30 March 2010

Fast Food Research - Not Nutritious, Leading to Flabby Reasoning

Yesterday's hot news out of the Rotman School of Business, namely that exposure to fast food logos causes us to speed up, because the logos of fast food franchises suggest, you know, fast, is a great example of positivist pseudo-science. The full paper is here and with a few seconds of critical analysis, one can easily see enough holes to populate the phony Swiss cheese used on a Subway sandwich. One hint, for example: what may have been demonstrated is the effect of pervasive fast food marketing on impulse and desire, rather than on cognitive processing in general, the latter being the suggestion of the paper; the former being a phenomenon that has been well-understood by marketing types for years. (And for a much better treatment of marketing phenomena in general, you may want to check out Terry O'Reilly's great radio series, The Age of Persuasion.) There are many other methodological problems with the research design that jumped out at me immediately. As research, I would rate it a fail; as marketing for Rotman, however... hmmm...

Positivist research presumes that there is an objective reality outside of ourselves that can be discovered through empirical studies. Although this is true in natural systems (neither the Sun nor the Earth particularly care what we believe in terms of one going around the other), human systems are something else altogether. I deal with this in the methodology section of my thesis, essentially demonstrating how models of human systems are generative - the way we think governs the way we react and interact in human situations, and the way we (are often conditioned to) act governs the way we think. What is important in human systems research (i.e., almost all research that happens in business schools, for instance) is to acknowledge our subjectivity in the assumptions we bring to our supposed hypotheses. If not, we run the risk of concluding nonsense; when pronounced from the bully pulpit of an august business school like Rotman, that indeed may affect with way we think about human systems, and therefore the way we create and govern human systems (like organizations).

So, thanks to my friend, Leigh Himel, I offer you the research to demonstrate that pie is better than cake. Proof positive that positivist research in human systems is often as flaky as a pie crust, and as crummy as a devil's food cake. (Oh, and by the way, Happy Birthday, Leigh!)

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29 March 2010

25 March 2010

Spencer Harrison: "I know why I'm here..."

Spencer Harrison is a human rights activist and is currently the artist in residence at George Vanier High School in Toronto, Ontario. He is also a doctoral candidate in my department at OISE, a warm, genuine, and wonderful person, and a friend. I remember meeting Spencer in my role as one of the department mentors at his initial new-students orientation. At the time, he seemed as unsure of himself in this strange environment of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology as the grade 9 student he describes near the end of this video. Now... well, see for yourself, as Spencer demonstrates his role as activist, mentor, teacher, and friend, creator of enabling and safe spaces. He is a remarkable person, one whom I am honoured to count among my friends.

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19 March 2010

Reframing "The Future of Publishing"

One of the largest challenges for any business, industry, or market is to overcome one's own biases and internal logic. We are all products of our own discourses, and are especially sensitive to the dominant discourse in any field. In other words, when it comes to systems that involve human interactions, we both make it up as we go along, and tend to (either tacitly or explicitly) agree with what the other guy or gal sees. It's the Emperor's sartorial splendour writ large, more or less. (Karl Weick has lots to say about vesting in the sense we make, and John Ionnidis, as well as Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, describe how science really isn't all that scientific. Yep, make it up, follow the other guy, get the funding...)

So, it heartens me to see this clever bit of internal - and now external - marketing from publisher Penguin in the UK, that focuses on truly thinking through the effects of imposing a well-trodden, but not necessarily true, line of argument that supposes a very particular causal logic to a seemingly inevitable conclusion. But, step out of simplistic, linear causality, consider the juxtaposition of very different and diverse contexts and ways of understanding the world, and the conclusion is not quite as forgone as vested self-interests would have us believe. This is truly a gem!

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09 March 2010

Public Thesis Defence - You're Invited!

The thesis has just officially passed committee and, after a final check-the-commas read-through, will be on its way to the external examiner. My external is Dr. Brenda Zimmerman from Schulich School of Business at York University, co-author of Getting to Maybe: How the world is changed. She is well-known for social innovation and complexity models of organization, and I am quite honoured to have her as my external.

Although the official defence is three months away, I am planning to do a public, "department defence" to which everyone is invited, including you! Here's the notice for the event:
What do a social justice NGO, a New York City advertising agency, and a Japanese Zen philosopher have in common?

