What to do in Lectures: a guide

It’s that time of the year again and campus is filling up with fresh-faced undergraduates wondering just what they’ve let themselves in for. The more confident second year undergraduates are returning from their holidays, looking forward to seeing friends and perhaps a little worried about the fact that their second year is beginning and the work ‘counts’ now (as it contributes towards their degree classification). So for both the newbies and the experienced students now is a great time to get prepared for the sessions ahead. But, really, what are you actually supposed to do in lectures?

hint

I’m going to ramble about this, but for those who’d prefer a one-page graphic guide I have taken inspiration from my friend Matt over at Errant Science and made you a comic. First of all, let me introduce you to my comic self…

me

 

Hi there!

In a traditional lecture, an academic will spend most of the time talking to you about a specific subject in which they have expertise. We like to talk! But while we talk, what do you do?

The point of having a lecturer is that they are a subject expert, and as such they have lots of information and expertise that it would take you years to read up on. Think of them as being like a knowledge funnel, condensing all of that information down into a smaller space (and time). The problem is, that in many university degrees (and almost certainly in the lecture) you won’t be using that information straight away, so it can be hard to absorb.

You might have heard about learning styles – the idea that some people learn better by listening, or reading, or drawing…. that’s actually now been shown to be incorrect. Though you might have a preference for the way you like to be taught, you mostly learn the same as everyone else – by problem solving. Human beings are hard-wired problem solvers. But when the problem isn’t immediate, it can be hard to understand what you should be doing while your lecturer is there at the front rambling away!

But actually, everybody there does have a problem to solve – how to get a great degree! Often, this also includes an ambition to get the knowledge you need for a great career afterwards too. And to attack these problems requires a more focused approach in your lecture. Your immediate problems to focus on are:

  • How can I pay attention throughout this lecture (especially if I’m really sleepy)?
  • How can I transform this lecture into a record I can learn from?
  • How can I identify the most important information in this lecture?
  • How can I work out what areas I understand and where I need to ask questions to make sure I will do well in my assessments?
  • How do I come up with the right sort of questions?

 

tech

For most students, the wonder of technology seems to promise an answer to many of these questions – after all, the lecturer has provided powerpoint slides or notes that you can download, right? Also, it’s pretty easy to use your smartphone to record what they say!

Unfortunately, powerpoint is not a great resource to learn from, especially as it’s a pretty poor format for communicating complicated or non-linear ideas. Also, as it’s such a boring format, it’s more…. likely….. to………..zzzzzZZZZZ

Oh, is that the time? Sorry, I was snoozing there for a second.

The best thing you can do in a lecture is use techniques to help you engage with what is being said. One such technique is taking notes! Taking notes will help you pay attention and create great personalised records for you to learn from. If you use a method such as the Cornell Method presented here, it will also help set up your learning activities to do after the class time is over.

The Cornell Method relies upon you taking written notes, but helps you use a standard format to organise the page to encourage you to 1) create a summary of what you hear, 2) pinpoint key ideas and concepts by looking for verbal or non-verbal cues such as repetition or gesturing, as well as flag points you don’t understand so you can ask questions about it at an appropriate time, 3) collate your key messages together from each page in preparation for your follow-up work.

Organising your page according to the Cornell Method is really simple.

page

In Part 1, the main section of your page, you should aim to make comprehensive notes on what is being said according to what you hear from the lecturer (which may or may not reflect what they have put online). You won’t be able to capture every word, so abbreviate and focus on things that are repeated, emphasised with gestures or tone, or which seem to form the central or most significant points of the discussion.

In Part 2 of your page, the side column, you can note slide numbers or references, so if a section of the lecture refers to a specific reading or theory you could mark this next to the section you have written on it. This makes it much easier to review these notes later. You could also put question marks next to parts that confuse you, or that you might need to investigate further.

In the bottom section of your page, Part 3, you should leave blank during the lecture to give you space to go back and review your notes after the lecture is over. This will help you see the ‘bigger picture’ and may help come up with questions you need to ask your lecturer or tutor. It’s also a really useful space in which to summarise the lecture or section of your notes so you can find relevant material to prepare your assessments or revise for exams!


