Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative, information technology, and innovation.

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Archive for November, 2011

November 30th, 2011

The Pursuit of Happyness: Guess Who’s Coming to the Brokerage

business, Narrative

As I work on Enterprising Fables I will be writing posts about the texts I’m watching or reading. My approach is to write about a group of texts in a particular subgenre, and the first subgenre is entrepreneurship. While I posted about The Social Network after it came out (see my posts of Oct. 26, 2010 and March 1, 2011), I’ll now be going back historically, and my first stop is the 2006 movie starring Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness.

Truth be told, I completely missed this movie when it was released. What attracted me was a reference in law professor Larry Ribstein’s article Wall Street and Vine: Holllywood’s View of Business. Ribstein’s main thesis, which I’ll explore in a future post, is that Hollywood has long presented a negative view of business. Ribstein pointed out The Pursuit of Happyness as the exception to his rule, calling it “one of the most pro-business films of modern times,” and an artistic and financial success, and wondering why there are not more films like it.

The Pursuit of Happyness was inspired by the rags-to-riches story of Chris Gardner, an African-American who started life in a broken family, encountered business failures that left him homeless for a year, but ultimately succeeded as a stockbroker, establishing his own brokerage firm. I will focus on the movie’s plot, as opposed to the version presented in Gardener’s 2006 autobiography.

The movie begins in 1981 following Gardner in a downward spiral. Building on a background in medical technology, he has invested all his savings in selling portable bone density scanners, a device that improved slightly on x-ray technology, but at a considerably higher price. His failure in this venture leads his wife to leave him, and he takes custody of their young son. Gardner is evicted from his apartment and he and his son are reduced to homelessness.

In the midst of the downward spiral Gardner has an epiphany. He sees a businessman getting out of a fancy sports car, telling him that he is a stockbroker, which is a good job for someone who is “good with numbers and good with people.” On the spot, Gardner resolves to become a stockbroker. Gardner lurks outside the San Francisco offices of Dean Witter to accost senior executives, and ultimately shares a taxi ride with one, impressing him with his ability to solve Rubik’s cube. Gardner is accepted into Dean Witter’s internship program, aces the securities exam, and becomes the one intern of twenty in the program who is hired full time. He does all this while he and his son are homeless, spending most nights in the shelter of San Francisco’s renowned Glide Memorial Church. The movie ends with the real Chris Gardner having a cameo, and onscreen text informing us of Gardner’s subsequent business success.

Gardner, as portrayed in the movie, is a hero with many virtues. He is innately good with numbers – demonstrated by his facility with Rubik’s cube – and good with people – demonstrated by his ability to impress his colleagues and win clients. More than that, he has tremendous persistence and determination. Even beyond that, he displays almost superhuman unflappability and self-control that enables him to survive in the radically different worlds of a stock brokerage and a homeless shelter.

Ribstein is correct in that the movie depicts business in an extraordinarily positive light. Everyone Gardner encounters at Dean Witter is eager to help him. When he turns up uninvited at the mansion of a wealthy potential client whom he has not met before, the man invites him and his son to share their corporate box at a Forty-Niners game. While the movie is set in liberal San Francisco and almost everyone at Dean Witter is a middle-aged white male, there is no trace of racism or elitism. Even if twenty interns are vying for one full-time position, the competition is clean and without animosity. This depiction of a stockbrokerage – so different from, for example, the brokerage where Bud Fox gets his start in Wall Street – strikes me as much too supportive and cooperative to begin to approach the truth. As the title of this post indicates, ultimately this is one more in a long line of films intended to make whites feel good about their relationship with blacks.

For Gardner to have bounced back from such adversity requires not just his smarts and determination, but a social safety net that provided a meal, a place to sleep, and a place to shower so that he could maintain the workaday charade of stability in his personal life. Glide Memorial Church is one of the most prominent liberal churches in the US, renowned for its numerous social service programs. So while Ribstein sees The Pursuit of Happyness as a narrative glorifying free enterprise, it can also be read as glorifying the voluntary sector. And, my guess is that the depiction of the generosity of strangers at Glide Memorial is more accurate than the depiction of the generosity of colleagues at Dean Witter.

To conclude, I interpret The Pursuit of Happyness as something other than the powerful paean to the glories of capitalism that Professor Ribstein sees in it. Manolha Dargis in her review in the New York Times (Dec. 15, 2006) called it “a fairy tale in realist drag,” and, for the reasons I’ve discussed, I think she had it exactly right.

