taking a step back, this period could be one of where many challenges, including climate change and growing inequality, can awaken some of us to our individual and collective potential.  Will be this be the epoch where we engage in emergent, interdependent activities that promote collective survival?  Or will we instead suffer and die as individuals, with packs on our backs, laden down with expensive but ultimately useless tools?

Written by katherinechen

March 9, 2020 at 3:29 pm

book spotlight: beyond technonationalism by kathryn ibata-arens

At SASE 2019 in the New School, NYC, I served as a critic on an author-meets-critic session for Vincent de Paul Professor of Political Science Kathryn Ibata-Arens‘s latest book, Beyond Technonationalism: Biomedical Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Asia.  

Beyondtechnonationalismcover

Here, I’ll share my critic’s comments in the hopes that you will consider reading or assigning this book and perhaps bringing the author, an organizations researcher and Asia studies specialist at DePaul, in for an invigorating talk!

“Ibata-Arens’s book demonstrates impressive mastery in its coverage of how 4 countries address a pressing policy question that concerns all nation-states, especially those with shifting markets and labor pools.  With its 4 cases (Japan, China, India, and Singapore),  Beyond Technonationalism: Biomedical Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Asia covers impressive scope in explicating the organizational dimensions and national governmental policies that promote – or inhibit – innovations and entrepreneurship in markets.

The book deftly compares cases with rich contextual details about nation-states’ polices and examples of ventures that have thrived under these policies.  Throughout, the book offers cautionary stories details how innovation policies may be undercut by concurrent forces.  Corruption, in particular, can suppress innovation. Espionage also makes an appearance, with China copying’s Japan’s JR rail-line specs, but according to an anonymous Japanese official source, is considered in ill taste to openly mention in polite company. Openness to immigration and migration policies also impact national capacity to build tacit knowledge needed for entrepreneurial ventures.  Finally, as many of us in the academy are intimately familiar, demonstrating bureaucratic accountability can consume time and resources otherwise spent on productive research activities.

As always, with projects of this breadth, choices must made in what to amplify and highlight in the analysis.  Perhaps because I am a sociologist, what could be developed more – perhaps for another related project – are highlighting the consequences of what happens when nation-states and organizations permit or feed relational inequality mechanisms at the interpersonal, intra-organizational, interorganizational, and transnational levels.  When we allow companies and other organizations to, for example, amplify gender inequalities through practices that favor advantaged groups over other groups, what’s diminished, even for the advantaged groups?

Such points appear throughout the book, as sort of bon mots of surprise, described inequality most explicitly with India’s efforts to rectify its stratifying caste system with quotas and Singapore’s efforts to promote meritocracy based on talent.  The book also alludes to inequality more subtly with references to Japan’s insularity, particularly regarding immigration and migration. To a less obvious degree, inequality mechanisms are apparent in China’s reliance upon guanxi networks, which favors those who are well-connected. Here, we can see the impact of not channeling talent, whether talent is lost to outright exploitation of labor or social closure efforts that advantage some at the expense of others.

But ultimately individuals, organizations, and nations may not particularly care about how they waste individual and collective human potential.  At best, they may signal muted attention to these issues via symbolic statements; at worst, in the pursuit of multiple, competing interests such as consolidating power and resources for a few, they may enshrine and even celebrate practices that deny basic dignities to whole swathes of our communities.

Another area that warrants more highlighting are various nations’ interdependence, transnationally, with various organizations.  These include higher education organizations in the US and Europe that train students and encourage research/entrepreneurial start-ups/partnerships.  Also, nations are also dependent upon receiving countries’ policies on immigration.  This is especially apparent now with the election of publicly elected officials who promote divisions based on national origin and other categorical distinctions, dampening the types and numbers of migrants who can train in the US and elsewhere.

Finally, I wonder what else could be discerned by looking into the state, at a more granular level, as a field of departments and policies that are mostly decoupled and at odds. Particularly in China, we can see regional vs. centralized government struggles.”

During the author-meets-critics session, Ibata-Arens described how nation-states are increasingly concerned about the implications of elected officials upon immigration policy and by extension, transnational relationships necessary to innovation that could be severed if immigration policies become more restrictive.