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Are we adventurers in Platform Capitalism?

A review of Srnicek, Nick (2016) Platform Capitalism, Polity Press: Cambridge

 

At 171 pages and only three chapters, Nick Srnicek’s book is a brief and digestible entrance to the shifting territory of an increasingly digitally-mediated form of economics and labour that is beginning to be debated under a diversity of terms, including the ‘gig economy’ or ‘the fourth industrial revolution’. In particular, I had high hopes for the text as a way of catching up on debates on the social impact of technology on work, the changing conceptualisation of capitalism as the free-surfing internet age has transformed into the ‘app for that’ age of smartphones and social media, and possibly the way in which this has impacted on our notion of value in a global economy. Unfortunately I have to admit that I found the book disappointing in these areas, particularly considering that the content of the BBC’s Thinking Allowed interview was considerably more thought-provoking.

Overall, the book focuses mainly on the context of the United States, appropriate considering the location of many tech headquarters in Silicon Valley, California and their historical role in the development and emergence of new digital technologies and in the promulgation of alternative business models for technological enterprises (most notoriously in the unsuccessful dot-com boom and bust). The first chapter of the book paints an abbreviated historical picture of shifts in the regulatory and economic context affecting business (mainly manufacturing) from the 1950s to the present. This focuses primarily on the role of government investment, accessibility of venture capital and economic interventions such as quantitative easing and how these responded to and effected change in corporate strategies. While the chapter highlights the impact of changing economic environments in heightening global competition, I would have liked to have seen a more explicit statement here on the author’s theoretical position on the source of economic value. While the focus on the United States may have been appropriate to the book’s intended audience, I also think this omits important reflection on the economic transformations in India and China which are of significant importance to any analysis identifying outsourcing and technological transformation as key to it’s historical arguments.

The second chapter sets out to consider whether we are living in a new age of capitalism, defined by the new technologies supported by extensive smartphone use. In the first few pages of this chapter, the author skims over a wide range of debate regarding how we theorise the source of value in contemporary capitalism, and while there is some further discussion in the notes the limited presentation of this debate was disappointing. Briefly alluding to Italian autonomism and debates on collaboration and knowledge as a source of value, the author also speeds past the contentious debate regarding immaterial labour[i] to claim that we can analyse platforms by viewing data as a raw material extracted from service users. Despite this allusion to Marxist analysis, there are points in the book where the analysis seems to rely on a conventional economic framing regarding the problems of marginal utility faced by these firms. The discussion then moves to a description of the characteristics of platforms in general, specifically how they stand in relation to monopolising the acquisition of this ‘resource’ and tailoring their services to ever-increase this monopolising tendency such that all user activity is captured. By this reasoning, the strategy of applications such as Uber, for example, is to aim to acquire all records of requests for transportation and their fulfillment in all geographic spaces. In becoming ubiquitous, this service drives out any and all interactions that do not comply with the model.

The presentation of different types of platform; advertising, cloud, industrial, product and lean comprises the remainder of the chapter, and offers some interesting areas of insight for those undertaking research and analysis in platform activities.

The final chapter of the book, dramatically entitled ‘Great Platform Wars’ outlines the structural and strategic activities and tendencies of specific firms in the attempt to capture or acquire more data. This makes a few allusions to the influence of the practices and policies of different nation-states in industries such as manufacturing, including China’s overproduction of steel, and hints at the way in which the behaviour of platform enterprises may perhaps be understood in an American search for continued strategic economic power. Unfortunately this line of discussion is not much pursued by the book, and although it offers a tantalising glimpse of what areas of research may be possible through a focus on the dynamics of platform based enterprises, readers may have to undertake their own further research to get a more satisfying picture.


