What makes an organization alternative?

The type of organizations we usually discuss in business management are conventional large corporations, often multinationals or occasionally SMEs, startups and family businesses. However, there is a bit of an embedded assumption which is perpetuated by doing so, that this type of organization and its embedded values is the only legitimate means of acting on the world. A recent response to this type of thinking is the focus on ‘alternative’ organization, where research has tried to highlight the importance of voluntary and co-operative organizations as different ways of addressing a social or market ‘need’, but using structures which embed a different set of priorities or ethics. These organizations are often left out of discussions when students learn about ‘organizational behaviour’, so in a recent lecture on Contemporary Issues in Management, we made a point of ensuring this was featured; not only to stress the importance of different organizational structures, but also to highlight how easily we come to accept the ‘normal’ or most frequently used way of thinking about a problem as the ‘truth’. One example of organization I will discuss below also indicates how easily we can be seduced by the promise of new technology, but that when we look more closely it’s often possible to see that this novelty conceals repetition of existing structures and approaches.

Dr Mangan’s lecture for Keele students provided a few different definitions and examples of ‘alternative’ forms of organization, including the different purposes an organization may have, specifically purposes which are not directly linked to the pursuit of profit. However, many small or entrepreneurial businesses will not always talk about the pursuit of profit as their main aim, but will rather stress their product or service and how important they feel that is to their identified market. Equally, many defenders of the ‘mainstream’ approach to business argue that it is ‘common sense’ that profit is not the main ambition of most businesses, but is nonetheless an important motivator for companies to improve their product or service.

The way we talk about companies and businesses tends to include a lot of fundamental assumptions about their structures and strategies, functions and purposes which we then hold in our minds as a basic model of what ‘an organization’ is like. The assumption that profit is an important ‘reward’ or motivating factor is one of these assumptions, as is the focus on a link between ownership, responsibility and reward. Underlying these debates is a fundamental question about what we (that is, society as a whole) value. Organizations that are ‘alternative’, make a point of valuing more than economic success and trying to explore different ways of organizing themselves in order to promote those values. In order to do so, they often disrupt ‘common sense’ approaches to reward or ownership. Sports organizations, for example, often stress rewards for the work which are not financial, but rather promote status in a community and self-respect through personal achievement. A system of values which is increasingly popular is the democratic system of peer-to-peer service provision, yet not all organizations promoting this are necessarily ‘alternative’.

We can look at publications such as the Harvard Business Review as examples of where certain ‘common sense’ knowledge about business is often presented as ‘truth’. In HBR, there is often talk about ‘value creation’, but usually only in the context of ‘shareholder value’, i.e the pursuit of profit. There is also regular concern over economic growth and productivity. Again, this is not to say these things are unimportant, but they are discussed very differently in less well known and more critical outlets. Compare this article on concerns about the study of economic growth in HBR, with this one, in Aeon. Yet HBR is much more widely read, and has greater impact on the business community, as well as it’s aspirants such as business management students.

So, to return to the question of identifying alternative organizations. Here’s my challenge; is Uber an ‘alternative organization’? I put forward this example because, like many similar companies such as AirBnB, this is considered part of a growing peer-to-peer or ‘sharing economy’ which has emerged in a response to a search for low-cost or sustainable alternatives to traditional business models. Uber is certainly a different sort of company and service which promotes value for customers and has had significant worldwide impact, very quickly. It has been widely reported as a disruptive element in the transportation industry. Uber disrupts conventional models of employment and control, as drivers are self-employed and are not ‘signed up’ to a specific shift pattern, instead working whenever they choose. Yet this is not so different to working for a taxi firm. The rate charged is still set by Uber (using demand algorithms), they take a commission from each driver’s earnings and exert indirect control through the driver rating system. The company relies upon high levels of technology among the population of its users and Uber’s focus is primarily upon the technology as a liberating mechanism for drivers and customers. Yet the benefits seem to accrue primarily to customers, with few advantages for the self-employed driver.

