What Kind of Umpire Is the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission?

The Social Psychology of Organizing (Weick 1979) is a classic, cited more more than 12,700 times according to Google Scholar. The book opens with a series of vignettes about organizational events. One of my favorites is about balls and strikes:

“The story goes that three umpires disagreed about the task of calling balls and strikes. The first one said, ‘I calls them as they is.’ The second one said, ‘I calls them as I sees them.’ The third and cleverest umpire said, ‘They ain’t nothin’ till I calls them.'” (Simons 1976: 29 as cited in Weick 1979: 1).

What are we to make of this quote? Of course a number of interpretations are possible. But one straightforward interpretation is that the three umpires operate from different ontologies. Or as Michel Callon (1998) proposed: ontologies vary. In this case, the first umpire might be called a positivist; the second an interpretivist; the third a constructivist. Or to be more alliterative: realist, relativist and relationalist.

I thought of this illustration while reading StateImpact Pennsylvania’s description of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC). Among other things the PUC is responsible for assessing fees on spud unconventional gas wells under Act 13 of 2012. In this regard, Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, “who shaped the majority of the impact fee, has said he envisions the commission serving as an umpire, ‘calling the balls and strikes’ of whether local regulations fit within the law’s framework.”

That got me thinking: Just what kind of umpire is the PUC?

Karl Weick: An Actor-Network Theorist?

It is probably too great a stretch to call Karl Weick an actor-network theorist.

But I was struck by the resonance between his latest Academy of Management Review paper on The Lost Bank: The Story of Washington Mutual, the Biggest Bank Failure in American History and some notable actor-network theory concepts.

For an organization to act, its knowledge must undergo two transformations: (1) it has to be textualized so that it becomes a unique representation of the otherwise multiply distributed understandings, and (2) it has to be voiced by someone who speaks on behalf of the network and its knowledge (Taylor & Van Every, 2000: 243)…

The intertwining of text and conversation turns circumstances into a situation that is comprehensible and that can then serve as a springboard for action. If you envision WaMu as a network of multiple, overlapping, loosely connected conversations, spread across time and distance, collectively, the network “knows” the bank is failing, but that understanding is more complicated than any one node can reproduce. The distributed organization literally does not know what it knows until macro actors articulate it. And therein lies a problem. Actors who speak on behalf of the distributed organization have conversations, but the texts neither persist nor spread (Weick, 2013: 320-321).

There are a number of connections suggested by this vignette. For instance, in Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society, Latour (1987: 227ff) introduces the concept of immutable mobiles, textualizations in Weick’s terms.

These are charts, tables, maps, figures: inscriptions of any kind that facilitate travel over time and space while retaining their form and shape. All are aimed at allowing the center to act at a distance (see also Law on “Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics“). Importantly, immutable mobiles are also combinable. In this way, they have a tendency to become detached from their origins.

Although much has been made of the influence of Serres on Latour, as with moments of inversion, I cannot help but think the idea of immutable mobiles is already prefigured in Husserl. In fact, these two concepts themselves seem bound up with one another. Is it that immutable mobiles are constituted in moments of inversion?

Another obvious connection is to Callon and Latour’s (1981) paper on macro-actors. For them the macro-actor speaks for the assembled network. Weick seems to say as much, suggesting that WaMu’s failure may have been a failure of enrollment (see Callon 1986). For instance, Weick (2013: 32) describes WaMu’s chief risk officer “as an example of a macro actor unable to give voice to a larger set of wary conversations.”

Mandatory Autonomy

Today the Supreme Court heard testimony in Duke v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., a sexual discrimination lawsuit started in 2000.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy appeared not to buy the argument put forward by Joseph Sellers, attorney for the plaintiffs seeking class action status.

“Our theory is that Wal-­Mart provided to its managers unchecked discretion…that was used to pay women less than men who were doing the same work in the same facilities at the same time, even though those women had more seniority and higher performance.”

— Joseph Sellers, plaintiffs’ lawyer

“I’m getting whipsawed here. On the one hand, you say the problem is that they were utterly subjective, and on the other hand you say there is a strong corporate culture that guides all of this. Well, which is it?”

— Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Kennedy apparently echoed Justice Scalia’s sentiments: “On the one hand, the plaintiffs allege that ‘Arkansas knows everything,’ Kennedy said, referring to Wal-Mart’s home state. But on the other, individual managers have too much autonomy.”

Again, “Mr. Sellers argued the two pieces fit together. He said corporate policy gave local managers unfettered discretion to underpay women. And prejudice against women, was part of what he contended was a centralized corporate culture the company calls ‘the Wal-Mart Way.'”

The Justices’ confusion notwithstanding, there is no contradiction or paradox in Mr. Sellers’ argument. One popular expression of this pervasive corporate phenomenon is found in Peters and Waterman’s best selling book In Search of Excellence.  In it, they dedicate an entire chapter to “Simultaneous Loose-Tight Properties.”

“Organizations that live by the loose-tight principle are on the one hand rigidly controlled, yet at the same time allow (indeed, insist on) autonomy…”

— Peters & Waterman, In Search of Excellence

Within the field of management and organization the idea of loose coupling is notably associated with Karl Weick, among others. A riveting example of just how tight loose can be is James Barker’s study: “Tightening the Iron Cage: Concertive Control in Self-Managing Teams.”