[i] in general, the analysis presented by Srnick (as in publications by Langley and Leyshon and others) focus on material economic relations and have little to say about the contribution of labour other than as a free source of data generation or the means by which algorithms are developed for it’s organisation. For a more in depth discussion regarding the question of labour’s contribution see Toms 2008, Beverungen, Bohm & Land 2015, and Pitts 2016.

CMS 2017 Conference illustration by Vanessa Randle

Critical Management Studies Conference

Back in July I attended the Critical Management Studies conference in Liverpool, an interesting experience as it was very close to home (unlike last year’s hike to the USA) and also my first attempt at attending a conference when presenting more than one single-authored paper. While I usually find that conferences are tense affairs until after my presentation is out of the way, the need to be prepared for two paper presentations incentivised me to be very organised for this conference and plan my materials and outlines well in advance. I was also co-convenor of a stream, though as two streams were merged we had plenty of support in organising things. We really needed it, as the conference venue was a beautiful period building (The Adelphi in central Liverpool) but with somewhat compromised facilities when applied to this conference format, and a confusing layout of rooms and corridors at times reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel.

I agreed to present one of my papers at an internal university event only a few weeks prior to the conference which really helped refine my thoughts on the contribution of the paper and I felt nicely confident about conveying the message (if not, perhaps, in the specified timeframe of 20 minutes). This paper explored the possibility of more humane and dignified work relations that might be promoted through turning to rewards based crowdfunding, as the process could encourage workers and organisations to think about their ‘backer’ communities and other stakeholders in a new way. I hope to begin an empirical project on this soon. The stream more broadly included research into how workers are negotiating the digital-analogue interface of app-enabled working, coworking spaces and other forms of innovation and meaning-making around platform capitalism. There were some great papers and I was really pleased with how the stream turned out.

In contrast, however, I heard many colleagues were very dissatisfied with the conference. This was partly instances of poor planning or lapses in organisation of the conference (registration and the lunch buffet each day were chaotic for the number of delegates and the conference dinner venue too prone to echoes to hear the speeches), but also a concern that much of the conference had become hostage to academic performativity. Such a claim is especially tense given that CMS as a scholarly community has been critiqued for its anti-performative stance § , but we ought to distinguish between the published narratives of CMS academics or actions taken in the service of their research ambitions with participants and the performative acts of the community as scholars policing their own boundaries and subject to their own managerial scrutiny.

At the root of colleagues dissatisfaction seems to be the question; what are conferences for?

  • meeting scholars with similar interests
  • engaging in scholarly discussions
  • keeping up to date with developments in the discipline
  • maintaining or reviewing the objectives of a distinct scholarly community
  • presenting research-in-progress to peers for comment and feedback
  • challenging unconventional methodologies
  • disseminating results from completed research projects
  • obtaining support or solidarity for politically unfashionable research topics or agendas
  • reinforcing academic status or position
  • improving manuscripts pre-submission for publication
  • proposing ideas for special issues to editors of journals
  • maintaining your influence or brand image
  • learning or reinforcing norms and expectations about an academic career in the discipline
  • commissioning content for special issues of journals
  • influencing or controlling debate through exclusion
  • finding out about upcoming job opportunities
  • meeting the requirements of a funder
  • demonstrating research activity or influence to your university

The above list suggests a range of ambitions for conference participation, some of which may surprise you. However, despite the ideal of an academic conference as a venue to test ideas and progress knowledge, they have increasingly also contributed to the performative outcomes required by university managers. Conferences as regular features of the academic landscape also play a substantial part in reinforcing dominant power relations; notable concerns at this conference from i) the pre-conference critique on mailing lists of the requirement in the call for stream proposals that planned outputs such as a journal special issue would be expected as part of the application and ii) organising by the women in academia CMS support network VIDA to encourage submissions and activism to address and expose the integrated performative heteronormativity at the conference.

