No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Brinkmann, U. (2011), Die unsichtbare Faust des Marktes - Betriebliche Kontrolle und Koordination im Finanzmarktkapitalismus, Berlin: edition sigma.

 

The Invisible Fist of the Market - Operational control and coordination in financial market capitalism

In 2011, the German sociologist Ulrich Brinkmann presented his habilitation dissertation (tenure process) in book form: “The invisible fist of the market”. It is relevant for the health and safety professional within organizations. It has a couple of nice analogies in it; references to 80s movie and music culture.

The Veil of Silence and the Invention of Near-Misses
In business calculations, cost considerations reign supreme. The investment in safety prevention and health protection is a challenging venture, while the return on investment is not easy to quantify. Meanwhile, institutional legal health and safety requirements go together with rather different operational realities. What was meant to ensure workplace health and safety may become a façade, concealing problematic conditions behind a veil of silence.

Brinkmann did research at an automobile manufacturing plant. At the front gate, there was a man-sized board which proudly displayed the days elapsed since the last accident. A seemingly commendable practice, yet, a different narrative unfolds. When questioned, the works council respond with a smile, revealing that work accidents are being redefined or conveniently categorized as incidents involving remote workers. Others are asked to report to work despite injuries, distorting the reality behind the numbers. "This means we are the best in internal group benchmarking and do not jeopardize the existing level of our accident insurance contributions."


In the pursuit of a spotless safety record, the plant not only tolerated near misses but subtly encouraged making them up. "Part of this staging for benchmarking is that near misses have to happen. The logic is that by having them, we show we do avoid real accidents. Sometimes we therefore say: “Come up with a near miss.”

Health protection: from political disputes to individual responsibility
Brinkmann writes: "Health protection is often - structurally argued - a cost factor that companies often want to reduce, even against resistance from employees. But already the classic example of the struggle for the normal working day makes it clear that the competition-induced coercive laws could be taken over by political disputes." Brinkmann shows that during the last decades, decentralization of control has taken place, and risks and dangers were shifted to individual employees, who - under the compulsion to market themselves - can no longer rely on binding rules and regulations.

In market-oriented companies, traditional employee participation came under pressure in various ways. The market orientation (labeled "exit orientation" by Brinkmann) thinks abouit the short term, the voice orientation about the long term. Market coordination is realized through power and masks power with the exchange of equivalents. Brinkmann warns: "Employee participation and participatory elements cannot be traced back to the role of the fire brigades for efficiency or integration in these fragmented organizations that are drifting apart."

Background: "market frontier shifts"
Since the 1980s in the US and Europe there was a pressure to reorganize, which has been justified by relatively declining productivity growth and margins. Companies became increasingly analyzed and dissected for the value added contribution of individual departments.
 
Brinkmann describes "market frontier shifts", the virtual or real shifting of boundaries between the organization and its environment. The parallel strategy of "reduction to the core business" represents a consolidation process in which business boundaries are narrowed more and more concentrically until all those areas that previously acted as buffers (like former "sheltered jobs") within the organization have fallen out.
 
Brinkmann points at three key drivers for the emergence of the internal market debate:
1. In the early 1980s, the American debate over alleged Japanese supremacy for the first time highlighted intra-organizational competition as the basis for "economic excellence".
2. These concepts were initially fueled in the late 1980s with the downfall of socialism.
3. Especially in the dot-com-bubble phase with its emergence of small, typically hierarchically structured companies, long-established industry leaders focused on the logic of internal markets.

From a management perspective, the informal specification of "internal" entrepreneurship aims to combine the best of both worlds innovative entrepreneurship and dependent employment. Potential intrapreneurs must simultaneously present themselves as excellent team workers and innovation individualists.

The empire strikes back

Brinkmann looks at knowledge workers, who did not derive their power from their hierarchical position, but from the mastery of a number of zones of uncertainty, including their low manageability and the aspect that they could not be separated from their knowledge and their knowledge-specific competences. Management wanted to restore the traditional balance of power. Brinkmann: “The Empire Strikes Back” by marketing knowledge work, an area traditionally characterized by “tacitness". In addition, there were attempts to break knowledge work back into its component parts, to integrate knowledge workers into corporate culture, or to regularly point out their hierarchical position. Each of these individual concepts is based on bundles of differentiated advice literature; management strategically jumped between a large number of moves.

The culture club

The specific culture of Japanese and 'excellent' American companies was interpreted as a guarantee of their success and recommended for generalization. In a relatively short time, this idea developed into a powerful craze, especially as the concept provided solutions to current problems. However, the vagueness and formlessness of the central category led to a temporary slackening of the “corporate-culture hype”. The emergence of the value-enhancing maxim also placed cultural concepts under the common suspicion of producing costs rather than reducing them. It was given a second chance, due to the emergence of market-centering movements. Corporate culture should now serve as the cement for the atomized exit organizations. The more employees were separated from the classical ties to the company, the louder the call became for a normative reconnection as a centripetal force. However, the failure of many of these attempts documents the limited possibilities of instrumental cultural communitarization, Brinkmann writes.