Applied Sociology Group member Miriam Green talks about her new book Management Scholarship and Organisational Change: Representing Burns and Stalker (Routledge, 2019).

Introduction

My book aims to demonstrate the fragility of some scholarship in the social sciences, and its vulnerability to outside pressures from epistemological, ontological and methodological criteria. It does this through a critical analysis of mainstream representations of a seminal text on change management.

How this project came about

When teaching accounting students, I often used articles from Accounting, Organizations and Society, a journal straddling the boundary between accounting and organisation studies. The students were highly critical of one article by an established management accounting scholar, Robert Simons (1987), because he had interviewed only senior managers for his research. The students knew that in large organisations senior managers often did not know what was happening at lower levels.

Simons had used a seminal management studies book: Tom Burns and G.M. Stalker’s The Management of Innovation (1961, 1966, 1994), as a basis for his research.  His aims were to test Burns and Stalker’s research finding that companies with flexible, ‘organic’ structures could cope with organisational change more successfully than companies with hierarchical ‘mechanistic’ structures.

Spurred on by the students’ critique, I read Burns and Stalker’s book. Their research had a very different focus. Their sources of information were employees in different departments and crucially, at different levels in their organisations’ hierarchies. Their research methods were different from Simons’ too. Simons had, albeit very expertly, applied mostly objectivist, positivist research methods, using a survey with closed questions and a Likert-type scale, and statistical analysis. Burns and Stalker’s research was entirely qualitative, using interviews, observation in various locations such as laboratories and offices, meetings, discussions and social conversations.

Their research was wider than the relationship between organisational structure and environment. In the 1966 edition’s preface, Burns had specifically argued against studying organisations in terms of ‘structured immobility’. Structural issues had occupied only one chapter in their book, with the part used by Simons covering just four out of 262 pages.  The other chapters were about non-structural issues such as employee commitment and resistance, hierarchical and departmental conflict, the capability of chief executives to steer their companies through such change and the many failed organisational strategies.

My first steps

These discrepancies, particularly from a respected and widely cited scholar such as Simons (which as it turned out, was the norm in mainstream management and management accounting scholarship), seemed a suitable subject for research for a PhD and then for this book. I selected some mainstream, high-ranking management journals, principally the Administrative Science Quarterly and Accounting Organisations and Society to see how other scholars had interpreted and used Burns and Stalker’s ideas. In nearly every case their approach was similar to Simons’ – surveying only the most senior manager(s); investigating only organisation structures in relation to their environments; using surveys with closed questions and Likert-type scales, statistically analysed, and leaving out the other issues regarded by Burns and Stalker as crucial in explaining organisational outcomes.

Why?

Why were there these substantial differences? And how did these scholars get away with it?

One set of answers lies in the academy which promoted objectivist, positivist, research, as this was regarded as ‘scientific’ and therefore legitimate.

What constitutes ‘scientific’?

Discrepancies can be a spur to investigation. I noticed that concepts of what constituted science varied, and further research led me to the conclusion that science was, if anything, anti-positivist. It was not necessarily empirical – using only observable data; nor did it always use standard scientific methods. For there to be new discoveries, science had to be about new questions, new ways of thinking with the use of new methods. Science also was not value free – another sacred canon of positivism. Kuhn (1980) argued that scientific communities determined what counted as valid scientific problems and how they should be investigated.

Nor is science necessarily quantitative. Feyerabend (1993) pointed out how one of the most quantitative of the sciences, celestial mechanics, overcame certain problems through qualitative approaches. The idea that knowledge had to be objective, excluding the subjectivity of the researcher – a major criticism levelled against qualitative researchers – was shown to be untenable.  Hanson (1972) gave the example of the dawn being interpreted differently by the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Kepler, not because the data was different but because of their own particular understandings of the phenomenon.

Implications for scholarship in the social sciences

This drives a coach and horses through positivist claims for exclusive legitimacy of what counts as knowledge. Statistically-based work of course has its place, but it is not the only legitimate approach. And if this does not hold true in the natural sciences, what of the social sciences where human agency can be a determining outcome in organisations and elsewhere?

Much management research – including Simon’s (1987) study ­ goes through the motions: using surveys, quantitative measures and statistical analysis that appears to supply a ‘scientific’ gloss.  But it does not put in the groundwork which, as Bourdieu (1990) argued, allows researchers to reach new understandings and new visions through their painstaking, soul-searching, open-minded, exploratory work. Instead, they start from a limited assumption (in Simons’ case, that all one needs to research is structure/environment), and that is enough to understand organisational change.  By no stretch of the imagination does this mainstream management research put in the ‘long effort’: something that Burns and Stalker managed to achieve in their complex multi-faceted study.

Why then did the thinness of claims to legitimacy based on scientific work, themselves based on misconceptions of natural science research methodologies, not hold any sway in the academy?

Objectivist approaches have their political aspects. If one looks only at issues outside human agency, one denies the possibility that people other than senior managers can have any power over organisational processes and outcomes. It is a managerialist stance, where power as well as knowledge is accorded mainly to senior management. In my book, I argue for more inclusive scholarship, using multi-paradigmatic approaches. I believe that this would provide more relevance, sustainability, practicality and, dare I say truth, than is present in solely positivist approaches.

References

Burns, T. and Stalker, G.M. (1961) The Management of Innovation. London. Tavistock Publishing.

Simons, R. (1987) Accounting control systems and business strategy: an empirical analysis. Accounting Organizations and Society, 12(4): 357-374.

Miriam Green is senior lecturer in Organisation Studies at Icon College of Technology and Management, UK.


1 Comment

Annika Coughlin · 30th September 2020 at 22:21

Very interesting, thanks!

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