Uber has been discussed in HBR specifically in terms of it’s ‘value creation’ but the concept of value creation focuses on benefits for investors or shareholders, as well as ‘value’ for consumers in the sense of a competitive product, but not necessarily ‘value’ as it is determined by all stakeholders. Uber is a notable case as it’s rapid success challenged not only the market dominance of other providers (notably US yellow cabs and London black cabs), but also their traditional role in and contribution to local tourism. In response, these organizations have released their own competitive phone applications to address consumer value. Debates on the long-term success of any of these organizations continue to focus on how long they can maintain ‘value’ (in the sense of being financially solvent), and whether they can maintain a high speed of innovation. But such debates continue to perpetuate the idea of value as no more than a financial measure of success in the marketplace. It is perhaps more interesting to look at the ways in which transportation services are being provided through alternative forms of organization by groups who genuinely want to reconsider the market model of competition, ownership and reward. In some cases these groups are integrating services such as Uber into worker ownership structures, whereas other services rely on wholly different models such as community car clubs.

In summary then, I would argue that Uber does not ‘fit’ the model of an alternative organization, but that the ways in which some cooperative groups are banding together indicate it is not intrinsic to the technology; rather it is that the values of Uber are too closely in line with ‘business as usual’.

[EDIT – you can find some more excellent thoughts on contemporary issues around corporate approaches to value here and on alternative organization here]

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Work, dirt and stigma

Dirty work is not only that work which is grubby or unpleasant, but also that which carries a stigma. We, as human beings have many rituals of order, from marking different periods of life as spaces apart from each other (such as the transition from child to adult), to keeping the vegetables and meat on separate shelves in the fridge. Certain topics and substances have been identified as having a sort of universal stigma or taboo, in that societies and cultures from many different times and places seem to manage them carefully; notably substances such as blood have this significance. Yet the strange part is that even when people who work with blood and encounter it everyday have been cleaned, sanitised and removed from their place of occupation, they often encounter behaviour based on the persistence of that ‘taint’. This concept is the basis of Goffman’s (1963) theory of stigma, which relies upon the idea that we often hold an idea of a person in our heads which is different from the qualities of the person in front of us. For Goffman, this is ‘virtual’ versus ‘actual’ identity and the gap between these two sets of characteristics is stigma.

When we think about work, then, it’s pretty clear that some types of work carry a polluted ‘virtual’ social identity, an identity tainted by association with the substance or status of work. Dr Hamilton has conducted a number of studies on work undertaken with animals, much of which involves contact with ‘dirt’. In her recent study with Professor McCabe, she looks at contemporary meat production, as compared with our expectations set out by the classic studies such as Ackroyd and Crowdy’s study of slaughterhouse workers. She pointed out that even within these industries, there are clear hierarchies, and some work might still be considered ‘dirty’, while other work is carefully distinguished as ‘above’ such pollutants. It is also the case that some workers might be simultaneously repelled and drawn to, dirty work.

This suddenly reminded me of a job I worked in prior to my career as an academic. As a customer account manager for a national company, I worked in a very clean and tidy office complex on an industrial estate. I spent hours on the telephone managing the relationship of the organization with our key customers, trying to ensure that we always met our contractual obligations and kept their business. However, this company was a waste disposal firm which had diversified from office cleaning and sanitary waste, to all kinds of specialist waste regulated by special environmental legislation as well as pest control (a function they had acquired through a corporate takeover). Our employees would visit client’s premises regularly to collect their waste and transport it to our disposal centres, which were distributed at key locations across the country.

This was a particular problem for some of our remote customers based in the rural countryside. For some sites, a waste collection van would have to drive for five hours to make the round-trip to collect the waste. If the building was locked or access by van prevented due to roadworks, the client would often complain to me by phone that the waste had not been removed, and my role was to liaise with the manager of our disposal centre to arrange a staff member to visit the site again. These repeat visits would often involve convincing staff to work unpaid overtime, to travel to sites where the waste might very well be overflowing the containers so visiting these sites could involve a long trip in a pungent van.

This work may well have been stigmatised by it’s contact with pollutants, from bins full of nappies or sanitary towels, through to used needles collected from tattoo parlours, hospitals or rehabilitation centres. But the contact with the ‘dirt’ of the job didn’t change in essence when workers were asked to work overtime – the difference lay in the fact that extra hours often didn’t result in extra pay.