November 25th, 2011

Stephen Denning: Guru of Management Narrative?


In writing the literature review for Enterprising Fables, one name that demands serious attention is Stephen Denning, who has written several practitioner-oriented books about how managers can enhance their persuasiveness through the strategic use of simple stories.

Denning’s own story is a compelling one. Initial success as a lawyer – winning a case for an undeserving client – as well as the tragic death of his older brother in a traffic accident led him to reexamine his goals in life. He left his native Australia to make a difference by working in third world development at the World Bank.

After twenty-five years and advancing to senior management, an internal power struggle led to his being sidelined – given the apparently meaningless assignment of “looking into information.” This diversion came in 1996, a propitious time because of the growth of the Internet. Denning redefined himself as the Bank’s knowledge management champion, and his cause quickly was embraced by President (and fellow Aussie) James Wolfensohn.

Denning found that the most effective element of his pitch for KM was an anecdote about a World Bank consultant in remote Zambia accessing the Center for Disease Control’s website to provide his clients with immediate and valuable information about malaria. Denning then played a key role leading a successful (and well-regarded) KM initiative in the World Bank. His use of the Zambia story led him to take the narrative turn, leaving the World Bank in 2001 to become a speaker, writer, and consultant about management narrative.

Since then he has written several books, including The Springboard (2000), an account of his experiences in the World Bank, and two how-to books, The Leader’s Guide to Story-Telling (2005) and The Secret Language of Leadership (2007). I will focus on the latter two, as they were written to stake out his ground as the guru of management narrative.

The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling is organized around eight specific uses of narrative: to ignite action and implement change (what he did at the World Bank), to tell your (personal) story, to build your company’s brand by telling its story, to instill an organization’s values to its employees, to encourage employees to work together as teams, to share knowledge, to respond to gossip and rumors, and to create a shared vision.

The Secret Language of Leadership is somewhat broader in its focus, situating the use of narrative within management communications. It focuses on the use of narrative in driving change (the first of the eight uses of narrative discussed in Leader’s Guide), in particular by showing how stories can be used to getting colleagues’ attention, stimulate their desire for change, and show them the benefits of change.

Denning’s definition of narrative is very loose. He uses narrative and story as synonyms and defines both as “an account of a set of events that are causally related.” So, for him, any time a manager is referring to events, whether personal or organizational, s(he) is storytelling. Denning is more specific about context, envisioning that managers will almost always be telling their stories orally at meetings or in speeches. The most literary form of narrative he imagines is Powerpoint slides. For Denning storytelling is a “performance art.”

The type of story that Denning generally prefers is what he calls minimalist, an unembellished set of events, with one protagonist at most, and a simple plot, usually one that ends with success. Denning isn’t particularly interested in managers developing or using more complicated narratives that would be realized in formats such as film, novels, or traditional oral story-telling. This preference is functional rather than aesthetic, in that Denning believes that minimalist stories enable the managerial storyteller’s target audience to “write” themselves into the story by imagining themselves as the protagonist.

Reading quickly through the text and footnotes of both of Denning’s books, there were several things I liked and things I didn’t. I thought Denning was most authentic when he talked about his lived experience, particularly at the World Bank, and what he learned from his use of narrative as well as from his observations of corporate politics as played there. His recommendations for the use of narrative were based on his own experience and, it would appear, the experience of managers for whom he consulted. He developed comprehensive how-to lists in both books, and the components of the lists seemed plausible. Furthermore, he was humble enough to say that these lists are based on his judgment and are not confirmed by quantitative research.

Denning, like many management gurus, uses the secondary literature – quoting other guurs – rather than undertaking his own original research (which is understandable for someone working on his own and without the benefit of the research grants that support professors). When his case studies are detailed and comprehensive, for example his analysis of ten communication mistakes Al Gore made in the 2000 election campaign (Secret Language of Leadership, pp. 3-20), they were very persuasive.

On more than a few occasions, however, Denning seemed to be taking the business literature and putting little more than a narrative gloss on it. Thus his discussion of storytelling to establish a company’s brand (The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, pp. 102-120) came straight from the marketing literature. That book concludes with an extended contrast (pp. 280-304) between what he calls Napoleonic command-and-control oriented managers and Tolstoyan interactive leaders than sounds to me like the Theory X/Theory Y and manager/leader dichotomies dressed up in new language.