Come find out how these three, very different entities represent a common future for organizational transformation when Mark Federman publicly presents his doctoral thesis research in a department defence.

From BAH to ba: Valence Theory and the Future of Organization

Wednesday, March 24, from noon to 1:00
OISE Room 7-162
252 Bloor Street West
Toronto, ON

Everyone is welcome! If you're on Facebook, you can RSVP to the event

If you are, or will be, in Toronto, it would be great if you could join in person. If you are not in Toronto, there will be a Skype conference call (max 23 people), with preference given to research participants who would like to listen in. Please email me with your Skype ID to reserve your Skype slot.

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05 March 2010

The Case of Dufferin Grove Park

The dysfunctions of bureaucracy are widely documented throughout the critical management literature, and in books and documentaries like The Corporation. These dysfunctions are most certainly etched in the minds of countless individuals who spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the ensuing frustrations, both as inside members, and outside victims, of bureaucracies. But while bureaucracies were noted by early 20th century economist and sociologist, Max Weber, as a superior way of organizing work for maximum efficiency, they have become anything but that merely one hundred years later. The case of Dufferin Grove Park and its headlong clash with City of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation bureaucracy is particularly illustrative: it not only highlights bureaucratic dysfunctions; it serves as an almost too-perfect example of using Valence Theory as a frame for organizational healing.

The complicated facts of the case are, by now, well-known thanks to reportage in the press, and through the community organization, Friends of Dufferin Grove Park (FDGP). The principles being applied by the City, and specifically Parks, Forestry, and Recreation (PFR, headed by its General Manager, Brenda Patterson, with Councillor Janet Davis as the Chair of the Community Development and Recreation Committee) are clearly BAH – bureaucratic, administrative, and hierarchical in nature. They go something like this:
  1. There are two, distinct organizations involved in this issue: one is a community organization defined loosely by self-identified association (i.e., those who consider themselves members of the Dufferin Grove community are, de facto, members); the other is a City department whose members are defined according to formal employment contracts.
  2. A member of a “formal” (in this case, meaning paid employment) organization is considered by that organization to owe his/her first allegiance to that formal organization, strictly according to terms set out in the employment contract (in this case, the collective agreement between the City and its workers’ union, CUPE Local 79).
  3. Organizational members are interchangeable in a particular “office” (job function or station) so long as they have equivalent technical specifications; individual personalities, dispositions, and other so-called soft skills are (for the purpose of job assignment) in effect, irrelevant.
  4. The City claims to be the agent for the public interest in the matter, which creates a problematic conflict of interest, since the “public” (specifically, FDGP) holds opinions that are diametrically opposite from those of its putative agent, namely, the City in the body of PFR. This is not dissimilar to an accused defendant being represented in court by the Crown. Nonetheless, the City is, bureaucratically and administratively, indeed the nominal representative of the public according to our rooted-in-the-13th-or-19th-century system of government (take your pick). One is left to contemplate whether this 13th- or 19th-century principle is useful in this instance of a problem in 21st-century Toronto.
  5. PFR is determined, seemingly at any cost to the community or effectiveness, to “reproduce its system of means” (Manuel Castells’s definition of a bureaucracy) by ensuring that all community-based organizations are structured, managed, and most of all, controlled in the same ways, strictly according to centrally determined policies and procedures. The department’s determination here is based on the presumption that all areas of the City should be treated equally. (Another analogy: As a good parent, to treat your children equitably do you treat them each exactly the same?)

It is all too clear that the conventional, BAH reading of this situation will not lead to a happy and healthy resolution of this situation. Were it not for the determination of FDGP, community programming in the Park would not have been initiated in the first place, and certainly would not sustain this current strife. Although it would not be obvious to the thinking of the bureaucratic personality, I would argue that by attempting to set identical standards that intend to “provide excellent service to residents throughout the City,” as Councillor Davis suggests, the City is, in fact, diminishing its capacity for innovation to provide quality services as and where they are needed. According to my research, bureaucracies are structurally incapable of creating innovation (and they’re incapable of perceiving quality, as well). It is only through UCaPP-style undertakings, such as FDGP in this case, that innovation can, and does, occur.

