30 April 2009

Overheard: On Swine Flu

Overheard today at a high-end hair salon, frequented by Toronto's elite, spoken by a middle-age woman: "Well they say this swine flue has nothing to do with eating pork, but I don't know. I'm not going to eat pork for the next while. Better safe than sorry."

And to think that they allow such people to vote.

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28 April 2009

Cluetrainplus10: The Fall of the Pyramids

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Cluetrain Manifesto, 95 bloggers will each select one of the 95 theses, and post their reflections, 10 years on, in a global collaboration called Cluetrainplus10.

Thesis 49: Org charts worked in an older economy where plans could be fully understood from atop steep management pyramids and detailed work orders could be handed down from on high.

It is not at all surprising to me that many organizations still adhere to the quaint idea that top-down decomposition of objectives and goals will actually determine what each individual in the organization should endeavour to accomplish. That those who have managed to attain certain job titles (through means that often have more to do with personality, politics, prestige, privilege, and power than intelligence, insight, or competence) can uniquely determine the optimal course for an organization. That information must be withheld except on a “need to know basis” and carefully controlled that, of course, necessitates the previous two quaint notions.

For those who construct their identities in terms of external signifiers of prestige, privilege and power, the top-down planning, the pyramidal org chart, the Tayloristic myth that “thinkers” shouldn’t do, and “doers” shouldn’t think, are well worth preserving. These are the basis of business education and the vaunted MBA designation, after all. But for organizations that intend to be consistent with the way the world is, rather than the Industrial Age, it is long past time to rethink the nature of organization itself, and recognize that a generation growing up in world in which we have always been networked, will network itself in the workplace as well. Rather than retain the disconnection between a quaint conception of the workplace and the reality of the world, organizations that realign themselves with the complex, Ubiquitously Connected and Pervasively Proximate (UCaPP) dynamics that define the 21st century are far more effective in accomplishing whatever their goals and objectives might be, and are far more humanistic and responsible about doing it. Simply put, collaboration is the name of the contemporary game, and collaboration and bureaucracy are mutually exclusive.

There are consequences, of course, in transforming an organization from more-BAH to more-UCaPP, and these consequences are significantly disruptive. The transformation cannot be accomplished over a “planning cycle” – those organizations that have accomplished this challenge do so over three to six years, the time it takes to resocialize all of us who take Bureaucracies, Administrative controls and Hierarchies as “just the way people are,” human nature, if you will. (On the other hand, going the other way – say a start-up operating with UCaPP behaviours becoming BAH – can happen in mere months.)

From my research, and book chapter I recently wrote on A Brief, 3,000-Year History of Organization, here is a comparison chart to help you decide whether your organization might like to discard the now-anachronistic org chart – and its consequences – for something a bit more contemporary:

BAH OrganizationsUCaPP Organizations
Organizations are primarily purposeful; all other considerations are secondary to the mission and economic considerations.Organizations are primarily relational, with the purpose, mission, and tactility being emergent from the relationships among the specific people and organizations that comprise the membership.
Organizations have well-defined boundaries.Organizations are contingent and constantly in flux; the constituents at any time depend on the context.
Costs are externalized as much as possible.Costs are, by definition, internal to the organization via f-Economic valence, and therefore must be completely and collectively accounted for.
People are interchangeable so long as they have appropriate qualifications; the “office” or function sustains. Multiple offices potentially can be combined or divided differently with no deleterious effect on the overall operations.People, by definition, cannot be interchangeable since replacing or eliminating individuals changes the nature of the valence relationships, and therefore, changes the organization.
Individual humanity (e.g., expressed by one’s direct superior) scales to collective callousness (e.g., expressed organization-wide, often in the name of efficiency, expediency, or fairness).Individual humanity scales consistently through feedback and feedforward effects, and complex interactions among the valences (especially SP-ba, and I-ba).
Members of a pre-defined, privileged, hierarchical class are exclusively involved in decision-making (i.e., some people are thinkers, others are doers).Decision-making is collaborative, with the most effective decisions coming from heterogeneous groups that change from time to time.
Command and control management dominates. The most effective form of power is considered to be coercive (via reward and punishment).The most effective form of leadership and power is referent. Command and control management cannot be effective without damaging the fabric of ba-form relationships.
Individuals are systemically disempowered via the notion of “change begins at the top.” The bureaucratic myth of hierarchical merit is linked to a patriarchal social and class model, leading to the so-called Peter Principle .Change begins where it begins, with systems of individual and collective autonomy and agency being institutionally supported. With a strong sense of organization-ba, when no one is in charge, everyone is in charge.
“Work” and “life” are mutually exclusive. Work-life balance is measured by the time not being spent in one or the other pursuit.Work and life are integral. Work-life integration is achieved when individual members and their personal values are validated by how their organizational contributions are truly valued.

Happy 10th Anniversary, Cluetrain!

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27 April 2009

MBA: Mostly Bloody Awful

A well-thought piece from Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio on rethinking the value and place of the MBA degree. It makes the argument - and convincingly, in my opinion - that the culture created by business schools through their MBA programs are responsible for creating conditions that lead not only to the current financial crisis, but the social crisis as well:
The big problem with the MBA culture is that it creates this elite group of people who are there by dint of nothing more than this qualification, which is useful, but little more than that. To say that it qualifies anyone to really do anything is absolutely false. And I also think it's fundamentally anti-democratic...

