Notes on the Meaning of Work

[We’re pleased to welcome author, Anne-Laure Fayard of New York University. She recently published an article in the Journal of Management Inquiry entitled “Notes on the Meaning of Work: Labor, Work, and Action in the 21st Century” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, she reflects on the backstory and motivation for this research:]

This piece is a reflective essay that I started a few years ago when I submitted a paper for a subtheme “Reflections on New Worlds of Work” for the EGOS conference. I had at the time two ongoing projects where the concept of “work” emerged as relevant: one was a research project on an open innovation platform for social innovation where I observed people spending a lot of time working on developing ideas and / or giving feedback to other participants although they did not seem to see it as work. At the same time, I had been noticing an increasing dissatisfaction with managers in a big international company where they kept complaining that their work has become boring and felt more like labor than work. These two empirical observations made me curious to explore more how people interpreted work as well as whether work as a practice has changed. Having been trained as a philosopher, I could not help to go back to texts and philosophers I’ve read. This led to a first version that I presented at the conference and the feedback was positive overall.

About a year later, I started reading more and more about AI, automation and future of work. I was invited to various seminars and working groups. One thing that was obvious to me was that the debates, sometime fierce, did not reflect one single understanding of the concept of work. In fact, that was one of the sources of the debates. It seemed to me that turning to philosophy would be generative. Indeed, one of the main preoccupations of philosophy is to clarify, through the analysis of meaning, the questions at stake. A philosophical analysis thus provides concepts that can explain empirical phenomena. I felt that the exploratory piece I had previously written had become particularly timely in the context of the debates on the future of work, and thus I revised it and submitted it to the Journal of Management Inquiry. I was lucky to have an editor and reviewers who thought my endeavor was worthwhile and pushed me to clarify and deepen my argument. In the process, the empirical focus (my original starting point) shifted on the gig economy. Along the way I read a lot about the issues and mobile on-demand platforms such as Uber. I also engaged with literatures that I did not know about and enjoyed learning about and integrating them in my thinking. One of the reviewers framed the review process as a constructive conversation and while the review process does not always feel like this, in this case, it really did feel like a constructive conversation where the reviewers suggested directions to explore theoretically and empirically. In the end, I hope these notes on the meaning of work will provide conceptual distinctions productive for the analysis of the “new worlds of work.”

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The Key to Getting off on the Right Foot – A conversation with James Timpson on Hiring Offenders

[We’re pleased to welcome authors, Jenna Pandeli and Nicholas O’Regan of the University of the West of England. They recently published an article in the Journal of Management Inquiry entitled “Risky Business? The Value of Employing Offenders and Ex-Offenders: An Interview With James Timpson, Chief Executive of Timpson” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they reflect on the motivations for this research:]

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James Timpson delivered a distinguished address at UWE Bristol, following which this paper was completed. I was delighted to be part of the interview team in adding the analysis and reflections to the interview given my research background in offender employment. My PhD research explored the employment of prisoner in private industries during their incarceration (Pandeli et al, 2018) and I am passionate about developing the use of employment as a form of rehabilitation rather than as simply a tool to pass time for prisoners, or as a form of additional income for the prison.

James’s approach provides an example of great practice for working with offenders; he works with them during their incarceration and then provides many with the opportunity to work for Timpson’s upon release. This type of ‘through the gates’ care is exactly what is needed and should be encouraged. Much of the literature on hiring offenders does point towards this approach, and so it is great to provide a real-life example of how this is working in practice to show how the theoretical and practical can go hand-in-hand.

One of the key motivations for writing this ‘meet the person’ piece is the positive impact that we might be able to have by presenting an employer’s insight into working with offenders, to show how providing these individuals with the opportunity to undertake meaningful, empowering work can have a positive impact on their lives and reduce the likelihood of them returning to crime. We believe that this can be useful to a wide range of practitioners including policy makers, the prison and probation service as well as other employers who may be thinking about working with offenders.

