Crowdfunding and capabilities

My recent project to investigate the implications of using a crowdfunding model to promote more dignified workplace relations managed to raise pledges to the tune of almost £400, highlighting a very simple beneficial feature of crowdfunding – the potential to develop support for an idea through co-operation with like-minded others. Though this fell short of the target financial figure, this exercise has been both promising in terms of the future of the project (for which I will re-scale the initial stage and return to supporters about whether they would still be willing to contribute in combination with seeking other funding support), and in terms of my own capability development.

Westermann-Behaylo, Buren and Berman (2016) write about the possibility of capability enhancing practices to promote win-win outcomes between diverse stakeholders, and the potential for contributions to human dignity by pursuit of reciprocity rather than stakeholder tradeoffs.  Capabilities are a foundational concept in the work of Amartya Sen and are understood in conjunction with functionings. Functionings describe a wide range of activities, including the basics of healthy living, having a good job, or even the feeling of self-respect. While Sen defines development as the enhancement of functionings, capabilities are the opportunity to achieve functionings. In existing studies of poverty-stricken economies or regions, some activities such as the support of micro-finance are already acknowledged as contributing to enhanced capabilities. If these capabilities can support improved functionings then there is a strong case for their contribution to human dignity. However, where areas struggle to acquire investment, these practices are a more obvious response to poverty alleviation than we might expect in economies where credit is easier to come by. Yet crowdfunding is not only about the raising of money, but also about establishing networks and communication practices. Consequently, I will still be looking for a further opportunity to test this theory with examination of the real experience of crowdfunders…. watch this space!

Are we adventurers in Platform Capitalism?

A review of Srnicek, Nick (2016) Platform Capitalism, Polity Press: Cambridge


At 171 pages and only three chapters, Nick Srnicek’s book is a brief and digestible entrance to the shifting territory of an increasingly digitally-mediated form of economics and labour that is beginning to be debated under a diversity of terms, including the ‘gig economy’ or ‘the fourth industrial revolution’. In particular, I had high hopes for the text as a way of catching up on debates on the social impact of technology on work, the changing conceptualisation of capitalism as the free-surfing internet age has transformed into the ‘app for that’ age of smartphones and social media, and possibly the way in which this has impacted on our notion of value in a global economy. Unfortunately I have to admit that I found the book disappointing in these areas, particularly considering that the content of the BBC’s Thinking Allowed interview was considerably more thought-provoking.

Overall, the book focuses mainly on the context of the United States, appropriate considering the location of many tech headquarters in Silicon Valley, California and their historical role in the development and emergence of new digital technologies and in the promulgation of alternative business models for technological enterprises (most notoriously in the unsuccessful dot-com boom and bust). The first chapter of the book paints an abbreviated historical picture of shifts in the regulatory and economic context affecting business (mainly manufacturing) from the 1950s to the present. This focuses primarily on the role of government investment, accessibility of venture capital and economic interventions such as quantitative easing and how these responded to and effected change in corporate strategies. While the chapter highlights the impact of changing economic environments in heightening global competition, I would have liked to have seen a more explicit statement here on the author’s theoretical position on the source of economic value. While the focus on the United States may have been appropriate to the book’s intended audience, I also think this omits important reflection on the economic transformations in India and China which are of significant importance to any analysis identifying outsourcing and technological transformation as key to it’s historical arguments.

The second chapter sets out to consider whether we are living in a new age of capitalism, defined by the new technologies supported by extensive smartphone use. In the first few pages of this chapter, the author skims over a wide range of debate regarding how we theorise the source of value in contemporary capitalism, and while there is some further discussion in the notes the limited presentation of this debate was disappointing. Briefly alluding to Italian autonomism and debates on collaboration and knowledge as a source of value, the author also speeds past the contentious debate regarding immaterial labour[i] to claim that we can analyse platforms by viewing data as a raw material extracted from service users. Despite this allusion to Marxist analysis, there are points in the book where the analysis seems to rely on a conventional economic framing regarding the problems of marginal utility faced by these firms. The discussion then moves to a description of the characteristics of platforms in general, specifically how they stand in relation to monopolising the acquisition of this ‘resource’ and tailoring their services to ever-increase this monopolising tendency such that all user activity is captured. By this reasoning, the strategy of applications such as Uber, for example, is to aim to acquire all records of requests for transportation and their fulfillment in all geographic spaces. In becoming ubiquitous, this service drives out any and all interactions that do not comply with the model.

The presentation of different types of platform; advertising, cloud, industrial, product and lean comprises the remainder of the chapter, and offers some interesting areas of insight for those undertaking research and analysis in platform activities.

The final chapter of the book, dramatically entitled ‘Great Platform Wars’ outlines the structural and strategic activities and tendencies of specific firms in the attempt to capture or acquire more data. This makes a few allusions to the influence of the practices and policies of different nation-states in industries such as manufacturing, including China’s overproduction of steel, and hints at the way in which the behaviour of platform enterprises may perhaps be understood in an American search for continued strategic economic power. Unfortunately this line of discussion is not much pursued by the book, and although it offers a tantalising glimpse of what areas of research may be possible through a focus on the dynamics of platform based enterprises, readers may have to undertake their own further research to get a more satisfying picture.

[i] in general, the analysis presented by Srnick (as in publications by Langley and Leyshon and others) focus on material economic relations and have little to say about the contribution of labour other than as a free source of data generation or the means by which algorithms are developed for it’s organisation. For a more in depth discussion regarding the question of labour’s contribution see Toms 2008, Beverungen, Bohm & Land 2015, and Pitts 2016.

