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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

watercooler democracy: how rumors can democratize information at work – guest post by Katie Sobering

I’m posting this guest post about rumors and workplace democracy on behalf of UNT organizational ethnographer Katie Sobering.  Sobering recently virtually visited my “Organizations, Markets, and the State” grad course to answer questions about her ethnographic research on Hotel BAUEN, a worker recuperated cooperative located in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In response to student questions about her published research, Sobering explained how she decided to focus on Hotel BAUEN over other collectivist-democratic forms.  By studying Hotel BAUEN’s trainings, meetings, everyday activities, and involvement in social movement activities, Sobering shows how we can use this case to understand how organizations pursue equality through practices such as job rotation and decision-making by consensus.  Sobering also depicted the challenges confronting the cooperative: securing ownership of the hotel, expensive, specialized maintenance of the facilities, and recruitment and retention of members. During the Q&A, Sobering traced her intellectual lineage and inspirations back to Joyce Rothschild’s seminal work on collectivist-democratic organizations and Rachel Sherman’s research on service work in hotels.  She currently is revising a book manuscript on her research.

Here’s Sobering’s take on rumors’ roles in workplace transparency, based on her research published in Work and Occupations:

“We’ve all heard rumors. Odds are, most of us have spread rumors every now and again. From the family dinner table to anonymous corners of the internet, people share unverified pieces of information to make sense of their social worlds. Rumors are especially common in the workplace, spurring the now well-known idea of the “watercooler effect.”

Managers, consultants, and academics alike have paid close attention to the role and repercussions of such informal communication at work. Much of this assumes that firms keep secrets. Thus, in lieu of access to information, workers pass rumors among themselves.

In the 21st century, transparency has become a buzzword, as work organizations like tech firms and startups flatten hierarchies, embrace informality, and remove barriers that traditionally limited access to information. Some organizations are experimenting with “radical transparency” while others warn that too much transparency can be counterproductive. Worker cooperatives and other participatory organizations often practice democratic transparency, recognizing that information-sharing is key to democratizing power. All this begs the question: in contexts of increased transparency, what is the role of rumors?

In my recent article published in Work and Occupations, I draw on long term ethnographic research in a worker-run hotel in Argentina to go behind the scenes in an organization in which workers enjoy a far more egalitarian environment than most U.S. employees experience on the job: extensive access to information, voice in the organization, and power over their jobs. I find that transparency does not quell the rumor mill. But rumors do have an important impact on the culture and practice of information-sharing.

Democratic transparency in Hotel Bauen

I conducted my research in Hotel Bauen, a twenty-story conference hotel located in the bustling center of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Built in the 1970s, the private owners declared bankruptcy in 2001 and shut down the property, leaving longtime employees out of work. In 2003, thirty former employees joined the growing movement of worker-recuperated businesses by occupying the abandoned hotel and forming a worker cooperative. Since 2004, Hotel Bauen has been open around-the-clock, hosting events, lodging overnight guests, and offering a meeting place and street-side café for passersby. Despite workers’ ongoing efforts to legalize their use of the hotel, the BAUEN Cooperative has grown from thirty founding members to 130 members in 2015. Today, it is one of the most iconic worker-recuperated business in Argentina.

Hotel Bauen is run by a worker cooperative: an organization in which all members are equal owners and govern through direct and representative forms of democracy. Since its inception, the cooperative has adopted formal policies and practices designed to make information widely available to the group. They have sought to create what Archeon Fung calls “democratic transparency,” an informational environment that allows people to collectively control the organizations that affect their lives.

First, in the BAUEN Cooperative, information is formally accessible to all members. Organizational records are kept in open book system that is available not only for managers or decision-makers, but also for members.

Second, the cooperative makes information proportional by sharing details about that which directly impacts the business and its members. While cooperatives in Argentina must hold as least one assembly each year by law, the BAUEN Cooperative organizes quarterly meetings to provide regular financial snapshots and open forums for discussion.

Finally, information is actionable through formal mechanisms that allow members to question and even overturn managerial decisions. With signatures of ten percent of the membership, members can convene an assembly of all workers to address and evaluate any decision or scenario in the cooperative.

Despite the transparency that the workers enjoyed in Hotel Bauen, rumors were part and parcel of daily working life. These whispers were often interpersonal in nature, passing hearsay about coworkers’ personal lives. But other rumors ventured into the inner workings of the organization itself.

I found that these rumors democratized information in two interrelated ways. First, rumors encouraged workers to participate in decisions, moving decision-making out of formal spaces and into the hallways where members of the cooperative could informally deliberate on the issue at hand. Second, rumors allowed members to oversee the managerial authority and empowered them to exercise their ability to hold the organization accountable.

