Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reading :: Distant Publics

Distant Publics: Development Rhetoric and the Subject of Crisis
By Jenny Rice


I finished this book a while back, but have only now eked out some time to review it. Here, Jenny Rice examines public discourse set around issues of development in my beloved hometown and the place where Jenny earned her PhD: Austin, Texas. She asks: "How do people argue, debate, and deliberate about the spaces where we live, work, shop, and travel?" And why does development proliferate even though it seems to be so broadly disliked? Her answer revolves around a figure, "the exceptional public subject," who "occupies a precarious position between publicness and a withdrawal from publicness. It is a subjectivity thoroughly grounded in feeling, which makes this rhetorical position so difficult to change" (p.5). These "exceptional subjects imagine themselves to be part of a wider public simply by feeling" and "feeling too often serves as the primary connective tissue to our public spaces" (p.6). The fallout: "our habits of public discourse can paradoxically contribute to the demise of healthy public discourse" (p.5).

Rice develops this argument via various case studies (not in the Yin sense of an empirical research methodology, but rather in the sense of specific incidents that serve as epicenters for rhetorical analysis). These case studies are well developed, providing interesting and sometimes poignant narratives about development issues: urban (over)development as exemplified by strip malls and the Austin Smart Growth Initiative (Ch.1), eminent domain as illustrated by the Kelo decision (Ch.2), a fight over how a developer would affect Barton Springs and the aquifer (Ch.3), the demise of Austin's beloved Armadillo World Headquarters (Ch.4), and the issue of East Austin gentrification (Ch.5). Each is compelling, and each illustrates different aspects of Rice's argument about public spaces and the exceptional public subjects who feel for them—sometimes with too much affect, but too little effect.

What shall we do, then, about public discourse? In the next chapter, Rice argues that "we must pursue inquiry as a mode of publicness" (p.164). That is, we must stretch past the vernacular talk that tends to generate the exceptional public subject: as composition teachers, rather than asking students to write and argue about things that ignite their passions, perhaps we should ask them to inquire about things first, making inquiry the telos rather than the means by which students are expected to engage their passions (Ch.6, esp. p.168). By encouraging students to write about their passions, Rice says, we are training them to become exceptional public subjects who feel rather than acting; by making inquiry the object, we are training them to become engaged in public inquiry in which they learn how to interrogate the multiple asymmetrical networks in which they are enmeshed (pp.168-169).

Should you read this book? Of course! It's outside my particular research focus, but I'm enmeshed in these multiple public networks and so are you. Take a look, even if you're not specifically interested in public rhetoric and theory. And if you teach, consider taking Ch.6 in particular to heart.

Reading :: Diffusion of Innovations, Fifth Edition

Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition
By Everett M. Rogers


In Bruno Latour's discussions of science and technology, he often contrasts two models by which new innovations spread: diffusion and translation. Roughly, diffusion is seen as a process by which people take up an innovation "as is" and apply it unaltered. Translation is a process in which people adapt the innovation for their own contexts. That is, as Latour likes to say, there is no adoption without adaptation.

However, Latour is using a fairly crabbed understanding of what scholars mean by diffusion. In this thick and comprehensive book, Everett Rogers, whose name (according to the back cover) is "virtually synonymous with the study of the diffusion of innovations," gives us a much broader understanding of diffusion research. He acknowledges that diffusion research has had a pro-innovation bias in which researchers coded adoption as positive and adaptation as bad (p.106), but he also notes that diffusion scholars have critiqued this bias since the 1970s (p.110) and says that now "diffusion scholars no longer assume that an innovation is 'perfect' for all potential adopters in solving their problems and meeting their needs" (p.115).

I start out with this example for two reasons. One is that it helps me—and, presumably, long-time readers—to situate this book in relationship to the science and technology studies (STS) scholarship with which my own field is familiar. The other is that it illustrates the key advantage of this book: it offers a broad, wide-ranging, and thorough overview of diffusion research, including its history, contributions, and criticisms (Ch.2-3) as well as how innovations are generated (Ch.4), how people decide whether to adopt/adapt an innovation (Ch.5), what innovation attributes affect adoption rates (Ch.6), categories of adopters (Ch.7), diffusion networks (Ch.8), change agents (Ch.9), innovation in organizations (Ch.10), and consequences of innovations—good and bad (Ch.11).

