Mind-expanding educational encounters

russia-95311_1920I have always avoided blogging about current issues in higher education. There are various reasons for that, including that it would make blogging a bit of a busman’s holiday.

But current developments at Leicester University caught my eye. The business school is making redundant academic staff whose work is deemed no longer to fit with the school’s current strategy. Nine members of the school stand accused of engaging in critical management studies and/or political economy and, consequently, have been given their marching orders.

Professor Susan Halford, in her capacity as President of the British Sociological Association, has published an open letter to the university’s senior management expressing serious concern about these developments and pointing out that CMS/PE have contributed much to business and management education. There is no reason to think that that is no longer the case.

This caused me to reflect on my own education and career, and perhaps get a little nostalgic. Possibly a touch self-indulgent.

Engaging with organization

As an undergraduate I studied management sciences at Warwick Business School. In fact, it was so long ago it was still called the School of Industrial and Business Studies. The programme comprised a pretty typical mix of subjects – economics, OR, organizational behaviour/theory, accounting, etc.

It was a long time ago and my recollections of my studies are fragmentary. But it is the fragments that you hold on to that are the most meaningful.

As I moved into my second year, we were informed that our organisational behaviour unit was going to be delivered in part by the “new professor”. A young(ish) chap was arriving from the University of Lancaster. A “rapidly rising star” type of academic.

My recollection of that unit is pretty hazy in terms of substance. The starting point was a look at how organization studies began as the “handmaiden to capital” – seeking ways to assist management in creating more effective/profitable organisations – but broke away from that role to study organisational practices more critically and from a broader range of perspectives. In the discussion of bureaucracy there was plenty of talk of Kafka’s The Trial – a book I’d never heard of, but dutifully went off and read; there was much talk of FW “Speedy” Taylor and scientific management; the limitations of mainstream OB and contingency theory (if I remember correctly, Lex Donaldson seemed a particular irritant); Braverman and labour process theory; and power in organisations. I remember marvelling at the range of examples offered to illustrate the points: they were drawn from different types of organisations from all over the world (“how can one person know all this stuff?” I wondered).

The experience of work

I enjoyed the unit sufficiently to become one of a handful of students to sign up for a brand new third year option entitled “The experience of work”, offered by the new professor and a colleague. Again, I don’t fully remember the ins-and-outs of syllabus. The professor’s rather acerbic asides on a range of topics certainly did made an impression.

We encountered Habermas for the first time. There were questions of interpretivism and social construction. We were obliged to grapple with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and consider the ways in which panopticism and surveillance are an integral part of diverse organisational settings, not only prisons. I spent more time in the company of Braverman’s Labour and Monopoly Capital: I was particularly interested in the role of technology in transforming white collar labour processes and acting as a mechanism for deskilling and discipline. The theoretical and empirical weaknesses of LPT arguments, and the difficulties in substantiating arguments resting on postulated underlying social dynamics, were explored. The then-current moves into exploring subjectivity and identity in organisations were touched on. Those topics led to interesting questions about the limits on management’s right to manage – an organisation pays its workers for their time and effort but does it have the right to manage their subjectivity to embrace managerially-prescribed behaviours and values as well?

Finally, I vividly remember we were given pre-publication chapters from the book The Sexuality of Organization, and spent time discussing how sexual practices such as flirting can influence how – or indeed whether – things get done in organizations; what impact does it have on organisational performance when sexual relationships – either outside of work or between co-workers – break down; and the peculiar dynamics of the manager-secretary relationship.

Critical management

When we expand our perspective on organisations to encompass these sorts of issues it encourages us to think about what happens in organisations not in isolation but in context. How are broader social structures and dynamics refracted into organisational practices? That can be relatively broad-brush questions of management versus workers. But it can be about organisational actors bringing multiple identities to their organisational role – class position, gender, age, ethnicity, personal values – all intersect with – and have to be reconciled with – the obligations associated with organisational roles. We can ask interesting questions about structure and agency: discretion, strategic choice, the constrains of institutions and culture, agency as the outworking of an interplay of discourses. To what extent are approaches to organisation that emphasis social agency – the role of the “heroic” leader in turning around failing companies so beloved of airport lounge business books – completely misreading what’s going on?

Having embraced critical management studies, whenever I have had cause to return to more mainstream OB it can feel like it offers a partial – and rather naïve – account of organisational life.

The material was challenging and fascinating, but as a callow youth whose experience of organisations stretched to no more than a couple of summer jobs much of it didn’t resonate immediately. The significance of some of the material explored in “The experience of work” only became apparent years later. In my subsequent career in organisations, including in management roles and as a company director, it has been absolutely invaluable in assisting me in interpreting what has been going on around me and how my own actions might influence organisational activities and events.

That period of study also sparked a lifelong interest in thinking about organisation: with the appropriate turn of mind, your entire career becomes an ongoing participant-observation study.

Putting it to work

My own academic work has retained a connection to organisational studies, albeit a rather slim one. I’ve moved into other areas. But I’ve gone on to use many of the ideas first encountered there in other contexts. When I teach on the policy process or on evidence and policy, I always do my utmost to squeeze reference to ideas of surveillance, power of “the norm” or power-knowledge, for example, into the most introductory of sessions.

To miss out on these more expansive interpretations of what is going on when a Government decides to introduce league tables or some other such initiative seems to me to miss something important. It misses the essence of what higher education is trying to do when it seeks to develop students’ ability to critically engage with the world. That isn’t to say that league tables – to pursue that example – are necessarily good or bad in the abstract, it’s to say that we need to have our eyes open about what’s going on and what the ramifications of these types of reforms are likely to be.

Similarly, something like subjectivity and identity in organisations may sound entirely abstract and abstruse – too “academic” – but if you want to increase the chances of successfully implementing an organisational change programme then it is wise to understand what is at stake from the perspective of organisational members. Apparently “unreasonable” resistance to relatively modest reforms should alert you – if you weren’t alert to it already – to the possibility that colleagues perceive there to be a great deal more at stake in terms of how they make sense of and bring order to their world and work to stabilise their own identities.

Then and now

Without doubt studying organisation theory at Warwick, way back then, with that ‘new’ professor, has been the biggest influence [so far!] on my own intellectual development and – without being unnecessarily over-dramatic – my own worldview.

Like many in UK HE I was saddened to hear news of the developments at Leicester business school. Doubly so, for a reason you might well have guessed. Professor Gibson Burrell, now in the closing years of his career, is one of the nine colleagues identified for redundancy at Leicester. He was that ‘new’ professor arriving at Warwick in the late 1980s to give us a good strong dose of critical management studies.

Critical management studies – it can be genuinely life changing. But we wouldn’t want higher education to be doing anything as transformative as that, now would we?

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