Catherine Turco authors “The Conversational Firm”

22Aug16

By MARK SARDELLA

We all know how social media has affected our own lives. We see it every time we check Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in and a host of new networks springing up every day. Even those who have succeeded in resisting social media can’t avoid it entirely.

But how is social media impacting the corporate world?

catherine_turcoWakefield native Catherine Turco decided to find out.

In her new book, The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media, she looks at how one company adopted the open communications of social media as a model for its organizational structure.

An ethnographer and economic sociologist, Turco is the Theodore T. Miller Career Development Professor and associate professor of organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The Conversational Firm is published by Columbia University Press.

The book is about a fast-growing social media marketing company built on a philosophy of “openness” that encourages all of its employees to speak up. By promoting open dialogue across the corporate hierarchy, the firm has fostered a uniquely engaged workforce and an enviable capacity for change. Yet, as Turco details in her book, the path hasn’t always been easy. The company has confronted a number of challenges, and its experience reveals the essential elements of bureaucracy that remain even when a firm sets out to discard them.

While the book is a scholarly work, it is also emminently readable and accessible and should appeal to a popular audience as well, particularly given the subject matter.

As an ethnographer, Turco studies organizational cultures. But her new book incorporates the various elements of her educational background: economics, business and sociology.

After graduating from Wakefield Memorial High School in 1995 as valedictorian of her class, she attended Harvard College where she graduated with an A.B. in Economics with honors in 1999. At Harvard, she was the President of Harvard Student Agencies, Inc. which was then the largest student-run business in the country.

She received an MBA in 2003 from Harvard Business School and subsequently earned both an M.A. and a PhD in Sociology from Harvard. The PhD was awarded in 2011.

conversational_firmWhile she has written for numerous professional and academic journals, The Conversational Firm is her first book.

“In 2013 I became fascinated by the number of high-tech firms that seemed to be rethinking conventional business practices and trying to build more open, less bureaucratic organizations,” Turco said. “I wanted to get inside one of these companies and understand what these experiments really meant for the workers on the ground. I was especially curious whether it was all hype or whether there might be important lessons for transforming workplaces beyond just high tech.”

To answer those questions, Turco spent 10 months embedded inside a firm that she calls “TechCo.” She explained a common practice in corporate ethnography. In exchange for being given broad and deep access into the company and being allowed to have total control over any arguments and interpretations that she might make in her writings, she agreed to make reasonable efforts to keep the company and its personnel anonymous.

For ten months, she followed what the company did, observed its daily operations, and interviewed its staff and executives.

“I came away realizing that it isn’t easy to buck the conventional wisdom, but it is becoming increasingly possible on account of the communication tools and technologies now available,” she said. “In fact, I saw a new sort of organizational model emerging and one that I believed many companies could shoot for – what I call a “conversational firm.”

Turco says that TechCo was a logical firm for this type of experiment, as it was built to help businesses engage with customers on these new social media platforms. With a workforce of approximately 600 and a median employee age of 26, the company had been built with this new generation of workers in mind.

“Conversational firms differ from old-school bureaucratic ones by having a far more open communication environment,” Turco says. “In them, executives use multiple platforms like wikis and corporate chat systems to share information with the entire workforce. They delegate voice rights throughout the organization, encouraging all employees to speak up, ask questions, and share their thoughts and opinions. They saturate the workplace with digital tools and physically open workspaces that are designed to encourage dialogue. And the result of all that is an ongoing conversation that transcends the firm’s formal hierarchical structure, leading to more engaged workers and an organization that is able to tap into its entire collective wisdom.”

While the approach sounds very communal and anti-corporate, she relates in the book how an interview with one of the firm’s founders quickly clarified that impression.

“Don’t get us wrong,” he told her. “We’re red-blooded capitalists. We do this because we think it’s good business, because we think it’s going to be more profitable in the long run.”

Turco stresses in her book that companies such as TechCo do not do away with all vestiges of corporate bureaucracy, nor do its executives surrender ultimate decision-making authority in favor of corporate democracy. However, she found that the radically more open communication environment did foster a more engaged work force and a more adaptive organization.

But Turco’s book does not shy away from enumerating some of the downsides of an “open” work environment where employees set their own hours, vacations and come and go as they please.

“Just as bureaucracy always has,” she writes, “openness has its own tensions as an organizing philosophy, and some things work better open than others.”

Turco said that she found the experience of writing her first book a rewarding one.

“It was a lot of fun and an exciting challenge because it exercised different muscles than writing academic journal articles,” she said. “I hope to write more books in the future.”

Turco is also quick to credit her hometown as the launching pad for her subsequent accomplishments.

wakefield_high5
“From my first days as a freshman at Harvard College to today, I’ve always felt Wakefield High School provided an amazing foundation for my academic work,” she says. “As an economic sociologist working at MIT these days, I regularly have to straddle quantitative and qualitative realms, and I don’t think I’d be able to do that if I hadn’t had amazing Math and English teachers at Wakefield High School. I will always be grateful for what I learned from folks like Mr. Neale and Mrs. Walsh in the math department, and Mrs. McDonough, Ms. Lind, and Mrs. Beagan in the English department.”

[This story originally appeared in the August 19, 2016 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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