Upcoming Talks

I and my co-authors (denoted ## below) will be presenting a variety of research projects over the coming months. Hope to see you at one or more of these events…

“Category Promotion: How B Corporations Respond to the Competing Demands of Fitting In and Standing Out” (with Matthew Grimes)

  • Smith Entrepreneurship Research Conference, University of Maryland, USA, May 8-9, 2015.
  • Alliance for Research on Corporate Sustainability Conference. Northwestern University, USA, May 14, 2015.
  • Center for Social Impact Workshop. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, USA, May 15, 2015.##
  • Industry Studies Association Conference. Kansas City, MO, USA, May 26-29, 2015.

“An Analysis of Hydraulic Fracturing Well Siting in the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale Boom” (with Dror Etzion) 

  • ESSEC Business School (École Supérieure des Sciences Économiques et Commerciales), France, May 2015.##

“Patently Secret? The Use of Hydraulic Fracturing Patents to Contain Public Risk Information” (with Zhen Lei, Dan Cahoy & Siavash Varasteh)

  • Wharton Technology & Innovation Conference. University of Pennsylvania, USA, April 17-18, 2015.

“Conflicting Institutional Logics and Organizational Identities: How Spinouts Handle Parent Affiliation” (with Daniela Bolzani, Ricardo Fini and Antonio Giuliani)

  • Fourth Triennial Alberta Institutions Conference. Banff Springs Hotel. Banff, AB, Canada, June 12-14, 2015.
  • European Group for Organization Studies Colloquium. ALBA Graduate Business School, Greece, July 2-4, 2015.##

“Betwixt and Between: The Problematic Emergence and Bounding of the Nanotoxicology Field” (with M. Paola Ometto and Michael Lounsbury)

  • Fourth Triennial Alberta Institutions Conference. Banff Springs Hotel. Banff, AB, Canada, June 12-14, 2015.##
  • European Group for Organization Studies Colloquium. ALBA Graduate Business School, Greece, July 2-4, 2015.##
  • Academy of Management Annual Meeting. Vancouver, BC, Canada, August 2015.##

Other events:

  • Panelist. Where Are Values? A Relational Perspective. Macro Perspectives on Behavioral (Macro) Ethics Symposium. Academy of Management Annual Meeting. Vancouver, BC, Canada, August 2015.
  • Panelist. OMT New and Returning Member Networking and Research Forum Professional Development Workshop. Academy of Management Annual Meeting. Vancouver, BC, Canada, August 2015.
  • Organizer. Cultural Entrepreneurship in Action: Innovative Methods and Research Designs Professional Development Workshop (with Vern Glaser & Jochem Kroezen). Presenters included Joep Cornelissen, Peer Fiss, Matthew Grimes, Mark Kennedy, Hovig Tchalian. Academy of Management Annual Meeting. Vancouver, BC, Canada, August 2015.
  • Organizer. Developing a Research Agenda to Advance Perspectives on Performativity. Professional Development Workshop (with Vern Glaser). Presenters included Daniel Beunza, Laure Cabantous, Raghu Garud, Jean-Pascal Gond, Wanda Orlikowski, and Susan Scott. Academy of Management Annual Meeting. Vancouver, BC, Canada, August 2015.

When Does “No” Mean “No”?

Note: This article was published in The Globe and Mail on March 3, 2015. The version below includes additional hyperlink references not published in the original.

gam-masthead

On big resource projects, when does ‘no’ mean ‘no’?

By Joel Gehman and Michael Lounsbury
March 3, 2015

A recent column lamented that getting to “yes” on energy projects in Canada has never been tougher: Fossil-fuel developments, pipelines, mines, dams, transmission lines, and even wind turbines “are frequently contested, delayed or blocked.” But do such outcomes mean there is a problem? And if so, what kind of problem is it?

The argument – ‘Getting to Yes’ – assumes that “yes” is somehow on the side of angels. But a critical element of any great strategy is saying “no.” It’s Strategy 101. No organization – whether a corporation, a nation-state or a non-profit – can say “yes” to everything. Choices must be made. In his classic article “What Is Strategy?,” Harvard professor Michael Porter put it bluntly: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Clearly then, “no” is often the better strategic choice. And yet, organizations often fall into a “yes” trap. This is because, once set in motion, strategies are hard to reverse. There are sunk costs, learning effects, organizational inertia and network externalities, among other issues. And so, an organization can easily escalate its commitment to a losing course of action. But in real-time, as these strategic decisions are unfolding, the folly is often hard to stop.

