The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
This quote may be the most succinct expression of how I perceive the modern world. The way that I understand it, however, has changed significantly in the last several weeks from the experiences that I have had in this class. I have experienced a paradigm shift in the way that I think about organisations and society which will change the way that I approach my postgraduate studies in organisational behaviour. In order to adequately explain this paradigm shift I will need to briefly summarise the work and academic experiences that have shaped my previous understanding of the above quote. I will then explain how my experience with this course has lead to that new understanding and discuss how this will change the way I approach my postgraduate studies. Additionally, I will discuss how I have learned the importance of having the right skills and knowledge for a role and how this will benefit me as I pursue a career in recruitment.
About three years ago I was working as a flight attendant for what was, at the time, the world’s largest airline. I was happy with my job; I had a decent lifestyle and had no plans for a career change. I was content with the idea that I would spend twenty or thirty years flying around the world and then retire; however, this was not to be. Someone had surreptitiously gained access to my travel benefits and managed to board a flight under my name. While I was not directly involved with the incident, a preponderance of the evidence suggested that I may have been, and was sufficient for the company to terminate me in order to avoid any potential liability. While the incident was distressing for me, it also piqued my curiosity about the conflict between workers and employers. This interest is what brought me to University. Upon arriving at the University of Auckland I chose to study Employment Relations & Organisational Studies. This programme requires students to take courses in both management and social science. I took my requisite social science courses primarily in sociology, which is where I was introduced to Marxist theories about capitalism. These theories resonated with me because of my previous negative experiences working
in the airline industry. In addition to my termination I also witnessed a contentious labour dispute between management and workers that culminated in the loss of union representation for flight attendants (which was a contributing factor in the loss of my job). These experiences caused me to have a generally unfavourable view of management, leading to confirmation bias in the way that I interpreted the theories I was learning in sociology and management classes. I tended to view management’s use of labour as fundamentally exploitative within a dual class framework of capitalists and workers as theorised by Marx and Engels (1985). I tended to privilege the position of the worker over the employer, seeing employers as champions of capitalism and workers as victims of it. I stretched this idea to the point that I believed that organisations become inherently sociopathic as they grow progressively larger. I also tended to believe that alienation, which Marx (Knights and Wilmott, 2012) considered to be inherent to capitalism, is the root cause of issues with worker engagement and motivation. While I still generally believe that class struggle and alienation are inherent problems within capitalism, I previously thought that these issues necessitated the replacement of capitalism with a better system (although not communism) and I contemplated centering my postgraduate research around that theory. The work that I have done with my team, however, has forced me to rethink these ideas.
I was very skeptical about this class at the beginning. I believed that it was a vain attempt by the university to bridge the gap between theory and practice, which seemed delusory to me because I didn’t believe that a software programme could effectively simulate a realworld situation. I expressed this in my first learning journal (Holland, 2014a), where I begrudgingly conceded that perhaps I might learn something valuable from this class. My skepticism was alleviated somewhat by the content of the first reading by Daudelin (1996) which discussed the importance of reflective learning. I reasoned that, since this was the first reading, the class must be more about what we can learn from the experience rather than honing our business acumen so as to become effective ‘capitalist tyrants’. So, I proceeded with the class and decided to keep an open mind. It was in my second journal that I really embraced the idea that I might learn something valuable from this class (Holland, 2014b). This came about through my poor performance at SoloMike. I had clearly underestimated the complexity of the simulation. In addition to that, Katzenbach and Smith’s (1992) article about the importance of performance helped me to understand that, “If a team doesn't understand how they're expected to perform they will be unable to function. Performance is the key metric by which all people in an organisation are measured.” (Holland, 2014b). I began to better appreciate the importance of individual performance in determining individual success. This appreciation would later contribute to my subsequent epiphany about organisations. In the seventh week I wrote a journal which I ironically titled New Insights (Holland, 2014c); however, rather than demonstrate any actual ‘new insights’ this journal entry underscored my negative bias toward big organisations and management. I criticised organisations for focusing too heavily on profits and shareholder value while neglecting their stakeholders, especially their employees. I accused managers of being alienated from the needs of their community, sitting in their board rooms blinded by their ongoing pursuit of profits. In short, I used the simulation to corroborate my perception that organisations are sociopathic.
My journal entries in the the weeks that followed were entitled Sobering Reality (Holland, 2014d) and A Fine Line (Holland, 2014e). They marked the turning point in my way of thinking. It was in those weeks that our firm went from barely holding on to bankrupt. We were only able to stay in the simulation because we received a capital injection. In the end it had been a collection of small errors that lead to our demise. In Sobering Reality (Holland, 2014d) I capitulated on my attitude toward organisations and management. I realised that despite my idealism, employment is better than unemployment; organisations that fail can’t employ anyone, let alone give them a high wage. At the same time there was a change in the airline industry back in the United States, the very industry that had been at the heart of my negative perceptions of management. United Airlines, an airline with a history of contentious labour disputes, had just announced an early retirement package for flight attendants which would include an unprecedented severance package of US $100,000. In addition they agreed to recall 1,450 junior flight attendants who had been previously furloughed in May. Management statements in reference to the news called it a ‘positive step’ in a ‘productive’ relationship with the union (Martin, 2014). Based on my knowledge of the airline industry I knew that management’s new attitude was not arbitrary. After forty years of intense competition after deregulation the airline industry market was beginning to settle down, with 60% of the US domestic market being controlled by four big airlines (Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2014). These two simultaneous occurrences, the failure of my team’s firm and the emerging stability of the US airline market with its concomitant improvement in labor relations, caused me to have an epiphany. Competition is not easy for organisations. I had greatly underestimated the complexity that organisations must face in making decisions; decisions which can mean the difference between success or failure. I discussed this in my journal entry, A Fine Line, where I wrote:
‘...now I understand that all organizations in a competitive marketplace are just a few bad decisions away from crashing and burning. In a fight for survival [organisations] are bound to make decisions that many people won't like, whether it be workers, the community or the government.’ (Holland, 2014e).
