Just back from Boston, I have given myself the almost impossible task of summarising the Academy of Management (AOM), where 11,000 scientists and professionals met to exchange the latest research in 2,000 sessions over five days. To condense it down to five key trends or takeaways is even harder, since it is not necessarily the same trends that are relevant for all. Therefore, these five takeaways are based on feedback from the thirty NOCA participants at this year’s conference.
The main theme of the conference this year was “the inclusive organisation”, which is why a significant part of the discussion was about diversity and inclusion. There was a clear intention not to make the topic solely about gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc. Across many different research areas within management, HR, organisations, personal development, and consulting, there was a general focus on being an “inclusive organisation” and not just on the matter of diversity. It is no longer a success criterion to attract and hire a very diverse workforce, since diversity only provides value and positive dynamics in the organisation if you succeed in creating diversity though inclusion.
We discussed if the word “inclusion” might be a distraction, since the word is often used in connection with the integration of special-needs students in a normal education program. We also discussed whether inclusion in Danish organisations is something you do because of “good company values”, being socially aware, or if diversity has a positive effect on the top- and bottom-line. The challenge with the latter is that the proof of any financial effect is so “diverse” itself that there is no conclusive finding about whether inclusion makes good business sense or not.
New technologies: VR, AI, Big Data, etc.
A recurring theme at the conference was the influence that new technology is having on work, management and organisations. It is very interesting to note that, despite the many consultants promoting the value of these new technologies, hardly any independent studies show how organisations and companies can benefit from artificial intelligence, virtual reality, big data, etc. Therefore, it is very reasonable to question if the fascination with technology that both doomsday prophets and technology-visionaries share is anything but science fiction.
On the other hand, there was great interest, amongst both practitioners and scientists, in the new and exciting ways of collecting data. For instance, the ability to gather large quantities of data without having to actively involve leaders and employees, through different digital footprints and from both the organisation’s own database and social networks, could spot new behavioural patterns, which would otherwise be hidden. Several scientists showed that we can identify several “pre-quitting behaviours” by looking at a data trail that can make HR and managers aware of the risk even before the employee is aware of it themselves.
These discussions often resulted in questions about both data quality and ethics, which was also a focus topic at the conference. Questions like:
- Who and how much should you log, survey and collect?
- Does HR even have the time and competence to comprehend these massive amounts of data?
- Just because we can collect these data, is it then okay to do so?
IBM’s CEO, Ginni Rometty, said that in the future all jobs will be redefined, and it will be the technology-suppliers who must ensure that it happens responsibly through “responsible stewardship”, because “data is both a threat and an opportunity”. It’s all about building trust.
The problem with AI is not about the amount of data, but rather what you want to do with it. We need ongoing discussions about what is right in which situations. For instance, the technology, which is great for cancer research, could be harmful in facial reconnection or in a recruitment situation. The field is blooming, and a massive number of research projects are under way. It will be very interesting to follow the development and research at AOM 2020.
Collective leadership – an alternative to traditional management
Leadership is often connected with heroic, authoritative and individual leaders. But many scientists at the conference focused on a new type of research that addresses this premise and sees management as a collective effort, ensuring that everyone can participate in all aspects of the decision-making process. This also means that everyone in the organisation is responsible for coordinating their activities in order to work together towards a common goal. Again and again it becomes apparent that leadership is more about behaviour and action than about roles and individuals.
Many new and old management processes were discussed at the conference. “Collective leadership”, “Distributed management”, “Common leadership” and “Shared management” all pointed towards the fact that a new understanding of leadership in a modern organisation is not limited to individual people with management titles or “management” in their job description. The most radical scientists argued that one should completely remove the concept of “management”, since it is almost completely useless today. The argument was that once everyone is a manager and can display leadership, then no one is the de facto leader. Leadership is turning out to be a multi-dimensional concept in which everyone takes part.
Countless workshops focused on poor management, whether it was a common lack of competences and interest, or toxic, psychopathic or unethical management that repeatable empirical studies identified as a significant performance-killer. But, despite the many heartfelt attempts, it still seems to be an incredibly difficult task to identify the precise benefits of good leadership. It was very clear that the management research was pointing in many different directions. A central point is that, despite more than 50 years of research, there is still no alignment on how scientists define the word “leadership”, including the relationship between classic Management (maintenance and administrative focus) and Leadership (visionary and developmental focused). This doubt, combined with the interest in leadership as a collective behaviour, raised a series of practical questions:
- What does it mean for our processes and practices in the organisation?