Valence Theory provides a very different understanding of the five issues I raised. Approaching the problem from a Valence Theory context enables more of the salient issues to become discussable, thereby fostering a quicker, more satisfying resolution to the problems at hand, and providing healing to the organizations involved.

1) Valence Theory maintains that there is no difference between internal and external constituencies. All members who share several of the five valence relationships (Economic, Socio-psychological, Identity, Knowledge, and Ecological) are members of the organization. Hence, City workers, officials in PFR, and community members of FDGP are all part of one valence organization—let’s call it Larger Dufferin Grove, for clarity’s sake. One could say, therefore, that there is an allegiance owed by all members to that larger, composite organization.
2) Specifically, the collective agreement and employment contracts in general define only the Economic valence relationship between one or more members and one particular organization, namely, the City. That organization is not Larger Dufferin Grove (although workers and the City are both constituent members of Larger Dufferin Grove; hence, there is a level of complexity here that is not contemplated in collective agreements). Thus, the collective agreement is, ultimately, not a useful complication in resolving this matter, since it serves to divide rather than unite the parties. As well, one key constituency of Larger Dufferin Grove – FDGP – is not a party to the collective agreement; thus, based on a principle of fundamental fairness, the collective agreement should not be used as a determining factor or justification for actions taken on behalf of Larger Dufferin Grove. Yes, this means that management’s assumed unilateral prerogative to control its employees essentially goes out the window. (Don’t worry, since under Valence Theory, collaborative leadership is far more effective and efficient.)
3) Since, according to Valence Theory, organizations are emergent from relationships among people, if you change the people, you change the organization. Specifically, by reassigning Ward 18 recreation supervisor Tino DeCastro to supervising cleaners at Metro Hall, Larger Dufferin Grove has been changed. The principle here is relatively straight-forward to understand: people are not machine parts; they are not interchangeable according to similarity in technical specifications.
4) The term, “conflict of interest” has been bandied about considerably in this circumstance, specifically pertaining to protecting against the potential for fiscal malfeasance (something with which the City is well acquainted). However, as I mentioned in point 4 above, there are clearly conflicted interests on the City’s part (specifically PFR, and even more specifically in the Office of its General Manager—and I am clearly distinguishing between the Office and the person of the GM, according to bureaucratic theory). Interestingly, throughout this entire matter, there is no venue for recognizing and reconciling the specific interests of Larger Dufferin Grove, as each of FDGP, PFR, and City workers represent the interests of their particular component organization (and yes, this is a tricky one to get one’s head around, but think about it for a minute or two because it’s a key concept to understand the distinction between Larger Dufferin Grove and each of its constituent sub-organizations).
5) Treating all communities and citizens fairly and equitably is not to treat them all the same, no matter how much bureaucratic principles would wish it so. A city like Toronto is diverse and complex. Hence, a complexity approach (which is neither a simplistic nor complicated approach) is required to resolve these sorts of issues.

So, where to start? According to Valence Theory, the order of priorities is as follows: Values, Tactility (effects), Relationships, Purpose, Goals & Objectives, and Tasks. The Larger Dufferin Grove organization must convene to create organizational values that are emergent from those of its participant members (and not vice versa). With underlying values commonly understood, the organization can then answer its tactility question: who do we want to touch, and how do we want to touch them today? This will reveal the specific effects that Larger Dufferin Grove will want to enable among all its component constituencies, via the five valence relationships. From an in-depth understanding of these effects and relationships, the specific purpose, goals, and objectives of what is to be accomplished will emerge and come into focus, and from these, the specific tasks that can be taken up by all members.

There are any number of venues and intervention techniques (facilitated through a competent organizational therapist; disclosure: this is what I do) through which this process of organizational healing can occur. However, I maintain that it is vitally important to change the language of interaction among Friends of Dufferin Grove Park, the Department of Parks, Forestry, and Recreation, and the City workers themselves in order to create a common ground of organizational healing for Larger Dufferin Grove.

