In a recent editorial in Current Sociology, Michael Burawoy warns about what he describes as the ascent of the spiralists. He finds these figures throughout the UC Berekely administration, accusing them of being “people who spiral in from outside, develop signature projects and then hope to spiral upward and onward, leaving the university behind to spiral down”. There are naive spiralists and experienced spiralists but between them they are transforming the university system:

Spiralists enter the university from the outside with little knowledge of its inner workings. They don’t trust the local administration and instead cultivate, promote and protect each other through mutual recruitment, at the same time boosting their corporate-level incomes and contributing to administrative bloat. At UC Berkeley, senior managers have increased five-fold over the last 20 years, rising to 1,256 in 2014, almost equal to the number of faculty, which has barely increased over the same period (from 1,257 to 1,300). While the number of faculty has remained stagnant, student enrollment has increased by 20 percent.

Coming from the outside and concerned more about their future, spiralists are in the business of promoting their image — Dirks employed a firm to do just that at a cost of $200,000 to campus. Branding takes priority over ethics. This last year we have witnessed the cover up of sexual harassment by prominent faculty and administrators and the exoneration of punitive football coaching that led to the death of a football player and a $4.75 million civil suit — all designed to protect the Berkeley brand.

His analysis of the spiralists is heavily focused upon higher education:

Spiralism is not a function of pathological individuals but of an executive class who conceive of themselves as visionary innovators with new financial models, traversing the globe in search of  private investors while complaining about recalcitrant legislatures and conservative faculty. They  blame everyone but themselves for the plight of the university.

However I think the concept has a broader purchase than this. Reading the recent account of Hilary Clinton’s failed campaign, Shattered, I was struck by how many of the key figures could be seen as spiralists in this sense. In their concern for their own advancement, seeing the campaign in terms of opportunities to position themselves for their next job, the possibility for collective purpose  amongst the top operatives was fatally undermined.

It’s a descriptively rich concept but it’s also an explanatory one. How does the concentration of spiralists shape organisational outcomes? Under what conditions will spiralists be attracted to organisations? Can certain sorts of organisations ever redeem and transform spiralists? The editorial Burawoy offers doesn’t delve into these questions but the concept he offers is a potentially powerful one. 

It could be read superficially as an implied contrast between instrumental rationality and value rationality. But I think it’s more subtle than that. It points to particular intended and actual trajectories through organisations, opening up the relations between spiralists and their unintended consequences for the spiralists themselves and the organisations they work within.

There’s an interesting extract in The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, concerning discretionary effort: what could your employees do if they were properly motivated? I’m fascinated by this concept because of its open-ended character. Once one begins to think like this, it’s always possible to imagine your employees doing more. The full actualisation of discretionary effort is a vanishing point and this creates a space in which bullshit thrives: lionising managers for successfully robbing you of a life outside work, as well as all manner of motivational idiocy with little discernible relation to outcomes. From loc 2498:

Kalanick simply directed his team to work harder. “Never ask the question ‘Can it be done?’ ” he was fond of saying at the time, recalls one employee. “Only question how it can be done.” Kalanick left for LeWeb but stayed in touch from his hotel room over Skype video chat, his disembodied head still a loud, demanding presence in the office. Everyone was working around the clock, on little sleep and ebbing patience. “Someone turn Travis off!” yelled the new chief of product, a former Google manager named Mina Radhakrishnan, when Kalanick berated them for not having the service ready in Paris on time. Conrad Whelan, the company’s first engineer, recalls spending every day in the office, from 7: 30 a.m. to midnight, including weekends, for three weeks straight before the Paris launch. “This is the biggest thing I will say about Travis,” he told me years later. “He came to us and said, ‘Look, we are internationalizing and launching in Paris,’ and every single engineer was saying, ‘That is not possible, there is so much work, we will never be able to do it.’ But we got it done. It wasn’t perfect. But that was one of those moments where I was like, ‘This Travis guy, he is really showing us what is possible.’ ”

I read this description of Schmidt in How Google Works and it immediately prompted the question of how this behaviour percolates down the food chain. How does a Google exec who fails this test then act in relation to their own subordinates? Loc 2524:

John Seely Brown, the former director of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, once said, “The essence of being human involves asking questions, not answering them.” 141 Eric likes to put this concept to the test when he walks the halls of Google or of the other companies with which he’s involved. When he runs into an exec he hasn’t seen in a while, the pleasantries don’t last long. After a cordial hello he’ll get to the point: “What’s going on in your job? What issues do you have? Tell me about that deliverable you owe me.” This has a couple of results: It helps Eric keep on top of the details of his business, and it helps him know which of his executives are on top of the details of their business. If someone is in charge of a business and can’t rattle off the key issues she faces in a matter of ten seconds, then she’s not up to the job. A hands-off approach to leadership doesn’t cut it anymore. You need to know the details.

From The New Ruthless Economy, by Simon Head, loc 1209. I wonder what ‘innovations’ have emerged in the ten years since this was book was published?