Activity that seemed to fit within the more instrumental or discriminatory practices in the above list was upsetting for some. In the environment of CMS in UK academia that has begun to feel uncertain post-Brexit thanks to the strategic cuts at some universities and threats of them at others, the anti-performativity of CMS is a justifiable worry.  Such an approach results in fewer opportunities for ‘impact’ – an area in which it is expected that management and business schools should excel. However, it is also the case that actions within the community to exclude or fail to approve the work of marginal scholars, or to attempt to replicate the behaviours and paradigms of ‘macho business’ or ‘hard science’ in order to validate scholarly activity in the eye of university management can only be to the detriment of the discipline. This is particularly so in a discipline which spends much of its energy critiquing such behaviour elsewhere. Consequently it was especially refreshing and energising to see these concerns being aired in the intervention by some scholars in the form of development of a game of solidarity/bullshit bingo.

The conference organisers had engaged an illustrator to record the conference (her output is shown in the header picture) and I was personally very excited to see the overviews come together. Yet again, however, engaging an illustrative artist with no grounding in the intellectual debates of the field characterises the activity of illustration as an archival one. While it may make the content more accessible, this objective is in service once again to academic performativity rather than to enhancing understanding of the material. The illustrator, however, consented to some of her materials being appropriated in the production of this poster:

solidarity bingo vignette

For me, the beauty of this poster lies in it’s action to call out the discrepancy between the topics acknowledged as significant to the scholarly community of CMS and its internal actions; streams of research papers were running on ableism, feminism, de-colonialisation and emotion in organisations. Yet in the co-ordination of the conference these very issues had not been addressed. Furthermore, the many features appearing on the bingo boards as evidence of scholarly ‘solidarity’ (e.g. active listening to research presentations, encouraging introductions) or of academic ‘bullshit’ (e.g using Q&A time to tell everyone that your work is of key relevance to them and should be cited instead of engaging in constructive criticism) were being foregrounded by the poster and the game.

All in all, the CMS community, like the broader academic community, may well be in difficult times and have numerous internal tensions over solidarity and action that need to be resolved. Although conferences like these remind us of these tensions, I was extremely pleased to see and support interventions and activism that encourage us to reexamine our priorities and actions with an ambition to forge a better type of scholarly engagement with problems inside and outside of the university.


§ An introduction to the current state of this debate can be found in the recent special issue on critical performativity published in M@n@gement with the remarks from the editors available here

Security, dignity, and quality

Today, UCU are foregrounding their campaign against casualisation of university teaching in their ‘stamp out casual contracts‘ day of action (you can find their newsletter here). A substantial part of their campaign, as well as the more general campaign by trade unions against zero hours contracts, emphasises the psychological as well as the financial burden placed on employees by insecure and uncertain work.

We may all have experienced the uncertainty of trying to find a job in order to pay our bills and achieve a decent standard of living, but when you have found employment, and that remains no guarantee of keeping the wolf from the door, workers remain in a state of ongoing anxiety and must devote a substantial proportion of their efforts to looking for additional work or sources of income. There is a fine line between claiming such tactics encourage entrepreneurial behaviour and promoting extreme exploitation as firms attempt to evade their moral responsibilities towards employees.

Such arguments sometimes fall upon deaf ears, after all those of us earning enough to succeed by such work may see little harm in the arrangements. But in doing so we are often inclined to overlook our own privilege in health, wealth and the unpaid support of family or friends. With individuals as with corporations, our successes are never truly our own, they rely upon the supportive and nurturing work of others who came before us to provide us with education, nurse us through sickness and protect us from tasks of which we were not yet capable. It is also easy to over-simplistically compare our situation with those of other countries which exhibit wildly different taxation arrangements with significant consequences for quality of life.

It is worth noting that our moral actions and sentiments promote collective productivity and sustainable lifestyles, while the egoism of putting the individual first often comes at the cost of long term prosperity and happiness. In the International Labour Organization’s measurement factors of decent work, job security is a notable factor contributing to the dignity of workers. This is not because job security is a marker of status in society, but rather because of our interdependence as human beings. Having some security in our work and income allows us to enter into supportive relationships with others; to support our parents or our children, to make plans for our future, to develop time for our education or to give something back to our communities. From this, many more than the employees of one company benefit from the stability, and such organizations benefit from peaceful, stable markets in return. Workers are also less fearful, and are more likely to raise issues with their employer, which though it may reduce productivity in the short term, help to develop a better company, better products and better relationships within that company.

