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Introducing Valence Theory

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Introducing Valence Theory


The Story Thus Far


The ground of this thesis postulates that,


…if the Toronto School’s distinctive interpretation of history is indeed valid, then the ways in which people come together, and have come together for collective endeavours throughout the ages, should closely correspond to the nature and effects of the dominant mode of communications at the time.


We then trace the dominant organizational forms of the day from Periclean Athens, through the late Middle Ages, to the early modern form that emerged during the Enlightenment period in Europe, setting the stage for the Industrial Age. In each epoch of primary orality, manuscript-based phonetic literacy, and mechanical print literacy, the fundamental nature and effects of organization assumed characteristics analogous to those of the communications mode that, arguably, enabled structuring forces throughout the society. The 20th century – heralded by the earliest incarnations of instantaneous, electric-based communication – proved to be a time of transition from an industrial-influenced paradigm to one that has shifted in response to influences of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity.


I argue that 20th century organizational discourse can be separated into two parallel streams: one, an extrapolation of the prior era; the other, an emergence of the new. Finally, I demonstrate that those two, distinct discourses inform the attributes, behaviours and characteristics of organizations that I categorize as being either more BAH or more UCaPP in their manifestations among considerations of change, coordination, evaluation, impetus, power dynamics, sense-making, and view of people.


In many respects, BAH and UCaPP organizations could not be more dissimilar. Indeed, if one were to take a prescriptive approach to understanding organizational transition in the early 21st century, such as that assumed by Heckscher and Adler’s (2006) edited collection, s/he could be excused for treating BAH and UCaPP organizations as two, distinct species. Perhaps the two types are not as incompatible as fish and fowl. But certainly, one could be forgiven for holding the metaphorical dissimilarity of, say, eagles and ostriches when considering the two, distinct realms of organizational environments.


How, then, to answer the second foundational question of the thesis: is there an over-arching model that can account for both BAH and UCaPP organizations and distinguish between them? One approach is to probe a possible mechanism of action that explains a generalized version of the Toronto School contention, that inventions and innovation of humankind profoundly transform environments of human interaction, and thereby transform humanity.


Bruno Latour (1999) describes the way in which human and nonhuman (that is, the creations of humans) actants – entities capable of action – collectively create a social fabric in which each acquires properties of the other over time. This entwining of characteristics results in the emergence of new actants within a collective, or “an exchange of human and nonhuman properties inside a corporate[1] body” (p. 193). This intertwining, or embedding of characteristics, can perhaps be more easily understood by considering a simple example.


Latour directs his readers’ attention to the gun-control debate in the United States. The anti-gun advocates maintain that “guns kill people.” Pro-gun lobbyists disagree, claiming in a moralistic fashion that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Latour disagrees with both: he suggests that neither guns, nor people, kill people. Rather, it is a gun-person – a collective of the human person and the nonhuman gun – that kills people. Aside from direct, hand-to-hand, mortal conflict sans weapons, or manual strangulation, a person does not generally kill another person. Neither does the weapon itself kill. It is only when the latent violence of the person, and the effective means of the gun to commit that violence, cross over between the two actants and exchange their unique characteristics, that the ability to kill is mobilized. Indeed, Latour suggests that the original intent of the person may only have been to injure or scare; the creation of the new actant actually interferes with, and changes the intent (1999, p. 178-179).


Over time, humans interact with each other. They may employ nonhuman tools to effect a change in social purpose. In doing so, a new level of “social complication” is created, whereby humans and nonhumans mutually mediate daily interactions. Eventually, a coherent corporate body emerges in which groups of humans are reorganized in their daily activities by nonhuman actants  and the resulting networks of power, control, and resistance (Foucault, 1979, 1982). The co-option is subtle, but unmistakeable: when someone is introduced as their function – for example, as the Chair of a department – they have irrevocably inherited nonhuman elements of the corporate collective. Finally, nonhumans are granted full participation in a political ecology, granted political rights, legal standing, and political representation (Latour, 1999, p. 202-211). The modern-day organization – and particularly, the specific instance of a business corporation – is a clear, if not clichéd, example of Latour’s collective of humans and nonhumans.


Each time a new nonhuman actant is introduced into the environment, the existing collectives (and their constituent components) cannot help but be affected as the process of assimilation and entanglement continues. Latour writes, “the modern collective is one in which the relations of humans and nonhumans are so intimate, the transactions so many, the mediations so convoluted, that there is no plausible sense in which artefact, corporate body, and subject can be distinguished” (1999, p. 197).


