Another small step up the organisational learning curve


Sometimes it seems academics are accurate in their criticism of their opponents…

Years ago I was at one of those country house gatherings of the great and the good which various foundations host from time to time. It may say more about me than the event, but while I have forgotten the topic completely I do have two vivid memories. The first is of playing for the first time on a full size snooker table (I recall both the delight of having access to this great expanse of green baize and the deepening frustration at my inability to fire the ball accurately from one end to the other).

The second memory is of an American delegate who introduced himself something like this:

‘ I have two jobs, one is a University professor but the other is Mayor of my local town. Sometimes I find the politics, point scoring and adversarialism just too much to deal with so I head off campus and take some time out attending to my civic duties.’

As I was at the time an unhappy and failing academic this really struck a chord with me. Most of my misery was due to my own failings as a researcher, but I did also find it exasperating that academics seemed always to find it necessary to caricature the arguments of their opponents in order to make their own position seem more novel and nuanced.

So when I read in Chris Grey’s book – beguilingly entitled ‘A very short and fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about studying organisations’ - that those who take a positivist view of organisations tend to describe Max Weber’s praise for bureaucracy without referring to his concerns about formal/instrumental rationality triumphing over substantive or value rationality, I took it with a pinch of salt.  'How could anyone write about Weber without almost immediately referring to the basic dichotomy?' I said to myself.

But then I turned to the section on Weber in ‘Writers on Organisations’ ‘by Derek S Pugh and David J Hickson and – blow me down – Grey is right. OK it’s only about 1,500 words, but still there it is in black and white; the Weber who described, explained and praised bureaucracy but not the Weber who worried about the ‘iron cage’ of rationalisation.

Which is all by way of reassuring the many people who gave me thoughtful and helpful comment on some of my New Year posts that I am doing the groundwork. I have received so many good points and recommendations for reading that I have decided to spend the next two or three weeks immersing myself (as much as other work allows) in literature about organisations. So as not to make (even more of) a fool of myself I may desist from further posts on this subject until I feel I have at least a basic grasp of key concepts and controversies.

But before moving on temporarily, I can’t resist sharing with you a fascinating list of ideas about networks that came to me via my good friend Ian Christie. You can read it here.

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