Throughout this massive discussion (471pp, not counting end matter), Rogers overviews the field of diffusion studies, provides illustrative case studies, discusses failures as well as successes, and even discusses and critiques some of his early conclusions that he believes should be revisited. He discusses how various fields and strands (including social construction of technology) have contributed to diffusion studies (although he doesn't name-check Latour in particular). And he firmly connects this discussion to sociological studies and touchstones (he was trained as a rural sociologist).

Granted, I don't know a lot about diffusion studies, but my impression is that this book provides a strong introduction to the field. If you're studying innovations, diffusion, technology commercialization, or related concerns, please do pick it up.

Reading :: Organizational Culture and Leadership

Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th edition
By Edgar H. Schein


One of the blind reviewers for my latest book (which will be published in March 2015) suggested I read this book. More recently, one of our professors in the HDO program assigned it to her students. With two recommendations so close together, I decided it was time to take the book for a spin.

What did I think of it? I'm still sorting that out.

According to the back cover, this book is "one of the most influential management books of all time." Its author has been studying and consulting on organizational culture for decades—his earliest cited work in this volume is dated 1961—and he draws on a deep well of his and others' organizational studies to discuss what organizational culture is and what leadership entails. Since the book is written for management rather than scholars, it is full of categories and heuristics aimed at helping that audience think through the various issues of culture.

Schein has clearly thought through the relevant issues, leading to fairly precise definitions. For instance, he defines "the culture of a group" as "a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to these problems" (p.18). He distinguishes organizational cultures from macrocultures (e.g., nations), subcultures (e.g., occupational groups), and microcultures (e.g., microsystems) (p.2). Within culture, leadership involves becoming influential in shaping the values and behaviors of others in the group (p.3). Culture, he says, implies structural stability, depth, breadth, and patterning or integration (pp.16-17). Critically, he says (over and over), culture cannot be inferred only from behavior: culture is driven by shared basic assumptions, which may not be accessible to outsiders through observations or even through initial interviews (p.20); they might not even be easily accessible to the participants themselves.

Schein argues that culture has three levels: artifacts (which include visible structures and processes as well as observed behavior); espoused beliefs and values (which includes ideals, ideologies, and rationalizations); and basic underlying assumptions (which are unconscious and taken-for-granted, but which determine bedrock things such as behavior and perception) (p.24). New values can be proposed (on the second level) but do not become part of the underlying assumptions until they have been "empirically tested" (p.26). These basic assumptions then become theories-in-use, which are nonconfrontable and nondebatable (p.28). In fact, when cultural assumptions conflict, new solutions have to keep each cultural assumption intact in order to be accepted (p.31).

In organizations, Schein says, three generic subcultures are in effect: the operator subculture (or "the front line"), the engineering/design subculture; and the executive subculture (Ch.4). These subcultures often work at cross purposes, and the lack of alignment causes many problems that are ascribed to issues such as bureaucracy, environment, or personality (p.65).

The culture's structure is the same at different levels, Schein says, but its content (rules, norms, values, assumptions) vary (p.69). Schein notes that some have attempted to address the issue of structure through organizational typologies (such as Cameron and Quinn's CVF), but he argues that such typologies pose several analytical problems—particularly when administered in survey form. To pick out two criticisms that apply to typologies in general rather than to survey methodology: (A) such typologies are typically based on a priori comparative dimensions, and there's no way to tell which dimensions will be most salient to the case until one actually gets into the case (p.160), and (B) the sample of employees may not be representative of the key culture carriers (p.160). Typologies may also imply, as CVF does, that the poles of each dimension are in conflict "and the cultural solution is how to reconcile them"; based on his deep experience in examining organizations, Schein is unconvinced, although he allows that the CVF may provide "a useful diagnostic" for correlating managerial climate and performance (p.168). In sum, Schein believes that such typologies "simplify thinking and provide useful categories for sorting out the complexities we must deal with when we confront organizational realities." But they tend to be oversimplified and their categories may be irrelevant or incorrect. The effort to classify the organization into a single category involves making a lot of assumptions, many of which may not hold (p.175).

