Bounded autonomy in the workplace

In John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, he describes what might be termed the bounded autonomy enjoyed by some editorial teams within publishing houses. From pg 128:

the devolution of editorial decision-making to small editorial teams operating with a high degree of autonomy within certain financial parameters is the best way to maximize your chances of success. As one senior manager in a large corporation put it, ‘We’re giving somebody a playing field and we’re putting fences around the edge of it and saying, “If you want to cross one of those fences, you have to ask a question. But if you’re playing in the field you can do what you like.” You give people a lot of scope, but you provide a framework within which they operate.’

I was struck by how absent this seems in (British) academia, with the possible exception of some business schools. Rather than seek to return to a full system of collegial self-regulation, does this provide a model for arguing for autonomy within managerial structures? E.g. Scholarship is something which needs autonomy to flourish but this can be bounded in terms of outcomes and rules?

It’s worth noting that there’s a brutally instrumental attitude which underwrites this bounded autonomy. From pg 131:

‘There is an unspoken rule,’ explains one senior editor who has worked at Star for some 30 years, ‘put one toe out of the elevator to interfere with us and we will cut you off at the knees. And the only thing that enables us to take that attitude is profitability. As long as we make the money, we can tell them to go fuck themselves. It’s as simple and as old-fashioned as that. The second that goes wrong, we’ve had it. If we stop being profitable, the incursions will start.’

And underlying this dynamic is a certain ineffable trait, a resistance to quantification amidst demonstrable sources of profit and gain to the organisation. From pg 131-132:

This is part of the mystique of the imprint, ‘and the one thing corporate owners are scared shitless of is messing with mystique,’ said another senior editor. ‘Mystique is what they don’t understand. All they know is, if it works, don’t break it.’

Thompson later offers counter-examples to this. I’m intrigued by the analogy between high prestige imprints and successful research groups. How does the negotiation of bounded autonomy empower group leaders? The figure Milena Kremakova calls ‘the troll on the bridge’ could become very powerful here: mediating pressures towards granular control within the group and negotiating bounded autonomy for the group as a whole.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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4 replies »

  1. I am reminded of Kimoto Kazuhiko, the Japanese Senior Creative Director who hired me as an English-language copywriter at one of the two largest Japanese ad agencies. A day came when the agency was going through one of its periodic attempts to enforce rules requiring creatives to adhere to a 9-to-5 workday. I asked Kimoto-San about what was going on. He replied, “In our business there is only one rule. If the clients give the agency business because you are here, you can ignore the other rules.” The implicit alternative was, of course, that if you weren’t a rainmaker, if you didn’t bring in business, then you had to follow the rules.

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