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Meet the editor of... Journal of Organizational Change Management

An interview with: Slawomir Magala

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Image: Professor Slawomir Magala.Professor Slawomir Magala is Professor of Cross-Cultural Management at the Rotterdam School of Management at the Erasmus University, The Netherlands, where he also chairs the Department of Organizational Sciences and Human Resource Management. Additionally, he works as a teacher and consultant for the European Union, predominantly in the business education of post-communist countries (China, Russia, Estonia, etc.) and he also teaches in Europe's leading business schools (such as INSEAD).

Professor Magala has a particular interest in sustainable business education, presenting on the subject at the 2009 Academy of Management in Chicago. He has published numerous books (including Cross-Cultural Competence and Management of Meaning in Organizations), articles, and research reports in the areas of cross-cultural management and organizational change.

He has been editor of JOCM since late 2003, having taken over from Professor David Boje, a post he landed by coincidence, his silence having been taken as consent when the need for a new editor was discussed at a dinner in Orlando. For all that, he was happy to take the role of editor, the attraction being that the journal had "always been edited by paradigmatic friends" and that it was very close to his research and teaching activity (Rotterdam School of Management runs an MSc in Change Management).

Professor Magala sees the journal as a vehicle for a particular intellectual view – the qualitative methodology – which he champions over the more fashionable and dominant quantitative paradigm that he believes was "ushered in by Cold War warriors and has been recycled ever since".

He is refreshingly candid about journal publishing and academic life generally, and his conversation is peppered with wit ("I'm paid to be interesting"), dry mock ("Third World prospers by providing raw data for sophisticated theory mills of the North"), lively images ("management is a nouveau riche science dreaming of a prince with a Nobel Prize") and examples ("cultural industries as communication commodities"), as well as a pinch of cynicism tempered with realism, and a clear belief that ideas are more important than academic power struggles or following the latest cultural fashion. If one had to choose an adjective to describe him, bland would certainly not be it.

About the journal

The Journal of Organizational Change Management (JOCM) is concerned with organizational change, and offers detailed analysis and discussion on the philosophies and practices that underpin it. International and interdisciplinary, it is recognized as one of the leading peer reviewed journals in the field. Its mission is to manage change positively and build "more promising futures for the societies and organizations of tomorrow" by analysing new approaches and research theories. Its key audiences are academics and libraries, consultants, general managers, government agencies, management and organization development professionals, and personnel and training specialists.

Journal strategy

What is JOCM's mission statement?

We are very biased towards a more qualitative and interpretative view of management, what you might call the "soft underbelly" of organizational behaviour. In this our "patron saint" is Karl Weick, a social psychologist who studied organizational behaviour and ways of making sense of organizations. We also favour narrative inquiry as a research method.

There are two reasons for this: firstly, since management came to the fore as an academic subject after World War II, the functionalist, neopositivist view has been the dominant one, and we believe in siding with the underdog! The other reason is that we follow the view that the social construction of reality is personal, experienced by individuals and between individuals – in fact, the interactions which connect us are the building blocks of reality, and there is much meaning in the space between individuals. In dreams begin responsibilities, because dreams spice our desires and duties. We are also concerned with issues of power.

This may not be fashionable at the moment – pyramid structures are supposedly out, networks are being praised and ushered in – but power and domination are actually very important. Why pretend ENRON top guys took care of the social benefits of their temps? We are slightly rebellious – we've formed an organization called Standing Conference for Managing Organizational Inquiry (SCMOI). This split off from the International Academy of Business Disciplines, which we regarded as too mainstream, and which in turn split off from the US-based Academy of Management, which was regarded as too positivist.  

Where do you intend to take the journal over the next five years?

There are three types of issues I would like to explore. Firstly, what some might consider old fashioned questions of power. Secondly, the way in which the evolution of organizations is highly dependent on what people make of it. You can't generalize or develop a rigid system; you can't take, say, three trillion organizations and put them through a computer and develop a model. As long as culture and communication survive, organizational evolution is not sneaking from behind our backs but staring into our faces. Thirdly, the way in which organizations are affected by the growth in the influence of cultural resources and symbols. These are very important, and give birth to particular organizational forms and rituals. They used to be rigid, as with organized religion or political ideology, but they are now much more fluid and subjective. Michael Jackson was a pop singer – but his aesthetic genius made him into an icon after his death in 2009 which united the entire global village much more than presidential elections in the US or Oscar awards in Hollywood. You can have organizational culture by design (Taylor's factory, Putin's Russia) but in normal societies culture is also loose and unpredictable and follows fashions. This means that organizations ride the wave of cultural fashions: for example, in universities you may see trends such as ICT, the ambidextrous organization, or the dominance of particular professional groups.

