Dimensions of entrepreneurship

Clarke’s law is, famously, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Entrepreneurship is hardly advanced technology, but I think to those who don’t practice it, it can seem as dark an art as sorcery. An enigmatic practice of certain gifted people. When it works, there is something alchemical about it. A way for people to turn ideas into gold.

Researchers into entrepreneurship, and many others beside, have an interest in trying to demystify it and describe it as a process. Because once distilled into a process, entrepreneurship can be analysed, replicated and taught (perhaps even branded and sold). Repeated observation of entrepreneurial ventures has enabled researchers to document that process, but not so thoroughly as to illuminate all its mysteries.

Reading Baron and Shane’s Entrepreneurship: a process perspective has walked me through that process, but also highlighted its limitations. They point out that there is much debate about how much entrepreneurship is methodology and how much is psychology. Is it like a recipe which can be followed by anyone with access to the correct ingredients? Or is it something innate in certain people, more akin to individual talent – something you either have or haven’t got?

Certainly, entrepreneurship is a process which crosses disciplinary boundaries; it is both economic (in that it is about the exploitation of finite resources) and psychological. The stages of an entrepreneurial venture are clear enough to follow like steps in a manual: idea generation, opportunity recognition, resource gathering, decision making and so on. But although you can follow that process as if you’re assembling a model aeroplane, there’s no guarantee it will fly. Because entrepreneurship appears to need a human factor.

The key psychological element of the process is “entrepreneurial cognition,” a term which describes how entrepreneurs’ thought processes differ from non-entrepreneurs. It’s in the description of the elements of entrepreneurial cognition which aid entrepreneurs’ decision making (risk sensitivity, optimism, pattern recognition) that personal abilities and preferences become relevant. The relative importance of process to personal –  of the macro world in which entrepreneurial opportunities exist to the micro world of how people behave entrepreneurially – is still unknown.

I think there’s a similarity here between entrepreneurship and creativity. Both are essentially processes which require an element of individual talent for full success. You could follow a step by step process on how to write a novel, for instance, and it may still be rubbish. Perhaps “creative cognition” exists in a similar way to entrepreneurial cognition.

Below, my graphical representation of the process of entrepreneurship, as divided along two theoretical concepts about its conception and implementation: the micro and the macro. Not a strict retelling of Baron & Shane, but more of a mind map drawn by me in an attempt to capture the various ideas about entrepreneurship as a process. (In particular, the positioning of resource gathering in the process is mine.)

dimensions of entrepreneurship

Baron, R. A. and S. A. Shane (2008). Entrepreneurship: A Process Perspective, Thomson/South-Western.
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Some initial thoughts on entrepreneurship, business, wealth and innovation.

Recently, I’ve been teaching a subject at AFTRS on Entrepreneurial Finance. This has been a useful exercise in exploring ideas about what an entrepreneur is and who identifies as an entrepreneur. Before I outline a few ideas which have sprung from that class, I must thank my seven students who have been willing to be dragged in a new direction, as I moved the subject from being purely accounting based, to include looking at stories of entrepreneurship, to thinking about types of finance available and to pitching for finance.  Their contributions have been insightful and informative.

In this subject, we have talked about entrepreneurship, but we’ve also been lucky enough to talk to four creative industries entrepreneurs about their careers and about what they do. This has resulted in an ongoing discussion about the personal attributes of entrepreneurs, such as risk-taking, passion, vision and perseverance. We have been hearing about the relationships between entrepreneurship and other social constructs, which seem to share the same space, like overlapping segments of a Venn diagram.

So, this post is a quick summary of a few thoughts about the interdependent relationships which entrepreneurship has with business, wealth and innovation. The blog equivalent of scribbled reminders on post-it notes.

Entrepreneurship and business

As part of Entrepreneurial Finance, I interviewed a film producer with a string of prominent feature credits to her name. Parallel to a successful producing career, she has also established, grew and sold a film related company. But when asked if she identified as an entrepreneur, she said no because in her view, to be an entrepreneur, you have to be in business.

