Making the Wrong Impression
Contrary to popular attempts to devalue expertise, in the main academics are in the business of building knowledge. Gone are the days when we’re left to rot in single occupancy offices wearing odd shoes. Most of us want you to read our ideas and maintain contact with the outside world.
Our preoccupation with academic impact has ushered in a byzantine regime of measurements that, much like targets in the NHS, do little to build confidence and much to crush it within the working population. These two blogs look at institutional attempts to increase the impact of academic endeavour and raise questions about whether we’re measuring the wrong things.
A relationship with inequality
The burgeoning economic inequality between the richest and the poorest across the world is a cause of concern for social, political, and ethical reasons. In 2016 the Oxfam Davos reportrevealed that 62 people only own the same as half of the world, representing an increase of 38 per cent or 1.76 trillion dollars from 2010. Despite this, the university education and management schools in particular, have largely neglected to reflect on how they themselves may be contributing to the growth of inequalities.
Elsewhere (Fotaki and Prasad, 2015) we have argued that this is due to an absence of sustained critique of the dominant business models and how various established business practices might contribute to exacerbating inequalities. Robert Reich, the leading US academic and former Democratic Labor Secretary, argues that Harvard Business School is directly responsible for inculcating into its students ideas and values that have lead to a yawning gap of earnings between CEOs and ordinary workers, which has grown from 20-to-1 some 50 years ago to almost 300-to-1 today.
Far too many educators rely on orthodox economic perspectives — often represented by neoliberal capitalism —which have dominated the curricula and the teaching philosophy of management schools. This uncritical acceptance of neoliberal capitalism precludes both the possibility of a meaningful critique and the emergence of alternatives. It also teaches students they must act as rational profit maximizers untainted by the ‘facts of human life’ such as ageing, disease and death (see Money-Kyrle, 1978 quoted in Fotaki, 2016) that make the reliance on the other necessary, in order to succeed.
For instance, the election of topics that lionise the lone-hero entrepreneur, who is disembodied — though tacitly assumed to be male and white — and disembedded of the social context, leads to undervaluing social connectedness and relatedness. Management teaching regularly ignores the less glamorous work of caring or the collective production of public good while the impact of business activities on the lives of “others” in distant locales is rarely considered outside of social corporate responsibility modules.
Finally, wrongdoing in business is a matter of transgression by corrupt individuals – a few proverbial bad apples – rather than an outcome of structural incentives. This is despite the bailouts of the banking sector causing global recession forced on the tax-payers, and despite the loss of revenue hidden by the wealthy individuals in tax havens amounting to at least 18.5 trillion dollars worldwide.
In disregarding these issues the management education reifies the pre-existing inequalities. But it might also contribute to their worsening once the wealthy are able to influence the political process for their own benefit and obstruct or reverse the social progress where it has been achieved (e.g. by privatizing public education and health services).
Rather than acting as cheerleaders for big business the educational establishments teaching economics, and management specifically, must critically examine the relationship between neoliberal capitalism and inequalities in order to regain their social purpose. This, among others, can be achieved by broadening topics and insights outside neoclassic economics to include sociology, historical and political analysis along with transnational cultural perspectives explaining multiple impacts of globalisation.
Management educators, specifically, should re-engage their students with issues they can relate to in their pedagogical practice. I propose a teaching methodology derived from the psychoanalytic concept of relationality, inspired by the work of philosopher and activist Judith Butler, as a way of developing conceptual and reflexive tools by which to reimagine management school education. This, I argue, is an essential step for rethinking the role of education and for creating a space to debate important questions about taken-for-granted but problematic assumptions underlying the ideology of neoliberal capitalism.
Butler uniquely draws on the continental philosophy of Levinas and Lacanian psychoanalysis to elucidate how precarious lives depend on society for survival (Butler, 2009). Her theory of the human as a relational and social being, who craves recognition by others, allows us to appreciate the influence of social norms on how we think and feel about ourselves in the world.
Butler’s reframing of subjectivity in relational terms has important implications. First, it explains why and how it is only through relating to others that we gain a sense of value and significance. As the eminent psychoanalyst Irvin Yalom argues, ‘living through the others’, in addition to giving meaning to our life in the present, allows us to deal with the existential fear of death and our own mortality (2009).
Second, Butler helps us to consider the ways in which we are all inextricably linked to others and to all lives because our own lives are inevitably precarious (Butler, 2004). Our shared vulnerability therefore obliges us to assign irreducible value to human lives.
Third, such relational engagement accounting for the risk of injury, violence, and privation we might all experience under the precariousness-inducing neoliberal capitalist regime has political implications: it makes explicit the role of governments, public institutions and educational establishments in how people understand, treat, and relate to one another.
