Failing to See

Okay, so it has been far too long since I’ve written in this space. I blame it on a busy administrative role, and, truth be told, obsessive Facebook use concerning the American election. Enough; back to thoughts.

I was jarred into actual novel new thoughts by reading a colleague’s paper recently. My next-door neighbor at the office, Tima Bansal, has published a new paper with her students Anna Kim and Michael Wood. It is called “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Importance of Scale on Organizational Attention to Issues,” and you can find the paper here.

In the paper, they ask important questions, such as why financial institutions simply missed the signals of the impending financial crisis altogether, or why many organizations fail to recognize the possible impacts of climate change on their operations. They propose that one important reason why organizations miss these sorts of issues is because the scope or extent to which organizations pay attention is disconnected from the scale at which processes, such as climate change, or the financial crisis, actually occur.

There are many other valuable insights in this critical-realist approach to studying organizational attention. But what caught my attention (pun intended) were the obvious parallels to how we study consumption and consumers. As marketers, and academics who study consumers and marketers, we too are “bombarded by numerous external and internal signals that give information about potential issues” (page 5). Big data anyone? But we can’t pay attention to all details all the time. So, if we focus on large macro cultural trends, which play out over a long temporal scale, we can fail to notice very serious signals happening at a much smaller scale within our consumer base. Or, if we focus on the micro signals thrown up by mass datasets of behavioural data, we certainly may fail to see larger social and cultural trends. We must understand that real events and trends are actually happening in the world, even if we fail to see them. A firm may not recognize a massive cultural shift that will have important marketing implications for them, but that lack of recognition doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Another implication of this work for me was a theoretical rationale for my own innate unease with generational analysis (millennials, boomers, etc). Focusing on that scale often leads to overlooking what seems (in hindsight) as obvious differences within the cohorts. But that is a topic for another day.

Read this paper; it is dense and difficult, but thought-provoking, as all good scholarship should be!

 

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