There are at least five distinct types of monitoring software. First, there are what might be called “classic” monitoring products, software that embodies the Taylorist preoccupation with timing and measurement: How long do agents take to answer a call? How long does the call last? How long does the agent take to “wrap up” the call by completing clerical tasks that may have arisen in the course of the call? Second, there are “quality-monitoring” products-software that eases the manager’s task of measuring the agent’s “soft skills”-his warmth and politeness, and whether his demeanor has strengthened ties of intimacy and loyalty between company and customer. Third, there are what might be called “total monitoring” products, software that simultaneously multaneously monitors what is happening on the agent’s screen and what the agent is saying on the telephone. With this “total monitoring,” it is possible to know whether the agent is following a prescribed script and accurately relaying the information and recommendations provided by product databases. Fourth, there is software that monitors Internet and E-mail “conversations” between agent and customer, and which can, if necessary, integrate this monitoring with the parallel monitoring of telephone conversations. Fifth, there are the digital technologies that are embodied in many of these monitoring products and that have made possible this forward leap in the scope and intensity of monitoring.

An excellent, though rather depressing, analysis of the TEF on Wonk HE:

There is a remarkable contradiction in all of this. The government is proposing a substantial apparatus of scrutiny, surveillance, intervention and interpolation, which will occupy untold hours of academic staff time. It involves delegating new powers to the minister and to BIS and creating a new regulatory landscape that will take years to bed in. In total it represents a very substantial incursion of the state into universities, even if the paper insists that the TEF will be administered at arms length from government. In the name of creating a dynamic market the green paper proposes to build a glorious state bureaucracy.

http://wonkhe.com/blogs/remember-remember-the-tef-of-november/

From The Everything Story by Brad Stone:

  1. “I don’t know if you guys don’t have high standards or if you just don’t know what you’re doing”
  2. “If that’s our plan, I don’t like our plan”
  3. “Are you lazy or just incompetent?”
  4. “Does it surprise you that you don’t know the answer to that question?”
  5. “Why are you ruining my life?”
  6. “If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself”

It’s hard not to see a common thread in these reports I’ve encountered in recent weeks:

A third of GPs in the UK plan to retire in the next five years because of high stress levels, unmanageable workloads and too little time with patients, in a move that would exacerbate the existing difficulty of getting an appointment.

A poll of 15,560 GPs by the British Medical Association (BMA) has found that 34% intend to stop working by 2020, with many others going part-time, moving abroad or even abandoning medicine altogether.

The findings thrust the issue of GP numbers into the election spotlight as the BMA accused the political parties of making “absurd” promises to tackle what it called a “crisis” and of ignoring the reasons why NHS general practice is facing a worsening shortage of medics.

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/apr/15/nhs-stress-third-gps-plan-retire-five-years

The BBC has also seen a survey of 3,500 members of the Nasuwt teaching union which shows more than two-thirds of respondents considered quitting the profession in the past year.

Workload was the top concern, with 89% citing this as a problem, followed by pay (45%), inspection (44%), curriculum reform (42%) and pupil behaviour (40%). In addition:

  • 83% had reported workplace stress
  • 67% said their job has adversely impacted their mental or physical health
  • Almost half of the three thousand respondents reported they had seen a doctor because of work-related mental or physical health problems
  • 5% had been hospitalised, and
  • 2% said they had self-harmed.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-31921457

Academics are suffering from growing stress levels as a result of heavy workloads, management issues and a long-hours culture, a survey has found.

Unachievable deadlines, acute time pressures and the need to work quickly were also common complaints identified by an occupational stress survey completed by more than 14,000 university employees.

Staff were asked by the University and College Union about areas that could potentially cause them stress, such as conflicting management demands, workloads and pressures on their time.

Academics experience far higher levels of stress in these areas than employees in other professions, the survey found.

On a scale of one to five, the stress level of university staff is 2.51 (when well-being is assessed on a scale of one to five, with one being the highest stress level).

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/421388.article

The description Will Davies offers of “heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest” has been stuck in my head for well over a month now. My interest in ‘cognitive triage’ began as a rather abstract question about how reflexivity is conceptualised within realist social theory but I’m increasingly convinced this is a serious political issue: how the ratcheting up of situational demands has made life unbearable for many due to the toll that perpetual triaging takes and their diminished capacity to enjoy the rest of their life as a result. That many leave reflects the relative privilege of those in question: as does the fact that the stress level in the UCU report is still substantially lower than that found in a comparable study of the wider economy.

Nonetheless I think something significant is happening here. I’m aware the topic is a vast one and there’s a seemingly endless literature on the sociology of the professions that I’ve thus far only glanced at. I’d be very enthusiastic about exploring this issue in greater depth if anyone more familiar with this area than I am is reading this and wants to talk. I think the concept of ‘triaging’ that I’m developing is potentially very useful in linking up institutional analysis of the transformation of the professions with psychosocial analysis of the toll this takes on professionals (as well as how their responses contribute to the intensification of these changes). Filip Vostal and I have almost finished our first accelerated academy paper (effectively an analysis of ‘heating up the floor’ in one particular context) and I’m increasingly confident that this approach can link up aspects of a process that might otherwise remain analytically disconnected.