The job of a film producer seems to me to be all business. It involves a range of tasks which are inherently entrepreneurial: raising finance, negotiating with talent, striking distribution deals and so on. Yet for my interviewee, this storm of production duties required to get a film made doesn’t feel like being in business. Business is not just busy-ness, but doing and something that looks and feels like a permanent, ongoing profit-making activity.

Are entrepreneurship and running a business essential companions? For me, the answer is no. I see entrepreneurship, and the ability to be entrepreneurial, active in a whole range of fields: in the arts, in not-for-profit organisations, in social enterprise. These are fields which may or may not be “in business.” Fields in which the participants (like this film producer) may not identify as being “in business.”

It seems to me like “entrepreneur” and “business person” are different roles. Like the person who has run a service station for thirty years, you can run a business without being an entrepreneur. Like someone who renovates and sells houses for profit, you can be an entrepreneur but not have a business. But there’s a set of implications about being in business – being self-directed, generating profit, financial risk taking, growing a company over time – which seems to sit comfortably alongside business as complementary ideas. They just seem like they go together, but they can and do exist separately.

(I’m grateful to my supervisor Kate Bowles for finding that term entrepreneur has its origins in 19th century France as “the manager or promoter of a theatre production.” Who’d have thought we’d have the creative industries to thank for the term?)

Entrepreneurship and wealth

Over on Radio National’s Big Ideas program, the Class Act podcast has detailed issues about Australia’s class system – insisting on its existence, detailing its complexity and talking about its effect on people and on. In its second episode, ANU’s Frank Bongiorno talks about the image of Australian entrepreneurs that developed in the 1980s. (Relevant section starts at 19 min 26 sec)

Australia became more unequal in the 1980s. Indeed, it was becoming more unequal from the 1970s, with the end of the long post war boom. And many of the long standing economic opportunities that existed within Australia, within industry and manufacturing, within the farm sector were closing off. During the 1980s, as Australia de-industrialised, as farm incomes and the farm economy came under increasing pressure, unemployment was very high, persistently high, much higher than today right through to the 1980s. Home ownership was declining and so, in many ways, that old image of Australia as a workers’ paradise or a working man’s paradise which goes right back to the 19th century… seems to be belied by the ways Australia was being transformed in the 1980s.

And so, you have the emergence of the figure of the entrepreneur, a term which was used in a non-pejorative way for most of the 1980s and then became more pejorative with the corporate collapses of the late 80s/early 90s and the recession. But you had this image really of the entrepreneur as a kind of public benefactor a public hero. Figures such as Alan Bond, for instance, or Robert Holmes à Court, Christopher Skase and they were held up as people to be emulated. The great irony of this, of course, is that it was a period of Labor government and, in many ways, the Hawke government and Paul Keating as treasurer held up these entrepreneurs as models to be emulated. They were new money as distinct from old money. They had a bit of “get up and go” about them. And, in many ways, a different kind of mass in popular culture where such figures, for the first time really in Australian history, I think, are being held up as real heroes. Their conspicuous consumption, their lavish lifestyles, were seen as admirable, because somehow or other we were able to share in them.

It is interesting to consider how our image of the entrepreneur in early 21st century Australia has changed since the time Bongiorno describes. Certainly, I think they are still held up as figures for emulation. We still think they have that bit of “get up and go” and that’s to be admired. But I think the connection to ostentatious displays of wealth is not so strong. The pervading image of an entrepreneur is much more likely to be of startup owners, app developers and hipsters in incubators. Their values seem to be presented as hard work, self-direction and innovation. Their wealth is mostly invisible and mostly presented, I’d suggest, as existing only as a future possibility.

We seem to have extended the definition of entrepreneur beyond the stratified giants of the AFR Rich List. But we’ve retained the idea of heroism and of an entrepreneur’s story being the highs, lows and ultimate triumph of the classic hero’s narrative.

One further thought: linking entrepreneurship and the drive to grow personal wealth is a challenge to the use of the term in the creative industries, where many activities are pursued without the desire to create wealth (in some cases, without the potential to create wealth). As noted previously, there’s a profit/not-for-profit divide within the creative industries and personal wealth creation sits on one side of it. Further, in the field of social entrepreneurship, I suspect it is absent entirely. It’s another example of how the concepts of wealth and entrepreneurship are drifting further apart from each other, through our wider definition of who an entrepreneur is.