One famous example is New York’s Shoreham Nuclear Plant. First proposed in April, 1966, the plant was expected to cost $75-million and come online by 1973. The plant was eventually completed in October, 1985, only to be decommissioned in March, 1989, having never sold any electricity. By that point total costs had ballooned to $5.5-billion. Predictably, the plant’s owner, Long Island Lighting Company, was unable to survive as an independent company. All because it refused to take “no” for an answer.

On the heels of President Obama’s recent veto, some advocates of the Keystone XL pipeline have proudly proclaimed they won’t take “no” for an answer. Perhaps their persistence in the face of “no” will prove prescient. Or perhaps Keystone XL is another Shoreham Nuclear Plant in the making. Only time will tell. But all of this suggests that perhaps Canada doesn’t have a “yes” problem; perhaps Canada has a “no” problem.

Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley have a saying: “If you’re going to fail, fail fast.” By comparison, getting to “no” on Canadian energy projects has been taking longer and longer. That prompts some interesting questions. Why has Canada been taking so long to get to “no”? How can we get to “no” faster? Why do so many organizations keep chasing “yes” in the face of “no”? And, perhaps most importantly, what are the costs to Canada of not taking “no” for an answer?

Joel Gehman (@joelgehman) is assistant professor of strategic management and organization and Southam faculty fellow at the Alberta School of Business. Michael Lounsbury is associate dean of research, professor of strategic management and organization and Thornton A. Graham chair at the Alberta School of Business.

Grand Challenges and Robust Action

Tackling Grand Challenges Pragmatically: Robust Action Revisited

My latest paper — Tackling Grand Challenges Pragmatically: Robust Action Revisited — is now available online. Co-authored with Fabrizio Ferraro (IESE Business School in Bacelona) and Dror Etzion (McGill University in Montreal), in the paper we theorize a novel approach to addressing the world’s grand challenges based on the philosophical tradition of American pragmatism and the sociological concept of robust action. Grounded in prior empirical organizational research, we identify three robust strategies that organizations can employ in tackling issues such as climate change and poverty alleviation: participatory architecture, multivocal inscriptions and distributed experimentation. We demonstrate how these strategies operate, the manner in which they are linked, the outcomes they generate, and why they are applicable for resolving grand challenges. We conclude by discussing our contributions to research on robust action and grand challenges, as well as some implications for research on stakeholder theory, institutional theory and theories of valuation.

For those without access to a university library, the paper is available through ResearchGate.

The Fossil Free Divestment Movement

Note: This article was published in The Globe and Mail on February 17, 2015. The version below includes hyperlink references not published in the original.

gam-masthead

What the divestment movement could mean for Alberta and Canada

By Joel Gehman and Michael Lounsbury
February 17, 2015

Recently, Norway’s $1.25-trillion sovereign wealth fund revealed that over the last three years it had divested from 115 companies engaged in coal mining, oil sands production, coal-fired electricity generation, and cement production, among others. According to Fossil Free, it was “likely the biggest divestment decision to date.” Closer to home, the University of British Columbia faculty last week voted 62 per cent in favour in a referendum asking its board to divest some $100-million in fossil fuel assets from the university’s $1.2-billion endowment. Certainly the fossil fuel divestment movement provides a potential legitimacy threat to Alberta oil sands firms’ social license to operate.

In the face of this growing momentum, a number of commentators have criticized the fossil free divestment movement. In one op-ed Martha Hall Findlay and Jean Charest offered two main points.

First, while agreeing that greenhouse gas emissions are a problem, the authors claimed: “The problem lies with the demand – it’s not the fault of those meeting the demand.” In other words: follow the money. Although we believe this depiction overly simplifies a complex problem, does the divestment movement violate its prescription? Clearly not. Even if a society limited itself to demand-side solutions, by definition, reducing demand for fossil fuel assets would qualify.

Second, the article claimed: “But investment decisions for university endowments must be based on one thing: which investments will bring the best financial returns.” In other words, maximize portfolio returns. Although we doubt all university endowments share a single investment strategy, is there evidence that divestment harms returns? Again, the answer is no. A comparison of the MSCI ACWI IMI index, which covers some 99 per cent of the global equity universe, with an index that excluded 247 fossil fuel reserve-owning companies found a return differential of 1.2 per cent in favor of the “ex Carbon list,” as well as a potential reduction in overall portfolio risk.

