Organizations are everywhere and unavoidable. The United States of America, your local place of worship, Starbucks, The George Washington University, Walmart, International Rescue Committee, the Daily Show with John Stewart – these are all organizations, right?
When you think about measuring the success of a given organization, it seems like most of us think about whether an organization is efficient, profitable, and maybe even environmentally friendly. One thing seems clear: an organization’s ethics is far down the list of considerations. And even if people are thinking about ethics, how much is it affecting our decisions as consumers?
Take the NFL for example. The NFL has been shrouded in controversy this year: domestic violence, allegations of cheating, and of course the ongoing (but muted) scandal of head injuries and former players suffering from dementia and early death. This year it seemed like not a week went by that the NFL wasn’t in the news for a scandal and still the Superbowl was the largest watched event in U.S. history! Even at the end of the game players were throwing punches and getting ejected. Not to mention the Superbowl is notorious for being one of the biggest sex trafficking events of the year.
What’s going on? Either we’re very forgetful, very forgiving, we don’t care much about ethics, or something else is up…
Part of the problem, according to Harvard professor and author of the book Justice, Michael Sandel, is that ethics is harder to define. Recently, I heard Sandel speak at GW and he made a point that perhaps one reason we as a society tend to measure things in economic terms is that it’s easier to agree on whether something makes money rather than whether something is ethical. Makes sense. No one can argue with profits and GDP. Numbers are straightforward and mostly safe from disagreement. Asking whether something is ethical seems to open a very convoluted can of worms with only one good answer: “it depends…”
To simplify things (which our brains love to do) I think most of us operate as if ethical is linked to profitable. But let’s assume they aren’t one and the same.
Let’s work out our brains a little. Even as you read the title of this blog post I hope you found yourself asking, “Well, what does it even mean to be ethical?” My response to you: Good point. Let’s talk about it. What does it mean to be ethical?
How do you tell if an organization is ethical? Do you care?
I’m keen to hear your thoughts.
One of the seminal texts of Human Systems Change is The Social Psychology of Organizations by Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn published in 1966 and again in 1978. In short, the book is about Open Systems Theory, which says organizations are open to being affected by their external environments and that the character of every organization is continually in a state of flux. In the sixties when the book was published, this was a fairly revolutionary idea but is taken as a given in organizational literature today.
In class, we discussed the idea that to some extent, all organizations in one way or another are in the business of controlling people’s behavior. Maybe the word “control” isn’t the best. This book was published in 1978, after all, and its language is a little outdated. But the idea remains true: every organization has to ensure people do what they are supposed to do, whatever that is. Think about it: even asking people to show up for work or check emails is an attempt to influence the behavior of employees. But humans are not robots and we (especially Americans) frown on the idea of being controlled by anyone to do anything. At the end of the day, however, that’s what organizations do.
Katz and Kahn write that “every organization faces the task of somehow reducing the variability, instability, and unpredictability of individual human acts” (p. 296). This is where the “control” or influence comes in.
But wait, what about innovation and creativity? Creativity and innovation are generated by fostering the very thing organizations are trying to prevent, i.e. variability, instability, and unpredictability! If you were to look up the ingredients for creativity in the Recipe Book of Geniuses (not a real book), those three words would be at the top of the list! Still, you have companies like Google and Apple trying to structure (or “control”) their work environments to promote creativity.
The paradox emerges.
At the end of the day, organizations are trying to maximize resources, including human resources. Creativity and innovation are scarce resources and the most creative companies are emerging as hugely successful. So, what can organizations do? Should they just throw up their hands and give up in the face of this paradox? Of course not. It also doesn’t work to say, “Okay everyone, from 3:00-5:00 today it’s creativity time!”
Organizations must paradoxically control that which cannot be controlled. They must create spaces for variability, instability, and unpredictability to run wild. How to do this exactly is a question for another time.
As many of you know, I have been working tirelessly for the last few months on a book chapter for a book on education in Thailand published by Springer. The chapter is on Higher Education in Thailand and focuses on trends of privatization and massification. It was a labor of love and took many hours. Thanks to everyone for your thoughts and encouragement. Special thanks to people who advised me in the writing process as well.
My first draft is done and I await comments from the editor, my colleague and friend Gerry Fry at the University of Minnesota. It will likely be published later this year. Books of this nature can have a 6-month editorial process. I am excited to write and publish more about international education and human resource development issues.
In March I will be presenting on global competence development in Thailand as part of the Comparative International Education Society conference in D.C.
I thoroughly enjoy the life of an academic. It has a reputation of being one of isolation but I have found it to be quite the opposite. I enjoy meeting and talking with colleagues around the world, learning about new research, and thinking about how to use research to inform policy and practice. I find much of my time is indeed taken up with reading and writing but there is certainly a very vibrant social aspect to being an academic.
I have been here in Washington, D.C. for over 6 months but I’m not yet used to riding my bike to meet a friend for coffee and riding right in front of the White House. There is a noticeable pulse and energy here and I’m grateful for the opportunity to study in D.C.
The George Washington University is an exciting place to be studying Human and Organizational Learning. Daily I am engaged with issues of adult development, organizational change, and leadership – all within a few blocks from some of America’s main political hotspots.
I’ve settled into my work as Graduate Research Assistant with Dr. Maria Cseh and life as a doctoral student. It wasn’t too long ago I was at Harvard but it still feels like I’m flexing new muscles. At orientation I remember one of the Vice Dean’s words that doctoral studies are transformational. I am beginning to sense that transformation as I develop more thoughtful processes of asking and answering questions.
The outline of the program is fairly standard: two years of coursework, a year of comprehensive exams and defending a proposal, and finishing up with a year of dissertation writing and defense. Courses so far have piqued my interests. Last semester I took courses on the Foundations of Human and Organizational Learning, Adult Learning, and a general course required of all doctoral students on Issues in Education. This semester I’m taking Human Systems Change, Leadership in Organizations and a statistics for research course called Group Comparison Designs and Analyses.
I am working with Dr. Cseh on the Global Competence Enrichment Program and focusing many of my course papers on global competence. I would like to write my dissertation on global competence development, likely with a focus in Thailand and Southeast Asia but many questions remain. My desire is to become an international scholar, author, and leader in human resource development. The road is long but the journey is well worth it.