Friday, June 14, 2019

“Be like DNA”: How Occupations Deal with their Technological Shortcomings

In my work as an editor, I sometimes give talks to authors telling them how social scientists feel inferior to those working in the physical sciences, because the physical scientists are so much more scientific. There is some truth to that inferiority, because most physical sciences definitely have better (at least more expensive) measuring devices than we do. There is also a myth attached to the inferiority, because most social scientists think that they can become better scientists by using various complicated econometric methods to analyze their data. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post, that is exactly wrong. Graphs can be more persuasive than models, and the physical sciences prefer simple methods.

This issue of science and technology envy happens elsewhere too. In a paper published in Administrative Science Quarterly, Beth A. Bechky investigated how forensic scientists reacted when the National Academy of Sciences accused all of them – except those working in DNA profiling – of being insufficiently scientific. This is a great test case because it is consequential – forensic science is important in criminal trials – and because it is a good example of what happens when one occupation gets access to a shiny new and advanced technology, and occupations working nearby watch and react. This is a frequent event in organizations, perhaps especially in healthcare with its influx of new techniques, but also in many organizations that make increased use of data processing and communication technology to improve their work.

The research showed that reactions to the damning report were strongly influenced by how compatible the new DNA technology was with the values and existing technologies of each occupation. “DNA envy” was felt in all the other forensic labs but led to action in only some. The strongest resistance was in firearms analysis, which is an occupation that values individual craft-like judgment and uses a method unrelated to the statistical analysis used in DNA profiling. The firearms examiners didn’t accept the call to become more similar to DNA analysts and saw no way of doing so anyway.

The strongest acceptance was in toxicology. No wonder – toxicologists’ values centered on minimizing errors and quantifying the precision of their measurements, which closely matched the values held by DNA profiling labs (and the new technologies they used). The toxicologists’ main reaction to “DNA envy” was to point out that they had been like DNA profilers all the time but hadn’t been recognized as such.

As usual, the most interesting case is the one in between. Narcotics labs have measurement devices based on technology similar to that used in DNA profiling (GC/MS, in case you wonder) but also rely strongly on a fast, accurate crystal test that has little in common with DNA analysis. While there was some technology similarity, the values of the two types of labs were in conflict because narcotics analysts strongly valued their independence and flexibility when assessing evidence, and they were proud of their speed. To them, becoming “like DNA” would mean becoming less than they already were, at least as individual contributors, and they feared that they would have to adapt in that direction. This fear was especially strong because they knew about other narcotics labs that were moving to the measurement device just to become more scientific.

This research is important news for all who deal with technology. We are used to worrying about whether the right technology will be adopted and whether it will happen soon enough. Now there is another issue to keep in mind: what are the side effects of adopting new technology, and are they good or bad?

Bechky, B. A. 2019. "Evaluative Spillovers from Technological Change: The Effects of “DNA Envy” on Occupational Practices in Forensic Science." Administrative Science Quarterly, Forthcoming.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Sinner as Savior: How Marijuana became Medical

Ideologies and businesses mix uneasily. They can sometimes work together, as when social movements help promote a form of business. For example, socially responsible investing has grown that way. They can also be in conflict, as when an industry runs counter to strong societal beliefs. Other industries can sidestep ideological resistance. For example, coal-fired power plants can ignore global warming because people cannot always choose how their electricity is made. But in other industries, firms are hurt because their potential customers are turned off by the stigma attached to the business, sometimes including its legal status.

What to do when your industry is stigmatized? Kisha Lashley and Tim Pollock examined this question in a recent article in Administrative Science Quarterly, using the cannabis (marijuana) industry as an example. Their study is a good illustration of how an industry that was both illegal and stigmatized, and still is illegal at the federal level in the U.S., can act to overcome its stigma. The change for the cannabis industry hinged on one feature of the product: marijuana is not just a relaxing intoxicant but also a painkiller. This may seem inconsequential considering how many medical painkillers are available, but it matters for two reasons. First, patients differ in how they respond (or not) to painkillers. Second, the most powerful medical painkillers are addictive, such as the opioids that currently kill so many.