Another example of superficial secondary analysis is his discussion of Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” speech (Leader’s Guide, pp. 231-232), which makes the point – intended to support his notion of minimalist narrative – that, while Churchill used magnificent rhetoric, he was deliberately imprecise about the British government’s strategy for pursuing the Second World War. A deeper investigation of that speech would have told a much more interesting story, focusing attention on both the lengthy recounting of the British Army’s failure in Europe and evacuation from Dunkirk that proceeded the peroration, and the political context, in which a powerful faction in the National Unity Government still embraced the notion of a negotiated settlement with the Nazis. (See chapter 4 of Governing Fables for that story, and several others, all around the theme of appeasement.)

Most recently, Denning has taken a turn away from narrative. His latest book, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management, advises on how managers can create “people-centred organizations” that “routinely delight and enchant their customers” and “automatically draw on the full talents and creativity” of the people doing the work (quotes from his website

In the blog on his website, he traces three stages in leadership storytelling: 1.0 is the simple telling and retelling of stories and 2.0 is the use of storytelling as a management technique, as discussed in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling and The Secret Language of Leadership. Denning feels that as a result of stage 2.0, the use of narrative has become firmly established within the broader field of management communication. In his stage 3.0 storytelling becomes a means to an end, namely an indicator of whether organizations are delighting their customers or drawing on the full talents and creativity of their workers.

I should say that I have not yet read The Leader’s Guide to Radical management, but it seems suspiciously similar to the panaceas that many other business gurus peddle. While the gathering of stories is undoubtedly one way of assessing how well an organization is performing, it is not the only way, and can very easily fall prey to sampling error, in that the stories gathered are not representative of the organization’s overall performance. (As an example of this, I wrote about how in the October 2011 Ontario election, the incumbent Liberal Party argued that they had improved the health system by presenting statistics showing decreased waiting times, while the Opposition New Democrats used horror stories about emergency wards to argue that the health system was declining. Which of the conflicting stories – and storytelling methodologies – do you believe?)

To conclude, I think that Denning has done important work hypothesizing and demonstrating how narrative can effectively be used by managers. He could have carried the work on to do more to demonstrate, and perhaps even begin to test his hypotheses. But a guru has to do what a guru has to do and go to where the market seems to be going, and so Denning is off to promote radical management. Whether he is telling a new story remains to be seen.

November 14th, 2011

Film in Management Education


I’m now starting to work on a sequel to Governing Fables that will deal with narratives about management in a private sector context. To emphasize its symmetry with Governing Fables, I’m planning to title it Enterprising Fables: Learning from Private Sector Narratives. I will be writing chapters that discuss private sector management in a number of contexts. Three I know will be entrepreneurship, in particular in information technology; the automobile industry; and the financial services sector. I know there is no shortage of stories about each of them.

Before writing these thematic chapters, I need an introductory chapter, and an essential part of the introductory chapter is the review of the literature. I did a preliminary review as part of my successful application to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to fund the project, but now I am returning to the review with a field of focus that is both wider and deeper. When doing the initial review I characterized the scholarly literature on management narrative as consisting of unconnected strands. While it isn’t possible to read everything that might be relevant, I want to read enough that I have a good idea of what is in each of the strands.

One strand that I was vaguely aware of but have learned much more about in the last few days is the literature on the use of film to teach management. In Governing Fables I labeled this “clips for profs,” the apparently widespread practice of taking excerpts from movies and using them to illustrate management principles or ideas. I wrote that this approach “locat[es] highly effective supplementary or illustrative material to be linked to teaching points” but that “the relation of the extracted part to the narrative whole is of no interest here, nor are formal ambiguities, thematic tensions, or alternative readings” (p. 12). The scholar who best illustrates this approach is Joseph Champoux, who has published a number of textbooks that locate excerpts from films (down to the scene, minute, and second) and link them to specific management principles or concepts. But Champoux is not alone. Over the last twenty years the Journal of Management Education has published numerous accounts of other faculty members describing how they use film in teaching. Some just clip, but others take a more holistic and sophisticated narratological approach.

