Negotiating Business Narratives
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Negotiating Business Narratives

Fables of the Information Technology, Automobile Manufacturing, and Financial Trading Industries

Sandford Borins, Beth Herst

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eBook - ePub

Negotiating Business Narratives

Fables of the Information Technology, Automobile Manufacturing, and Financial Trading Industries

Sandford Borins, Beth Herst

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About This Book

This book challenges the widely-held belief that popular narratives about business are invariably critical. It develops a more nuanced analytic model of private sector narrative and applies it to 63 recent narrative texts (movies, histories, biographies) produced in the US dealing with three major industries: information technology, automobile manufacturing, and financial trading. It identifies recurring patterns to compare sectors and to analyze their implications. Negotiating Business Narratives appeals to academics and practitioners interested in business and society, strategic management, and contemporary literature and films about business.

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© The Author(s) 2018
Sandford Borins and Beth HerstNegotiating Business Narratives
Begin Abstract

1. Conceptual Framework and Methodology

Sandford Borins1 and Beth Herst2
Professor of Strategic Management, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
Narrative and Innovation Incorporated, Toronto, ON, Canada
Sandford Borins (Corresponding author)
Beth Herst


Narratives circulating widely within popular culture provide templates for engaging with the actors and institutions they represent. Academics and critics generally assert that popular narratives about business (movies, novels, histories) are invariably critical. This monograph presents a more nuanced view. This chapter outlines an inductively derived structural matrix that is used to analyze 63 narrative texts produced in the US in the last 40 years dealing with three major industries: information technology (IT), automobile manufacturing, and financial trading. The matrix defines an eight-cell array of structuring fables ranging from Nirvana to Nightmare with six mixed or compound fables intervening between these extremes. Texts that cluster in one or a few related cells are defined as instantiating a dominant fable.


End Abstract
Does Hollywood hate Wall Street? For most academics and critics surveying cinematic representations of business the answer is unequivocally yes. Show business consistently vilifies big business while rarely seeming to understand, or accurately portray, its workings (Younkins 2014, 4). Musing on three recent “evil corporation” movies, Erin Brockovich, The Rainmaker, and A Civil Action, Philip Lopate noted in a New York Times essay in 2000 that corporations and their agents had become the entertainment industry’s favorite “fantasy villain” (Lopate 2000). Five years later, writing for Slate , Edward Epstein speculated on the increasing indispensability of “lily-white impeccably dressed American corporate executives” as cinematic villains in a climate that no longer accepts the racial, ethnic or geographic stereotyping of the past. In fact, the title of his review of Syriana proclaims that business has now become “an essential part of Hollywood’s new axis of evil” (Epstein 2005). And the phenomenon may not even be particularly new. The financial commentator James Surowiecki considers the movies’ “mistrust of capitalism” to be “almost as old as the medium itself” (2010). Explanations for this anti-business bias typically invoke business’s “bourgeoning cultural influence” (Surowiecki 2010), more specifically the acquisition of major studios and production companies by multinational corporations and the resulting ascendance of “the suits” over “the creatives.” For Lopate, it is inevitable that filmmakers, seeing themselves as “mavericks,” would incorporate in their films their disdain for the “studio bean counters who oversee them.” Lawrence Ribstein, in two separate scholarly articles (2009, 2012) makes the point explicit, attributing the hostility of Hollywood’s representations of business to screenwriters’ and directors’ resentment of corporate control over, and interference with, their art.
This study tells a different story differently. Rather than consider an undifferentiated set of business narratives, it focuses on three high-profile US industries of global importance: information technology, automobile manufacturing, and financial trading.1 Rather than attempting a comprehensive survey, or offering a small sample of arguably representative instances, it limits its purview to the preceding four decades, with a cut-off of 2016, while expanding the set of narrative forms it engages to include both print and visual media and the genres to encompass fiction, docudrama, documentary, biography, history, and memoir. Most fundamentally, this study draws methodological inspiration from classical structuralist narratology to identify and analyze structural patterns within clearly defined sets of business narratives. By doing so, it also begins to explore some larger questions the authors cited above have generally not broached. Almost three decades ago, the psychologist Jerome Bruner famously noted that narratives are “especially viable instruments for social negotiation” (1990, 55). His insight challenges us to consider more deeply what social and cultural functions these industry-specific narratives might be performing, what assumptions, values, beliefs, norms, expectations, and anxieties are being expressed and engaged. To use Bruner’s formulation, what is being negotiated here?