In the next chapter, Chapter 11, Schein discusses categories of research on organizations. He uses a matrix: level of subject involvement (low, medium, and high) vs. level of researcher involvement (low/medium: quantitative; high: qualitative) (p.181). The rest of the chapter weighs these different approaches—in detail.

Skipping ahead, we get to Chapter 14. Here, Schein seems to say that leaders take an outsized role in setting culture. He discusses the mechanisms in detail; I'll just comment that I am as skeptical of this argument as Schein is about organizational typologies.

By Chapter 17, we get to "a conceptual model for managed culture change," and Chapter 18 builds on that discussion by proffering an approach to "culture assessment as part of managerial organized change." Extraordinarily, given the previous discussion, Schein claims that "culture can be assessed by means of various individual and group interview processes ... Such assessments can be usefully made by insiders in as little as a half-day" (p.326, my emphasis).

So, now that I've recapitulated the book's highlights, what do I think?

The book is indeed broad and deep, and the author's long and detailed experience gives him a broad number of examples as well as a strong set of conceptual tools to interpret them. I would have liked to see the book become more focused and parsimonious, though, especially in reusing several of the examples across chapters.

Some of the authors' critiques stick: For instance, the critique of typologies is well thought out and helped me to think through some of the issues in the typologies I've read and discussed on this blog (and in my upcoming article and book). But the author doesn't distinguish strongly between the theoretical issues of such typologies and the methodological issues of surveys. As noted above, I am also skeptical of the outsized role that the author assigns to leaders in the organization, as well as his assertion that insiders can assess culture in a half day—this assertion seems to cut against his earlier claims about deep assumptions in the culture.

At the same time, the book also talks through organizational culture using heuristics that could be potentially very useful. For instance, the distinction among levels of culture not only makes sense, it can be put in dialogue with other theoretical and methodological approaches to organizational culture.

So: should you read it? If you're interested in organizational culture, yes. But if you have already read books on organizational culture or qualitative research, you may find yourself skimming it in several chapters.

Reading :: Service-Dominant Logic

Service-Dominant Logic: Premises, Perspectives, Possibilities
By Robert F. Lusch and Stephen L. Vargo


If you had told me a few years ago that I would be reading marketing books, I would not have believed you. But marketing turns out to be a fascinating and oddly parallel area of study for someone interested in professional communication—and it's also a vital field for me to understand due to the research study I'm currently conducting.

Like any other field, marketing has differences, disagreements, and controversies. One recent fissure has been in how people define the value proposition, which is (roughly) the promise of value that a good or service can offer a customer. The value proposition is often discussed, but rarely defined or investigated rigorously in the marketing literature; it's a rather vague term, like "context." But traditionally, ever since the term was first used in the 1980s, the value proposition has been understood as built into the good or service by the supplier, then offered to customers, who might then accept or reject it.

But in 2004, Vargo and Lusch published an article that challenged this understanding of the value proposition and the logic that defined it:

Vargo, S. L., & Lusch, R. F. (2004). Evolving to a New Dominant Logic for Marketing. Journal of Marketing, 68(1), 1–17.

In their 2004 piece, Vargo and Lusch argued that marketing had assumed what they call goods-dominant logic (GDL) in which value was embedded in goods and offered to consumers. Instead, they argued, marketing should be understood in terms of service-dominant logic (SDL), in which value emerged from a dialogue among resource integrators. They and others developed this line of thinking in a series of articles. In this book, they summarize and extend the discussion further.