When the airline I worked for decided that the best course of action was to terminate my employment, it was not something I should have taken personally. Indeed, it wasn’t personal; it was ‘just business’. Katzenbach and Smith (1992) wrote about performance within a team context, however, this can be extended to encompass organisations as a whole. In a competitive environment organisations succeed and fail based on their performance. In order to outperform the competition and continue to survive (and thrive) managers must continually work to balance the needs of the organisation as a whole with the needs of its appendant groups. To assume that all organisations are sociopathic is tantamount to organisational stereotyping. While some organisations may foster such a culture, most organisations want to do good for all of their stakeholders. Marxist theories highlight inherent challenges that organisations must face within a capitalist system (Knights and Wilmott, 2012). The presence of these challenges does not discredit capitalism, rather, they speak to the need for managers to find innovative solutions to overcome them. Thus it is not prudent to focus my future studies on how capitalism can be repealed and replaced. I will instead focus my studies on finding ways to help organisations better navigate their competitive environments so that they can be successful; not just for their shareholders but also for their employees and larger communities.
Managers have very little hope of overcoming these challenges, or any of the other day to day challenges that organisations face, if they or their employees do not have the right skills and knowledge to be successful in their roles. In my final learning journal, Deficient Strategies (Holland, 2014f), I reflected on why our team had performed so badly. I concluded that the reason was because we never had a clearly articulated strategy. Most of the decisions we had made were in reaction to what had happened in the previous rollover and were not part of a well planned and executed strategy. On further reflection, however, I understand now that the real problem was that we did not have the skills and knowledge necessary to sufficiently make sense of the data and variables in the simulation which would have allowed us to come up with an effective strategy. Additionally, we failed to ask for help when we should have because we were unable to see our skills shortage for what it was (we didn’t know what we didn’t know). This became clear after we were bought by another firm. They provided us with guidance in our last few rollovers; we were all very surprised at the depth of their understanding of the simulation and how all the parts fit together. There were more than one ‘aha’ moments as they went over some of the data with us and explained how to interpret it. From this experience I have a much stronger appreciation for the importance of filling a role with someone who has the right skills and knowledge. That sounds like it should be self evident; however, I’ve only ever worked in ‘unskilled’ jobs and I naively could not understand why I needed a university qualification to double my pay. As I am now on the eve of completing my degree I know see all of the important skills (many of them tacit) that I’ve learned over the course of my studies that have prepared me for a ‘skilled’ role. This lesson will be incredibly useful for me as I pursue a career in recruitment, where my key responsibility will be to hire candidates for jobs that match their skills and qualifications. Because I have now experienced a skills deficit first hand I will be meticulous in ensuring that my candidates have the skills that my clients are looking for. This will help me to stand out as a successful recruitment professional.
I was not expecting this class to be the capstone of my undergraduate studies. The experience of managing in a dynamic context, however, has had the effect of tying together all of the things that I’ve learned and experienced in work and at university. This class has forced me to reconsider my previous assumptions about organisations and society. My attitude has evolved from idealistic antagonism to pragmatic optimism. I have come to appreciate the complex environment in which organisations compete. I have also learned not to take for granted the need to have the right skills for a job. I am excited to apply what I’ve learned to my postgraduate study and future career.
I will endeavor to be solve real problems for people and organisations rather than lose myself in dreams of revolutionising the whole of society. I have no doubt that it will be “...engaging and (sometimes) fun.” (Smith, 2014).
Bureau of Transportation Statistics. (2014). Airline domestic market share August 2013July 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.transtats.bts.gov/
Daudelin, M. W. (1996). Learning from experience through reflection. Organizational Dynamics, 24(3), 3648
Holland, J. (2014a). Skeptical but I’m coming around. Retrieved from: https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/pages/viewpage.action?pageId=70125412
Holland, J. (2014b). I’m done throwing my tantrum. Can I come out of my room now. Retrieved from: https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/pages/viewpage.action?pageId=70127271
Holland, J. (2014c). New insights. Retrieved from: https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/display/MGMT300/New+Insights
Holland, J. (2014d). Sobering reality. Retrieved from: https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/display/MGMT300/Sobering+Reality
Holland, J. (2014e). A fine line. Retrieved from: https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/display/MGMT300/A+Fine+Line
Holland, J. (2014f). Deficient strategies. Retrieved from: https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/display/MGMT300/Deficient+Strategies
Katzenbach, J. R. & Smith, D. K. (1992). Why teams matter. McKinsey Quarterly, (3), 327 Knights, D. & Wilmott, H. (2012) Introducing Organisational Behaviour and Management. London: Thomson Learning.
Martin, H. (2014, September 15). United offers flight attendants buyout packages of up to $100,000 each. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from: http://www.latimes.com/business/lafiunitedairlinesoffersbuyouts20140915story.html
Marx, K. Engels, F. (1985). The communist manifesto. London: Penguin
Smith, P. (2014). Introduction to MGMT 300. Retrieved from: https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/display/MGMT300/Introduction+to+MGMT+300