Entrepreneurship and innovation

An ongoing conversation in Entrepreneurial Finance was around the role of innovation in entrepreneurship. One of my students, Daniel Punton, works in the startup space and saw innovation as fundamental; to be an entrepreneur, you must be creating something new. My discussion with Daniel and the rest of the class followed the stories told by our guest speakers, but also sprang from this definition of entrepreneurship from Howard Stephenson of Harvard Business School: “entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.” This definition, which doesn’t mention innovation, business or wealth, allows a wide range of activities to be classified as entrepreneurship.

But here’s another definition from Scott Shane and S. Venkataraman: “Entrepreneurship, as a field of business, seeks to understand how opportunities to create something new (e.g., new products or services, new markets, new production processes or raw materials, new ways of organizing existing technologies) arise and are discovered or created by specific individuals, who then use various means to exploit or develop them, thus producing a wide range of effects.” It mentions the word new five times, so they must really mean it.

For these researchers, newness can be explored in lots of different ways (it need not, for example, be a new product) but it is essential to entrepreneurship as a process. But how new is new? To take our aforementioned service station owner as an example, his business is not, a new idea. But the personal challenge of starting a business, the need to raise resources and to execute a strategy, may be a new opportunity for him/her. And if a service station in a new (geographic) market, for instance, could fit within Shane and Venkataraman’s definition, and certainly within Stephenson’s.

If we’re looking for a set formula for entrepreneurship, I don’t think we’ll find one. And, to speculate for a moment, the lack of a clear-cut definition seems to allow personal bias to influence perceptions of what entrepreneurship is. Viewed in this way, the extent to which any one aspect of entrepreneurship (newness, risk-taking, profit-making) is seen as essential, would be subjective, depending on each individual’s personal values. You might think of innovation as being essential to entrepreneurship, if you value innovation highly, and so forth. This allows Stephenson, Shane, Venkataraman and Punton to all be correct – but signals (another) a difficult definitional journey ahead.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (2018). Part 2: How we got here. [podcast] Class Act. Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/projects/class-act/ [Accessed 20 May 2018].
Baron, R. and S. Shane (2007). Entrepreneurship: A Process Perspective, Cengage Learning.
Eisenmann, T. (2013). Entrepreneurship: A Working Definition, HBR.org, available at: https://hbr.org/2013/01/what-is-entrepreneurship [Accessed 20 May 2018].
Shane, S., & Venkataraman, S. (2000). The Promise of Entrepreneurship as a Field of Research. The Academy of Management Review, 25(1), 217-226. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/259271

 

The pitch as storytelling and the storyteller’s shifting position

keith-johnston-221964Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of running a two-day clinic for artists seeking to improve their skills in attracting financial support from donors and sponsors. It’s the second time I’ve done this and both times it has been an engaging and rewarding experience.

Much time is spent at the clinic talking about the “ask” – how challenging and daunting it is for artists, and how asking positions the artist and their work. Each time I’ve run this event, discussing the ask has morphed into discussing the value of art, as perceived by consumers, donors, the general public and so on. In general terms, there’s uncertainty about what price to put on a piece of art but despite that uncertainty, there’s indignation when someone wants to access that art for a low or non-existent price.

So, the value placed on a piece of creative work is an ill-defined and touchy subject. It’s also one which is brought into sharp focus by the “ask”, which is ultimately about why anyone should hand over money for an artist’s work and if so, how much. These can be confronting questions for artists and I’ve seen firsthand the distress answering them can cause. Having to put a price on something you created, that has profound personal meaning for you and then justifying that price to a wary buyer? That’s tough.

The ask is part of a wider exercise we train these artists to undertake: the pitch. Pitching feels like something we’ve borrowed from the world of entrepreneurs, and specifically baseball loving American ones (pitch an idea to me, see if I take a swing at it or not). Pitching, which I think of as the act of presenting a potential supporter with an idea, challenges artists greatly and fundamentally. There are language barriers to break down (mainly, the tendency to hide behind incomprehensible jargon) and the need to build up the personal confidence to speak in front of people. The most crucial part though is simmering the artists’ projects down to its simplest and most compelling elements, that can make a potential supporter comfortable enough to say, “I get this and I want to help.”