In Chapter 1, they argue:
Problems emerge immediately when constructing simple theories of exchange, business, and society. Arguably, the most difficult of these problems is the dominance of an institutional logic with serious limitations, which is deeply rooted in a discipline and thus monopolizes associated thought processes. One such worldview is G-D [goods-dominant] logic. This logic frames the world of exchange in terms of units of output (goods). Others have referred to it as “old enterprise logic,” “manufacturing logic,” and other, similarly descriptive tags. 
G-D logic views the production and exchange of goods as the central components of business and economics. That is, it frames the purpose of the firm and the function of economic exchange in terms of making and distributing products – units of output, usually tangible. It is closely aligned with neoclassical economics, which views actors as rational, firms as profit-maximizing, customers as utility-maximizing, information and resources as flowing easily among economic actors, and markets as equilibrium-seeking – scholars within and outside economics have challenged all these perspectives. (p.4)
G-D logic, they say, developed from economics and inherited economics' focus on exchange-value, a focus that can be traced back to the limitations and peculiarities that Adam Smith dealt with in his famous treatise The Wealth of Nations (pp.6-7). But, the authors argue, Smith used exchange-value as a proxy for use-value:
The early scholars, including Smith in his original analysis of economic exchange, had it right all along: value is created at the point of what we have been calling “consumption” and, more recently, “experience”, rather than during production. (p.7)
Focusing on use-value means that we must acknowledge that "value is cocreated" among all entities involved in the transaction (p.8). That entails seeing each transaction as a service rather than a good, a service in which we must recognize "the most important resources being integrated and doing the integration – human actors with their skills, knowledge, and innovative and entrepreneurial abilities. What is needed is a logic that, rather than abandoning goods logic, transcends it, by recognizing the primacy of human resources applied for the benefit of others (and ourselves) – service" (p.8). Whereas G-D Logic saw the relationship as being between producers and consumers, S-D Logic removes that distinction: "Fundamentally, all actors (e.g., business firms, nonprofit and government organizations, individuals, and households) have a common purpose: value cocreation through resource integration and service-for-service exchange" (p.10). For instance, rather than focusing on the goods being exchanged (say, a fisherman and a farmer exchange fish for grain), we should examine the services that are involved (say, "the application of protein-producing competences for the application of carbohydrate-producing competences," p.11). "This service-oriented interpretation focuses attention on the only resource the actors really possess to take to market: their own knowledge and skills" (p.11). And thus, the authors say, we get to the key difference in understanding the business process: between "selling things to people and understanding it as serving the exchange partner's needs. This difference is a key difference between G-D and S-D logic" (p.11).  

Following from this distinction are four axioms:

  • "Service is the fundamental basis for exchange"— implying that "(1) goods are appliances for service provision, (2) all businesses are service businesses, and (3) all economies are service economies."
  • "The customer is always a cocreator of value."
  • "All social and economic actors are resource integrators," that is, agents in combining and integrating resources to produce value.
  • "Value is always uniquely and phenomenologically determined by the beneficiary" (pp.15-16)
Let's pause here. When I first began reading the marketing literature to better understand the value proposition, I was struck by three things: how vague the term was, how it was understood as built into the good, and how it was consistently discussed within the dichotomy of producers (sellers) and consumers (buyers). Scholars in rhetoric and writing studies may see parallels with the term "meaning" in our field, a vague term for something that was once understood as embedded in the text, unilaterally communicated from writer to reader. Eventually, rhetoric and writing scholars shifted to the consensus that meaning is cocreated in communicative interactions: meaning was eventually seen not as a noun, a quality embedded in a material, but rather the result of a verb, an interaction across many participants and media. That is, the shift to S-D logic described in this book sounds a lot like the interpretive turn that rhetoric and writing took in the 1980s. So Vargo and Lusch's 2004 article and this 2014 book seem very familiar to me in large chunks of the argument.