Certainly, this seems to be the case among the more-BAH organizations that participated in this study. The constituent components of organization in these cases appear to be specifically constructed in the service of establishing and preserving the control mechanisms of (nonhuman) systems over (human) people amidst these particular entanglements. Indeed, Max Weber is quite explicit about the nature of the human-machine collective in a BAH organization:


The purely bureaucratic type of administrative organization – that is, the monocratic variety of bureaucracy – is, from a purely technical point of view, capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of exercising authority over human beings. … The fully developed bureaucratic apparatus compares with other organizations exactly as does the machine with the non-mechanical modes of production. Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs – these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration. (Weber in Miner, p. 391; emphasis added)


BAH-dominant organizations entwine the technologies – or “ways of doing” as expressed by Ursula Franklin (1990) – of bureaucracy, administration, and hierarchy with people to create a relatively new actant, one that was named in 1956, “the organization man” (Whyte, 1956), or as I would now adjust the term, organization-man.[2] Citing more contemporary and instrumental examples, Franklin points out that such incarnations are specifically machine-analogous, “control-related technologies, those developments that do not primarily address the process of work with the aim of making it easer, but try to increase control over the operation” (Franklin, 1990, p. 18). The nonhuman aspects of BAH-dominant organizations are:


Prescriptive technologies [that] eliminate the occasions for decision-making and judgement in general and especially for the making of principled decisions. Any goal of the technology is incorporated a priori in the design and is not negotiable. … The acculturation to compliance and conformity has … diminished resistance to the programming of people. (Franklin, 1990, p. 25; emphasis in original)


It is not that the introduction of instantaneous communications technologies will somehow magically transform BAH organizations—that should, by now, be evident from the empirical findings of this study. In fact, as both Ahuja and Carley (1999) and Alberts and Hayes (2003) – each cited in an earlier chapter – discover when they examine structures of power and control, technology alone is not sufficient to overcome workers’ socialization in traditional hierarchies, particularly when power and privilege are involved. Modern technologies that may streamline information flow throughout an otherwise bureaucratic organization do not, in themselves, correct an entrenched, BAH-oriented, cultural conditioning.


Latour specifically characterizes this cultural conditioning as the processes through which nonhumans become a collective with humans. These processes comprise the “crossover, which consists of the exchange of properties among humans and nonhumans,” “enrolment” of nonhumans into the collective, “mobilization of nonhumans in the collective … resulting in strange new hybrids,” and the particular direction and extent that the new collective takes with its new hybrid actants (1999, p. 194). Thus, we can understand each cultural epoch identified by the Toronto School as a characteristic, Latourian, societal hybridization in which the epoch’s dominant communication technology is “enrolled” with humans in their existing institutions – in this case, specifically organization – into a collective. The mobilization of the technology’s dominant effects imbues humanity with many of its nonhuman characteristics.


In the case of the penultimate epoch – mechanization and industrialization – this enrolment created the BAH-organization-man collective. Now, under UCaPP conditions, a new nonhuman (technological) actant is introduced to the collective. Especially because of the particular, dominant, consequences of social networks (de Kerckhove, 1998; Barnes, 2009; Federman, 2008a, 2008b; Gross, 2009; Walther & Ramirez, Jr., 2010) that emerge because of pervasive proximity, the collective is in the process of assuming more humanistic qualities, specifically those that characterize the effects emergent from the pervasive proximity aspects of the UCaPP world—complex, direct and indirect relationships.


Indeed, they are relationships, connections, and emergent effects – far more than defined boundaries, production processes, functions, and responsibilities – that seem to be more apropos with respect to considering contemporary organization. Margaret Wheatley’s 1992 book, Leadership and the New Science, provides an inspiration for a new metaphor from contemporary science that serves to capture the essential aspects of human relationships, and more important, their entanglement in the new organization-person hybrid:


Here we sit in the Information Age, besieged by more information than any mind can handle, trying to make sense of the complexity that continues to grow around us. … If the universe is nothing more than the invisible workings of information, this could explain why quantum physicists observe connections between particles that transcend space and time, or why our acts of observation change what we see. Information doesn’t need to obey the laws of matter and energy; it can assume form or communicate instantaneously anywhere in the information picture of the universe. In organizations, we aren’t suffering from information overload just because of technology, and we won’t get out from under our information dilemmas just by using more sophisticated information-sorting techniques. We are moving irrevocably into a new relationship with the creative force of nature. (Wheatley, 1992, p. 145; emphasis added)


The Creative Force of Nature


In the Niels Bohr model of the atom, electrons orbit around a nucleus in discrete levels or orbitals. There is a limit to the maximum number of electrons in each orbital, with the outermost orbital being incomplete – that is, having fewer than the maximum number – in most elements. Electrons in this outermost orbital can effect various types of chemical bonds with other atoms, and are known as valence electrons. In its most simplistic conception, valence bonding occurs when two or more atoms share valence electrons in their respective, uppermost orbitals, thereby creating mutual connections upon which all of the atoms depend for the creation of the resulting molecular compound.