I understand that JOCM volumes tend to be made up of special issues – this year alone you have explored the issue of corporate Robespierres, or of the novel and organization – and that it aims to push out the boundaries of a subject area and set, rather than follow, the agenda. What are your thoughts on this policy?

Occasionally, you can have a good article which doesn't fit with your publishing plans. If this happens, you are annoyed with special issues and their constraints on topics. On the other hand, special issues provide a way of pushing the boundaries of the subject area, as well as a volume of material on a specific topic that is state of the art, but has not yet been published in books. This is very important in a world where there are quicker ways of publishing, on the Internet for example or through informal exchanges online.

Who are your main competitors and how do you see your market position?

Frankly, I do not really think about the competition, at least not in the sense of trying to get ahead of someone running next to me. There are journals there, both on the more established and also on the wilder side, and I may compare JOCM with them, but on the whole, I think the inter-paradigmatic competition has reached the level of benign indifference.

How will you maintain an international perspective in terms of your geographical coverage and spread of your contributions, and will you attempt to extend your regional editors to non-OECD countries?

We are already very international; members of our editorial board are from OECD countries but we have many articles from central Europe, Africa and Asia, and we are constantly working on improving the balance.

What can editors do to influence their journal's ISI [Thomson Reuters] rating?

It's important to develop a network and identify platforms on which one can fall back, and one does this by attending conferences, inviting guest speakers, going out to speak oneself, and using organizations like SCMOI to spread the message.

Editorial philosophy

Your editorial objectives state that you seek to provide "alternative philosophies for organizational change and development" by encouraging articles exploring philosophies such as critical theory, post-modernism and post-structuralism, as well as qualitative analyses, interdisciplinary approaches and articles linked to previous journal themes. Do you intend to change or expand these objectives?

I want to expand them in three ways: I want to go more into central post-communist Europe, with my friends from Poland (incidentally, I am Polish), Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania; I want to pursue academically respectable scholarship in the so-called Third World (mainly Africa, India, China and South America); thirdly, I want to give the journal a cross-cultural twist in what you might term the post-globalization hangover. The term "globalization" has turned out to be an ideological nothing, a term coined by the media and by political processes. But there are genuine issues [of darker, sneakier globalization which affects companies], such as those posed by the rebels in Nigeria who threaten to attack foreign oil workers, meaning that multinational oil companies have to consider pulling out or ... well, becoming a local actor in a political gambling. These multinationals will have to make decisions independently of their nation states: they will have a directly political role. I find this fascinating, because they are totally unprepared for this.

Can you give specific examples of how the knowledge created in your journal is transferred to practice?

This can be a problem, but I am very keen that articles should have a practical application. So I'm trying to encourage authors who are academics but with links to consulting. Such people can be rare, because this isn't always seen as an academically profitable exercise.

You encourage the submission of articles which explore philosophies, what Emerald would term "conceptual". What do you think makes a good article of this type?

We tend to publish quite a few conceptual articles along with empirical ones, mainly to redress the balance in that most other journals tend to favour the latter which are seen as safer: conceptual articles can be little more than a mild stew of speculation. What makes a good conceptual article? I'll give three examples. The first is the Holy Grail, and is when someone gives a new theoretical framework, an alternative to and better than the existing one, more inventive and more creative etc. However these are few and far between. The second is the article that takes existing theories, and creates a framework within which cases can be studied, because he or she manages to make these approaches complementary rather than mutually exclusive. You could say that it helps to economize the construction of knowledge. Thirdly, the article which takes what appears to be paradoxical or irrational, and provides a plausible explanation by direct extension of theoretical knowledge or its application in a given case (for instance a paradox of more free, more autonomous, more enabled and empowered employees who break down much more often than their less free predecessors).

You talked earlier about the importance of the qualitative approach and I note that you publish articles with interesting methodologies, such as story telling (e.g. "United we stand, or else? Exploring organizational attempts to control emotional expression by employees on September 11, 2001"). Can you give some examples of interesting and novel methodologies in current or forthcoming articles?

I can give you a couple of examples: an article ["Sensemaking of change in the managed care era: a case of hospital-based nurses", by Julie Apker, Vol. 17 No. 2] which attempted to reconstruct nurses' reactions to a new situation in which they had to do more work due to job cuts – but in so doing they achieved a higher status, because they managed the whole process of dealing with patients. So, the question is, were they winners or losers in this situation? This is the sort of issue that can only be analysed qualitatively. We are also very interested in the use of narrative methods – that's where you reconstruct the narrative of the organization by listening to the stories of people inside the organization and then triangulate them with the official documents. Then there are the anthropological approaches which are becoming more popular – both cultural anthropology and also visual anthropology.