[Check out more about worker influence after the jump]

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“Organizations, Markets, & the State” course at the Graduate Center, CUNY, offered for this spring 2020

Are you a graduate student in the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium?*  If so, please consider taking my “Organizations, Markets, & the State” class at the Graduate Center, CUNY.   At student request, I am teaching this class on the sociology of organizations this spring 2020 on Wednesdays @11:45am-2:45pm. Our first class meets on Wed., Jan. 29, 2020.

 

In addition to covering the classics of organizational research, the course includes cutting edge organizational research.  The course also incorporates topics and assigned readings based on enrolled students’ interests.  When I’ve taught this class in past semesters, guest speakers, including Nicole P. Marwell, Jeff Sallaz, Michel Anteby, Caroline W. Lee, Frederick Wherry, Pilar Opazo, and Elizabeth Popp Berman, have discussed their research projects.  (And, Fabio Rojas joined us for a special get-together during a visit to NYC!)

One of the aims of the class, besides learning substantive content, is to develop a local community of emerging scholars whose relationships spanning local, US, and international boundaries.  So, if you are an organizations researcher who is located or will happen to be in the NYC area during spring 2020, please email me about presenting your research!  We’ve also learned about professional development with guests, as participants are eager to learn about different kinds of institutions and career paths.

 

Here is the spring 2020 course description:

Organizations, Markets, & the State, Spring 2020

Graduate Center

Prof. Katherine K. Chen

Course Description

How can people coordinate action across growing groups in creative versus conventional ways?

How can people organize in ways that widen versus reduce power differentials among members?

How do people and organizations hoard advantages for a select few versus ensuring more equal access to all?

How do organizations fend off versus embrace market ideology, and how do organizations encourage members to adopt these perspectives?

Organizations are crucial actors in contemporary society, and they are also sites where many of us expend significant efforts connecting with or coordinating collective action.  Despite their central role in shaping our experiences from education to the workplace to governance, organizations are often overlooked or taken-for-granted among researchers and laypersons.  When researchers do study organizations, they typically pay little critical attention to power dynamics and organizing possibilities.

Building upon more critical perspectives, participants will learn why organizations form, how they develop, and how they can exacerbate or alleviate inequalities.  We will also discuss organizations’ relations with the state and markets, and how these relations affect action.  We will cover a variety of organizational forms, from conventional bureaucracies to networked firms to democratic organizations, with a focus on participants’ organizational fields of interest.  Theories studied incorporate the classics, as well as cutting edge synthetic work like Strategic Action Fields (SAFs), racialized organizations, and relational inequality theory (RIT)’s inequality-generating mechanisms.   Methodological approaches covered include ethnography, interviews, and other qualitative methods, and quantitative analyses.

This course supports deepening participants’ substantive knowledge, including preparing for comprehensives, extending cross-over expertise in a substantive area (i.e. social movements, urban sociology, stratification, education, cultural sociology, etc.), and designing and carrying out research.  In addition, this course aims to both promote professional development and forming a community of supportive scholars for emerging research.

*If you are a student at one of the below schools, you may be eligible, after filing  paperwork by the GC and your institution’s deadlines, to take classes within the Consortium:

Columbia University, GSAS
Princeton University – The Graduate School
CUNY Graduate Center
Rutgers University
Fordham University, GSAS
Stony Brook University
Graduate Faculty, New School University
Teachers College, Columbia University
New York University, GSAS, Steinhardt

Written by katherinechen

November 14, 2019 at 11:21 am

“don’t be afraid to push big, bold projects” and “be brave and patient”: Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey on producing Relational Inequality Theory (RIT)

 

Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, who collaboratively published their book Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach (Oxford University Press), graciously agreed to do a joint email interview with orgtheory!  Here, we discuss their book and the process leading up to the production of the book.  Readers who are thinking of how to apply relational inequality theory (RIT), join and bridge scholarly conversations, and/or handle collaborative projects, please take note.

First, I asked Dustin and Don substantive questions about RIT.  Here, both authors describe how they used their workplaces in higher education as laboratories for refining their theory.  Also, Don channeled his disappointment with the limits of Chuck Tilly’s Durable Inequalities into fueling this endeavor.

1. Katherine.  How did you apply the insight of relational inequality in your own lives?  For example, both of you are at public universities – how does knowing relational inequality affect your ways of interacting with other people and institutions?

Dustin. I think for me one of the ways I see this is becoming faculty during the process of writing the book and being in a transitioning institution. I was hired out of grad school to Augusta University when it had just merged with the Medical College of Georgia. With this merger, Augusta University moved from being a teaching-focused college to a comprehensive research university that includes both graduate and undergraduate programs and a mission focused on research. Experiencing this transition  made me think through the daily lives of organizations in a much less structural way as I saw people negotiating and renegotiating the meaning of the institution, the practices and policies, creating new ways of fulfilling institutional roles, etc. I guess in that way it highlighted the work of Tim Hallet on inhabited institutionalism. As university faculty and staff, we didn’t just copy a bunch of templates from the environment, people were translating them and challenging them in the organization. And we still are, 7 years later, and I suspect we will be for a very long time. Organizations at that moment became enactments rather than structures for me, something to be relationally negotiated not simply imported. Don and my endeavor then to understand inequality in this context actually began to make more sense. And in fact during our weekly conversations about the book, I do remember often relating stories to Don of what was going on, and this certainly shaped how I thought about the processes we were thinking through.