CMS 2017 Conference illustration by Vanessa Randle

Critical Management Studies Conference

Back in July I attended the Critical Management Studies conference in Liverpool, an interesting experience as it was very close to home (unlike last year’s hike to the USA) and also my first attempt at attending a conference when presenting more than one single-authored paper. While I usually find that conferences are tense affairs until after my presentation is out of the way, the need to be prepared for two paper presentations incentivised me to be very organised for this conference and plan my materials and outlines well in advance. I was also co-convenor of a stream, though as two streams were merged we had plenty of support in organising things. We really needed it, as the conference venue was a beautiful period building (The Adelphi in central Liverpool) but with somewhat compromised facilities when applied to this conference format, and a confusing layout of rooms and corridors at times reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel.

I agreed to present one of my papers at an internal university event only a few weeks prior to the conference which really helped refine my thoughts on the contribution of the paper and I felt nicely confident about conveying the message (if not, perhaps, in the specified timeframe of 20 minutes). This paper explored the possibility of more humane and dignified work relations that might be promoted through turning to rewards based crowdfunding, as the process could encourage workers and organisations to think about their ‘backer’ communities and other stakeholders in a new way. I hope to begin an empirical project on this soon. The stream more broadly included research into how workers are negotiating the digital-analogue interface of app-enabled working, coworking spaces and other forms of innovation and meaning-making around platform capitalism. There were some great papers and I was really pleased with how the stream turned out.

In contrast, however, I heard many colleagues were very dissatisfied with the conference. This was partly instances of poor planning or lapses in organisation of the conference (registration and the lunch buffet each day were chaotic for the number of delegates and the conference dinner venue too prone to echoes to hear the speeches), but also a concern that much of the conference had become hostage to academic performativity. Such a claim is especially tense given that CMS as a scholarly community has been critiqued for its anti-performative stance § , but we ought to distinguish between the published narratives of CMS academics or actions taken in the service of their research ambitions with participants and the performative acts of the community as scholars policing their own boundaries and subject to their own managerial scrutiny.

At the root of colleagues dissatisfaction seems to be the question; what are conferences for?

  • meeting scholars with similar interests
  • engaging in scholarly discussions
  • keeping up to date with developments in the discipline
  • maintaining or reviewing the objectives of a distinct scholarly community
  • presenting research-in-progress to peers for comment and feedback
  • challenging unconventional methodologies
  • disseminating results from completed research projects
  • obtaining support or solidarity for politically unfashionable research topics or agendas
  • reinforcing academic status or position
  • improving manuscripts pre-submission for publication
  • proposing ideas for special issues to editors of journals
  • maintaining your influence or brand image
  • learning or reinforcing norms and expectations about an academic career in the discipline
  • commissioning content for special issues of journals
  • influencing or controlling debate through exclusion
  • finding out about upcoming job opportunities
  • meeting the requirements of a funder
  • demonstrating research activity or influence to your university

The above list suggests a range of ambitions for conference participation, some of which may surprise you. However, despite the ideal of an academic conference as a venue to test ideas and progress knowledge, they have increasingly also contributed to the performative outcomes required by university managers. Conferences as regular features of the academic landscape also play a substantial part in reinforcing dominant power relations; notable concerns at this conference from i) the pre-conference critique on mailing lists of the requirement in the call for stream proposals that planned outputs such as a journal special issue would be expected as part of the application and ii) organising by the women in academia CMS support network VIDA to encourage submissions and activism to address and expose the integrated performative heteronormativity at the conference.

Activity that seemed to fit within the more instrumental or discriminatory practices in the above list was upsetting for some. In the environment of CMS in UK academia that has begun to feel uncertain post-Brexit thanks to the strategic cuts at some universities and threats of them at others, the anti-performativity of CMS is a justifiable worry.  Such an approach results in fewer opportunities for ‘impact’ – an area in which it is expected that management and business schools should excel. However, it is also the case that actions within the community to exclude or fail to approve the work of marginal scholars, or to attempt to replicate the behaviours and paradigms of ‘macho business’ or ‘hard science’ in order to validate scholarly activity in the eye of university management can only be to the detriment of the discipline. This is particularly so in a discipline which spends much of its energy critiquing such behaviour elsewhere. Consequently it was especially refreshing and energising to see these concerns being aired in the intervention by some scholars in the form of development of a game of solidarity/bullshit bingo.

The conference organisers had engaged an illustrator to record the conference (her output is shown in the header picture) and I was personally very excited to see the overviews come together. Yet again, however, engaging an illustrative artist with no grounding in the intellectual debates of the field characterises the activity of illustration as an archival one. While it may make the content more accessible, this objective is in service once again to academic performativity rather than to enhancing understanding of the material. The illustrator, however, consented to some of her materials being appropriated in the production of this poster:

solidarity bingo vignette

For me, the beauty of this poster lies in it’s action to call out the discrepancy between the topics acknowledged as significant to the scholarly community of CMS and its internal actions; streams of research papers were running on ableism, feminism, de-colonialisation and emotion in organisations. Yet in the co-ordination of the conference these very issues had not been addressed. Furthermore, the many features appearing on the bingo boards as evidence of scholarly ‘solidarity’ (e.g. active listening to research presentations, encouraging introductions) or of academic ‘bullshit’ (e.g using Q&A time to tell everyone that your work is of key relevance to them and should be cited instead of engaging in constructive criticism) were being foregrounded by the poster and the game.

All in all, the CMS community, like the broader academic community, may well be in difficult times and have numerous internal tensions over solidarity and action that need to be resolved. Although conferences like these remind us of these tensions, I was extremely pleased to see and support interventions and activism that encourage us to reexamine our priorities and actions with an ambition to forge a better type of scholarly engagement with problems inside and outside of the university.

§ An introduction to the current state of this debate can be found in the recent special issue on critical performativity published in M@n@gement with the remarks from the editors available here