In the case of academic work, the pursuit of knowledge is not assisted by anxiety, fear and a reticence to speak out promoted by casual contracts. It may not seem immediately apparent to students surrounded by beautiful new buildings and high-tech equipment, but without the dignity and wellbeing of securely employed staff, these are a poor measure of educational quality. The best teacher or mentor, advisor or adminstrator you will ever need, might be that person who wasn’t able to keep up with the three jobs worth of work they were only being paid one salary to perform. They might be the person sleeping in their car between lectures because they stayed up all night marking exams. They might be the person who becomes unable to get to work because they simply couldn’t make ends meet. A small mistake might undermine your learning due to no hours being paid to update your teacher’s training in the library, or your administrator’s knowledge of new software. And as a result, they might not be there for you, at their best when you need them most.

We are much more interdependent than an uncertain transaction of time would have you believe. Stamp out zero hours contracts; not only for worker’s dignity, but in recognition of our worth together, as more than the sum of our parts.

Academy of Management

So after 18 hours of travelling and an 8 hour time difference, I think I can safely say my circadian rhythm has been well and truly disturbed. My business class upgrade on the outgoing journey also definitely spoiled me for the return experience! I returned to the UK at 10am yesterday and just about kept my eyes open until 5pm, then awoke at 4am this morning. At least the early start has allowed me to make some headway with my laundry.

My first experience of the Academy of Management, probably the largest international conference of business and management academics worldwide, was mixed. While some of the sessions in the main program were of extremely high quality, others seemed very underdeveloped. The Academy is broken down into divisions, or interest groups. As I was attending events across multiple divisions I found it particularly interesting to see how the Academy serves, for some, in breaking down institutional silos and encouraging broader views of the topics by drawing audience members from across disciplinary boundaries as well as engaging practitioners. Nonetheless, I was also impressed with a strong feeling of homogeneity of methods and approaches which was slightly worrying in its indication that there is a clear perpetuation of a single way to do research in business and management studies, and that way relies upon survey data collection and statistical analysis. A colleague who shares similar concerns and I got into a very heated debate about this in one of the bars on Sunday evening, but perhaps that’s a tale best left to the imagination…

The role of conferences in academic research are multiple. They serve as a form of peer review of research methods and findings, presenting an opportunity for conclusions to be tested and questioned and in consequence strengthening research. Conferences also act as a vehicle for the dissemination of research findings to a broader interested public, a function which should not be underrated as it is often much more effective to absorb this information over a few days in a conference than to spend weeks and months reading books or articles on the topic. But this dissemination is also of importance to academics too, as an opportunity to find out what research is being done at other universities where we might not have contacts. Finally, though, this is also a mechanism for networking with colleagues and those in the position to recruit new staff in other institutions, as individuals have an eye to their future career prospects.

I found the conference extremely satisfying as an opportunity to meet people at other institutions who are interested in researching the same topics as myself. Since my research is in a very niche area, there are a very small number of academics across the globe studying the subject and it was fabulous to come together and meet in person for the first time. The career-driven networking, on the other hand, was very intimidating to observe and seemed to add a high level of tension to some social events. Nonetheless, in the current UK academic climate, where UK working conditions and research opportunities are looking fairly bleak in the wake of the Brexit referendum, it is perhaps not surprising that many are looking for fresh pastures.

My superiors will no doubt want to know if this expensive conference (in terms of travel costs) was worth the investment. Despite the long-haul discomfort and the disjointed feeling of culture shock, I would say that the activity was definitely a good one as a means of personal development and potential research improvement. If nothing else, I have returned inspired to write and develop my research in a number of different areas alone as well as with those interesting researchers I have met while away, and that’s no small thing.

