21 July 2008

It's Not the Spanking Per Se - It's Identity Valence at Work

I feel for Prof. Colin Wightman of Acadia University. He was terminated from his position for
us[ing] his work-issued laptop to engage in “highly inappropriate communications of a sexual nature,” and that “the conduct giving rise to [the police's] ongoing investigation is utterly incompatible with the purpose, principles and operating imperatives of Acadia University.”
Prof. Wightman allegedly engaged in "a “consensual one-time fantasy encounter” involving bondage and a woman he met on an Internet dating site." Apparently the RCMP were called to investigate an allegation of sexual assault, but no charges were laid. Because of the investigation, he informed his employer, who "referred to a section of the university's code of conduct that states employees shall not “engage in community or personal activities in which there could be a conflict with the best interest of the university.”" The firing is now the subject of a wrongful dismissal lawsuit

The obvious response, that what an individual does on their own time is none of their employer's business may be valid, but perhaps no longer consistent with today's world. A report filed by the Canadian Association of University Teachers notes, "the termination of any employee who is innocent of criminal behaviour, but of whose personal beliefs and behaviours the administration might disapprove, is an extraordinary breach of employer-employee relations." The Association's opinion is founded in an Industrial Age conception of organization, in which one's work is quite apart from one's private life. A person is paid for what they do, what they produce, the time they spend on a task, or for an exchange of commodities - goods, services, or combinations thereof. The employer's control of an employee's activities and behaviours extends to the limit of that economic exchange agreement, and no further. Today, employers try to exert behavioural control through the use of employer-provided tools, including computers and network access, even when employer-time is not an issue. Many people, including me, find extending behavioural control beyond the confines of the workplace, and work hours, to be, at the very least, inappropriate, and highly problematic. My private life is... well... private! And certainly none of my employer's business - in both senses of that phrase.

This behaviour on the part of employers is only indirectly explained using a conventional conception of the purposeful organization - that is, the idea that an organization exists to accomplish something among a group of people. If the individual in question performs their duties appropriately, and does nothing inappropriate on the job, the organization's purpose is fulfilled. Pushing the limits of this idea a bit, organizations justify extending their behavioural control beyond the workplace by putting forward the theory that outside-the-workplace behaviours in certain circumstances reduce the individual's effectiveness inside-the-workplace, or reduce the effectiveness of the organization's marketing efforts, or create an ineffective, inconsistent or unsafe workplace environment. In my opinion, this argument is specious at best in most instances.

Most often, the organization falls back to a position of "but this will make us look bad," or variations thereof. Whether that argument is valid with respect to employment law in an instance such as that of Prof. Wightman is a separate matter - and now a matter for the court to decide. What it does demonstrate is the action of Identity Valence: that an individual constructs their identity partly on the basis of their associations with organizations in which they are members, and an organization constructs its identity partly on the basis of its individual and collective associations with its members (be they individuals or other organizations).

Acadia University's self-construction of identity does not, I presume, include (consensual) bondage, enactment of sexual fantasies, and spanking. (For that, you have to go elsewhere.) This limitation on the nature of Acadia's Identity valence relationship with its members creates some obvious and problematic tensions with respect to both the boundaries of employment law, and the rest of the individual's life. (This is in Canada; in most American states, individuals are employed "at will," which means wrongful dismissal is a foreign concept in most U.S. locales.)

I'm not saying that I agree with Acadia's decision in the matter of Professor Wightman; I don't. But I certainly understand the university's action based on a Valence Theory reading of the case. I would suggest that a useful answer to such cases comes from examining the interactions between Identity valence, and the other valences with respect to, for example, kinky behaviour in a private, off-campus, place. If the behaviours do not impinge on the connections between Identity and Economic, Knowledge, Socio-Psychological, and Ecological valences, no employment action should be taken. Otherwise, the organization may well be within its rights to terminate employment. It becomes a far more challenging and subtle case to adjudicate, but certainly this approach is more consistent with living in a UCaPP world.

One more aspect to note here: As I suggested in an earlier post, the more bureaucratic an organization is, the fewer interactions there are among the valences. Terminating an employee for violating the Identity valence relationship without examining the implications with respect to interactions among the other valences may do the organization more reputation damage than not. Specifically, it would be a sure sign of bureaucratic lack of thinking and judgement on the part of an employer, in this case, Acadia University. And tell me, would you want to go to, or send your daughter or son to, a university that prides itself on lack of thinking and judgement?

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15 July 2008

Me for President?!

Must be some sort of write-in ballot...

...or, could it be some sort of viral marketing thing from the Ha! Ha! Made ya look! School of Marketing. Although this sort of thing scores high on the consumer-identifies-with-the-ad scale (Hey! Tha's ma name! And I'm on somethin' tha' looks lahk tee vee!), I think it misses the mark (no pun intended) when it comes to truly creating an identity connection between potential customer and the organization. For those who still believe that eyeballs and buzz sell product, tell me (without the help of Google) what brand was connected with the (in)famous Bridezilla wig-out hoax?

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Tasteless Satire? I Would Say the Opposite: Spicy and Bitter!