The experience of talking these artists through this process got me thinking about the pitch as a form of story told by entrepreneurs. That story told well unlocks support, money, experience and advice. Told poorly it elicits indifference and/or distrust. It is in the storytelling nature of the pitch that artists have a natural advantage; they are all inherent storytellers, be they painters, filmmakers, dancers etc. If the pitch has been foisted upon artists by advocates of business practice, it is at least something which they can adapt and excel at.

*****

In 2001, researcher Ellen O’Connor spent months trailing the founder of a technology start-up and observed when and how he engaged in narrative practice. She used this experience to develop a typology of entrepreneurs’ narratives: personal, generic and situational. She observed that the founder in question moved between the types of story he was telling frequently, depending on his needs at the time and his audience.

She also noticed that depending on the type of story being told, the founder re-positioned himself in the narrative. Personal and generic stories had him positioned as the hero: a visionary, a creator, a person who made things happen. But situational stories, about the environment surrounding the founder and his nascent company, positioned him as a supporting character; only one of many players impacted by forces outside his control.

O’Connor’s Typology of Entrepreneurs’ Narratives

Type Type Description Subtype Subtype description Storyteller as character
Personal stories Authored by the company’s founder Founding stories Autobiographical in nature (“why I founded…”) May refer to a specific incident in founder’s life. Entrepreneur as the stories’ hero
Vision stories Focus on technological innovation and breakthrough as envisioned by the founder.
Generic stories Templates, required by conventional documents, such as a business plan. Marketing stories Plots the company against its competition and shows its superiority. Entrepreneur as the stories’ hero
Strategy stories Concretely plots the trajectory of the company from launch to success.
Situational stories Contextual storylines that the founder can do nothing about. Historical stories The longer and recent historical events of the industry in which the company is just one of many players. Entrepreneur as a minor player with little or no control
Conventional stories The “common sense” or widely held beliefs by industry insiders as well as the general public as to what companies in that industry and their founders do, should do and what they are like.

 

O’Connor’s story types correlate to the experience of creative industries practitioners in interesting and problematic ways. For creatives, telling personal stories is challenging; positioning themselves as the hero does not come naturally. It’s clear in how difficult they find the pitching process; generally, they have a natural tendency to deflect, to defer to a team’s contribution rather than their own and to downplay their achievements.

This is not just because of the stereotype of the introverted artist, but because it can be difficult to accept the credit for creative work, even if it’s entirely yours. Often acclaimed creative work depends on inspiration, luck, collaboration and strokes of genius that somehow just happen. It can be hard to take credit for this, because often an artist simply can’t explain how they made something great. Thus, a disconnection between the self and the work is always present which makes it difficult to replicate an entrepreneurs’ story of “this is how I made this.”

Generic stories are also challenging because often creatives aren’t trained to think about strategy or competition. There can be very little strategy employed in making a new creative work; there’s always a process but it doesn’t always have the clear objective which necessitates a strategy. If each piece is unique and a really good piece has an indefinable element to that uniqueness, then how could strategy to create it be devised? In this sense, artistic creation is almost antithetical to strategic thinking.

Competition (and in O’Connor’s sense, the ability to market your product’s advantages compared to that of your competitors) is equally challenging. Some of the more profit focused sectors in the creative industries (architecture, marketing and comms, etc) would be acutely aware of their competition. But artists tend to work in collaboration and to share information with their competitors in a way which other industries wouldn’t sanction. Artists in my clinics bristled at the thought of their peers as competitors, even though they often do compete for funding, opportunities etc.

It’s in the situational stories where creatives can flourish. My experience is that they are generally unworried by repositioning themselves as powerless sub characters within a narrative because the world around them is the inspiration for their work. They are more comfortable talking about the forces around them that shape their work, than how they created it. Perhaps it’s because the spotlight’s glare isn’t as bright, but I think it’s also a space they inhabit all the time. Entrepreneurs can use these situation stories to demonstrate a market opportunity; to show how the times we live in have created a chance to make some money. Artists use them to describe their muse.