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Balancing Frontliners’ Customer- and Coworker-Directed Behaviors When Serving Business Customers

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Michel van der Borgh of Copenhagen Business School, Ad de Jong of Copenhagen Business School, and Edwin J. Nijssen of Eindhoven University of Technology. They recently published an article in Journal of Service Research entitled “Balancing Frontliners’ Customer- and Coworker-Directed Behaviors When Serving Business Customers,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they reflect on this research:]

What motivated you to pursue this research?

The motivation for our research emerged from observations that prior literature mainly considered frontline employee (FLE) behaviors in isolation. This stands in sharp contrast with day-to-day practice where FLE’s constantly have to juggle between different tasks for different stakeholders. It is analogous to scholars who constantly have to balance time between research and teaching, among other things. Before this study we did some research on ambidexterity, which focusses more on paradoxical situations where FLE’s seem to be making trade-offs. Although the idea of ambidexterity also fits our research on customer-coworker balance, we felt that the theoretical underpinning was weak. When looking for other theoretical framework we realized that our situation of salespeople trying to balance multiple duties was very similar to something that many people can relate to; work-life balance. Looking into this stream of literature we found some articles pointing to role balance theory, which is rooted in role theory. The ideas of this theoretical framework matched very much with our observations of employees in the frontline. So, our motivation was borne out of personal observations, our knowledge of extant research, and new insights from related fields.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

In our study we employ a novel approach to study balance. While previous studies on ambidexterity and work-life balance often used difference scores or multiplicative measures of both roles, we employ surface response modeling to tease out the interrelationship between customer and coworker-directed behaviors on performance. We were inspired by a 2014 study by Mullins et al. in the Journal of Marketing who employed the same analytical approach to investigate salesperson perceptional accuracy of customer relationship quality. All in all, our work demonstrates that the surface response modeling approach using polynomial regression techniques is better in capturing true effects. We urge future research to apply a similar approach.

What did not make it into your published manuscript that you would like to share with us?

In our paper we decided not to explicitly link our research with the research on ambidexterity since it complicated the already complex story. This is a pity as ambidexterity research also would benefit handsomely from applying these more advanced analytical approaches to examine the true effects of, for instance exploration and exploitation on performance outcomes.

How important is it for customers to have a positive experience when dealing with a company? The evidence from all manner of research disciplines (Psychology, Management, and Marketing) and reports from the field by consultants and managers is that this encounter is absolutely critical. In the field of services marketing the place where this encounter happens is called the “organizational frontlines.” The frontlines refers to everything that occurs when the customer is in contact with the company: the people, the technology, the facilities and the processes. Research on organizational frontlines has focused in on the immediate contact of the customer with the company, especially contact with employees who serve them and the technology that serves them. This research reveals that knowledgeable and skilled service employees and technology that is accurate, speedy and easy to use play important roles in meeting customer expectations and producing customer satisfaction and loyalty.

This commentary on a special issue of the Journal of Service Research that was about organizational frontlines asks the following question: What kind of company context produces the employees and the technology that meets customers’ expectations and satisfies them? That is, given the importance of what happens at the frontlines the commentary considers what companies can do to ensure that what happens there is maximally positive. So, what can companies do?

We propose that companies must have the following mind-sets to create a context in which customers’ experience at the frontlines is optimal:

1. They must have a socio-technical systems mind-set. Socio-technical systems understand that there is no such thing as technology that stands alone. A socio-technical mind-set ensures that those who design and implement technology have those who use it (employees) and those who are served by it (customers) as there focus.

2. They must have a service climate mind set. A service climate mind-set is created in companies when HR, Marketing and Operations all work together to ensure that the people, the products/services, and the technology of a company all focus in on producing a positive customer experience. These functions can’t be silos because they all impact customers. These functions work together well when there is an internal service mind-set as well: “We help each other produce for our customers.”

3. They must have a strong service HR systems mind-set. Employees who deal immediately with customers must be only one focus of HR; as noted earlier, a service mind-set is critical also in those who design and implement technology and, we would add, those who design products and services.

4. They must have a multi-level mind-set. Companies must see themselves as containing three important levels: A managerial level, an employee level and a customer level. Thus, companies can’t divorce the customer from the company and executives can’t divorce employees from their strategies. In service organizations these different levels are in continuous interaction—at least in the best such companies.