You stress that JOCM is interdisciplinary; can you give some examples, and what disciplines/backgrounds do your authors tend to come from?

Management is a nouveau riche science with some theoretical alibis – sociology, psychology, political science and economics. There are many psychologists working in the area of organizational behaviour, while the discipline of economics is in a horrible theoretical shape, so many economists take refuge in the sciences of management. Sociologists are most welcome, but they seem to suffer from a collective decline in self-confidence and they produce less books than philosophers and psychologists (at least in Europe, in comparison US sociologists tend to be a bit less insecure and servile).

Academic career issues

In UK universities, academics are generally poorly paid and under a lot of pressure from different sources, which can make finding time to write articles difficult. What sort of problems and pressures do academics face in European universities?

There are three main problems – one is that there is an inbuilt injustice in the system in that people have to develop their research and write articles at a point when their teaching load is heaviest. By the time they reach 50, they may be professors or heads of department and can delegate some of their teaching load to others. The second is the attractiveness of consulting – management academics are very popular, and can earn good money from consulting, but of course that's at the expense of writing articles, and if they don't publish research papers, it's bad for their academic career. Then there's the impact factor in academic publication – it's smaller than ever before, simply because there are so many journals. Increasingly, much of the real academic debate takes place in late night discussions at academic gatherings, that's when the critical issues and cutting edge theories are aired. Wait a minute – hasn't this always been the case?

What advice would you give to a young academic, who had just completed a PhD, and wanted to develop a profile as a researcher? (I am imagining here someone who has a job at a university, and who wants to gain tenure.)

Firstly, avoid being pressed into paradigmatic choices by your supervisor and other members of the academic board. Secondly, don't become involved with any academic power struggles, so that your research becomes of secondary import to power allegiances (for example, you are influenced by a Dean who favours a functionalist approach, so all your research needs to be functionalist and topics follow his or her whims). If you can get over these political issues, you need to make three decisions on your research: firstly, which paradigm you favour, whether you are going to take a qualitative or a quantitative approach; secondly, which is going to be your particular area; what makes your research heart tick, thirdly, you need to choose a traditional, but related discipline and use it as an older brother to steal older clothes from. For example, I am doing research on power, so I need to rely on sociology which will tell me a lot about what makes socialized and stratified individuals tick (from Simmel and Weber to Mills and Wolin, from the French revolution to Solidarnosc).

The publishing cycle

What percentage of your submissions come to you as a result of calls and special issues? In other words, do you proactively commission articles?

Articles which come to us as a response to calls for designated themes make up 90 per cent; 30 per cent are specially commissioned.

What is your rejection rate?

The rejection rate is 92-94 per cent. It's sufficient that one reviewer recommends rejection for that to be my decision too.

How do you perceive the advantages and the disadvantages of the peer review process from your perspective as editor of JOCM? How do you think your authors perceive it?

It's not perfect – which is actually an understatement, because it is also seriously flawed in many respects – but we don't have anything better. There are some moves in the publishing arena to a model of open peer review – a bit à la Wikipedia. Perhaps we shall turn to it at some point.

Are there any particular quality issues that crop up again and again with submitted articles, such as lack of structure, poor writing style, inadequate referencing?

Keeping focus; people want to say too much too quickly. Then there is the sort of article which tries to avoid extremes, and tries to imitate other articles, so much so that the point of the article disappears. I had a case of that last year with someone who made the changes requested by the reviewer, but in so doing, the most interesting part of the article disappeared.

Do you have authors who have problems with English, and how do you overcome this?

It's not so much that the English is bad, but sometimes it's highly specific. For example some non-British authors write good grammatical English, but the vocabulary is distorted. This makes for a difficult read. But then, Bourdieu and de Swaan thought that English is much too important to leave to idiomatic Brits ...


Getting something published is only the first step in dissemination.  What advice would you give to authors on continuing to ensure that their work becomes known to their peers?

There are three main ways: go to conferences, preferably the smaller ones, the large ones are too tribal. Secondly, go for some specific publication close to the heart of the people you meet. Thirdly, use online platforms, discussion groups in your area.

And finally...

What have been for you, over this past year in your role as editor, some of the highlights?

There was one occasion when a revised article was returned [see above] with the revisions incorporated, but the most interesting bits removed. Bathwater went out, but so did the baby, unfortunately. The high point has been against all odds getting reviews on time, so I now work with only a 12-18 month delay (from submission to publication, especially in a non-special issue). What is also enjoyable is that some special issues result from an event I had actually participated in – like the special issue on the novel and organization, which I had the pleasure to participate in (at the University of Essex ), nota bene with a paper on Thomas Pynchon's novel Against the Day.

Publisher's note

Professor Slawomir Magala was originally interviewed in October 2004. The interview was revised and updated in August 2009.

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