The influence of Taylorism has been all pervasive, and not just in America.

It's from [the father of Scientific Management, Frederick Winslow] Taylor that the business schools derived their obsession with numbers and measurement, and the idea that management was a science that could be studied in a university.

It's also due to Taylor's influence that the emphasis in business shifted from people to figures, and from quality to quantity. We started to hear talk about the bottom line, employees started to be called human resources, and we saw the rise of the influence of the accountant. ... There's a very good author called Marianne Keller, who wrote a kind of biography of General Motors, and she says the object in General Motors after the arrival of this new concept of management was to improve the numbers, not to improve the product. This is a theme that runs through the whole of American business, particularly in the 1980s and the 1990s. It's what happened at Enron, where they took their debt off the main balance sheet and stuck it into a subservient balance sheet, so the interest costs would not weigh down earnings. So first of all, you find the manipulation of the events underlying the figures to achieve the right figures and then you have of course the manipulation of the figures ending up in fraud. So the characteristic of the new age of management as a profession, is improving the numbers, not improving the product...

[Leadership's] a disease in the United States. Everything is going to be cured by leadership. Look, every time you talk leadership, you're talking followership. So every time you're identifying a leader, you're identifying a whole bunch of followers. Do we want a world of followers? And leadership is a very individualistic notion. Even if that leadership is portrayed as energising everybody else, it's the individual leader who's energising everybody else. And I'm much more enthusiastic on what I call communityship, that we need much more emphasis on the idea of community and people working together and developing things together.
There is a transcript of the program and a podcast. Listening to the interviews that comprise this exposé confirm my decision to follow the course of research that I have chosen. Valence Theory, once and hopefully for all, undermines the fraud that is Taylorism and subverts the dubious principles that govern modern MBA programs.

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20 April 2009

In Today's Post - Congratulations...

Received in today's post, from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities:
Congratulations, I am pleased to inform you that you have been awarded a 2009-2010 Ontario Graduate Scholarship...

Ontario's highly skilled workforce is the key to the province's success in today's knowledge economy. Ontario is building a stronger workforce by increasing the number of graduate students in the province. You are joining 2,000 students who will benefit this academic year from the Ontario Graduate Scholarship program...

On behalf of the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, I would like to extend congratulations and best wishes in your graduate studies.

Yours sincerely,
John Milloy, Minister
Thank you, Minister, and thanks to Professors Marilyn Laiken and Bonnie Burstow who supported my application.

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18 April 2009

The Failure of TICO

With the travel industry debacle surrounding the closure of Conquest Vacations, the obvious question is, where the hell was TICO, the Travel Industry Council of Ontario? More specifically, where the hell was Michael Pepper, the Bureaucrat-in-Chief (sometimes also known as the President, CEO, and Statutory Registrar)?

TICO claims to protect consumers if they purchase their vacations through a TICO-member travel agency. Simple enough. So when Conquest closed their doors earlier this week, and hotels in third-world countries held travellers hostage, threatening them with a vacation in a Mexican jail if they didn't come up with exorbitant hotel costs, sometimes in excess of what they paid for their entire inclusive vacation, where the hell was TICO? TICO allegedly has a reserve fund, and, apparently, has secured the trust accounts of the now defunct Conquest Vacations. So why didn't TICO contact all the suppliers (hotels, airlines, etc.) and assure them that it would make good on the expected money? Why force travellers to come up with thousands of dollars out-of-pocket which will likely not be covered for refund (only the amount actually paid to Conquest can be recovered, and that only after a lengthy period)?

Like all BAH organizations, TICO is more concerned about preserving the integrity of its bureaucracy, and its nominal mission, which is covered by its own administrative procedures. There is no consideration for the effects of its actions (and inaction, in this case). If TICO was really concerned about the intended effect, that is, to encourage travellers that there is an advantage to purchasing vacations through its member agencies, it would have stepped up and ensured that there was, indeed, such an advantage. To me - and especially to those who booked through Conquest (a TICO-member agency) - it sure seems that booking directly via the Internet is the only way to fly.

And by the way, where was Harinder Takhar, Minister of Small Business and Consumer Services, under whose ministry TICO exists? No leaders. Just a bunch of bureaucrats.

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Four Questions on Social Media and Organizations

Journalist Marie LaForge of the online technology and business magazine, atelier.fr, asked me about social media and organizations in an email interview for an upcoming article. With Facebook and Twitter appearing in the press almost daily, and businesses and government agencies fretting about how they can "leverage" social media to their marketing advantage (while simultaneously blocking their employees' use of them), I thought it might be useful to offer a somewhat deeper context to the conversation. Here, then, are the questions Ms. LaForge asked, with my responses.