Let me start with the clearest statement of the philosophy of clipping. Jim McCambridge in “Twelve Angry Men: A Study in Dialogue,” (JME 2003, 384-401) uses 12 Angry Men to illustrate the principles of dialogue, which he defines as “a discipline of collective thinking and inquiry.” Much of the article outlines the principles, specifies the clips, and in its appendix outlines how each clip should be linked to the principles. McCambridge is explicit that “rather than using the movie in its entirety, four clips from the movie are used to effectively explicate the principles of dialogue.” (p. 396). He even writes, “Undergraduates consistently become engrossed in the video clips and frequently express the desire to see the entire film. The instructor has an important responsibility to guard the integrity of the theoretical concept by continually linking what is happening in the clips to dialogue.” (p. 392). One could not imagine a clearer statement of the primacy clippers accord concept over narrative. Pesky undergraduates have the audacity to be fascinated by a classic, so the instructor must yank them back before they become engrossed in it.

Here are some other examples of traditional clipping:

• Champoux presenting management lessons from several animated films, including The Lion King (JME Feb. 2001)

• Comer using The Lion King to teach leadership (JME Aug. 2001)

• Serey on life and management lessons from Dead Poet’s Society (JME Aug. 1992)

• Graham, Pena, and Kocher on using Other People’s Money to teach corporate restructuring (JME Feb. 1999)

• Comer and Cooper on using Michael Crichton’s Disclosure (both novel and movie) to discuss gender relations and sexual harassment (JME April 1998)

• Mallinger and Rossy on using Gung Ho to teach about cultural differences (JME Oct. 2003)

• Roth on using Gung Ho, Other People’s Money, and The Efficiency Expert in an introductory management course (JME Feb. 2001)

• Bumpus on using films with actors of color in leading roles to teach concepts other than diversity (JME Dec. 2005)

• Huczynski and Buchanan presenting what they claim is the “deep structure” or dominant thesis of each of a number of films dealing with management (Twelve Angry Men, Dead Poets’ Society, Elizabeth, Thirteen Days among others) but which I take to be only their interpretations (JME Dec. 2004 and Journal of Management Inquiry 2004). I find the second article particularly problematic because the authors accept without question Thirteen Days’ misleading elevation of presidential aide Kenneth O’Donnell to a key role in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis.

• Hunt on organizational behavior lessons from two then-popular television series, Seinfeld and X-files (JME Dec. 2001) and finally,

• Tyler, Anderson, and Tyler who assigned students the task of doing their own clipping from contemporary films or television (JME August 2009).

That said, I did find a number of papers that struck me as going beyond mere clipping to a more holistic and multi-sided approach.

Smith (JME August 2009) described an organizational behavior class that used films as its primary teaching material, had students view one film each week in its entirety, and attributed a variety of concepts to each film discussed.

Van Es (Journal of Business Ethics 2003) applying a variety of ethical models to The Insider, recognizes the polyphonic nature of the narrative (in terms of the often-conflicting perspectives of Jeffrey Wigand, Lowell Bergman, and Mike Wallace) and uses the film to launch a discussion of the ethical dilemmas it raises, rather than to illustrate predetermined concepts.

Taylor and Provitera (JME 2011) reported on using Norma Rae in a labor relations course in an MBA program. They had students watch the film in its entirety to show how and why unions organize and firms resist unionization. They were also clear about the conflict between Director Norman Ritt’s pro-labor perspective and the anti-union views of many MBA students.

Rappaport and Cawelti (JME Feb. 1998) made the overlooked point that feature films dealing with management are much more compelling than case videos produced by business schools because the former employ more resources, far better writers, and much more sophisticated visual production techniques.

Finally, in one of the earliest articles in this genre, Shaw and Locke (JME August 1993) argued that instructors should not be reducing novels or movies to “formulaic expressions of managerial lessons or rules” and that “the experience of literary works in the classroom is meant to be more than an entertaining means of getting at the same chestnuts of organizational behavior” (pp. 356, 354). They advocate reading or viewing the texts in their entirety and encouraging students to relate the texts to their own experience, which will produce a diversity of reactions and interpretations. Discussion in class would then focus on the managerial implications of these diverse reactions. Perhaps because Shaw and Locke wrote their article as a manifesto, with occasional short illustrations and literary references, rather than as a thorough exposition of their method in studying a particular text, the clippers seem to have ignored them.

The approach I will be using in Enterprising Fables, like that of Governing Fables, will be much closer to that of Shaw and Locke than to the clippers, entailing comprehensive, polyphonic, and intertextual readings of a sample of the most thought-provoking management narratives.