Several other experts have weighed in on the book’s merits:

Kathryn Ibata-Arens, who has excelled in her work on the development of technology in Japan, has here extended her research to consider the development of techno-nationalism in other Asian countries as well: China, Singapore, Japan, and India. She finds that these countries now pursue techno-nationalism by linking up with international developments to keep up with the latest technology in the United States and elsewhere. The book is a creative and original analysis of the changing nature of techno-nationalism.”
—Ezra F. Vogel, Harvard University
“Ibata-Arens examines how tacit knowledge enables technology development and how business, academic, and kinship networks foster knowledge creation and transfer. The empirically rich cases treat “networked technonationalist” biotech strategies with Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Singaporean characteristics. Essential reading for industry analysts of global bio-pharma and political economists seeking an alternative to tropes of economic liberalism and statist mercantilism.”
—Kenneth A. Oye, Professor of Political Science and Data, Systems, and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“In Beyond Technonationalism, Ibata-Arens encourages us to look beyond the Asian developmental state model, noting how the model is increasingly unsuited for first-order innovation in the biomedical sector. She situates state policies and strategies in the technonationalist framework and argues that while all economies are technonationalist to some degree, in China, India, Singapore and Japan, the processes by which the innovation-driven state has emerged differ in important ways. Beyond Technonationalism is comparative analysis at its best. That it examines some of the world’s most important economies makes it a timely and important read.”
—Joseph Wong, Ralph and Roz Halbert Professor of Innovation Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto
Kathryn Ibata-Arens masterfully weaves a comparative story of how ambitious states in Asia are promoting their bio-tech industry by cleverly linking domestic efforts with global forces. Empirically rich and analytically insightful, she reveals by creatively eschewing liberalism and selectively using nationalism, states are both promoting entrepreneurship and innovation in their bio-medical industry and meeting social, health, and economic challenges as well.”
—Anthony P. D’Costa, Eminent Scholar in Global Studies and Professor of Economics, University of Alabama, Huntsville
For book excerpts, download a PDF here.  Follow the author’s twitter feed here.

facebook’s data scandal won’t make much of a difference: a comment on interpersonal vs. structural privacy

Right now, Facebook is under tremendous criticism because the firm inappropriately allowed a third party to use their data. There is much consternation and even Facebook’s stock price has taken a hit. But from my view, I don’t think much will change. Why? People are very comfortable with a lack of “structural privacy.” In contrast, they deeply resent the violation of “interpersonal privacy.”

These discussions assume that there is a single thing called “privacy” and that people will get upset when they don’t have privacy. This assumption comes from the nature of human interaction pre-industrial revolution. Before the rise of modern information systems, whether they be Census documents or Facebook meta-data, privacy meant that people in your immediate environment did not have access to all the information about you. This even applied to families. Many of us, for example, have diaries that we don’t want other family members to read.

Why do we value “interpersonal” privacy? There are many reasons. We may not want our immediately relations to know that we are critical of what they do. Maybe we don’t want our neighbors to know that we like strange food. Or maybe we don’t want our employer to know that we don’t like them so much. What these reasons and others share in common is that the possession of knowledge prevents inter-personal conflict. Without privacy, we wouldn’t be free to form opinions and we would likely be in constant conflict with each other.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Snowden revelations are about a different flavor of privacy – one that I call “structural privacy.” In the modern age, all kinds of institutions collect data on us. It could be the phone company, or the Internal Revenue Service, or Facebook. However, the data is often summarized so that it doesn’t involve a single person. When people access it, they rarely have any personal relationship to the people in the data base. Thus, people don’t usually experience interpersonal conflict when they loose “structural privacy,” the privacy that is maintained when information is collected by institutions for collective purposes. The IRS agent who peeks at your return or the Facebook employee who looks at your friendship list almost never know you and they don’t care.

This suggests that Facebook will probably be fine in the long term. People, in general, seem to be ok with the fact that firms and states routinely violate their structural privacy. The Snowden revelations barely elicited any push back from the public and almost no change in public policy. Here, I think the same process will play out. As long as Facebook can maintain privacy at the interpersonal level, they can carry on as usual.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome! 