1) Do you think that social media change the workplace organization? If so, why, and what does it change: relationships between employees, between employees and the company?
It is not that social media change the workplace organization per se. Rather, I would say that the workplace organization is changing, and social media is facilitating and responding to the change in interpersonal dynamics of how we collectively create effects and accomplish things in our world. I submit that organizations fundamentally emerge from relationships (rather than being created primarily to achieve a purpose; the purpose is emergent from relationships in a UCaPP world). Hence, social media provide a mechanism to enable, enhance, and accelerate the expression of the various relationships that create organization. In other words, social media actually facilitate contemporary organizations, by which I mean, those organizations that are more consistent with the contemporary UCaPP world, as opposed to those organizations that are more consistent with the Industrial Age and early modernity. Social media affect all relationships – those among employees, those among various sub-organizations within a larger organization, those among multiple organizations that are in relation and therefore become a type of super-organization when taken together, and relations among those individuals formerly called customers and suppliers who now, quite legitimately, can be considered members of the larger organization. This view, by the way, I characterize as a “valence organization”: one defined by the five “valence” (interacting, binding, uniting) relationships among individuals and organizations, namely, economic, identity, knowledge, socio-psychological, and ecological.

2) How must companies manage the social media? Do you think that their identities are built by others, too? Do you think companies have to resist or to accept how people build their identity?
I suggest that in a UCaPP world, identity is collaboratively constructed (and Identity-valence relationship seems to be the most potent, according to my research). This is a fundamental change in thinking for the modern, capitalist organization that has grown up with the notion of “branding” as a form of imposing a corporate identity on a consuming public. Instead, identity is continually being collaboratively constructed based on artefacts created by the organization interrelating with contexts provided by those with whom the organization is in social relation (i.e., other members of its larger valence organization). This means that an organization does not have a choice to either resist or accept. Identity is emergent and continually in flux. If the organization does not care for the identity that has been collaboratively constructed among its various constituencies, it can actively set about to change that identity by both changing its artefacts (that include both tangible and intangible aspects) and its collective contexts from which meaning is made. In this sense, because social media is a vital way to enable and express these valence relationships, it becomes an important mechanism to collaboratively construct identity. Thus, social media are not to be managed in the sense of controlled, but rather enabled for optimal engagement among the organization’s various constituencies.

3) Do you think that the emergent transparency also concerns companies? Must they also be more transparent? If so, to whom must they display this transparency?
Without a doubt! Emergent transparency is the phenomenon that occurs when various diverse and discrete artefacts are juxtaposed because of the effects of pervasive proximity, and create an image of the entity that produced the artefacts. In prior eras, that juxtaposition of artefacts and contexts was impractical, if not impossible. Today, it is akin to the ability of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, each of whom possesses one puzzle piece, to collectively assemble the puzzle in a very short span of time. The emergent picture often reveals that which the organization in question might prefer to keep secret. The best-known and perhaps most significant example of this in political action was the revelation of the extraordinary rendition program under the Bush-the-Younger administration, and the programs of torture. Similar, but perhaps less severe (or perhaps not in some cases) examples can exist in corporate organizations, which is why they are so sensitive to their employees using social media. However, in my conception of valence organization, all organizations are in relation with the society that, even in law, grants them the permission to exist (through their corporate charters). Hence, the principles of social responsibility dictate that transparency is essential for them to truly act as so-called corporate citizens (let alone “good” corporate citizens). Other principles of Valence Theory of Organization call for ceding of control in favour of collaborative understanding and enactment of appropriate overall effects. This idea additionally mandates not only transparency (which, as a distinct concept, is overrated, I think), but more important, active sensing and responding to the effects created by the organization throughout the total societal environment.

4) Do you think that the masses have more influence on economic and political decisions through social media, than they did before? Or is it just what the masses believe?
Social media is becoming far more influential in affecting economic and political decisions, and directing public policy. This has become a constant source of surprise for current politicians and policy-makers. However, we are still at least two generations away from it being commonplace to the extent that those involved in creating public policy who do not engage with the public in a sincere and authentic way will find themselves without power and influence, short of totalitarian rule. There are a few early and relatively gross examples around the world of how social media mobilizations have influenced public policy decisions and election outcomes. Certainly, the ability to mobilize public opinion, and the collaborative construction of identity were instrumental in the election of Barack Obama (George W Bush being such an extreme failure also helped). We are all still learning, certainly, and there are those who now enjoy power (Harper in Canada, Sarkozy and Berlusconi in Europe) who will have a great deal of difficulty in ceding control to embrace collaboration in the way that is truly characteristic of the contemporary world. This is why I say it will be at least two generations yet (and probably more) until we see a new polity.

Update (20 Apr 2009): Marie LaForge's brief article (en Français) is here.

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10 April 2009

A Future for a New Journalism?

This morning, “out of the blue,” I received a long missive from one Michael Rozek. He contacted me because of my connection between Marshall McLuhan’s work and contemporary business. Essentially, he sought my opinion on some of his ideas for the future of journalism, one among many (un)holy grails of the UCaPP world. There are far better brains than mine contemplating this particular grail – Dan Gillmor and Jeff Jarvis come immediately to mind. And it’s certainly not something I’ve thought seriously about in a bunch of years. But his suggestions caused me to muse a bit, perhaps along the lines of WWMMD (What Would Marshall McLuhan Do?)