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01 March 2010

Let the Reflection on the Games Begin

Yes, it was a great hockey game yesterday, and not merely because Sidney Crosby finally lived up to hype surrounding his wunderkind-ness. But key among the many "real stories" of the Vancouver Olympics are the stories of all 206 Canadian athletes who have dedicated their lives over many years, and those of the families and friends of those 206. There is an important lesson to be taken from these games, I think: individual effort, dedication, perseverance, training, preparation can yield tremendous success that creates both direct, and vicarious pride and sense of accomplishment. Additionally, it is the tremendous and often selfless support, encouragement, advice, and sacrifices of those who care about the athlete in question that make a huge difference in whether the ultimate performance realizes the dreams and aspirations of the competitor.

Not to elevate myself or overstate my own experiences over the past six years, I am just completing a marathon not unlike those undertaken by Olympic-level performers. Like them, I have dedicated, persevered through adversity and challenge, prepared, and expended tremendous effort to the exclusion of many other pursuits to complete my Valence Theory research (which will be defended on Friday, June 11, 2010, beginning at 10:00 a.m.). Like them, I have enjoyed and am truly grateful for the often selfless support, encouragement, advice, and sacrifice of those who have cared about me and my work - support that has indeed made a huge difference in my ability to realize my goal. Here, then, are the Acknowledgements that are included in my thesis: 
A doctoral thesis is a marathon, and in many ways appears to be a solitary, isolating process. At the same time, to successfully complete this marathon requires the assistance and support of so many wonderful people that it truly cannot be considered as anything else but a collaboration, reflexively an emergent organization not unlike those about which I write.

Thank you to my doctoral committee—Marilyn Laiken, Derrick de Kerckhove, and Ann Armstrong. Marilyn has encouraged and mentored me throughout my two degrees at OISE, and provided one of the two key inspirations that formed the kernel of Valence Theory through her course on the History and Theory of Organization Development. She was the first to challenge me with the “obviousness” of Valence Theory, and hence, spurred me with the impetus to clearly articulate new thinking about that which everyone already sees. Derrick provided me the other inspiration—the incorporation of the Toronto School of Communication discourse, leading to the realization that I should be able to observe the emergence of new organization consistent with contemporary reality if I was able to notice the “effects that precede the cause.” Ann inspired me to carefully question not only the approach I was taking, but the approaches I was not taking so that I could better appreciate and comprehend the ground of my work. To the three of you, my heartfelt thanks for your guidance, inspiration, and friendship.

To my friends and colleagues at OISE, thank you for participating in making these the six best years of my life. Special thanks to the members of our thesis group – Soosan Latham, Tracey Lloyd, Bettina Boyle, Carole Chatalalsingh, Cristin Stephens-Wegner, and Alena Strauss – for your unwavering support, camaraderie, and encouragement. Thanks as well to all those who participated as core members of Students on Seven through my years here, who helped create a great environment in which to learn, think and play. A heartfelt thank you to Bonnie Burstow, who taught me everything I know about designing and conducting research from a ground of respect and equity.

To my participant organizations, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for granting me permission to connect with some of your members, and especially to the managers and executives in those organizations who facilitated the approval processes. Although I would love to thank you by name, respecting confidentiality does not permit. Sincere thanks to Adam, Frank, Karen, Robert, and Roxanne from Organization A; Aaron, Jeff and Matt from Organization F; Jean and Sam from Inter Pares; Mary, Mina, Sean, and Stan from Organization M; and Cindy, Frances, Loreen, and Roger from Unit 7. The gift of your time and insight is the foundation of this thesis and I will be eternally grateful for all that you have contributed.

Thanks to all those who participated and contributed to my thinking via my weblog and wiki. Taking the time to reflect on what I have been writing has enriched my understanding of this work. Thanks especially to Pam Rostal for pointing me to Nonaka’s use of ba, from which it was a small step to discover the work of Nishida Kitaro. A very special thank you to my dear friend, Christine Sorenson, who has contributed immeasurably to my research, writing, and state of mind throughout this entire process. Finally, thanks to my friends at Salsaholics Anonymous and Toronto Salsa Practice for helping to keep me sane and embodied, enabling me regularly to go out of my mind.

Last, but not least, thank you to my wife, Miriam, and the two, finest young adults I have the privilege to know – my children, David and Julie – for standing by me through the long hours, days, weeks, months, and years. I have been able to begin to realize my dream; I pray that you each will be able to realize yours.

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