I don’t know if that is what you were after in your question, but it is for me this experience shaped how I have come to think about organizations, and became central to how we think about organizations in the book. 

Don. No fair, actually apply a theory in our own lives? Seriously though, I became pretty frustrated with the black hole explanations of local inequalities as reflecting “structure” or “history”. These can be analytically useful, but simultaneously disempowering. Yes, some students come to the University with cultural capital that matches some professors, but this does not make them better students, just relationally advantaged in those types of student-teacher interactions. At the same time the University exploits revenue athletes for its purposes while excluding many others from full participation. The struggles of first gen students and faculty are produced by relational inequalities. 

As a department chair I was keenly aware of the university dance of claims making around status and revenue and that this had to be actively negotiated if our department was going to be able to claim and sequester resources. This sounds and to some extent is harsh, since success might mean taking resources indirectly from weaker or less strategic departments, although it can also feel insurgent if the resource appears to be granted or extracted from the Provost. But the truth is that university resources flow in a complex network of relationships among units, students, legislators and vendors (beware the new administrative software contract!). 

The Dean will pretend this is about your unit’s “productivity”, it’s never that simple.*  It’s also great to have allies, at UMass we have a great faculty union that works to level the playing field between departments and disrupt the administrative inequality dance.

* Katherine’s addition: Check out this satirical twitter feed about higher ed administration for laugh/cries.

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the relational turn in the study of inequalities and organizations – guest post by Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey

On behalf of Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, I am posting their guest post, a must-read for researchers looking for intersections between organizations and stratification.  In their post, they describe the shortcomings of stratification research’s in focusing on “individual” characteristics and how they build upon organizational theory to examine organizations as inequality-generating mechanisms.  Their post ends with possible research AND policy agendas for a more sustainable and equitable future.

By the end of the 1990s we began to see a relational turn in sociology, perhaps expressed most clearly in Mustafa Emirbayer’s Relational Manifesto. The core claim is that the basic unit of analysis for sociology (or perhaps the social sciences writ large) should be, neither the individual nor macro-level institutions, but the social relations between actors.

This relational claim is, of course, not new. Classical sociologists –Simmel, Marx, Mead, Blumer, Goffman– treated relationality as fundamental. All of symbolic interactionism, the economic sociologies of Granovetter’s embeddedness paradigm and Zelizerian relational work, organizational field theory, and the strong growth in network science are all contemporary exemplars.

But relationality was blurred in the mid-20thcentury though by the growth in statistical techniques and computer software packages that enabled the analysis of surveys of individuals. Blau and Duncan’s pathbreaking American Occupational Structure became the state of the art for stratification research, but it had the side effect of obscuring – both theoretically and methodologically – the relationality that undergirds the generation of inequalities.

Simultaneously, organizational sociology had its own theoretical blinders. The move towards New Institutionalism obscured the older focus on stakeholders and dominant coalitions, refocusing on legitimating processes in the environment through which organizations isomorphically converged. Charles Tilly’s book Durable Inequalities critiqued the status attainment model partly by adopting this view of organizations, treating organizations as inequality machines mechanically matching internal and external categories.

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Written by katherinechen

September 5, 2019 at 6:09 pm

writing books and articles together

In sociology, it is very common for people to write a mix of books and articles. An ethnographer may do field work, then write two or three articles and also a book for the project. This is essentially the mode I work in.

On Facebook, someone asked how to balance the writing of books and articles. Should you do them at the same time, alternate, or what? This is probably one of those questions whose answer relies on the individual’s work style and personality, but I tend toward articles first and then the book.

For me, the issue is clarity and focus. Many of my research projects explore fairly complex social processes – the formation of academic disciplines, the ebb and flow of activism, the role of social media in politics. Thus, I can’t just run an experiment to isolate a process or download a data set. Rather, I must spend a lot of time collecting data and just understanding the subject of inquiry.

Thus, it makes little sense in my case to start with a new book first. Articles are great ways to make you focus your work, really clarify one finding of your work. Then, in my case at least, you will end up with a series of articles and unpublished papers that you can turn into a larger and more complete argument. Of course, the chronology of publication may not reflect it – an article can take years to work through the system, while books are faster – but using articles as book summaries, or chapter templates, naturally leads to a longer manuscript.

Feel free to add you writing practice thoughts in the comments.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 1, 2018 at 4:01 am

Posted in books, fabio, workplace