McLuhan often described the experience of the daily newspaper as that of stepping into a bath – being immersed in the total surround of daily events from everywhere, all at once. The juxtaposition of serious happenings and mundane advertisements was the type of figure/ground satire in which McLuhan revelled. But that was from his ground: that of a highly literate (I might describe him as chronically literate) man, for whom interconnected computer automation was an extension of radio, and television was cool and engaging. He found the newspaper a form of vaudeville – I can’t remember the direct quote off the top of my head, but he said that a person could get the greatest laughs by reading directly from the pages of the daily press.

We are, of course, in a very different time. Internet has become the total surround, what I describe as creating ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity. The global village has become the global theatre (or, as a friend of mine describes, a global theatre of the absurd). Television has long ago heated up and is now a hot agent of mass hypnosis. The Internet is remaking each and every one of us as (among other things) news, and newsworthy – at least to someone, somewhere, at some time. The question of who decides what is sufficiently important to pay attention – let alone pay cash – is increasingly being answered as “I do myself, based on my relationships of trust, and what feels relevant to me at any particular time, in any particular place.” Editors, editorial boards, and brands such as New York Times, Wall Street Journal (among hundreds of others), and more contemporarily, Huffington Post or TechMeme (among thousands of others) attempt to create and maintain those relationships of trust. But there is nothing particularly compelling about one relative to another except for the sense that I, and those with whom I am in social relation, collectively make. And most journalism, it seems, irrespective of the particular conveyance via newsprint or electrons, increasingly reflects McLuhan’s observation that, “today’s press agent regards the newspaper as a ventriloquist does his dummy.” It matters not whether what is being sold to us are personal hygiene products or public policy: the press has already become quite comfortable with a hand up its backside controlling what comes out of its mouth.

And therein is the rub: the last thing we need today is yet another hand-up-the-backside talking head yelling at us to look in his or her direction. The contemporary lack is not individual perspectives, even those that might be well-informed. Perspective – that particular view which appears from standing in a very particular place – is the (second-)last thing we need. I would suggest that today, the challenge is how to achieve collective sense-making in every aspect of our experience. Whether it is one’s politics, identity, lifework, education, or reportage itself, we individually and collectively attempt make sense of them all based on the complexity of thousands of interactions – feedforward and feedback – from which emerge those realizations, connections and insights that are plurally new: literally, the news. We each do the best we can, and that, in my experience, tends to be relatively poor, since precious few of us have had either the training or experience to accomplish such a challenging task.

Journalism, I think, is no longer about telling a society – or even a part of society – where to look or how to interpret what has been seen, as it once was (I never did subscribe to the myth of journalistic objectivity). I think the future of journalism has to do with enabling our collective understandings of the complexity of our world. It is dealing with a hundred, hundred factors simultaneously to create an instantaneous gestalt in the perception of the “reader” so that his/her world suddenly appears different than it did a moment ago: a little clearer, a little more sensible, with a little more tactility than existed before. Merely gathering together facts and information, and then broadcasting them as processed, populist pablum was the game of the last cultural epoch – McLuhan’s so-called Gutenberg Galaxy. Professionally trained journalists are of little use for the enterprise that will replace newspapers, and their hot cousin, television news à la CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews, CTV Newsnet and the rest. Their professional training has equipped them to be the hunter-gatherers and farmers of the age just passed: hunt down the story, gather the facts, then disseminate (“cast broadly”) like tossing seeds into the fertile field that was the collective mind of an increasingly credulous public. (And I do apologize for the fruit salad of mixed metaphors here).

Those who would make a new journalistic enterprise useful to society are those who can draw from a dozen disciplines at once, and see the emergent patterns that inform a society of where it is, what it’s doing, and where it’s heading. Turn that into a business, and I think you’ve got something worthwhile.

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09 April 2009

Dialogue With the Union... Sort of...

Ajamu Nangwaya, the VP External for CUPE 3097, responded to my last post with a friendly email:
Greetings Mark:

I must give you an "A" for your consistency in arguing for a position that would strengthen the power of capital over the working class. Your blog on the collective bargaining process and the Employer at OISE is "Exhibit A" in support of my assertion.

I am sorry that you are still receiving messages from your former union. I will attend to this matter ASAP.

Take care,
Here's my response:

Greetings in return, Ajamu:

And you equally receive an “A” for your consistency and coherence of vision, casting all human interactions in the singular context of class struggle, even when there may be other, potentially more useful contexts with respect to solving complex issues. I draw your attention specifically to this passage in the post:
Systemic funding issues and overall budgetary balancing concerns that affect all constituencies in the institution morph into labour negotiations and so-called bargaining in an environment that has been artificially, and not usefully, constructed as such. Rather than encouraging collaboration, the presence of a union mentality, embodied as CUPE 3907, has taken the Dean's Office off the hook in terms of its moral and ethical obligation to openly and frankly consult with its various constituencies. The presence of a union enables the Dean's Office - "management" - to hide behind an anachronistic but legal process that is, in its purest form, simply a test of power and will.