Conferencing in the USA

This post highlights some of the interesting features of attending the Academy of Management Conference in the USA, from a stranger’s perspective. For those who might look to attend these conferences in the future it may serve as a useful guide on what to expect, especially for those who consider themselves outsiders. I have never been to the USA, and in addition I am attending a conference focussed substantially on ‘mainstream’ or orthodox approaches to the study and practice of management which readers of this blog may have noticed is not exactly in line with my approach to management research.

I have found the travelling hard, as I have not only taken three days to adjust to the time zone, but also find that the jet-lag has manifested in physical queasiness and an inability to concentrate for long periods of time (something of a difficulty in a conference!). It doesn’t help, in these circumstances, to be travelling alone. There were some good perks from this though. I did get a complimentary upgrade to business class for part of my flights here as a result of being a solo traveller. Top marks for Delta! Unfortunately I have also been suffering from culture shock, less in terms of the US culture generally, and more in terms of the academic culture. This has led me to reflect on my shift in use of spoken language (I don’t think I have ever used the word ‘awesome’ so much in my life) and body language. Perhaps this will make its way into another post!

It’s now the third day of the conference and the first day of the main program. The conference started with a variety of ‘PDWs’ (that’s professional development workshops). But what counts as academic professional development? Some of these activities are fairly as expected, with events considering best practices for teaching and so on. However as the US teaching model is very different to the UK one, I have found that these have often been of limited use. Other PDW sessions have concentrated on particular research problems, writing development and bringing together people with similar research interests. Personally I have found these much more interesting, though the cynic in me notes these are part of the social bases of research development rather more than they may be about sharing intellectual material. Perhaps once I have contrasted these experiences with those of the main program I will be less of a cynic!

In contrast, the entrepreneurs and innovators whom I have met, including the practitioners and writers who are attending the conference, have been really refreshing. They want to engage with management scholarship, and are very clear on why they are here and the sort of problems they hope academia has the solutions to. Talking with these people helps to ground all this intellectual work in a more pragmatic sense, exposes issues with conventional epistemologies and presents a great sounding board for ideas.

This conference is a very significant one for the academic job market, so there is also a clearly evident and aggressive level of networking going on in some places. There is also information sharing between academics about their institutions and what it is like to work there which is very interesting, especially for critical scholars who are turning that reflective lens inward on the academic world and the production of knowledge.

From today, the main research focus of the conference begins. So there will be a follow up post – watch this space!!

Teresa May wants to abandon human rights, and over 800 years of British history.

In yesterday’s news headlines, one major candidate for leadership of the Conservative Party has claimed that Britain should want to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. This argument has derived from a history of struggles over the rights of prisoners and foreign national extremists. Yet it overlooks the long history of contested relations between the government and the people in this country.

Some analysts have pointed out that the recent referendum more closely addressed an expression of a feeling of lack of control or powerlessness rather than the issue of Parliamentary sovereignty. In this, the events of the past few days reflect an extremely long history of British contention between rulers and ruled which has encompassed much more than the British Islands.

My previous post on the Magna Carta highlights how that 800 year old document marks the shift away from religious to secular law, and specifically challenges the Government (in this case the Crown) to recognise the basic needs of ordinary people, to be able to sustain themselves despite the demands of the Crown to provide funds and soldiers for ongoing and fruitless war with France. Enshrined in this document was the concept that the monarch was not above the rule of law, and subsequently, further movements such as the Chartist movement made the same claims about the governing authority of Parliament, claiming that not only was the monarch not above the law, but neither were those of the House of Lords or House of Commons.

Fast forward several hundred years and persistent war in Europe had spread across the declining Empires of France, Russia and Britain, against those of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. This Great War was only shortly followed by another, as financial penalties enforced on the aggressors were wholeheartedly rejected by a population driven to the far right through austerity.

The parallels with today’s situation in England, Brussels and Greece, in particular, are frightening. The European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) was an outcome of these Imperial conflicts and an attempt to assert the worth of the individual as something that cannot be overruled by the State. No matter the argument for the ‘greater’ need or purpose of the nation, no individual should be denied life, liberty, due process before the law, freedom of thought, assembly and association. It is this agreement which prohibits police brutality, imprisonment without trial, forced labour and many other terrible instances of state domination of individuals or groups.

