Tuesday, December 02, 2014

High-Reliability Scholarship

[Update: Tim Vogus has responded to this post.]

Since science is a human activity, all human sciences are implicitly self-referential. We can ask a finance professor how her research is financed. We can ask an English professor how he gets his writing done. We can, famously, ask doctors to heal themselves. And we can ask organization theorists how they organize their work. Do the principles of organization that they come up with and pass on to their students also govern the work they do? And how does it work for them?

Consider the field of sensemaking scholarship. At a general level, we can ask whether [and how] our "interpretation" of organizational life itself exhibits the "seven properties of sensemaking" (Weick 1995). More specifically, we can recall that much sensemaking scholarship emerges from the study of so-called "high-reliability organizations" (HROs, see espcially Weick and Sutcliffe 2006), and this can help us give a specific meaning to the question of whether our research is "reliable".

For example, Weick and Sutcliffe recently published (along with Vogus and Rothman) a piece that argues for the benefits of what they call "emotional ambivalence", which, they suggest, fosters increased "mindfulness". Here's a specific recommendation that gave me pause:

Designing jobs in complex and contradictory ways can create the tension fueling emotional ambivalence. ... Although these job designs hold promise for HROs, they also potentially benefit any organization wherever work is complex and operational reliability critical. (Vogus et al. 2014: 595)

Now, sensemaking scholarship is often praised for its "counterintuitive" insights. But this is a bit extreme to my mind. Do we really want to work in organisations led by people who intentionally design our task to be so complicated and contradictory that we experience emotional ambivalence? Even if the goal (mindfulness) could be reached like this, which I highly doubt, would that end justify the means?

Consider a recent piece by Philip Guo in Inside Higher Ed about "why academics feel overworked". His answer goes as follows:

I think the answer lies in the fact that, as an academic, your work comes from multiple independent sources. One claimed benefit of being a PI-level academic (e.g., a research scientist or tenure-track professor) is that you don't have a boss. However, without a boss to serve as a single centralized source of work, academics end up taking work requests from multiple independent sources that have no knowledge of one another.

A sensemaking scholar reading this might conclude that universities are well-designed "high-reliability organizations".

Suppose we learned that Wall Street has been explicitly following Weick's suggestion that "any old map will do" since the mid-nineteen eighties. (I've argued that this is possible.) That would shed light not just on modern finance, but also on contemporary organization theory. But now suppose we discover the field of sensemaking scholarship, too, has been following Weick's advice. For example, suppose that in the early 1980s it adopted the slogan "any old story will do" and sometime in the mid-1990s it went ahead and "dropped its tools". Or, as I've suggested here, suppose we discover that higher education has been organized specifically to foster and maintain a continuous state of "emotional ambivalence" by "designing jobs in complex and contradictory ways". Sort of makes you go "Hmmmm", right?

[Continues here]


randallwestgren.net said...

Bravo to you, Thomas, for reading that stuff. I find it unappealing because I have taught organization and management theory for more than 25 years. Or despite that fact. (Wait! Is this ambivalence?! BTW, how did the word get so far from its Latin roots: ambi- and valence?) Too many made-up definitions, too quickly codified.

I worked in an academic department for many years that was exceptionally well behaved. Meetings were always characterized by head-nodding agreement or acceptance. The metaphor is Iowa Thanksgiving Dinner. Everyone is polite and complimentary at all times to everyone (until you are driving home in the car…). I have had several former colleagues express the idea that the lack of emotional tension caused a lack of intellectual tension that would have advanced the work because of more active discourse. Because High Reliability has no meaning for me, I cannot say if the Vogus et al hypothesis was confirmed. But I would have enjoyed some tussles over epistemology.

Thomas said...

Thanks, Randy. I've been arguing for years that scholars need to be more willing to "tussle", and that spaces need to be opened in the literature for such confrontations. Interestingly, it's these same sensemaking scholars that argue for "affirmation as inquiry" and against criticism, which Weick has described as a "wet blanket".

There's nothing emotionally ambivalent about criticism. If you say one thing and I say that you're wrong we can both be entirely resolute, up to and including the point where one of us is (resolutely) won over by the other's arguments. Or the point where we part without reaching any agreement.

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like to work in an organisation led by people who think my ambivalence is a virtue in and of itself. In fact, ever since my PhD, my goal has been to find ways to overcome ambivalence, to find what I call "composure". (Work is proceeding very slowly, I should note.)