I am, indeed, implicating the union in facilitating an easy out for the Dean's Office in not dealing honestly, openly, or appropriately with all OISE constituencies in what is a complex, multi-faceted fiscal problem. Enabling them to essentially divide and conquer by intertwining mentored research opportunities (i.e. the GA positions) that are essentially an academic matter, with funding structures which are essentially university policy, wrapped inside a class struggle that they are only too happy to fight is, in my opinion, the wrong way to deal with the intricacies of the overall OISE budget and student funding in particular.

I will remind you of the last process in which the Dean's Office actually engaged in useful conversation with all constituencies. It occurred the year before you came to OISE, and it had to do with restructuring the model for the funded cohort, and the new budget model that was being forced by Simcoe Hall. One aspect of the proposal was tantamount to indentured labour for a certain group of students - those who would be admitted under a professor's SSHRC funding. The original proposal called for those students to be required to complete their doctorates under the admitting professor, irrespective of personality clashes, divergence of research interests, or any other circumstance. (There were some other more minor hare-brained provisions in the originally proposed funding scheme, too.) There was an awful lot of wrangling among the DO, the faculty, and the students (led by the GSA), plus each department individually, and the official review committee (which included student reps). The whole thing lasted for most of a year, at the end of which, we all were able to find a workable and viable structure that more-or-less balanced everyone's interests and needs. Sadly, the lesson that the DO took away was that engaging the various constituencies in the institute took a lot of time and involved listening, learning and a lot of thinking. Some of us in my area of research and practice would characterize this as a form of “learning organization.” Unfortunately, there is little organizational learning at OISE: From then on the DO's modus operandi became, decide in camera, then ram a policy down everyone's throats (e.g. part-time student policy, conference funding policy, faculty evaluation policy... there are probably others of which I'm unaware).

This is not strictly a union-management issue because it impinges on creating a viable and healthy environment for everyone, irrespective of whether they have been forced into a union, have chosen to be members, or are ineligible to participate - after all, unions are exclusive, elite clubs when situated in a mixed locale. It is about creating an environment in which those who previously (perceived they) had control are convinced to cede that control to an inclusive group which then engages in processes of dialogue to collectively come to an optimal solution, considering all contexts and constituencies involved. (This, it may surprise you, does not involve what has of late become a mockery, namely, the version of so-called democracy called "majority rules" by stacked voting - in my observation, this is a characteristic of the ruling elite class of unions and unionists like yourself. Yeah, superstructure is a bitch, isn't it? In my opinion, a democracy is not judged by how well the voting majority does, but by how well the voices of its weakest members are demonstrably heard.)

I'm not surprised that you misread my approach to all this. You attempt to neatly categorize me among the privileged elite who would “strengthen the power of capital over the working class.” In that very dismissive (and, I would add, disrespectful) characterization, you fail to realize that I am as much, and as little, a member of the working class as you, and as all of the people whom your union claims to represent. As I assert in my original blog post, we are, at OISE, a very privileged class indeed. Many of us are also sacrificing and struggling financially to be able to complete our degrees. As I probably do not have to point out to you, privilege is not one-dimensioned: it is a complex construction of circumstances, history, and relationships. In circumstances where there is exclusive privilege, oppression, and exploitation of people, and no opportunity for those who are exploited to have voice (or even to be able to frame words to be conveyed by that voice) I am a strong advocate of strong unions. On the other hand, in a privileged environment comprised of mostly privileged people, who all enjoy the gifts of intelligence, reason, voice, access, autonomy and agency, to frame complex problems that affect everyone in the confines of a class-power struggle merely adds to the complexity, and creates artificial intransigency where none really needs to exist in the first place.

This is not an attack on unions alone. My primary critique is founded on an indictment of management's belief in what Marjorie Kelly calls the “divine right of capital” (see here for the book's introduction) and their de facto sense of entitlement (by the way, note how ironically analogous this is to the fundamental union belief in seniority rights). My contention is that unions enable a sort of reverse Foucauldian dynamic: resistance breeds control as much as control breeds resistance. My premise is that management must cede control and engage in honest processes of collaboration, which is a far more challenging prospect than even you might imagine. For this to happen, everyone must find a place of common effect and will to action that is not born in a revolutionary worldview.

Be well,

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03 April 2009

CUPE: Reaping the Harvest of Utter Stupidity

Despite resigning from CUPE Local 3907, the union that nominally represents students who have graduate assistanceships at OISE, they still send me their shit. The latest is a notice for the recent strike vote over the current round of bargaining for the collective agreement under which GAs are paid.
Faced with concessions at the bargaining table, along with a direct attack on the tenets of unionism, and refusal by OISE administration to consider CUPE 3907 proposals, your local was forced to take a strike vote. Today we can say with confidence that our membership has given their bargaining team a clear message to continue our battle for a fair and reasonable collective agreement.

Members voted overwhelmingly to support strike action, if needed. According to Local 3907’s Chair External and CUPE Ontario Vice-President Ajamu Nangwaya, “OISE is attempting to use a financial tool to solve the political problem of university underfunding. It is just outrageous that this venerable educational institute that is a known champion of equity through its educational programmes is shafting its academic workers at the bargaining table with Scrooge-like proposals.”
One thing to say about Ajamu, he has a flair for the dramatic - "Scrooge-like proposals."