Written by fabiorojas

April 9, 2018 at 4:45 am

the iraq war, a forever war

 

On September 10, 2001, I never imagined that the US would be involved in an endless war in Iraq, a conflict that still takes thousands of lives each year. Even after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, I did not imagine that the US would be involved in Iraq fifteen years later, sending money and advisers in a nearly endless stream.

What horrifies me is the human cost. When I was doing the research for Party in the Street, I met people who had lived in Iraq or served in Iraq. Meeting and talking to them showed me the immediate cost of the war. Families lost. Lives shattered. Faces disfigured. Children who committed suicide.

What now? The Iraq War is a “Keynesian war,” to used a phrase coined by sociologist Sidney Tarrow. Modern wars are often fought with borrowed money and volunteer armies. They are kept out of the public view. They are pursued in ways that prevent scrutiny and public input. That means that the war in Iraq, and Afghanistan, can continue in one way or another for quite a while.

I am not a pessimist. But I am a realist, this will continue for a while before it gets better. My hope is that Iraq follows the path of the Philippines after it was occupied by the US in the early 20th century. They had a long insurrection but then a period of modernization and integration into the global economy. Sadly, we’ve already had the violence, and it’s time to move on.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome! 

 

Written by fabiorojas

March 22, 2018 at 4:22 am

defending free speech the right way: three cheers for gabriel rossman

Recently, a UCLA conservative student group invited Milo Yiannopolous to speak at the campus. Then, UCLA sociologist (and former orgtheory guest) Gabriel Rossman wrote an open letter to the Bruin Republicans urging them to rescind the invitation, which they did. Excerpts from the letter, as published in The Weekly Standard:

The most important reason not to host such a talk is that it is evil on the merits. Your conscience should tell you that you never want anything to do with someone whose entire career is not reasoned argument, but shock jock performance art. In the 1980s conservatives made fun of “artists” who defecated on stage for the purpose of upsetting conservatives. Now apparently, conservatives are willing to embrace a man who says despicable things for the purpose of “triggering snowflakes.” The change in performance art from the fecal era to the present is yet another sign that no matter how low civilization goes, there is still room for further decline.

I want to be clear that my point here is not that some people will be offended, but that the speaker is purely malicious.

I could not agree more. Gabriel makes it clear that he is defending their right to have a speaker, but that it is unwise and unethical to invite this particular speaker. On Twitter, Gabriel also makes it clear that there was a lot of internal pressure to cancel this talk, and that the open letter was a secondary part of the story.

I want to add a few words about the defense of free speech, drawn from Gabriel’s letter. First, Gabriel avoids a common mistake – no where does he oppose the talk because he thinks that having the talk will somehow legitimize racism or undermine UCLA. Universities are hardy creatures and hosting a shock jock conservative will not have any appreciable effect on racism in the larger society.

Second, he focuses on wisdom – is this really the right thing to do? Does inviting Yiannopolous really promote truth seeking? This is the difference between hosting a “conservative performance art” event and a conservative intellectual with genuinely held beliefs that need to be debated. I think this is the difference between inviting Charles Murray – who provides evidence and is willing to debate – and Yiannopolous. One has controversial views, the other is a controversy machine. There is a huge difference.

Finally, this approach provides a broader defense of free speech and debate for all people. On a basic level, students and faculty have been given the privilege to invite who ever they want to campus. And that means some nasty people will be invited from time to time and we should support that right.

On a deeper level, we need a higher standard to decide which speech should be actively supported. If someone provides data and can treat others civilly in debate, we should be very tolerant. If someone shows a basic mastery of argument and analysis of evidence, they deserve a hearing. Conversely, if a faculty member is a scholar in good standing, we should be forgiving if they mis-speak in public.

We need to appreciate that the core of the university is not free speech.  Rather, free speech is a starting point. What real scholars do is select which speech merits a spotlight and an analysis and that’s a crucial activity.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

February 16, 2018 at 5:12 am

three cheers for california!

Marijuana is now legal in the state of California and a few other states. I applaud this move. I am glad that the arrests and criminalization are coming to an end. The ingestion of narcotics should be treated the way we treat alcohol. It should be legal and you should only be prosecuted if your behavior endangers others. And if you harm yourself, go see the doctor. You shouldn’t go to prison. Let’s hope this is part of a bigger trend.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

January 8, 2018 at 8:10 am