This work was often rejected by employees. The managers of the disposal centres also often rejected the request for secondary visits, so my work largely involved persuasion and cajoling of these workers on the one hand, while also convincing our customers to keep their accounts with us. This work did not involve contact with pollutants, and as such bore little obvious stigma. Yet this work, having contact with the aggressive emotions of customers and the defensive attitudes of managers carries its own ‘taint’ – such emotion work is usually the undervalued preserve of women (see previous post).
This anecdote highlights the sort of hierarchies and distinctions in an organization that focuses on an industry classically ‘tainted’ as dirty work. Can the hierarchy ameliorate the stigma? Do you think that my work as a customer account manager was stigmatised by the industry we worked within? Plenty of food for thought here.

Doing Difference

Gah! Talk about technical hiccups. Sorry readers – for some reason my transfer of posts from the other blog to this one automatically did not go as planned. But the good news is, this means there are many new posts to come! This one is based on a lecture about gender difference given to students on my module Contemporary Issues in Management.


 

We often think about difference as something natural. ‘We’re all different from each other,’ we like to think, ‘everyone is special in some way.’ Yet we rarely think about how collective (and individual) difference is something that is a careful production of regular maintenance work and activity. Women are often more aware of this than men, because there are certain unspoken rules we are explicitly taught by each other about ‘correct’ or ‘good’ appearances – (unintentionally) smudged eyeliner or mascara is a definite faux pas, and not wearing makeup is itself sometimes a political statement.

But this work of emphasising similarity or difference is not only evident in women’s makeup, but also in a wide number of other everyday actions and activities. Standing in a queue quietly, with upright stance and facing forward, for instance, signifies something different to standing in a queue while slouching at an angle and talking to a friend nearby. The second type of behaviour conveys the message; ‘I’m in this queue, but it’s not terribly important to me. I can get along just fine without keeping my place in it or getting to the front as quickly as possible’. The second type of behaviour might be seen as a mark of status, or of aggression and control. It may indicate the person’s confidence of being able to get the item or service they are queuing for by other means, or at another time.

Although a contemporary issue, you might be surprised to find out that the notion of the performance of difference (in studies of gender, at least), was widely popularised in an article by West and Zimmerman (1987) entitled Doing Gender‘. If you follow this link and scroll down you will see the large number of articles this publication influenced, which include a large variety of topics on business and organization as well as sociology in general.

At the time of West and Zimmerman’s (1987) writing, there was already a clear divide in the study of gender which distinguished between ‘natural difference’ or sex, and ‘constructed difference’ or gender. The subtleties of this distinction for the study of gender were hotly debated at the time and continue to be discussed as key principles of the study of gender. West and Zimmerman argued that we can think about gender as a performed accomplishment, an outcome of continuous ongoing work and performance of everyday activities in ways which align with (and reinforce) expectations about ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’. But what happens when some of these characteristics are more valued than others? Or when performing activity in a certain way is a job requirement? Based on research in Manchester, Dr Darren Nixon explored how the huge shift in the UK economy towards service sector work, which often requires subservient (‘feminized’) behaviour, disadvantages working class men looking for work, as throughout their lives they have developed everyday patterns of behaviour based on masculine expectations which are not compatible with this type of work. Having learned to be brash, confident in their skills, aggressively independent and plainspoken, work in department stores and perfume counters simply does not ‘fit’.

This approach is important when you think about how frequently most research is interested only in the business case for diversity in organizations. The ‘business case’ approach often assumes that our identities are fixed by our own decisions, a result of choices freely made throughout our lifetime. What the performative approach emphasises is that many of these decisions might have slipped by unnoticed in our everyday practices of getting by in the workplace and fitting in. As such, small things such as an organizational dress code, or recruitment policies looking for the ‘proper look’ for an organization, neglect to realise that these practices are learned and performed through association with certain communities. It also attempts to rationalise people’s complex lives and connections to each other as the choices of individual ’employment applicants’, thereby justifying ongoing practices of exclusion or even harassment.

When thinking about your own expectations in gendered roles, you might want to consider the sorts of things you might list as measures of ‘appropriate behaviour’ among your own group of friends or acquaintances, and how those expectations might change for people who were work colleagues. Consider what you might consider a challenge to your identity practices. You might find this discussion of ‘policing’ of appropriate behaviour in an American high school informative. Such behaviour in school might influence what sort of further education or training you might be likely to consider a good prospect. You could also consider what occupations you find least attractive, or even distasteful, and why.