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A stupidity-based theory of organizationsMats Alvesson and André Spicer

Alvesson & Spicer: A stupidity based theory oforganizations. Journal of Management Studies2012, vol 49, 5Alvesson: The triumph of emptiness. OxfordUniversity Press 2013.

Some Questions•Dominance of a ‘smartness’ paradigm•. . . But we all know that organizationsare irrational•Is this just a deviation from the ideal?•Or does it tell us something morefundamental about organizations?•Are organizations stupid?•Does stupidity make them work?

Knowledge Rules?•Knowledge society•Knowledge economy•Knowledge intensivefirms•Knowledge workers•The knowledge gap

Criticism of the knowledge societythesis•Does more higher education createknowledge intensiveness?•Is everyone a knowledge worker thesedays?•Does more specialization andprofessionalization make us smarter?•Are we witnessing the rise of a ‘postrational’knowledge

An Ironic ApproachAssumption challengingThis involves change the questions we ask• From: ‘How do firms use their knowledge base’• To: ‘How do firms use their stupidity base’

Pure Stupidity In Organizations–The Stupid Worker (or the Homereffect)–The Idiotic Leader (or The Officesyndrome)–Bureaucratic Stupidity (or Eichmann’sDummheit)

Questions• Is stupidity just a marginal aspect of corporatelife?• . . . Of is it a central aspect of organizationalfunctioning• Our wager– Functional stupidity is just as important asknowledge in the the functioning and thriving oforganizations

What is stupidity?•An epistemological lack?(Content and ability to process)•An internal gap in knowledge,which is fertilized by attempts tobe knowledgeable (Ronnell, TenBos)•The denial of complexity andambiguity of the world

functional stupidity isinability and/orunwillingness to usecognitive and reflectivecapacities in anythingother than narrow andcircumspect ways.• organizations asgenerators of functionalstupidity,• Unwillingness/inabilityto ask ”what (in hell)are we doing?”

Functional stupidity is organizationally/institutionally supportedlack of reflexivity, substantive reasoning, and justification• It entails a refusal to useintellectual resourcesoutside a narrow and ‘safe’terrain.• It can provide a sense of certaintythat allows organizations tofunction smoothly. This can savethe organization and its membersfrom the frictions provoked bydoubt and reflection. Functionalstupidity contributes tomaintaining and strengtheningorganizational order. It can alsomotivate people.

Modes of Stupidity• Structurally-induced• Leadership-induced• Action-induced• Institution-induced• Organizational cultures functioning as psychicprisons

Structurally Induced Stupidity (1)•The labour process and thestupification of workers•Deskilling (dumb workersdoing smart work)•Resistance (Smart workersfight dumb management)

Structurally Induced Stupidity (2)•Knowledge intensivefirms?•Just how knowledgeintensive are they?•Structural processes•Do they help smartpeople to endure dumbwork?•The Entertained Worker

Structurally Induced Stupidity (3)•Bureaucracy•Rule following•Technocracy andprofessional idiocy

Leadership Induced•The ‘visionary’ leader creatingstupid employees•The ‘super leader’ andirrational employees•The ‘growing’ leader andplant like employees•Thus leadership createsfollowership, often destroyingindividual reflexivity andrationality

Action-Induced Stupidity•Garbage-can decisionmaking (Cohen et al)•Action-rationality(Brunsson)•‘Stop thinking, shut upand just do it’•Rational analysis as theenemy of organization (vs.the driver)

Institution-induced stupidity•Organizations often adopt technically sub-optimal solutions•To gain legitimacy•Rift between symbolic adoption and actual behavior•Institutional myths reduce anxiety•. . . But other processes facilitate performance• Institutional work calls for functional stupidity

Stupidity management• Self-stupidity management• Authority/anxiety• Seduction/comfort• Other-directedness/do as others

The vision

Discussion (1)•Why stupidity?•Increasing dominance ofinstrumental goals•Current means oftendon’t create the ends theypromise•eg. Happiness debate•Thus modernorganizations creatingexistential void

Discussion (2)•Fill in existential void throughattempt to see workplaces assmart•Stupidity is created byattempts to assert knowledge•But knowledge is ultimatelyan empty concept•Which leads us in search ofmore symbols of smartness

Discussion (3)• From economy ofproduction• To economy ofpersuasion• Image, branding,symbolism, grandiosity,seduction, identityboosting etcdominate

Conclusion• Our aim– To question the ‘broad consensus that modern economies arebecoming increasingly knowledge-intensive’ (Adler 2001:216).• Our central claim– Stupidity is functional for organizations: discipline, order, bureaucracy(seen as something else), image, motivation, doubt-control, conflictminimalization• This suggests– Organizations seek to foster functional stupidity in various ways– Organizations need to develop their stupidity base in order tocompete– Researchers are also a central part of the stupidity economy

Three contributions• First, our concepts of functional stupidity and stupidity management havesome potential to shake up dominant assumptions about the significanceof knowledge, intelligence, … Many claims are one-sided and ideological• Second, we provide a different assumptions by proposing the notion offunctional stupidity. In doing so, we highlighted how organizationscultivate functional stupidity and propose a frame- work for its operation.• Third, we have sketched some ideas for research in this area, to encourageinvestigation of avoidance of critical reasoning, blocking of communicativeaction, and curtailing of the internal conversation.

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