This painkilling feature was used to create a new ideology built around marijuana as a product that could help patients who were suffering and did not have other good options for relief. Activists, politicians, and others worked to legalize marijuana sales so these patients would not need to buy marijuana on the black market, with all the risks and dangers that could involve. Medical marijuana sold in stores – which industry leaders called “dispensaries” – was presented as a solution to a problem of human suffering and could thus occupy a moral high ground.  This was a story that marijuana proponents could tell politicians and canvass to voters, pushing for legalization in many states.
 
But what about traditional marijuana users who love the intoxication but don’t necessarily need the pain relief? They were both good and bad for the new stores. Good, because patients specifically seeking pain relief from cannabis will always be a minority in a community, so having an additional customer base is helpful for this new industry. Bad, because buyers wanting the intoxicant are exactly the stigmatized kind of “stoner” customer the dispensaries didn’t want politicians, the medical community, the media, and the general public associating them with. What to do?

The dispensaries needed to draw a fine line by taking strategic action. Through clean, stylish store designs they could look enough like pharmacies to avoid the stigma, even if many customers came for the high. Through logos and packaging (such as childproof containers) that mirrored those found in the medical field, they could establish legitimacy. And through changes in terminology, including the term “recreational use” to refer to the other part of their customer base, they could retire many of the stigmatized words describing marijuana and its users.

So is marijuana not stigmatized anymore? Well, it is a growing industry in the places that have made it legal, and a recent Financial Times article asked whether it can become a $100 billion industry. That does not mean it is completely destigmatized, but it has come far enough that there are opportunities for many entrepreneurs. Legal ones.

Lashley, K., and T. G. Pollock
2019. "Waiting to Inhale: Reducing Stigma in the Medical Cannabis Industry." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.


Sunday, June 2, 2019

Liberal and Conservative Companies: How Organizational Location and Politics Intermingle

You may know Nike as a liberal company in US politics – it is known for marketing statements with a liberal bent, and it also has liberal corporate policies such as transparency about manufacturing locations and labor practices. It is based in Beaverton, Oregon, a state that generally sends  Democrat representatives to the US Congress. Dell is a conservative company, though it is more obviously conservative in its political donations than in public statements. It is based in Round Rock, Texas, a state that most often elects Republicans senators and representatives. Are these facts connected?

A recent paper by Abhinav Gupta and Forrest Briscoe in Administrative Science Quarterly looked at the connections between firms‘ politics and their locations, and it found some relations that should be surprising. Let’s start with the more obvious ones. First, firms differ in how conservative or liberal they are. This can be measured by the political donations of their employees, and liberal firms are more sensitive to their surroundings and likely to concede to social movements’ demands. Second, the relation between employees’ political leanings and firms’ behaviors is stronger when employees are closer to the headquarters. The employees in Nike-owned stores far away from headquarters will not matter as much for the headquarters’ thinking and decisions as the employees in the headquarters.

Now for the really new stuff. Both Nike and Dell have political leanings that match their locations pretty well. That seems quite normal, and it matches some other firms we know about such as Seattle-headquartered Starbucks. But there are also firms that are more liberal or conservative than the average voter in their state, such as the software company SAS, which is in Cary, North Carolina and much more liberal than its state. If we compare equally liberal firms in a conservative and a liberal state, which one will be more likely to concede to the pressures of a social movement? You might think that it would be the liberal firm in the liberal state because its management feels more secure taking such actions. In fact, it is the opposite. The liberal firm in a conservative state will take a stand, so it will be more liberal than a liberal firm in a liberal state. Similarly, a conservative firm will take a more conservative stance if it is in a liberal state.

So, location and politics intermingle in organizations in ways that go beyond what you might expect if you thought of organizations as sponges that absorb whatever is around them. Employees can shape their organizations’ messages and actions in the political sphere. They are clearly more influential than people who live or work near the organization but who aren’t employees, because employees’ views not only shift organizational politics but also prompt the organization to take a stand against community members’ opposing views. People outside the organization can try to influence its beliefs and actions, but whether they succeed is largely a function of the views held by those on the inside.

Gupta, A., and F. Briscoe
2019. "Organizational Political Ideology and Corporate Openness to Social Activism." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.