- Should we get rid of talent programs?
- How can we change job descriptions to include collective management?
- If everyone in the organisation is a manager, who is responsible and how do we make decisions?
- How does it impact an organisation’s benefit and performance systems?
The conference in Boston presented a lot of research projects about the paradox of management and there is a wealth of published research papers within this area like never before. A paradox entails “contradictory yet interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time. Such elements seem logical when considered in isolation but irrational, inconsistent, and even absurd when juxtaposed”. A distinguishing characteristic is the simultaneous presence of two seemingly mutually exclusive assumptions or conditions. Taken individually, each is incontestably true or logical; combined, they seem inconsistent and incompatible. Paradox management is management behaviour, but it’s not about making a final decision once and for all, but about navigating between opposite aspects that you can’t simply prioritise your way out of. In other words, it is about balancing people: the manager, the employee and the organisation. This challenges the traditional understanding of managers as those who make final decisions and tough prioritisations.
Paradoxes encompass insecurity because the road forward becomes unclear and ambiguous, which challenges the manager’s decision-making and the management role itself. If the organisational direction is a paradox, how do you then set a clear direction?
At NOCA, we believe that it’s about sharing knowledge and I will argue that the more you share, the more you receive. This is important for paradox management, since the paradox will not disappear or decline just because you share it with others. Therefore, the obvious question becomes: how many of these management paradoxes should you share and in what depth? Is it even possible to delegate a paradox? Looking at the research, there is a lot of focus on whether the employees can or should be involved in paradox management before it simply becomes a cynical disclaimer.
The ever-increasing problem of sustainability was also addressed at this conference. The program had plenty of sessions about sustainability and the “grand challenges” like climate change and the European refugee crisis amongst others.
Traditionally, there are three different areas that need to be addressed in order to achieve a sustainable future: the social, the environmental and the financial. All these areas were represented at the conference, but it appeared that there was a special focus on the environmental aspect of sustainability. Not even the scientific community seems to be immune to the “Greta Thunberg-effect”.
There were also other sustainability aspects represented. For example, many talked about modern slave-labour, where discussions about “gig-economy” and freelancing, especially, were discussed. An interesting difference between the debate at AOM and in Denmark was the absence of the 17 global goals that didn’t have a focus in the different sessions, where they are often mentioned in Denmark as a central way to bring sustainability to life. Several scientists talked about “micro-sustainability”, as one scientist called it in a session about sustainable HRM. It’s especially important that we think about the small projects and wins and avoid being paralysed by the scope of the topic – otherwise we risk getting accused of “greenwashing”. The ever-present Otto Scharmer pointed out that we as leaders must do something. The world is moving in a disastrous direction and there are only five things we need to fix in order to make a difference: The economy, the energy sector, the agricultural sector, the educational sector and consumption. Others were more pessimistic: one scientist, for instance, defined climate change as a kind of “natural disaster in slow-motion”. But the overall consensus was that we need action now!
AOM 2020 in Vancouver
AOM can be overwhelming and provide a lot of unfiltered research, but in return you get all the input. Generally, when we asked NOCA’s members what they got out of the trip to AOM, they said that they:
- were “surprised and puzzled”
- got new input and a strengthened professional network
- got acquainted with the “latest research” and “current trends”
- got a “broad inspiration” including “own management behaviour”
- got “new perspectives” that could “challenge and create nuance” as well as create a basis for "rethinking our own frame of understanding".
A trip to AOM requires an open mind and some healthy curiosity, but we promise it is an experience like no other.
Author: Ulrik Brix, Head of NOCA
For 15 years, Ulrik has advised HR professionals in large Danish and international organisations. He holds an MSc in Business Administration from CBS and also holds a PhD in organisational analysis from the Department of Organisation and Work Sociology. Ulrik is an active member of the CBS Advisory Board for the HR Master's programs and chair of the CBS HRM Alumni Association, which represents nearly 2,000 HR professionals.
Connect with Ulrik Brix on LinkedIn here
NOCA is an association of companies and organisations established in 2002. The purpose of the association is to facilitate sharing of knowledge among the members, while NOCA contributes to bridging the gap between research and practise. Thus, NOCA is an association where HR researchers and practitioners can meet and share their knowledge and experiences, which creates value for the individual company.