The 77th Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management took place 4-9 August 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. The vice president and program chair was Carol T. Kulik of the University of South Australia.
At the Interface
Interface: A common boundary or interconnection between systems, concepts or human beings (Random House Dictionary, 2016)
That definition highlights the dual nature of interfaces. Interfaces establish boundaries that differentiate and separate; they mark a space where insiders can jointly define an organization’s mission, develop an organizational identity, and participate in organizational activities. But interfaces also develop connections that facilitate communication, negotiation, and exchange across organizational boundaries.
Interfaces are increasingly relevant to today’s organizations, as information, people, and other resources cross organizational boundaries at unprecedented rates. An employee conversation held around the company water cooler today is likely to appear on social media tomorrow. In the “gig economy,” people may work as employees for only a few short weeks or a handful of quick shifts, moving from one organization to another without fully integrating into any of them. And even when people are in traditional employment relationships with a single organization, mobile phones and Internet capabilities let them psychologically cross the organizational boundary dozens of times a day. As traffic at the interface intensifies, how do we distinguish between insiders and outsiders, and identify who has a legitimate stake in influencing organizational missions, decisions, and activities?
Interfaces create “interstitial spaces” in which information, people and resources are situated neither inside nor outside, but somewhere in between. Organizations leverage these interstitial spaces as they develop alumni networks for former employees, encourage family and friend referrals to job openings, ask customers to bag their own groceries, and crowdsource ideas for new products and markets. These activities are designed to benefit the organization, but society might benefit as well. Today’s Grand Challenges (e.g., aging populations, climate change) increasingly demand large-scale multi-perspective strategies. When the interstitial space is large, organizations may feel greater responsibility to tackle societal issues that are not part of their formal mandate and are unlikely to deliver any immediate benefit to their traditional stakeholders (e.g., employees, customers and investors). But how far can organizations expand their missions before they are rudderless and off course?
Organizations continually redesign their interfaces as they decide which activities they will undertake and which activities will be purchased or contracted out. Organizations form and disband partnerships and alliances, changing the shape of organizational networks. These interface changes affect outcomes ranging from the employment opportunities of individuals to the wealth of nations. And when the interfaces connecting organizations and networks span national boundaries, new opportunities for organizations to shape (and be shaped by) political and social systems also emerge. The sheer scale of organizations and interorganizational networks permits organizations to unintentionally and/or deliberately influence governments and societies in ways that are controversial. How accountable should organizations be for the economic and social consequences of their actions at the interface?
At the Interface is an invitation to reflect on the many ways that interfaces separate and connect people and organizations – and to consider the consequences of those separations and interconnections. Some questions to explore:
What kinds of dynamics (linear, fluctuating, punctuated equilibrium) characterize the development of new interfaces and the transformation of existing ones? What institutions affect the emergence, location, and maintenance of interfaces within and across organizational systems?
It is fitting that Atlanta is the site of our 2017 meeting, because Atlanta’s history displays some of the most dramatic separations and connections that interfaces generate. The city rose from the ashes of the American Civil War in the 1860s, was a primary organizing center of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and today is a major transportation hub and home to one of the world’s busiest airports. Let’s draw inspiration from the Atlanta context as we explore interfaces in all their complexity.
Awards and recognition