You might think it odd that a Surviving Work in the UK post is going to be about academics. In some quarters, the view is that our working lives are not like others, without all the blood and guts of ‘real’ jobs. In this view, academics avoid the pitfalls of working life by sitting alone in our rooms thinking deep thoughts.
The value of academic work has come under attack – with challenges to the way we understand and measure our work implemented through the Research Excellence Framework and the newly designed Teaching Excellence Framework. Within this model and more broadly in our society the role of The Expert no longer attracts the kudos it once did. Indeed recently, Glyn Davies MP tweeted that “Personally, never thought of academics as ‘experts’. No experience of the real world”.
Predictably enough, this was not the view of the hundreds of academics who took to twitter to disagree with Mr Davies’ assertion, using the #realworldacademic hashtag. Yes, academics have smart phones and can restrict themselves to 140 characters.
Some listed their comprehensive education, others outlined the many jobs involving long hours on low pay that had been needed to put themselves through non-elite universities to get into employment. Many described the precariousness of struggling to survive on short term contracts where hourly wages don’t take into account marking, student contact time or trying to write articles so that they could progress their career. Not being paid to write anything being something of a handicap in academic life.
To a growing majority of academics, the difficulty of surviving work is experienced in the very real world including debt, depression and a profound sense of the paradoxes of teaching subjects such as decent work and employability to the next generations of working people.
Both the view that academics can avoid the problems of work and the view that we are not experienced in the ‘real world’ are wrong. The rapid growth in student numbers has, if nothing else, made it less likely that an academic will have a room to go hide in and actually think. Hot-desking and even the removal of books from offices is normal.
Significantly, the expectations of what academics produce and why has shifted radically over the last few years – where the impact of what we do increasingly measures academic success. Across the huge amount that has been written about how impact from academic work is created, there is one simple acknowledgement: what you are actually trying to do is to influence someone to take your research or ideas seriously. And then try to get them to do something about it.
Some of the impact literature focuses on the theory of impact, or how it is seen across disciplines, or how the definition of impact needs to be developed. On a more practical side, there are handbooks that outline tools, processes and platforms to help the time-pressured researcher to ‘do’ impact. If you see impact as winning friends and influencing people, an important aspect involves actual interaction with actual other human beings, something which under this stereotypical view of academics, we’re not very good at. There are several key groups that academics have to influence in the daily course of their work: their students, their peers and senior colleagues, other academics in their fields, promotion panels, journal editors, conference organisers and so on.
In terms of impact, ‘people’ also can include research subjects and research users. There are two aspects here. Many academics work closely, and indeed co-produce research, with partner organisations that can also be their research subjects. They often spend months and years getting to know people within businesses, organisations, groups, communities, and government bodies. This brings many benefits but also difficulties that academics must work through with their partners, funders and universities.
In the case of businesses, the most difficult part of that is finding the right partnerships in the first place. Businesses need to find someone with the right expertise, and academics must be able to persuade business leaders that the research or interaction will have value over and above information that already exists out in the world.
Building this trust between academics and businesses is something that usually takes significant time, resources and people skills. To do that academics must put themselves in the shoes of their business colleague, to understand what is in it for them. They then have to communicate that effectively and then negotiate its continuation successfully so that both parties are able to see the relationship as valuable. Once trust has been built up though, and relationships created, maintaining that link is easier than it is within government bodies, for example. This is contrary to much of the perceived wisdom about researching in business – where it is assumed that businesses will not allow access to a critical outsider for fear of skeletons coming out of cupboards.
What the research shows is that where academics are able to make friends in business, they stand a higher chance of influencing people than through the usual governmental and research channels. And a high percentage of businesses who collaborate with academics describe their relationship as successful.
The second aspect comes after: when research is published and academics attempt to influence research users to engage with it, and in an ideal world, change something because of it. Distilling down some of these lessons from impact handbooks highlights the usefulness of finding a key graph, figure or statistic. For research users, these types of evidence are easy to grasp, they are shareable within their organisation, and can lead to eureka moments that can show them how their organisation could make a difference to a particular situation. (But these have to be carefully handled as this interesting case of research on educational attainmentshows.) Research that utilises personal stories within it can be a powerful way of putting complex situations into a context that can be understood and empathised with. And here too, trusted relationships – the ones that take time and effort to build and maintain, are difficult and may lead to conflict and are therefore scary – are vital.
The ‘ideal type’ of academics can sometimes be seen as engaged but distant, knowledgeable but not connected to the real world. There will no doubt be some in the profession for whom this applies, and others that seek to emulate it. However this post, albeit not a ‘how to’ guide, is intended to argue that engaging in real world relationships is not in any way outside of academics’ expertise, that being human (for example crying) within the academic workplace is acceptable, and that it will be this very showing of emotional engagement that will help create impact from our research.
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