Theoretical Context

Research on narrative and management is still an emerging discourse, its theoretical and methodological boundaries far from settled. At least two significant constituencies can be mapped, however, based on a distinction between scholarship engaging with formally structured, professionally authored narrative texts (in a range of media forms) on the one hand and the products of “storytelling” on the other. Both objects of study are narratives, in the fundamental sense defined by the influential film scholars Bordwell and Thompson: “a chain of events linked by cause and effect and occurring in time and space” (2013, 75). Both depend upon processes of “situated communicative action” (Herman 2012, 44), but those processes and their outputs clearly differ in fundamental ways.
Storytelling research in management typically takes as its focus informal personal communications circulating within organizations as an important mode of knowledge exchange, sense-making, or persuasion. The management scholar David Boje, a pioneer in this area of research, defined a story simply as “an oral or written performance involving two or more people interpreting past or anticipated experience” (Boje 1995, 1000). In his most recent research, he has taken the position that “storytelling organizational practices happen continually in every office, on every floor, in every hallway, in every field location of every organization” (Boje 2014, xix). Boje lists ten examples of this pervasive organizational practice, from “an entrepreneur giv[ing] a pitch to a group of Angels” to “a customer leav[ing] a message on the answering machine” and “the janitor explain[ing] to a supervisor why the buffing machine no longer works.” In effect, he subsumes all organizational communication under the rubric of storytelling. Boje’s self-defined objective is practical: to teach practitioners to apply his conceptualizations of storytelling to their working lives. Another well-known proponent of this practitioner-centered approach is Stephen Denning, who began his career as an executive at the World Bank. After using stories to help implement a major knowledge-sharing initiative in the early 1990s, Denning left the Bank to write and consult, basing his practice on the definition and application of a typology of stories for different managerial challenges (Denning 2005, 2007).
This monograph does not consider the type of narratives that Boje and Denning study or the oral narrative practice they advocate. Instead, our focus is what the psychologist Raymond Mar (2004) calls “crafted narratives,” extended, complex, imagined structures, produced with conscious aesthetic as well as informational intent, artefacts bearing the impress of genre norms and conventions, explicitly designed to circulate beyond the context of their initial production. Our intent here is to explore the implications of the creation, circulation, and reproduction of these narratives within popular culture, rather than to advise practitioners.
It is crafted narrative texts that are at the center of recent cross-disciplinary work on what a leading scholar in the area calls “the mind-narrative nexus” (Herman 2013, 1), an approach that seeks to fuse the insights and methods of narratology with the theoretical constructs and experimental findings of a range of sciences of mind, including social, developmental, and cognitive psychology, philosophy of mind, cognitive linguistics, evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology. This study’s methodology—its focus on recurring structural elements—owes an obvious debt to a much earlier phase of narratology. But its conceptual foundation and impetus is the cognitivists’ premise that we are a fiction-making, story-seeking species, unable not to impose narrative structures and significance on our experience (Gottschall 2012, 105).
Where do those structures come from? The assumption here is that narrative forms circulating widely within popular culture (movies, television series, memoirs, biographies, novels, nonacademic histories) serve as templates, sometimes consciously adopted, more often perhaps not, for how we experience and represent the world around us. If narrative constitutes “a primary resource for configuring circumstances and events into more or less coherent scenarios” (Herman 2013, 74), it seems reasonable to suppose that the scenarios we daily produce may well be shaped by the ones we are daily consuming.2 And it is these narrative scenarios, or “patterns of salience” as the film scholar Carl Plantinga calls them (2009, 48), that can, in turn, shape personal and public discourse. So, the narratives we consume about Wall Street, or Detroit, or Silicon Valley feed back into the ways we perceive, understand, respond to, even seek to regulate Wall Street, or Detroit, or Silicon Valley. And the feedback need not end there. This public discourse may then be reflected in new narratives cultural producers create and distribute. It is this hypothesis concerning the potential reciprocal interactions between widely circulating fictional or fiction-like narrative representations and public discourse that prompts the central questions this paper asks.3 What are the constituent structures of these narratives? Are there recurring patterns among them? What might such patterns reveal about the cultural discourse they both shape and reflect?

Antecedents and Conceptual Structure

Borins’s previous research engaging public-sector narratives deduced and applied a four-quadrant analytic matrix (Borins 2011). The matrix defined four recurring fables, that is, shared structures of narrative agents, functions, trajectories, and preferred meanings that informed individual narrativizations (configurations of characters, actions, and plot events within specific texts). This approach distantly echoes work of pioneering structuralists like Vladimir Propp (1928, translated 1968) who in the early decades of the twentieth century analyzed 100 Russian folk tales to identify inductively fundamental and recurring structural elements, including seven basic character roles and 31 functions or types of action. More immediate influences include film scholars like Bordwell and Thompson (2013) and Haywood (2006) writing on the evolution of film genres and genre-specific plots, character types, and formal conventions. The primary distinction this public-sector research employed, differentiating structuring fable, specific narrative instantiation, and text (the individual cultural artefact considered in the light of its production, circulation, and reception), derives from the work of later twentieth-century narratologists, particularly the eminent Dutch scholar Mieke Bal (1997).
Public-sector narratives necessarily involve both an individual protagonist (or group of protagonists) and an explicitly defined institutional/societal context, with the narrative’s emplotment ...

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