In British Law, the ECHR is incorporated into domestic use through the Human Rights Act. Yet in debates over terrorism and illegal migration, there have been numerous attempts to deny these rights to specific individuals. Regardless of the worthiness of these individuals, would you trust current politicians to maintain these rights for you and yours while denying them to someone else? The matter of freedom of expression and association is crucial here, as we enter a time of political upheval and passionate differences over what our future as a nation, in business and civic life, might look like.

This poem, which you may have encountered before, directly addresses these issues of individual rights and the power of the state. Scrutinise those who would strive for power carefully, for we may not like what they do with it.

 

Captain America, Human dignity & Marvel-lous Ethics

Photo credit: Stingmedia for Disney

Be forewarned, this post contains spoilers on the plot of various Marvel branded movies and TV shows released to date (notably Captain America: Civil War). I have not read the comics, so this commentary relies entirely on the cinematic universe portrayed by the movie franchise. I’m not a scholar of film, media or popular culture, but I have been intrigued by some of the themes cropping up in the Marvel franchise and the way in which these themes are generally dealt with. In particular, I find some of the elements of narratives around superheroes interesting, as they reflect upon what it means to be human (or not) and what constitutes moral behaviour (or at least what separates the ‘good’ guys from the ‘bad’), especially among leaders or celebrities.

There are many interesting elements which appear in the Marvel franchise around the role of government, the implications of covert organisations and ties between wealth and politics. There are also underlying questions about the ethics of methods and outcomes; is it okay for the good guys to work in the same way as the bad if they catch the bad guys in the end? In Avengers: Age of Ultron the narrative revolves around the implications of delegating responsibility for judgement of criminal action to automated systems – the very same debates which surround the use of drones in real warfare today. In Captain America: Civil War the narrative continues with these themes and explores the difficulties of collective governance and responsibility versus the pursuit of an individual moral code.

In these narratives there is a fundamental question over the extent of law and central authority to safeguard the collective public. In the landscape of these comic book narratives, which originated in and related to satirical drawings as well as war propaganda in their earliest forms, this draws strongly on the cultural inheritance of a time where capitalism and democracy as forms of social order agonised over the threats of communism and fascism. The contemporary Marvel narratives also seem to query the consequences of relying upon single individuals, often male heroic figures, to take action or make a decision in a position of imperfect knowledge or resources.

I first became interested in the role of these heroes in the Marvel franchise in their first contemporary cinematic movie Iron Man. This is a tale of a successful scion of industry who has profited from unethical and unscrupulous business practices and who lives an unscrupulous and immoral playboy lifestyle yet, after experiencing a life changing event and developing empathy for the suffering of others, changes his ways. Throughout the movie, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) is questioned and criticised for his drastic actions as putting his company’s  financial stability at risk.

According to Kantian views on ethics, those matters of action which constitute questions of right and wrong but fall outside of matters of compliance with the law, moral action should be decided only based upon maxims that are categorically imperative. This contrasts hypothetical imperatives to act (e.g. I wish to acquire riches, I ought to sell more products) where the action relies upon the pursuit of desires for what might be, with categorical imperatives for action (e.g. I know a product to be dangerous, I ought to stop manufacture of the product). The second action fulfils Kant’s notion of the Categorical Imperative, or ‘fair play’; a moral duty is only one that would be right for any and all persons in any circumstance. This is sometimes referred to as the test of universalisability. Kantian ethics is therefore a rule or duty-based system of ethics  (compared to other systems of ethics such as consequentialism that focus on outcomes).

This seems rather counter-intuitive, especially to those who point out that all business relies upon competition, to produce the best product, to command the highest price, to attract the best talent. The marketplace rewards outcomes, not intentions. Yet Kant makes this very point, and highlights that our intuitions are often unethical, that it is education, discipline and civilisation that teach us when to act on more than intuition, to act instead upon reason.