To which I say, BAH! Humbug!

The union has framed its own demise, and certainly its own irrelevance in the context of the contemporary, privileged world. Make no mistake: students at OISE are a privileged lot. We are also an intelligent bunch dealing as academics, with academics, in an academic context. We aren't in jobs in which working conditions are generally a problem. And if the relationship between the "workers" and their "bosses" - generally thesis candidates and their supervisors - become problematic, the union certainly isn't in a position to help for what really matters: getting their theses done. So what dynamic has a union mentality actually created?

For those not familiar with the funding structure for thesis students at OISE, a little bit of context: In order to encourage a "culture of completion," and reduce what was a significant drop-out rate among doctoral students and candidates at U of T, the university guaranteed full funding for 5 years for research-oriented, graduate degrees. This could be accomplished either via external scholarship like SSHRC, OGS, or similar, paid work like a TA position, or as a last recourse, funding provided from the general budget of the faculty. Since there are no teaching assistant positions in the Initial Teacher Education program (since, technically, there are no undergraduates at OISE - and yes, there are a very few TEPA and SOLA positions that are effectively TA or full instructor positions in ITE), OISE created graduate assistanceships. These GA positions are research-y sorts of things that enable students to work closely with a professor on a research project, book, or academic centre. The professor in many cases, is the student's supervisor, a member of the student's committee, or doing work closely related to the student's own research. Nominally, it augments the student's education, expands her/his experience, and accomplishes other objectives that would contribute to the CV of a budding future academic. Some faculties, like OISE and Music, for example, decided to split the 5 years and offer 1 year of MA funding, and 4 years of PhD funding.

So that's the setup: funding to cover tuition and a small living stipend in order to facilitate the student's full-time progress through her/his degree, and an opportunity to acquire valuable experience that leads to a future possibly academic job (except, ironically, almost no opportunity for teaching experience, which is weird when you consider this is OISE).

Now enter the union mentality, which says, among other things, people have to be paid for what they do, and do that for which they are paid. Because there is funding, it follows that the funding must obviously be money for doing work, and that work must be the GA. Hence, what began as an academic relationship (and is, in its enactment, very much an academic mentoring relationship) has morphed into a labour-management relationship, courtesy of the union. Systemic funding issues and overall budgetary balancing concerns that affect all constituencies in the institution morph into labour negotiations and so-called bargaining in an environment that has been artificially, and not usefully, constructed as such. Rather than encouraging collaboration, the presence of a union mentality, embodied as CUPE 3907, has taken the Dean's Office off the hook in terms of its moral and ethical obligation to openly and frankly consult with its various constituencies. The presence of a union enables the Dean's Office - "management" - to hide behind an anachronistic but legal process that is, in its purest form, simple a test of power and will.

I have trouble thinking of anything less productive and more stupid to do. On the face, if GAs go on strike, some professors projects will be delayed. No big deal in most cases. Students, on the other hand, lose their livelihood, lose what puts food on their tables (even it it is only ramen or Kraft dinner), potentially even lose the roofs over their collective heads. Thanks a whole bunch, CUPE!

The university's intention is for all thesis students to have funding. The academic intention is for all research students to have research-oriented experience. Why do these two simple concepts have to be entwined in an obsolesced, Industrial Age context? Yes, the university and OISE are coping with the political problem of underfunding - in this Ajamu and I have no disagreement. But, in a UCaPP world, and especially among privileged and intelligent people, this is a time to collaborate to solve the political and economic problems, not engage in destructive power games.

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02 April 2009

Homelessness and Complex Problems

When someone in authority says, "evidence-based" to me, I hear "positivist paradigms prevail." The problem with relying exclusively on positivism, in either quantitative or qualitative research, is that it can only tell one part of any complex story. In particular, when dealing with complex social systems - those involving people - there is much that positivist approaches, and statistical approaches in particular, cannot discover. One of the key observations to which I often point when talking about research paradigms, are the papers by John Ioannidis, both from 2005. One was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, entitled Contradicted and initially stronger effects in highly cited clinical research [JAMA 294(2), 218-228]. The other, with a far more accessible title was published in the Public Library of Science - Medicine [2(8)]: Why most published research findings are false. Straight-forward enough, right?

Last evening, I happened to be sitting with a colleague who is completing her thesis in Counselling Psychology. She related a story about how she first became interested in qualitative methods. She had been working on a survey that was going to be a part of her undergrad honours thesis. She decided to include two open-ended questions right at the end of the survey that would be analyzed using one of the post-positivist, qualitative methods. She was amazed to discover that the qualitative results exactly contradicted the quantitative results obtained from the main body of the survey. As it turns out, there is quite a body of literature on survey design, and the biases introduced both by things like question ordering, and the implicit power dynamic between researchers and so-called subjects in traditional positivist and post-positivist methodologies.

I do not doubt that the Toronto City Councillors are sincere about addressing the problem of homelessness in this city. Neither do I doubt Mr. de Jong's competence and expertise at managing a very, very difficult and complicated problem. However, I question whether he is being informed exclusively by those who live in a positivist world among the "academics, service providers and other government officials throughout the world," the "Drop-in centres, Housing Help Centres, shelters and street outreach providers [who] all also collect data," and "professional researchers that examine important issues related to homelessness." If so, he is missing a huge piece of the complex puzzle that is homelessness in urban areas.