Our proposal is that, while it is very important to focus on what happens in the immediate encounter at the company frontlines, there must also be focus on the context that produces what happens there. Our commentary addresses critical elements of that context and the mind-sets management must have if they wish to deliver excellent service.

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How to Improve Written Case Analysis and Reduce Grading Time

[Professors Kirsten A. Passyn of Citadel Military College of South Carolina and M. J. Billups of the Baker School of Business recently published a research article in the Journal of Marketing Education which is entitled “How to Improve Written Case Analysis and Reduce Grading Time: The One-Page, Two-Case Method.” We are delighted to welcome them as contributors, and their article will be free to read for a limited time. Below, they reveal the inspirations behind this research.]

I learned and became a believer in the case method while pursuing my post-doctorate at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Case learning was a regular part of the curriculum at both the undergraduate and MBA level. It was an excellent way to engage students in business problem-solving. Later, at other schools where the case method was not a regular part of the curriculum, I found the case method overwhelming for both myself and my students. I couldn’t find a method in the literature to use cases that would work in my new position, so I determined to find a way to easily and effectively use cases. I developed the One-Page, Two Case Method over a period of years with a series of trial and error testing. The method presented in the paper not only improves student performance on cases but significantly decreases faculty workload. I’ve successfully tested the method at other schools and received feedback from colleagues, all with similar positive results.

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Designing a Human Resource Management Simulation to Engage Students

[Professors Andrea North-Samardzic of Deakin University Victoria and Marlize de Witt of the University of Waikato recently published a research article in the Journal of Management Education which is entitled “Designing a Human Resource Management Simulation to Engage Students“. We are delighted to welcome them as contributors, and their article will be free to read for a limited time. Below they reveal the inspirations and influences behind their research.]

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What motivated you to pursue this research?

I wanted to use a simulation in my classes but couldn’t find one that fit my needs as well as being proven to lead to positive student outcomes. So in the grand tradition of ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ I created one myself.

What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research? Were there any surprising findings?

I thought that the students who navigated the software in the simulation program would find it more engaging. But the findings showed that we have tremendous capacity to create new and interesting simulations in traditional learning management systems. You don’t always need new and shiny technology to engage students.

The biggest challenge was finding students to participate in the lab tests and focus group. We can’t provide credit to students for research participation.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

The roadmap we provide for designing, developing and testing the simulation will hopefully inspire others to create their own simulations. Buying software licenses can be expensive. So why not create your own and test it to show how and why it works?

What did not make it into your published manuscript that you would like to share with us?

There was a lot more attention to design science in the earlier drafts. I was a bit too hung up on this and it took awhile for my co-author to convince me to let it go. Kathi Lovelace was also an incredible editor and helped us with really refining the contribution too and advising us on what to play down and what to emphasise.

What advice would you give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study?

Make sure you share your work with others in development stages and rewrites no matter how rough the drafts or embryonic the ideas. If things get stuck, you may like to bring on another person as a co-author. I tried to publish the work as a sole author but it didn’t quite hit the mark. Working with Marlize to rewrite and reposition the paper made the world of difference.

Also it took a long time to bring this article to publication. That’s ok. Hang in there. Scholarship is a marathon, not a sprint.

What is the most important/ influential piece of scholarship you’ve read in the last year?

Kathy Lund Dean and Jeanie M. Forray’s editorial ‘Teaching and Learning in an Age of (In)credulity: Facts and “Alternative Facts” in the Classroom’ really spoke to me even though they said some things I didn’t necessarily want to hear at first. It has lead me to do a lot of critical self-reflection about my role as educator and ‘expert’ in the room and how I need to adapt to better address current concerns. For me, a great piece of scholarship not only makes you think about the topic but makes you think about yourself.

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A Practice Perspective on the Social Notion of Collective Reflection in Organisations

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Simone Gutzan and Harald Tuckermann of the University of St.Gallen. They recently published an article in Management Learning entitled “Neat in theory, entangled in praxis: A practice perspective on the social notion of collective reflection in organisations,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they briefly describe this research:]

It is widely known that joint reflection is important for organisations to survive. However, compared to individual reflection (as a rather individual, cognitive process), we surprisingly do not know much about collective reflection. There is consensus that collective reflection is a more social and dialogical activity. But, what exactly do organizational members step back from when engaging in collective reflection? What is specific in the context of organizations? Can the co-presence of actors for reflecting collectively in highly differentiated contemporary organisations be taken for granted? And how does this social notion of collective reflection looks like in organising? These are important questions – both for theory and practice. In our paper, we aim to illustrate and develop theorizing on this social notion of collective reflection.