Dignity and Human Rights

Kant’s categorical imperative is sometimes expressed in a formulation which is foundational in human rights literature and in the literature on dignity in business and management studies.

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.

This highlights the importance of universality in human rights discussions, because even when individual human beings or communities of human beings have differing beliefs or practices regarding what constitutes moral behaviour, Kantian ethics determines that practices which cannot be right if they are universalised, are not moral. And for Kant, it is the ability of the will to identify perfect duties (which must be performed all the time) and imperfect duties (which must be performed in certain circumstances) as different from preferences, which is the reason human beings have a special dignity.

Kant’s notion of dignity has been challenged on this basis, as has his views of ethics, for not being able to contend with the complex vulnerabilities of human beings; their need to be supported by others (as children or invalids, for example). Yet it is Kant’s formulations that underpin the contemporary legal framework of human rights legislation.

Our Dramatis Personae under discussion

Steve Rogers/Captain America: His backstory from the films

Born 1918 to Sarah Rogers, a war widow and nurse who died in 1940. Rejected in 1942 for enrollment in military, but recruited for a secret military project and following administration of a mysterious compound developed extraordinary physique, strength and healing abilities. Undertaking numerous wartime missions against the Nazi-financed HYDRA, he led his own unit of POW survivors entitled the Howling Commandos which included his childhood friend James (Bucky) Barnes and blossoming love interest Peggy Carter. Bucky was believed lost in combat and Steve entered an involuntary hibernation following a plane crash in the Atlantic in an attempt to bury the otherworldly item conferring HYDRA’s technological advantage. When Captain America is recovered 67 years later he struggles to adjust to modern US life and culture, but remains under quasi-military supervision from SHIELD (a US intelligence agency). Working with other superheroes to prevent an alien invasion he meets a variety of people who act by a different ‘warrior’s code’ (such as Thor), have been more used to working for various government organisations as spies and black ops, or have not had any military training, such as Iron Man. In later films he also faces his childhood friend Bucky, who had been rescued by HYDRA and succesfully transformed into a mind-controlled super-soldier comparable to Captain America. Bucky recovers his memories with Steve’s help despite remaining opposed to him in combat and escapes.

 

Tony Stark/Iron Man: His backstory from the films

Born 1970 as only son to Howard Stark, who emphasises Captain America as a role model, having worked with him during WWII. Tony has a poor relationship with his father and is mostly raised by family retainers including their butler, Jarvis. Tony nonetheless performs well in education with a talent for invention, robotics and computing similar to Howard’s and becomes good friends with James Rhodes during studies at MIT. Howard and Maria Stark die in a car crash in 1991, leaving Tony to inherit the multinational Stark Industries, his father’s technology and weapon manufacturing company. Tony was not an attentive CEO, with most of the day-to-day operations being controlled by Obadiah Stane but he did establish contracts with the US military. He also develops an advanced Artificial Intelligence system to assist with household management he names JARVIS. Following kidnapping by a guerrilla fighting force who brand themselves as the Ten Rings, Tony designs and constructs the Iron Man armoured suit along with new power generation technology and stops all weapons production by Stark Industries. As Iron Man, he then proceeded to intervene in several conflicts featuring Ten Rings members when finding out about them on TV. Although approached by SHIELD to work more closely with (covert) US defence, Tony publicly declares his identity as Iron Man and does not pass the psychological tests to join the Avengers initiative (though he does some consulting for them). Despite disagreement with James Rhodes and armed conflict with Obadiah on offensive versus defensive technology, Tony continues to focus on production of defensive armour. Tony also develops a romantic relationship with his personal assistant, Pepper Potts, and eventually makes her CEO of Stark Industries. As his celebrity status draws critical global attention (including from disenfranchised Ivan Vanko) Tony struggles to cope with the strain. In later events, he is drafted into the Avengers’ defence of New York against alien invaders and embarks on a suicide mission which he narrowly survives. He later suffers from anxiety attacks and implied PTSD.

–spoiler break for those who haven’t seen Civil War on DVD yet!–

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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]

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.