The Streets to Homes program has its critics. And, I literally do not know whether the program is adequately informed by the voices of those who work with, and research marginalized populations from critical, feminist, aboriginal, psych-survivor, and other radical-oriented standpoints. The intent of the program is laudable: to ensure that every citizen of this city has a safe, secure, and appropriate place to sleep at night, and live during the day (or vice versa, as appropriate). However, problematizing "safe," "secure," and "appropriate" in complex urban politics, including addressing root causes, is a task best not left exclusively to positivist research academics, politicians, and managers in bureaucratic systems.

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Streets to Homes in Toronto: Iain de Jong Responds

A few days ago, I posted my thoughts on the upcoming survey of homeless people in Toronto. I critiqued what was reported as an exclusively positivist and statistical approach to understanding the needs of the homeless, calling it inadequate to gain a complete understanding of the complexity of the problem: statistics can be useful to understand many phenomena and situations; complex human problems are not among those that lend themselves to complete knowledge through numbers.

This morning I received an extensive response from Iain de Jong, the Manager of the Streets to Homes program in the city. Here it is in its entirety:
Mr. Federman,

Thanks for sharing your perspective with the Mayor and Members of Toronto City Council.

It may be of interest for you to know how we have arrived at the methods that we are using.

Starting in 2005, we began an extensive examination of practices used in other jurisdictions when it came to assessing the number and needs of homeless people. We undertook this work because in February 2005, Toronto City Council directed staff to determine the number and service needs of the homeless population. While there was some decent literature (grey and academic) on the enumeration - or count - piece, there was next to nothing on determining the needs aspect on the scale and scope that we were directed to undertake.

We met with representatives from New York City, Chicago, Edmonton and Vancouver. We also reviewed documentation and/or had conversations with representatives from Philadelphia, Calgary, Kelowna, Victoria, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Bernardino County, Phoenix, Indianapolis, King County, Nashville and Atlanta. We also examined materials from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Government of Canada. We also participated in the Homeless Outdoor Population Estimate in New York City and participated in discussions with their methodologists and statisticians. One of my staff also spent time with Dr. Kim Hopper, whose work you may be familiar with on plant-capture techniques in homeless counts.

With this information, we worked extensively with the Street Outreach Steering Committee in Toronto, which is a group of senior representatives from a range of community agencies, hospitals, researchers, City Divisions and the private sector. The Committee membership has a wealth of experience in not only delivering homeless programs and services, but also on research methods with vulnerable and marginalized populations. Some of the most respected and cited researchers on homelessness and health are members of the committee. Their input was invaluable in crafting a survey and approach that would work best with the Toronto homeless population. We also received input from a number of other committees in Toronto including the Aboriginal Affairs Committee, the Advisory Committee on Homeless and Socially Isolated Persons and the Ontario Association of Hostels. The survey developed with the exhaustive input of all of these committees was pre-tested extensively prior to execution the first time, on April 19, 2006.
The 2006 survey provided a wealth of information that has helped us better understand the demographics of the homeless population and their needs. In addition, the information on needs and service use has provided an evidence-base to make program improvements and strategically target new investments in homeless programs and services. Furthermore, through other research studies carried out through our Division, the results point to multiple lines of evidence of the success of the approach taken with the 2006 study.

Streets to Homes, the program I manage, is an evidence-based program. Independently reviewed and assessed, the program is acknowledged as one of the best housing programs in the world by the World Habitat Awards, is considered a best practice by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, has been honoured for its impact on public policy by the Arthur Kroeger Awards, and has won a dozen other awards for the quality of the processes used and thoroughness of design in program delivery. The 2006 Street Needs Assessment has been one of the aspects reviewed in all of these awards, and in particular, received a PSQF award in 2007 for the Street Needs Assessment.

My work on the Street Needs Assessment and Streets to Homes has provided me the great honour of working with academics, service providers and other government officials throughout the world. I have been a keynote speaker, conference presenter and workshop provider throughout North America on our approach to undertaking the needs assessment component of the Street Needs Assessment and the evidence based work of Streets to Homes. In 2008, the Community University Institute of Social Research at the University of Saskatoon replicated the needs assessment in Saskatoon. The US National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, by far the largest organization working on ending homelessness and working extensively with leading academics and researchers, had me present on the Street Needs Assessment in Washington DC last summer. There are other Canadian and American jurisdictions in the process of replicating the approach. In each instance there is quite a lot of interaction between the local service providers, government and academics. While there are accepted limitations to the count methods, Toronto, New York and Seattle are all using decoys and other methods to address some of these limitations. It has not been my experience that service providers or other academics in these communities have taken exception or found issue with the needs assessment component.

Perhaps it is also important to note that the Street Needs Assessment is but one tool that we use to gather information about the homeless population that we serve. Drop-in centres, Housing Help Centres, shelters and street outreach providers all also collect data. In addition, in the course of any year there are one or more other studies with professional researchers that examine important issues related to homelessness. The Street Needs Assessment compliments this other research. It is the largest and only single point in time collection of needs and demographic data. And it has been our experience that the information gleaned has great benefit and accuracy informing future policy and program design.

