Thursday, February 14, 2013

Reading :: Net-Works

Net-Works: Workplace Change in the Global Economy: A Critical and Practical GuideBy Marvin S. Finkelstein

I ran across this book at UT's library while looking up a book on a related topic. It's written to introduce undergraduates and other nonspecialists to a sociological take on the global economy—chapters are named with declarative sentences such as "The Workplace is Socially Constructed" and "Teamwork Trumps Individualism at Work"—but I thought it might offer some concepts that weren't familiar to me.

Did it? Sort of. But it raised more questions than it answered.

On the plus side, the book provides some good overviews of sociological arguments that bear on the global economy. For instance, in Ch.1, the author discusses bureaucracy, putting it in a Weberian context. In other places, the author discusses the differences between groups and teams (p.66) and the concept of boundary management (p.72).

On the minus side, the book tends to advocate quite strongly for "flatter, less hierarchical social structures [that] can help make workplace arrangements more participatory, flexible, and able to cope with rapid change" (p.29); it contrasts participatory workplaces with authoritarian ones, claiming that the former "help create a more successful workplace" (p.39). Although I quite like the idea of such workplaces, different organizational structures and excel at different sorts of things. I agree with the author that flatter organization is usually associated with "creativity and innovation" (p.39), but it's also associated with higher transaction costs, lower efficiency, and lower ability to produce predictable outcomes. A participatory workplace might be "a more successful workplace" if you're talking about a creative shop that provides unique, innovative solutions, but it might be dramatically less successful if you're trying to ensure water quality or manufacture a million identical widgets.

I'm also skeptical about the author's claims that an authoritative workplace means that "we can't be ourselves" (p.42), while in a participatory workplace, "core inner feelings can be expressed through social roles in conscious ways" (p.43)—at best, an oversimplification. Even when working in small, flat organizations, people still perform.

The simplified contrast between authoritarian and participatory workplaces shows up in other ways. For instance, the author later argues that "individuals rely on the shared values, beliefs, and common goals of others to create informal social relationships that foster information feedback and rapid communication" (p.49)—something that is true of some, typically stable, organizations, but that doesn't fit well with the thin trust of collaborative communities, temporary alliances among organizations that share a goal, or people working within overlapping relations. Not to mention coopetition. Indeed, the author later mentions that some net-works are composed of temporary contractors, and worries that these net-works will reduce mutual obligation and trust (pp.108-109); he never quite squares this circle.

Ultimately, I was dissatisfied with the book. Although it does explore issues in the global economy, in my reading, it mistakes fundamental changes in work structure for voluntary changes in workplace relations. Consequently, it portrays globalized net-work as an aggregation of work, globalization, and new technologies rather than a qualitative change in work.

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