Turco, The Conversational Firm (Book Review) by jgn on Saturday, July 1, 2017 in Reading, Reviews, and Technology

I've been thinking a lot about what it would mean for our whole company to engage somewhat more deeply in agile methodologies. Our product/technology team has been committed to some form of agile since founding, but elsewhere in the company, there seem to be some opportunities to make a stronger commitment to the first idea in the Agile Manifesto, namely, to respect the preference of "[i]ndividuals and interactions over processes and tools." The Manifesto goes on to say "while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more." Most forms of agile are pretty hostile to excessive documentation, process, and tools, preferring the actual built thing (the product) over artifacts and ceremony. I also had just taken a Scrum refresher from JJ Sutherland, and was reflecting even more than usual about what takes the place of those things on the right: processes and tools, comprehensive documentation, contract negotiation, and following a plan. I started to think that perhaps it was simply talking to one's colleagues more, and then serendipitously, on the tables at the MIT Coop bookstore, I noticed both Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation and Catherine Turco's The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media. This is a quick review of Turco's book.

We have a big problem in tech. It's really hard to get out of our skins and observe what we're doing. Catherine Turco is a trained anthropologist, and this book is an ethnography of a Boston-based marketing firm that creates tools for understanding a company's social media presence. Turco was embedded in the company -- which she calls TechCo -- for some months. She does what all great anthropologists do: becomes a participant-observer and applies her hard-won skills of analysis on the everyday experience of the tribe so as to provide a "thick description" of the goings-on.

What she discovered is that TechCo has made a honest and thorough commitment to the idea of "conversation" in favor of the stricter communications and decision lines that you see in traditional companies. Unwinding what this means, though, is a book-length adventure. The book is packed with concrete details about the experience in the company. Because she has seen so much, she's able to pick representative moments while also gathering up some of behaviors and episodes that don't fit the regular patterns.

In particular, she makes a pair of discoveries. The first discovery is that the company has managed to distribute "voice rights." The employees are young, and they bring non-hierarchical network ideas of communication into the workplace; the founders promote this. Time and time again, when one would think that letting everyone in the company speak would bring chaos, it turns out that the very allowance of voice rights everywhere feeds back into productive delivery and performance. (In my opinion, it's a version of Agile's principle to "inspect and adapt" -- she encapsulates it as "learn and adjust" [p. 181].) The leaders of the company are able to use these voices as a feedback loop. When another company might have explicit or implicit/tacit rules about who can say what, TechCo provides for speech as a means of discovery of new strategies and a way to incorporate emergent patterns. I've made this description a little theoretical and sterile, but a strength of the book is that it recounts many unvarnished stories of everyday life in the company -- I won't relate them here: You'll have to read the book.

The second big discovery, though, is the most surprising one. TechCo's founders make some gestures to distribute "decision rights" as well. Guess what? Employees didn't really want that. Turco makes what seems to be a solid argument that while millennials do want to speak and be heard (voice rights), they don't necessarily want to "own" direction. In fact, they seem to relish direction from leadership. This is pretty remarkable: It means that there is a split in how you distribute "ownership" of the everyday channels in the company; communication works one way, the flow of authority another. Turco speculates that this is not a surprise given the recent history in middle/upper-middle class families to have "helicopter parents" who in the final analysis don't cede control to the kids (while always wanting to discuss things). Reflecting on my own colleagues, I think there is some truth to this double claim. Meanwhile, Turco is very careful to understand whether this is just another form of top-down control (some variation of Weber's "iron cage" of bureaucracy). She concludes that it isn't. (Having said that, it would be interesting to read a review of this book by David Graeber.) What this means for agile is that if you cultivate a strong culture of communication so as to reduce the over-reliance on ceremony and artifacts, you might not necessarily jeopardize management of the decision making process.

A key chapter concerns the emergence of HR in the company. From founding, the company's leadership had a profound aversion to HR processes. But when the company crossed the 350 employee mark, there was an increased volume of voices asking for more traditional HR. In particular, there was no consistent pattern for maternity leave. This was a hard message for leadership to hear. Their solution was to respond to those voices, but organize HR so it would be extremely sensitive to the core values of the company. This is perhaps the critical example of the coherent limitation of decision rights, but bolstered by the powerful feedback supported by voice rights.

In short, I found this to be a great read. I've consumed a fair amount of ethnography in my time, and I would put this right up there with Bruno Latour's Laboratory Life as a book that provided me with fresh insights about the world of work. There is so much to learn about the workplace. We have too many books of personal testimony from individuals in companies (for example, this one), and not enough professional analysis: I expect that Turco's book will be inspiring for a generation of researchers in the everyday life of the firm.

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