We empirically show that the social notion of collective reflection in organising is multifaceted: it involves several activities, each serving a different purpose and enacted according to different temporal rhythms. Our study illustrates that any neat theoretical understanding of collective reflection – as co-present actors jointly stepping back to question organizational givens – becomes messy and challenging in daily organisational life. The challenge begins with achieving the necessary co-presence of actors to enable discursive engagement as organizational members are distributed across the organisation and simultaneously engaged in value creation. Thus, we propose value creation as a point of reference for collective reflection in organising. We draw attention to the rich empirical data available in a single case study and suggest that conceptualising collective reflection as a discursive practice calls for empirical disentanglement.

For researchers, this suggests to focus in more detail on the social notion of collective reflection – particularly in the specific context of organising: first, co-presence for collective reflection cannot be taken for granted, but rather needs to be actively accomplished. Second, the reference to value creating activities is essential for collective reflection in organizations and third, if we conceptualize collective reflection as a discursive practice, we should be able to unveil its manifold and embedded real-life activities. For practitioners, this is encouraging: collective reflection is the interplay of various communicative activities. Importantly, management however has to allow for co-presence of actors by actively creating and further developing such activities.

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Communication Activities in the 21st Century Business Environment

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Dale Cyphert, Corrine Holke-Farnam, Elena N. Dodge, W. Eric Lee, Sarah Rosol of the University of Northern Iowa. They recently published an article in the Business and Professional Communication Quarterly entitled “Communication Activities in the 21st Century Business Environment,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they briefly describe the motivations and innovations of this research.

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What motivated you to pursue this research?

Most faculty view assessment as a chore to be accomplished with the least amount of effort or involvement. The business faculty at the University of Northern Iowa approach things a little differently, so when I say this research was motivated by the assessment process, I mean that in all the right ways. The authors were selected for the team because our courses included writing or communication instruction, so right off the bat we were interested in doing research that would enhance our own classroom experience. Besides that, conducting research that has an impact in the classroom is valuable in the College’s AACSB accreditation process, so we knew that our work would be recognized and rewarded. Finally, with our integrated assessment and curriculum process, we knew that our results couldn’t just be tossed aside. Our shared governance model ensures that when faculty discover a need for curriculum change, instructional resources, or professional development, administration will address the challenges constructively. With good processes in place, we were motivated to conduct rigorous, cutting edge research on our communication learning goals.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

Our innovation was avoiding the traditional, academic mindset and embracing the employer’s perspective with a customer-oriented methodology for evaluating quality in service industries. We’ve used the model several times, but this was the first time with communication skills. So, our first step was to review the previous research on business students’ communication skills. The glaring issue was the on-going nature of employer complaints about lack of student preparation, which struck us as precisely the sort of problem that service companies face when they lack a good understanding of customers’ expectations. So, our real contribution was that we took the crucial step of finding out what communication behaviors our graduates are really expected to perform. We didn’t just define the perfect communication education from our academic mindset—which is rather like a professional chef defining the perfect dining experience based on his or her own whims and preferences. Some elite chefs can afford to run tiny exclusive restaurants, but as a public university, we can’t afford to provide education that serves only employers who just happen to need the skill set that we envision as perfect preparation. Instead, we asked a range of business employers what educational service they actually expect us to provide. The menu turned out to be quite different from what we’d been serving!

What advice would you give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study?

This is no different from any other field of study: be sure you find out what’s already been done and build on that! Business professionals regularly call for educators to do a “better” job of educating students in communication, but this doesn’t mean that educators haven’t been working on the problem! In fact, the first attempts to design a professionally relevant curriculum date back to the 1840’s. It’s a complex problem with a long history of research. There’s no sense in repeating work that’s already been done, and plenty of important research questions that still need to be answered.

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