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.

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