Both defenders and detractors of the New Yorker's Obamas-as-Terrorists satirical cover cartoon, The Politics of Fear, miss their respective points. It is true what critics of the cartoon say, that the cover art is tasteless and offensive. But it's supposed to be tasteless and offensive! Just ask Northrop Frye:
“Two things, then, are essential to satire; one is wit or humour founded on fantasy or a sense of the grotesque or absurd, the other is an object of attack” (p. 224). Irony itself is the “humor founded on … a sense of the grotesque or absurd,” as Frye describes. Irony is the delivery vehicle; it is the attack that transforms irony into satire. As Frye observes, “The chief distinction between irony and satire is that satire is militant irony” (p. 223). [Quotations from Frye, N. (1957). The Anatomy of Criticism: Four essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.]
Militant irony - I like that. Sort of fits with the subject matter. The key to understanding the problematics with the cover is to understand who, or what, is the target of that militant irony according to who views the cover.

There are many in the U.S. (and elsewhere) who are literalists. They often appear on the right of the political spectrum. They do not understand the nature of either irony or satire - they are the say-what-you-mean-and-mean-what-you-say, plain talkin' folks that largely voted for GWB in the first (and second) place. Many of these people, who have already expressed their distrust of Barack Obama, will only see the cover, and not read - let alone understand - the accompanying article on "politics of fear."

As it stands, depending on which poll you read, somewhere in the vicinity of one-third to nearly one-half of Americans polled in fact believe that Barack Obama is (or was) Muslim (he isn't and wasn't), and/or cavorts with terrorists (he doesn't). For them, the satirical nature of the cartoon will be missed, and their politics-of-fear beliefs are confirmed and reinforced. They will not perceive, nor be able to comprehend, that it is their own beliefs that are being satirized through, in Frye's words, "wit or humour founded on fantasy or a sense of the grotesque or absurd."

But in thinking about it, humour founded on fantasy, the grotesque and the absurd sort of describes American politics these days, doesn't it?

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11 July 2008

On Exciting Customers, and Forging Relationships

So I'm finished with transcribing the first round of interviews (yielding about 400 pages of transcripts) among eighteen participants from five organizations. I'd doing a read-through of the conversations to help set the stage for the second round of interviews that more directly probe the context of relationships in organization. In that context, there is the idea that, unlike functionally-defined organizations, both customers and employees are equivalent members of the valence-defined organization. Here's how one of my participants put it, describing his idea of how his customers perceive his organization:
We believe the currency of our business is relationships, so I think that those people who reached out to us, there is … a sense that there are real people behind a real product, [who] are excited about what they’re doing, and that’s infectious.
So the question for the more conventionally self-conceived organizations is, are they as institutionally concerned about how excited their customers are, or do they just care that they continue to spend money?

I would say that in a valence-conceived organization, being institutionally concerned about customer excitement would ideally transcend the marketing function, pervading and being manifest in all aspects of the business. In a functionally conceived organization, on the other hand, customer excitement is a marketing responsibility. Regardless, organizationally pervasive concern for customer excitement would certainly be characteristic of a more-UCaPP, as opposed to more-BAH, organization.

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01 July 2008

Why Bureaucracy and Collaboration are Mutually Exclusive

I think [collaboration] is a very misunderstood way of working. That if anyone were to look at that as a vernacular shift from teamwork, it’s completely different from teamwork.

So says Loreen Babcock, the CEO of Unit 7, and one of my research participants. There may be teamwork, or multiple contributors to a project, in a bureaucratic organization, but not true collaboration. True collaboration involves admitting that there are aspects of the situation that you don’t know that you don’t know; that non-obvious others can make a contribution in unanticipated ways; and that you are willing to reveal what otherwise might be considered a lack of competence in a public forum through the act of reaching out. Teamwork, on the other hand, is based on the assumption that information in a bureaucracy is fragmented among its component roles, and that the way to ensure complete information is to identify and bring together the necessary components.

Bureaucracy, theoretically, is built on the assumption that it represents the ideal flow of information through a structure that is specifically engineered for competence, rationality, objectivity, and legitimacy – the right information being provided by the right people to the right place at the right time. Any given person, simply by virtue of occupying their office (by which I mean their legitimized role, function, station, or location) in a bureaucracy is socialized to believe that if they have sufficient information such that no gaps are apparent, then they necessarily have complete information upon which to act. Moreover, admitting insufficient information in the absence of obvious gaps (which, de facto, occurs in the act of collaboration – seeking out what you don’t know that you don’t know from those who are not necessarily part of the pre-determined procedure) is an admission of either one’s own incompetence in their bureaucratic office, or a failing on the part of the system. Neither of these can be admitted or tolerated openly for fear of the adverse, personal consequences, namely, that the occupant of the office is incompetent, irrational, or not acting objectively in their assessments. In either situation of the incompetent office-holder, or the incompetent office, the true bureaucratic system will protect itself by eliminating the troublesome or flawed component element, and replacing it with a functionally equivalent component.

So how does this explain the difference between collaboration and teamwork, and what is the connection to Valence Theory and my earlier post on the nature of bureaucracy? Simply this: Teamwork in the context of bureaucracy is grounded in what some might call the flow of information, and that I would identify as the Knowledge valence – information, expertise, skills, experience (and secondarily in the Economic valence, indicated by the issues surrounding the transactional nature of teamwork, e.g., the so-called free-rider problem). True collaboration brings more balanced aspects among all five of the valence relationships, and is better able to enact Effective Theory of Action, that is, the ability to anticipate, perceive and act on the intended effects of the decisions we make, and the actions we take.

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