Catherine Turco investigates social puzzles. This may not be surprising, given that she appears to be one herself. Turco launched her career on a business-world fast track—she ran a thousand-employee company as a Harvard undergraduate, then worked as a technology-focused investment banker at Morgan Stanley—before pivoting to earn her PhD in sociology. Now Theodore T. Miller Career Development Professor and Associate Professor of Work and Organization Studies at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Turco still describes herself as having a “quantitative mindset,” even while her ethnographic style of research seems to have more in common with Margaret Mead than with Wall Street. “If you think about an anthropologist going off and living in a remote village, I do that inside companies or an industry,” Turco explains. “I try to embed myself in a social world that I want to study as deeply as possible.”

Turco’s first book, The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media (Columbia University Press, 2016), is the product of one such embedded research stint. She spent almost a year observing an anonymous firm (which she labels “TechCo” in the book) as it attempted to reinvent its own management structure, transitioning from a hierarchical chain of command into something more transparent and adaptable. She also observed TechCo’s ongoing efforts to assimilate the unique expectations of its millennial employees.

One thing that intrigued Turco was the unexpected conflict between TechCo’s two goals. “There has been a ton of talk for years in the press about millennial workers not wanting rules and hierarchy,” Turco explains, “and yet these 23-year-olds [at TechCo] were often telling me, ‘I just want more hierarchy.’”

TechCo’s efforts to resolve this apparent paradox informed Turco’s theory of a “conversational firm.” Neither a traditional top-down bureaucracy like such 20th-century corporate giants as GE or Ford, nor a radically “flat” organization such as game developer Valve (whose boss-less employees produced the blockbuster Portal game series), TechCo combined aspects of both. The executives maintained a traditional decision-making hierarchy while also instituting a culture of radical transparency for internal communications.

In Turco’s words, TechCo separated its “decision rights” from its “voice rights.” Employees weren’t expected to democratically ratify every corporate decision, “like communes in the 1960s where consensus was key,” Turco says. But they weren’t shut out of the conversations that drove those decisions, either. In fact, every employee was invited to participate in them in an ongoing manner, through channels ranging from an internal wiki to all-staff Q&A sessions.

This fusion of decisive control with open-ended communication allowed TechCo to adapt to seemingly paradoxical pressures. For example, the executives resisted instituting a human resources department because they felt it made TechCo operate less like a nimble startup. However, as the company grew to employ several hundred people, workers began demanding more internal clarity and support. “You had this millennial workforce screaming for an HR department, which was not necessarily what I expected to walk into on the first day,” Turco recalls. “The executives didn’t want to do it because they thought it was going back on their commitment to running a non-bureaucratic company. But the commitment employees cared about was to them having voice. And they were using their voices to call for an HR department because they felt it was now necessary.”

Turco believes this conversational mode can improve any organization, not just a tech company—precisely because it allows an organization “to become self-aware,” she says, and therefore become more adaptable to the unexpected challenges and tradeoffs that every company inevitably faces. “A very wrong lesson to take from my research is that ‘if we get a wiki, then we’ll be a conversational firm,’” Turco cautions. “It’s about a genuine commitment to voice and dialogue.” HR department optional.

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One comment

  1. Richard Halpern

    July 10, 2017 —

    Are you familiar with the work of Jules Henry ? He practiced participant-observation primary research in everyday life, embedded with five families. His cultural anthropology approach sounds like the methodology you practiced. I used the same approach for my independent undergraduate thesis at Brown University many years ago.

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