Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Weeding the Garden

“We live in an age of science and abundance. The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took the pains to copy it out by hand, is obviously no longer suited to ‘the needs of society’, or to the conservation of learning. The weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.” (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, 1934, p. 1)

Over at OrgTheory.net, with a lot of help from Andrew Gelman (thanks!), I've been trying to get Fabio Rojas, and his fellow bloggers, to take a position on the work of Karl Weick. Over the past six years, I've been poking around in the foundations of the theory of organizational sensemaking. I use the words "theory" and "foundations" very broadly here; Weick would probably reject them in any strict sense. He'd probably prefer to talk about his "style" and his "craft", which is fine with me. In fact, I have no problem approaching sensemaking scholarship as a body of "literature" and then trace what Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence" that it exhibits in its intertextual relations.

I know that some people find this interest of mine a bit obsessive, even perverse. My explanation is that we here have an influential body of theory, with a very highly respected figure at its head, and it seems to have very low critical standards. Weick has been editor of ASQ and has won the Academy of Management's Irwin Award for "distinguished scholarly contributions". He has been referred to as a "celebrated psychologist" in HBR, and has been called a "first-rate scholar" in appreciations published in key journals. He has a wide and deep influence on how we think about organizing.

He is also a serial plagiarist. Moreover, he distorts his sources (see this book, page 85ff.), and he openly declares that "any old story will do" (as well as any old plan and, famously, any old map). He has argued that we should "do away with top management".* His advice has been presented to top executives in some of the biggest banks and drug companies in the world, who appear to eat it up. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that his seminal 1979 book, The Social Psychology of Organizing, has had an essentially uncritical reception by management theorists (Anderson 2006).

Recently, William Bottom published a paper (PDF) that gave me a better sense of how this situation came about. In "Organizing Intelligence", he talks about how the history of the emergence of "the new social science" (which included the social psychology of organizations) was "obliterated" by what Merton called "the palimpsestic syndrome":

Because so many of the contributing actors ... were not academics, they had very little reason to seek to maintain or advance any scholarly claims. Academics pursuing advancement had little to gain by scrupulously referencing the original contribution. Nor were they likely to be hurt by failing to do so. (275)

What Bottom calls the Ford Foundation Network ensured funding for people who were willing to theorize and "scientize" practices that would otherwise remain merely practical, political, etc. and therefore a bit too unruly for modern governance. This realized the vision that Woodrow Wilson articulated in 1887: "There should be a science of administration which shall seek to strengthen the paths of government, to make its business less un-businesslike, to strengthen and purify its organization, and to crown its duties with dutifulness." (quoted by Bottom, p. 257)

My amateur sociological explanation for Weick's errors is simply that the vast amount of funding that a certain general posture about organizations was able to attract undermined any interest in criticism. From the 1970s onward (at least) things simply got decadent. Rereading William Carlos Williams' In the American Grain, I found a remark that resonates with this point: "We crave filling and eagerly grab for what there is. The next step is, floating upon cash, we wish to be like the others. Now come into the universities the conformists of all colors..." I guess this is a sort of neo-institutionalist explanation of the isomorphism of the field of organization studies, driven by resource dependency.

People are naturally inclined to think I'm exaggerating. They think it's not so bad, or even that I'm completely wrong. Others think Weick can't be doing very much damage, or that organizational sensemaking is a completely harmless field, a purely "academic" exercise. I encourage them to look at the evidence, of course, and to consider that many business school professors idolize Weick and teach him as gospel. (He not only promotes an "attitude of wisdom", he is generally credited with having a great deal of it.) Also, as far as I can tell, my work is largely ignored by people who work in the sensemaking tradition, when it's not outright dismissed. I've been told that one scholar dismissed my criticism while teaching a class (a student had asked), saying that he'd be honored if Weick plagiarized his work.

Williams' friend Ezra Pound warned us to "watch the beaneries", i.e., the universities, and I guess that's what I'm doing. "The man of understanding," said Pound, "can no more sit quiet and resigned while his country lets literature decay than a good doctor could sit quiet and contented while some ignorant child was infecting itself with tuberculosis under the impression that it was merely eating jam tarts." I really do think Weick's errors infect the literature on organizations (and, sometimes, that his peers think they're eating jam tarts!). And it can be demonstrated that it infects the practice of organizing. His stories are told from Silicon Valley to Wall Street. They are told in the pharmaceutical industry and are also a big hit among management consultants. I think it's important that the stories scholars tell leaders are as accurate as they can be. And I think they'll only get that way if they are exposed to criticism. So I'm going to keep plugging away at it until I get the point across.

*I've removed a too simplistic claim from this sentence that Weick misread Bateson's theory of alcoholism.

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