Some of their cites do as well, although they don't engage with these to the extent that I think they should. For instance, they cite Callon on performativity on p.18. But Callon has much more to say about economic interactions that would be even more directly relevant: his work on interessement, for instance, could provide a strong theoretical basis for discussing how various stakeholders are locked into place around an emergent value proposition. On p.46, they cite Zuboff and Maxmin's 2002 book, pointing out that Z&M describe a shift from "enterprise logic" to "relational logic" and acknowledging that this is essentially the shift from G-D to S-D logic; but they do this through a drive-by cite rather than spending much time exploring the parallels. However, they do draw on Giddens' structuration theory (p.23 et passim), a framework that is familiar to professional communication types via Orlikowski and Yates. 

This brings us back to the book's argument. Via structuration theory, the authors describe how actors create the environmental structure for their activities, and the environment then structures their future actions:
To capture these dualistic, dynamic, resource-integrating (through service exchange), enabling, and constraining value-( co-) creating structures, we use the term “service ecosystems.” A service ecosystem is a relatively self-contained, self-adjusting system of resource-integrating actors that are connected by shared institutional logics and mutual value creation through service exchange. By including shared institutional logics we point towards a link between S-D logic and structuration theory which describes human actions within social systems as enabled and constrained by social structures – that is, as contextual and contingent. (pp.24-25)
If we view things in this way, "the strategic advantage of a firm can be recast from a logic that focuses on making better products to increase market share in existing markets to one of redefining existing markets for strategic advantage or defining and thus creating new markets" (p.25). That is, the authors claim that using S-D logic pushes us away from what are elsewhere called "red ocean" markets (established commodities) and toward "blue ocean" markets (innovations)

At this point of the review, I pause and note that everything I've quoted is in the introduction. Rather than going through the entire book in this detail, I'll pull out some highlights.

First, the authors define the value proposition:
 Therefore, a value proposition under S-D logic is how an actor co-proposes to positively affect another actor. This recognizes that value is obtained when an actor experiences through engagement with the firm the unfolding of the interactive market offering. Stated alternatively, firms and other actors can offer potential value through value propositions; however, they cannot create value but only cocreate it.  
Value propositions are therefore promises but they must be fulfilled. Firms and actors, in general in developing exchange relationships, should view their role as offering more compelling value propositions than other competing actors but then making sure, to the extent possible, that actual value as experienced by the beneficiary meets or exceeds promised value. (pp.72)
Elsewhere, the authors argue that a value proposition is an invitation to engage (p.187). The value is always co-created, but phenomenologically determined by the beneficiary (p.187).

If the beneficiary co-creates value, we must shift from "marketing-to" to "marketing-with" (p.78). And rather than seeing relationships as B2B, B2C, etc., Lusch and Vargo therefore see all relationships as "A2A" or actor-to-actor (p.89). In Chapter 5, "It's all actor-to-actor (A2A)," the authors distinguish among different types of exchange institutions: reciprocity ("an exchange of obligations between actors," p.108), redistribution ("when an authority or central actor gathers or takes the goods and service capacity of actors and allocates back to actors according to some type of custom, tradition, rule, or simply fiat," p.109), and market exchange (in which "the actors interface to establish the value-in-exchange for tradable resources," p.110). The authors also discuss hybrid exchange systems, which combine two or more of the above. Readers of this blog may see similarities with typologies of work organization, such as Heckscher and Adler's, Ronfeldt's, and Boisot's.  

I could go on and on, but you get the gist. This is an interesting and, I think, important book for summarizing the SDL position. Although it primarily functions as a summary for the growing body of work on SDL, it does also contribute some new and elaborated discussion of the position. And it's an easy read. If you have even the remotest interest in marketing, value creation, or innovation, take a look.

Monday, June 09, 2014

(Now get Topsight for less)

In January 2013, I published Topsight via Amazon CreateSpace. Since then, it's been used in graduate and undergraduate courses in technical communication across the country and I've had the pleasure of talking with people in person and on Skype about how the book has been useful to them. The response has been better than I hoped.

If you haven't picked up Topsight yet, this is a good time to do so: I just lowered the price of the print version from $24.99 to $19.99, making it even easier to pick the book up out of curiosity, assign it to classes, or hand it out as a party favor at a research-themed party. The Kindle version should also drop in price in the near future.