EGOS 2014: Reimagining, Rethinking, Reshaping: Organizational Scholarship in Unsettled Times

Maria Pietilä (University of )

Maria Pietilä
(University of Helsinki)

This report of the EGOS Colloquium is written by Maria Pietilä. Maria works at Higher Education Governance and Management group (HEGOM) at the Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki. She is working on her dissertation, which deals with academic leadership and governance in Finnish universities, especially related to research work and academic careers.

The 30th annual EGOS Colloquium gathered some 2100 researchers from 53 countries to the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The conference took place in July 3–5, 2014. The atmosphere in Rotterdam was of course especially lively not just because of the conference, but also because of the ongoing FIFA World Cup.

This year’s conference theme was “Reimagining, Rethinking, Reshaping: Organizational Scholarship in Unsettled Times”. EGOS, which is an abbreviation for European Group for Organizational Studies, is a scholarly association mainly for social scientists and business scholars, who have a mutual interest in organizations as study units. A central common denominator is the journal Organization Studies, which is published in collaboration with EGOS. Due to the diversity behind such a scholarly association, also the conference embraced a diversity of themes, perspectives and people from different disciplinary backgrounds. This made the conference a truly interdisciplinary one.

This year’s conference was the first EGOS I attended. The conference was structured so that the opening ceremony and the first keynote were followed by sub-theme sessions. There was yet another keynote on the second day, more sub-theme sessions, and parallel sub-plenaries. The third day ended after some more sub-theme sessions and lunch. The conference was preceded by workshops on academic reviewing, paper development, and early-career issues, but unfortunately I didn’t attend those.

The first keynote speaker was Jerry Davis, Wilbur K. Pierpont Collegiate Professor of Management at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. He talked about ‘the coming collapse of the corporation’ and succeeded in stirring at least my imagination. As the title suggests, the keynote was about the changes from a corporate-centered society (characterized by tangible products, concentrated corporate control, etc. such as in traditional manufacturing industry) towards more virtual organizations with more dispersed structures (characterized by complex networks of subscribers and producers worldwide) and the (in many cases detrimental) effects of these changes on employment and value creation at the level of national economies. This made me think where the higher education institutions stand within this development. Of course, there might be multiple answers depending on the context. Overall, it seems that higher education institutions may stand in the more traditional end of the spectrum due to their national ties and connections with national cultures. Still, the ‘virtual models’ of universities, especially related to teaching, point to the evolving, more hybrid models.

The second keynote was given by Gerry George, Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Imperial College London and editor of the prestigious Academy of Management Journal. George gave an inspiring presentation about the meaningfulness of academic research and his ideas can easily be applied to us doing research on higher education. By building on his personal work history, his main suggestion was to consider, not how you could be able to produce as many international refereed articles as possible, but to consider how your work could and might have an impact. His tips for junior researchers were to think of your own work in terms of building research programs (rather than separate papers) on larger problems that matter and to continuously reflect on the impact you would like to have (be it on organisations, society, policy, families or students). During this era of publication frenzy, when we are continuously asked – or even pressured – to publish more papers (and more quickly), I very much appreciated George’s presentation. Having more focus on impact would probably also offer more motivation ground for junior scholars than the empty calculation of publication points.

The second conference day included five parallel sub-plenaries, which focused on current theoretical and methodological issues and coming trends:

  • New Directions in Institutional Innovation (speakers: Eva Boxenbaum, Roy Suddaby & Marc J. Ventresca),
  • Dynamics of Organizational Routines (speakers: Luciana D’Adderio, Martha Feldman & Carlo Salvato),
  • Multimodality in Organizational Communication and Discourse (speakers: Theo van Leeuwen, Joep Cornelissen & Eero Vaara),
  • Process Methods and Perspectives (speakers: Ann Langley, Paul Jarzabkowski & Robert Chia),
  • Re-imagining History in Unsettled Times (panelists: Stephanie Decker, Michael Rowlinson & R. Daniel Wadhwani).

As probably in all conferences, the liveliest discussion took place in the smaller sub-theme sessions. I took part in the 40th sub-theme group ”Universities in Unsettled Times: Effects of Evaluations, Accreditations and Rankings” convened by Lars Engwall, Alfred Kieser, and Richard Whitley. Higher education research was well represented in the conference as there was also another group, which focused, among other things, on issues specific to higher education institutions. This was the 23rd sub-theme “Public Sector Reforms and Organizational Responses: Comparing Universities and Hospitals” convened by Rómulo Pinheiro, Francisco O. Ramirez, and Karsten Vrangbæk. In addition, there were probably other higher education related presentations scattered in other groups, too.

The sub-theme I participated in had seven sessions during the three days. The titles of the sessions give a hint on the themes of the papers and presentations: Organizational responses, rankings, quality assessments, research performance, selection and careers, universities as actors, and business schools as actors. After having read all the papers, I was impressed by their quality, although people (including me) also presented their “work in progress”. Personally I benefited a lot from the discussions, so thank you for all who participated! A common factor in the studies was that they aimed at challenging and questioning the current science and higher education policies and critically examined the effects of these policies (including the effects of supranational rankings and assessments) and management initiatives at universities. The participators’ backgrounds added into a fruitful mix of higher education research, science and technology studies, and business studies. The presenters were mainly from Europe (Germany, France, the UK, Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland), complemented by scholars from Korea and Australia.

Having a background in public administration and political science, I very much enjoyed the chance to position my own research and higher education research in general in a broader context of organization studies. It strengthened my ideas that higher education researchers should not remain isolated in their own circles (if that ever really happens), but actively get involved in these kinds of events and colloquiums where we also have to justify our research to a much broader audience of scholars.

I would recommend the conference to those of you who study universities and other higher education institutions as ‘organizations’, having certain unique characteristics, but sharing also many similarities with other types of organizations. The next EGOS in 2015 will take place in Athens, Greece.

Note that all the powerpoint slides from keynotes and plenaries are available at EGOS website! 

Here is a list of the other higher education conference reviews.