Clearly, a society that agreed with Hall Findlay and Charest’s twin prescriptions – follow the money and maximize portfolio returns – would not agree with their conclusions. Using their criteria it turns out that divestment is actually a “good idea.” By simply excluding fossil fuels from their portfolios, universities can meet or beat the market while reducing overall risk.

Although divestment may seem like a no-brainer, as scholars, we are curious: does the movement have any chance of succeeding? Past evidence is mixed. For instance, Nelson Mandela credited the University of California’s 1986 divestment of $3.1-billion as significant in abolishing white-minority rule in South Africa. Other campaigns have targeted child labor, land mines, and cigarettes. Recently, investors with more than $45-trillion in assets have signed the UN Principles for Responsible Investing, committing to incorporate environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) issues into investment analysis.

One big ESG issue for these investors is carbon. By any reasonable calculation the world has more carbon than it can afford to burn. According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2012, “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2C goal, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is widely deployed.” Using this same logic, Deutsche Bank concluded: “Peak carbon rather than peak oil becomes the primary driver of oil prices.”

For the companies and economies implicated, these issues connected to the fossil fuel divestment movement pose clear strategic challenges. For instance, if not all carbon is burnable, which carbon gets priority? One possibility is de-commodification, in which qualifications such as “ethical oil” and “dirty oil” may be consequential. Similarly, while some analysts have claimed that divestment is merely symbolic, as Keystone XL and the tailings pond ducks make clear, when symbols take hold they can have potent effects. For both Alberta and Canada, it may be useful to more seriously consider the role of diversification in balancing carbon-based development and growth with carbon-free leadership in clean technology and related entrepreneurial initiatives.

Joel Gehman (@joelgehman) is assistant professor of strategic management and organization and Southam faculty fellow at the Alberta School of Business. Michael Lounsbury is associate dean of research, professor of strategic management and organization and Thornton A. Graham chair at the Alberta School of Business.

Risk, Sustainability and Oil Sands

I was recently invited to to give a talk on risk and sustainability at the CSPG-AAPG Oil Sands and Heavy Oil Symposium: A Local to Global Multidisciplinary Collaboration. The symposium is being jointly sponsored by the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists (CSPG) and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), the two predominant petroleum geology organizations in North America. It will be held in Calgary at the Metropolitan Centre on October 14-16, 2014.

According to the organizers, the conference is expected to attract 500 geologists from Canada and the U.S., plus representatives from other heavy oil producers in China, Venezuela, and Russia. The topics of discussion will include the international nature of oil sands and heavy oil resources, the geology and characterization of producing deposits, technological advances, and sustainability.

My talk will be part of a session on regulatory and sustainability issues, being co-chaired by Kevin Parks and Travis Hurst. I’ll be speaking on work that I have been doing with Michael Lounsbury, Lianne Lefsrud, and Chang Lu that looks at multiple perspectives on risk, with a particular emphasis on cross cultural understandings of risk. Our analysis finds that technical, financial and perceptual understandings of risk are seldom sufficient to explain how societies decide what is risky, what is safe, and whether and how to proceed.

Update: A copy of my presentation is below. Additionally, a short companion paper is available through SSRN.

WellWiki in the News

Recently, my WellWiki.org project has garnered some nice media attention.

WellWiki.org

The first article — “A Public Wiki Shines Light on North America’s 4 Million Oil & Gas Wells” — was courtesy of Lisa Song at InsideClimate News. It ran on July 30, 2014. This story was later syndicated in a variety of newspapers, from the Miami Herald to the Buffalo News.

This article prompted some follow-up stories, including two in The Edmonton Journal. Sheila Pratt’s article — “‘Wellwiki’ compendium of oil and gas info to launch in fall” — ran on August 1, 2014. A few days later, The Edmonton Journal ran a follow-up story: “CAPP welcomes Wellwiki idea.”

Carrie Gilkison of the Epoch Times interviewed me for an August 6, 2014, article entitled: “New ‘WellWiki’ to Provide Info on Every Oil and Gas Well in Canada.”

