Recommended Reading by Ralph Hamman

By Ralph Hamman

In this series of articles ACDI researchers recommend the latest research in their fields. This week one of ACDI's Research Chairs, Ralph Hamman of the UCT Graduate School of Business, tells us about the latest research in his field.

The most exciting and important recent paper, in my view, is Tima Bansal and colleagues’ article, “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Importance of Scale on Organizational Attention to Issues.” They seek to answer, “why organizations fail to notice latent issues, which are events, developments, and trends that have potential organizational consequences… such as climate change, poverty, and terrorism.” They argue organisations fail to notice latent issues if their attentional structures are misaligned with the issue’s spatial and temporal scale.

Two aspects of organisational attention are emphasised: attentional grain and extent. We might think of these metaphorically as looking at a scene through a screen of a certain resolution (grain) and size or scope (extent). So, organisations will miss latent issues if their “attentional grain is coarser than the scale of processes” associated with these issues – for instance, when during the 2008 finance crisis managers and regulators focused on macroeconomic data but missed signs of collapsing local housing markets. Organisations may also miss latent issues if their attentional extent is narrower than the scale of processes – which explains, for example, why insurance companies, which focus on local claims and specific weather events, generally recognised the risk of climate change much later than reinsurance companies, which aggregate trends across locales and timescales.

Of course, recommending that organisations should increase both attentional extent and grain is problematic because this raises significant demands on their attentional resources. Bansal and colleagues consider anti-terrorism efforts to illustrate the need to carefully choose how to allocate such resources. They suggest, “organisations must systematically and deliberately understand the relationships among the elements of the system,” yet how they might do this, and how they might develop corresponding capabilities, is one of the many important areas for further research attention emanating from this wonderful paper.

Given my emphasis on Bansal’s paper, I don’t have much space to discuss others, but I still want to briefly mention some. Connecting to the point above about understanding “relationships among the elements of the system,” I would highlight a recently published guide for managers, The road to context, written by one of our (and Bansal’s) collaborators, Stephanie Bertels. In a similar vein, I might mention Amanda Williams and colleagues’ review, “Systems thinking: A review of sustainability management research” (one of the co-authors, Felix Philipp, is a PhD candidate at the GSB). Of interest to adaptation scholars might be two pieces by Martina Linnenluecke: “Resilience in Business and Management Research: A Review of Influential Publications and a Research Agenda” and “Patterns of firm responses to different types of natural disasters.” Finally, given the ACDI’s interest in research-practice boundary-spanning, I should mention a recently published book, Academic-Practitioner Relationships: Developments, Complexities and Opportunities, which includes a chapter we wrote.