The 2009 Street Needs Assessment is an opportunity to not only see how the homeless population has changed in Toronto, but to also assess our progress towards our goal of ending homelessness. To that end, we are using the same questions and methods as were used in 2006. This consistency will allow for meaningful comparison, and it is my belief that in looking at comparison data we will be able to inform policy and programs even more.

Mr. Federman I hope this response is helpful at highlighting our approach and intent. Again, thank you for sharing your opinion with City Councillors and the Mayor. If you have additional questions, please let me know.

Iain De Jong
Manager, Streets to Homes

My thoughts on this in the next post.

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01 April 2009

Karen Stephenson at OCAD: Organization Beyond Social Networks

Last evening, I attended a talk given by Karen Stephenson, business anthropologist extraordinaire. Her work focuses on the relative (im)permeability of organizational cultures, and how various forms of social networks that emerge in organizations can be used to understand organizational change, and deal with many of the myriad complex challenges that defy conventional thinking. Stephenson considers an organizational network as the “genetic code” that can be used to unlock any organizational culture. Essentially, these networks are comprised of the trust-based relationships that enable entry and participation in any subgroup within the organization as a whole. (She briefly goes into the construction of trust, essentially calling on Niklas Luhmann's 1979 work on Trust and Power without actually naming him.) Networks cut through the official hierarchy and essentially map out who communicates or consults with whom, who enables or prevents information flow and access to whom, and who are the most and least effective disseminators of knowledge, influence, and social norms.

She observes – correctly, I think – that most strategic insight and initiative is limited by the fact of ego-centric networks: we know who we know, and only on a very limited basis do we indirectly know those whom our direct network knows. In the context of an organization, this limitation means that it is challenging to engage a critical mass of knowledge, insight, and experience without being cognizant of complex network interconnections that enable “weak ties” (in Granovetter’s terms from the 1970s) to bridge beyond those whom I more-or-less know to those who I really need to know. In a very real sense, this is (one of) the problem(s) that social media sites such as LinkedIn (and their ilk), and to a lesser extent, Facebook, Twitter, and even Amazon recommendations, are attempting to solve (whether they realize it or not). The real issue, according to Stephenson, is how to access the tacit knowledge that exists among individual trust relationships, and make it visible to the organization at large (which, in my language, I would frame as the challenge of creating organizational-ba).

Her approach to this problem is to understand the networks that exist in any given organization, that transcend and survive hierarchies (and organizational restructurings that are more like the clichéd rearranging-the-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic). She accomplishes this – and quite effectively, it seems – by mapping the networks that exist in the organization, and identifying the “hubs” (highly connected individuals), the “gatekeepers” (those that connect between two subgroups), and the “pulsetakers” (who may have limited network connections but are highly influential in terms of reading the culture and informing decision-making processes). Identify these key roles, and change the minds of the key 5% of these people, and organizational change is possible, she claims. It might also be useful to understand that the cute diagram of this typography just happens to be the branding graphic for her consulting company.

Her work sounded very familiar and indeed, it is very close to that of Valdis Krebs, whom I followed a few years ago. And her construct of hubs, gatekeepers, and pulsetakers is almost a direct translation of Ronald Corwin’s work from the mid-1980s, all of which, of course, owes allegiance to Mark Granovetter. I’m not saying what she does isn’t useful – she invests a considerable amount of time during her talk telling us just how useful (and seemingly important and influential) she, personally, has been by dropping more names than a paid-off poll clerk in a rigged election (yeah, this raised my hackles somewhat - I hate when people do that; impress me with your ideas, not with who else may think you're smart). I think she is limited in her thinking by accepting the premise that there is no active way to eliminate hierarchy, to gain access to the direct networks of others, nor to effectively facilitate changing her identified key roles that have emerged, seemingly on their own accord. All of this defies complexity theory, and a conception of organizations as (potentially) autopoietic, dissipative structures with inherent cognition. I'm pretty sure I have mechanisms that are counter-examples to these contentions among the UCaPP organizations in my research.

The other aspect that either she had no time to address last evening, or has not considered, is the vital importance of identity construction in the face of organization change. My research seems to indicate that Identity-valence may be the most significant impediment to change, which is one of the main reasons why I think many hierarchical restructurings tend to change nothing. It's also the reason I suggest that any real change that also changes the framework on which Identity-valence is constructed is exceedingly difficult and requires considerable effort, distraction, coaching, and dedication-to-the-cause to effect. I do think that it’s also consistent with people in Stephenson’s network roles (hub, gatekeeper, pulsetaker) retaining those network roles, since they are a large part of how people create their Identity-valence relationship with the organization (interestingly, both in ba- and fungible-forms as I think about it).

All in all, not a bad presentation, and it certainly impressed (most of) the crowd. But tell me: why do all the business anthropologists I have run into over the past few years always, without exception, attempt to establish themselves as the alpha-critter in a social grouping?

Update (18 Apr 2009): For those interested in some of the consequential effects of the massively networked world in the context of organization, I have posted some musings on social media and organizations.

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