Archive for October, 2009

The story behind the Desert Dreamer, Burning Man 2005

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

In Enabling Creative Chaos, I included the below photo of the Dreamer, a sculpture that I had visited at Burning Man 2005. I had always wondered about this installation’s story, especially since the sculpture included an inner sanctuary, and its eyes closed and opened, depending upon the time of day. Someone also positioned an oversized, used Q-tip near its ear, which you can barely see in the shadow.

The Dreamer by Pepe Ozan, Burning Man 2005

The Dreamer by Pepe Ozan, Burning Man 2005

One of my interviewees, Steve Mobia, sent me a link that thoughtfully explains the origins of the piece. Read about his experiences with conceptualizing this piece, which includes his history with the Cacophony Society, Pepe Ozan’s artistry, and the dreamwork rituals at Burning Man here. Also, learn whether keeping time at Burning Man works!

Dealing with would-be free riders

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

Today’s NYTimes article about the Park Slope Food Coop addresses an issue that plagues many organizations. How do you motivate members to keep contributing, rather than just “free riding” off the efforts of other, productive members? According to the article, rather than rely on paid staff like most grocery stores, the Park Slope Food Coop runs mainly on members’ efforts. To encourage members to contribute, the Coop relies on a dual carrot and stick approach. The carrot consists of access to desirable produce and goods at lower prices. The stick consists of having to make-up double shifts for every missed shift during a designated time period, or risk being dropped as a member (errant members can re-apply once if they pay the membership fee again). But, as the article points out, certain kinds of members can easily fall on the sidelines. Single parents, those with partners who do not want to work in the coop, those with demanding jobs, etc. are at a disadvantage.

Burning Man, like other organizations that rely upon volunteers, has faced similar issues, although it hasn’t adopted the approach of the Park Slope Coop. Volunteer coordinators recognize that some volunteers might get distracted, particularly during the event, and plan accordingly. In other cases, organizers realize that some tasks have to be compensated to ensure that the work will get done according to their satisfaction. For more on this topic, see chapter 5 in my Enabling Creative Chaos book.

Kaizening everyday life

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

The Japanese concept of kaizen was one management fad that swept manufacturing plants in the U.S. Under kaizen, workers are expected to continuously improve their work process for efficiency. Sounds good, right? However, researchers have documented how kaizen usually results in the intensification of work. Employees work an increasing number of tasks at maximum capacity at breakneck speed, often for little or no added rewards. Laurie Graham, who worked as a covert participant-observer at a car manufacturing plant that introduced kaizen, teamwork, and other new practices, argues that such practices are intended to enhance managerial control, without any corresponding benefits for the workers (see On the Line at Subaru-Isuzu: the Japanese Worker and the American Worker, 1995, ILR Press).

This past weekend, I finally saw creative use of kaizen for a higher purpose: inspiring thoughts about how we can re-imagine everyday urban life. Since the 2010 Burning Man theme is “Metropolis,” one artist set up a participatory art project at this year’s New York City Decompression, a post-Burning Man event. The artist provided instructions for kaizening life in NYC: think about how to improve NYC, write your suggestion on a shim, and tie your suggestion to one of three possible hanging sculptures. Most participants’ suggestions involved general mandates, such as more “love,” “improve the MTA (public transportation),” and “more cookies.” One of the few specific instructions, along with a drawing on the reverse, is below. Is Australia ready to make some exports?

Instructions for kaizening NYC

Instructions for kaizening NYC

Participants tie their suggestions to the emerging sculptures

Participants tie their suggestions to the emerging sculptures

One of the more specific instructions...

One of the more specific instructions...

...along with a helpful drawing.

...along with a helpful drawing.

Cleaning up for a better quality of life

Friday, October 16th, 2009

Where I live, littering is not an uncommon act: a person will deliberately drop a bag of fast food waste onto the curb for someone else to clean up while a garbage can waits within 20 feet. Each day, the high-rise housing projects develop a small ring of debris along their buildings’ perimeters as a few residents drop trash from their windows (I’m not sure why: maybe their garbage chute/elevator doesn’t work, or residents are afraid to go into the hallway, or an alternative explanation that I am loathe to think about), which hard-hatted workers will clean up. The sidewalks are riddled with darkened pieces of gum and the occasional unmentionable.

Burning Man is a relief, if only for a few days. While volunteering with Media Mecca, I helped to sort and crush cans for recycling and picked up other moop (matter-out-of-place) during each shift. These daily clean-up efforts are especially important since the Burning Man event practices Leave-No-Trace (LNT). Since there is no garbage collection service, participants need to pack out their own garbage and belongings. In addition, the event site must be returned to a condition considered acceptable by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Nevada Black Rock Desert. As mentioned in a past post, Burning Man organizers are willing to use shame to get event participants to clean up.

After surveying the 2009 event site for moop, the Department of Public Works has put up a color-coded map. Green areas were deemed acceptable, yellow areas needed some work, and red areas were bad. Theme camps in the red and yellow areas will probably face social pressure to clean-up, or they may not be welcomed back.

Click on this photo to zoom in:
2009 moop map..cleanest year yet! on Twitpic

If New York City was mapped accordingly, areas of my neighborhood would probably be a deep, intense red.

What’s the significance of this year’s two Nobel Prize winners in economics?

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

This year’s Nobel Prize winners in economics are Oliver E. Williamson and political scientist Elinor Ostrom.

In organizational theory, we teach Williamson’s transaction costs economics (TCE) as a prelude to Mark Granovetter’s work on embeddedness. To help students understand Williamson’s question about whether one should rely upon spot contracts or form an organization to handle transactions such as buying supplies or services, I ask students to imagine what their lives be like if they each had to negotiate with each professor about how much to pay them before each lecture. Upon reflection, students usually conclude that they would rather pay a set tuition to the university, which employs professors such as myself to run classes and other staff, such as the registrar to keep records and provide other needed services. This thought experiment quickly drives home the point that organizations had advantages over contracts for certain kinds of exchanges.

Back in the late 1990s, I read Ostrom’s Governing the Commons (1990, Cambridge University Press). I remember thinking that her work on how groups negotiated access to natural resources could help us understand open source, communes, and other collectives.

For other bloggers’ reactions to this year’s selection, click here, here, and here.

Congratulations, Williamson and Ostrom!

Burning Man as a small world phenomena

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

One of the interesting difficulties I have had with this research is re-contacting several interviewees and other people who helped with my research, so that I could gift them with my book and catch up on changes in their lives. While a social networking website has made this search process much easier, particularly when one person is linked with a cluster of other people, a few people are not so easy to find, particularly if their names have changed (or if they go by Burner names) or if they have lost contact with others.

During the past few months, I was stumped by how to reach three persons (Sasha Malchik, Ami Katz, and Marat Garagutdinov) who had done the 2005 Trainspotting art project, as their art project webpage had expired, and I could find no mention of their names online. About two weekends ago, I was at a birthday party attended mostly by Soviet ex-pats in Queens, NYC. When we veered onto the topic of Burning Man, one person mentioned that their friends had worked on art project involving a train station. So that’s how I found the Trainspotting artists! So, who knows what information you can find in the backyard of Queens? :)

Burners wait for the train at the Trainspotting art project, Burning Man 2005

Burners wait for the train at the Trainspotting art project, Burning Man 2005

Writing ethnography for a wider audience

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

I have another guest post at orgtheory. In this post, I share recommendations for guides and models for writing up qualitative research.

What’s the use of ethnographic research?

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Read my thoughts on the use of ethnography, a form of research in which a person observes and/or participates in activities, as well as the conduct of research more generally in a guest post on Enjoy!