Finally, on August 31, 2014, I was interviewed by Peter Watts on “The Alberta Weekend Morning Show.” The interview aired on Corus Entertainment’s CHQR-AM 770 Calgary and CHED-AM 630 Edmonton. The interview starts about 9:35 into the program and lasts until about 15:25.

630CHEDinterview

Showing Versus Telling and the Debate Over Unconventional Shale Development

Over the past decade, it has become clear that unconventional shale development poses major challenges to the state agencies tasked with regulating it. In many cases, the concerns are related to issues of information containment and information disclosure. For instance, Pennsylvania and its state agencies have been criticized repeatedly, most recently in a scathing report by the Commonwealth’s Auditor General.

Although the Department of Environmental Protection has born the bulk of this criticism, the Department of Health has come under fire too. According to StateImpact Pennsylvania, two retirees from the Department say “its employees were silenced on the issue of Marcellus Shale drilling.” The issue of “organizational silence,” or the collective-level phenomenon of saying or doing little in the face of significant problems, is an area of considerable research. Although in many cases organizational silence comes about tacitly, in this case, the retired employees claim the silence was deliberate.

Michael Wolf is Pennsylvania’s current Health Secretary. In a recent newspaper editorial, he responded to these criticisms of the Health Department. Below are some excerpts from his editorial, as well as some observations that occurred to me in the course of reading his comments:

The Pennsylvania Department of Health has specific protocols for all public health inquiries and concerns that employees must follow.

This sounds very promising. Inquiring minds want to know:

  • What are these protocols?
  • Are they adequate for handling inquiries and concerns related to unconventional shale developing and hydraulic fracturing?
  • How often are the Department’s protocols followed and ignored?
  • How do these protocols compare, such as with other state protocols and with peer-reviewed literature regarding the potential health impacts of unconventional shale development and hydraulic fracturing?

All inquiries are immediately reported to the department’s Bureau of Epidemiology, the experts who have training in controlling and preventing the spread of disease or illness, for review and follow-up. This is a strict and standard protocol for any health report the department receives, whether it’s related to Marcellus Shale or other environmental health issues. The process includes a review, investigation, data collection and a formal response to the complainant. The Bureau of Epidemiology works directly with the caller or patient’s physician in charge for follow-up, and any immediate threats to the public’s health found would be given a priority…. A log is kept of each complaint that comes in, responses are tracked, and outcomes noted.

Based on this statement, it seems that the Department of Health (unlike the Department of Environmental Protection) should be able to quickly provide answers to questions such as:

  • How many inquiries related to Marcellus Shale have been received?
  • What is the status of the review process and what responses have been issued in relation to these inquiries?
  • What are the outcomes of the investigations?
  • What “immediate threats to the public’s health” have been found and how are these being prioritized?
  • Are there any examples of situations where these procedures “controlled” or “prevented” the spread of potential health impacts related to unconventional shale development and hydraulic fracturing?

Our goal is, and will continue to be, to provide information and a forum for discourse on public health issues.

This is an admirable goal. As one check on how the Department has done with regard to its goal of providing information and a forum for discourse on public health issues related to unconventional shale development and hydraulic fracturing, I used the “search Agency” box on the Department website to search for terms such as “Marcellus,” “shale,” “hydraulic fracturing” and “fracking.” The results below suggest that the Department is not providing any such information on its website:

  • For “Marcellus” there were 23 results. Of these, 22 reported on the number of newborn children who were named “Marcellus.” The other document was entitled “Final Progress Report for Research Projects Funded by Health Research Grants.” The document refers to a $66,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation for “Use of information in Marcellus Shale environmental and health quality public discourse debates.”
  • For “shale” there were 8 results. Of these, 6 reported on the number of newborn children who were named “Shale.” Another result was to the same Final Progress Report referenced above. The final result was entitled “Boron Fact Sheet,” according to which, “Boron is a naturally occurring element found in many types of rocks including shale.”
  • There were no results for the terms “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking.”

We may not have a multi-million dollar health registry right now at the department as some have called for, but the records are kept, the proactive follow-up and coordination is happening and we are leveraging the talents and resources we have to get the job done.

The expression “show, don’t tell” is well known among writers of all kinds. By comparison, the Secretary’s editorial is long on telling and short on showing. Perhaps in the future, the Department of Health will provide evidence of its claims? After all, the strongest rebuttal to the allegations that have been made would be evidence to the contrary. But on that point the Department of Health remains … silent.