First of all, check out the comments on yesterday’s post, where Beemer refines what I’m talking about and comes up with a great example to illustrate it.
Today’s topic: what the heck does any of this French wacky social theory have to do with anything real?
I’ll lead off with a couple Latour quotes:
- “an organization is…made only of movements, which are woven by the constant circulation of documents, stories, accounts, goods, and passions.” (p. 179)
- “Groups are not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what.” (p. 31)
Latour’s point is that groups are constantly being created anew by their members. If a group’s members stop working to make the group cohere, the group no longer exists. Okay, that’s still too abstract.
Let’s get concrete. Take a typical corporate org chart, showing a nice hierarchy of management. People report to directors, who report to VPs, who report to the CEO. What makes this org chart real? Where does the authority implied by the org chart come from? It comes from real people making real decisions and enforcing those decisions.
There are other situations where the org chart is a complete fiction, where everybody knows that the real authority is somebody who has no power on the org chart, but influences those who nominally have power. The org chart does not reflect the reality of that organization. How can we tell? As Latour would have it, we follow the actors, and realize that they are not going up the hierarchy, but flanking it and going outside the org chart.
What makes this fascinating to me is the idea of how to make an organization, a company, a community work. It doesn’t just happen. One of the best descriptions of this process that I’ve read was Phil Agre’s article on “How to Be a Leader in Your Field”, where he explains the hard work necessary to create a community around a new issue. In business, you can’t just set up an org chart and believe that everybody will buy into it. It takes the work of managers and of everybody in the company to reify the org chart, to make it so that the org chart is an accurate map of the actual social discourse happening.
What implications does this have? Managers often complain that they don’t do anything, that they spend all of their time talking and in meetings. I think this viewpoint makes it clear what they are doing – they are the social glue that makes the organization an organization. They are the spokespeople for the company as collective (see last year’s post for details on the collective-forming process). They bring the social traces that bind the company together into being. They may be “just talking”, but talking is what builds social cohesion, what continues to create the network anew.
The best managers I’ve had managed by walking around. They dropped in on people, asked them what they were doing, told them about other things within the company that might affect their work. They spread information throughout the company, providing the centripetal force that made the company not just a group of people working in the same building, but an actual collective organization.
This is something I aspire to. That’s what I want to be (well, at least today). I want to be social glue. I want to be an impedance matcher between different parts of the organization. I want to be a structural hole (I’ve got Ron Burt’s book, but haven’t read it yet). I want to help create the collective.
Latour doesn’t quite have a pithy description, but he definitely provides inspiration in the form of a theoretical basis for such a role. If organizations just automatically matched what was listed on paper, there would be no need for such a role. You could just look at the org chart. Specs would be written down, and products could be built to them, and they would just work. But the world doesn’t work like that, as Latour describes. There is a need for people who can translate the theoretical org chart into reality, who can take the ideal mental model and figure out a way to push and shove at reality to make it kind of fit. My background in rapid prototyping and research makes me all too aware of how what works in theory rarely works in practice.
Of course, I’m still working on how to make my own life and reality fit my ideal mental model. So there’s still a few issues to be worked out here. But that’s another topic for another day.