In an analogous fashion, an individual can consider her- or himself connected to an organization – and vice versa – in a variety of ways. There are often economic ties through employment contracts; certainly, even without an explicit employment relationship, value is exchanged between an individual and an organization. In many cases, individuals construct part of their identity through self-identification with the organization. Indeed, in contemporary capitalism, some argue that both employees and customers construct identity based on their relationships with organizations (Gee, Hull, Lankshear, 1996; see especially chapter 2). Especially among non-profit or volunteer organizations, there are socio-psychological connections that emerge; I argue that these (among other) factors that explain aspects of motivation in the Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) movement can be applied to general principles of management (Federman, 2006).


These various relationships create valences[3] – the capacity to connect, unite, react, or interact – between an individual and organization. Ordinary experience would suggest that valences have complex relationships among themselves – one’s interactions with an organization are rarely uncomplicated and unitary, save in the most instrumental and limited of circumstances. The strength of a given valence connection likely changes over time: for example, a person might be very active as a volunteer during a particular campaign (representing a strong Socio-psychological valence, perhaps) and then limit her involvement thereafter, thereby weakening the valence connection. A full-time employee might enjoy strong Economic- and Identity-valence connections; during a layoff, the Economic valence might weaken more than the Identity valence. Unionized workers would likely have dual Identity valences that sometimes form “double bonds” (reinforcing self-identification with both union and company), and sometimes work in opposite directions, as during labour negotiations or strikes when the union-Identity valence might work to negate the employer-Identity valence.


Since individual-to-organization valence bonds can shift in intensity, type, and pervasiveness among individuals and over time, organization conceived in terms of its relationships, or valence connections, with its members is consequently contingent. For example, consider a non-trivial organization like a university. At its core are full-time faculty and staff, and enrolled degree students, all of whom enjoy mutual Economic- and Identity-valence bonds with the institution—and likely others, but two will suffice for illustration. Part-time faculty and students have the same types of valence bonds with the university, but neither bond is as strong as that of the university’s core constituents. Alumni, too, have Economic and Identity bonds, but the quality and nature of their bonds with the university are different from those of both the core group and the part-timers.


In terms of relationships, then, what defines the university? The answer is interestingly and necessarily contingent, uncertain, and complex, consistent with much else in the contemporary world: it depends. It depends on the temporal, spatial, material, and other contexts in which the question makes sense; but, I contend that the university – indeed any organization – can be precisely defined by the types, strengths, and extents of the valence bonds under consideration. Like water that has three states – solid, liquid, and gas – the university analogously can exist in the same three states: solid (core constituency), liquid (core plus the more fluid part-timers), and gas (core, part-timers, plus the often evanescent alumni).


Unlike traditional contingency theories of organization that I discussed in an earlier chapter, the contingent construction of any organization when considered from the ground of its valence connections considers the multiplicity of its relationships, and the nature, quality, and extent of those relationships’ effects, to define what now becomes organization as an emergent and continually evolving form.


When one moves beyond individual-organization relationships, it is equally clear that the same sorts of relationship valences can exist among discrete organizations (if indeed the notion of a “discrete organization” retains a useful meaning), both directly and indirectly, as in the case of Castells’s (1996) network enterprise. The same complex multiplicity of relationships and effects define inter- and intra-organizational forms, again, as emergent actants. This observation leads to a recursive, redefinition of organization:


Organization is that emergent entity resulting from two or more individuals, or two or more organizations, or both, that share multiple valence relationships at particular strengths, with particular pervasiveness, among its component elements at any point in time.


I propose five, distinct valence relationships that each involve a form of connection via exchange—tangible or intangible. These are: Economic, Knowledge, Identity, Socio-psychological, and Ecological. There may be additional valence relationships that are distinct, that is, cannot be derived from this set of five; additionally, there may be another set of valence relationships that are orthogonal to the set I propose. It is not my intention to claim enumeration of a uniquely exclusive and definitive set of inter-actant relationships that enable emergence of organization. Rather, I contend that this set is sufficient to account for organizational behaviours observed in the empirical findings of this study, and useful to provide guidance to organizational members beyond that afforded by conventional management discourses.


Read on: The Five Valence Relationships

[1] Although it should be clear from the context, Latour’s use of the word, “corporate,” should not be confused with the legal fiction that is a business corporation.

[2] Although Whyte’s landmark book has more to do with the transformation of the American businessman from the clichéd rugged individualist to one that must face a collaborative social ethic in the context of organization (and the resultant conflict with the so-called Protestant work ethic), my usage here retrieves Whyte’s cliché in a new form: a Latourian entanglement that creates a new human-nonhuman actant, particularly effected by BAH dynamics.

[3] My use of valence should not be confused with Victor Vroom’s (1967) usage of the same word in his Expectation-Valence Theory of motivation. Vroom uses the word, valence, to be synonymous with relevance or value when explaining that employee rewards for particular tasks, to be motivating, must fill an employee need (value or “valence”), and be commensurate with the task that itself must be achievable (expectation).


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