*****

I hesitate now, because I seem to have fallen into a false binary: that artists and entrepreneurs are mutually exclusive. Of course, they are not. The cohort of artists I met in 2017 have proven that by harnessing the financial support they needed to create their work.

As I surveyed the 2017 group in preparation for meeting our 2018 clinic attendees, time and again they reported an increased confidence in making the ask. This confidence came from the responses they garnered from the donors and sponsors they approached. The consistent message was that they found people who wanted to feel involved with the work and wanted to help financially. They didn’t mind being asked and, in some cases, encouraged it. This, in turn, created a renewed confidence in the artists about the value of their art, because they found people who valued it as much or more than they did.

One of the 2017 mob said this: “I stopped thinking of it as an ask and started to think of it as an invitation. Because who doesn’t like to be invited to stuff?” In that remark, there is a repositioning, or a narrative sensemaking, as O’Connor would say. That artist repositioned himself from a beggar to the host of a fabulous party; from someone at the mercy of their situation to a hero, controlling the narrative. That’s the narrative transition that O’Connor spoke of entrepreneurs making, articulated proudly.

Storied Business: Typology, Intertextuality, and Traffic in Entrepreneurial Narrative” The Journal of Business Communication (1973), vol. 39, 1: pp. 36-54. First Published Jan 1, 2002

Is “creative industries” just the new, economically justifiable version of “the arts”?

This article, by Julian Meyrick on the Conversation, has sparked so many thoughts that they have to marshaled into an orderly queue and forced to wait patiently. Its primary focus is the evaluation of the arts and its unquantifiable benefits in a policy environment which demands quantification. That issue is enormous, so I’ll put that aside for a moment and talk about discomfort over the term “creative industries”.

Simplifying the measurement of the arts to statistical and financial data and over-reliance on such measures in policy making around the arts concerns Meyrick. His piece in the Conversation contains this paragraph:

In the last 40 years, arts and culture have found themselves weighed against criteria and targets not of their choosing, while the sophisticated calculative practices constructed to do this have sometimes exacerbated the alienated character of the situation.

The hyperlink leads to a journal article by Meyrick and colleagues Robert Phiddian, Tully Barnett & Richard Maltby, critiquing a measurement regime called Culture Counts, then being considered for use within Australian government funding bodies for the arts. In it, further reservations are expressed about quantifying the arts as economic justification, but there is also a link to the emergence of the term, “creative industries”. Meyrick et al see it as linked to an increasing desire to measure the value of the arts; in fact, that it’s a reaction to it.

They talk about the work of academics such as Hawkins, Cunningham, Bennett and Stevenson who, they say, led “the pursuit for the biggest plausible GDP number” to attribute to the cultural sector.

These authors facilitated a shift in government understanding from a traditional concept of “the arts” to a contemporary concept of “the creative industries”, and a concomitant switch from an arts policy to a cultural policy. Quantification was key to this change, as was the alliance between left-of-centre cultural democracy advocates and right-wing free-market proponents.

There are a couple of things to note here. Firstly, that the term “creative industries” is seen as a successor to “the arts” – and not so much a natural evolutionary step, but part of a wider agenda to quantify the arts (which was “key to this change”). More than that, it was a kind of merging of points of view from the left and right. So here, the adoption of the term “creative industries” is seen, at least in part, as having a political dimension. They go on:

These parties found common ground in an instrumentalist cultural materialism with little interest in nuanced critical distinction making. Someone working in advertising or software design was a “creative” in much the same way as a violinist in a symphony orchestra.

Here they express a familiar criticism of creative industry definitions. They place wildly different professions next to each other – actors and architects, musicians and marketers – within in the same category. This discontinuity is even more palpable within those subcategories themselves. Not only, I’d suggest, does an architect not think of herself as in the creative industries with actors, she probably doesn’t even consider herself to be in the creative industries. It’s far more likely, she’d see herself as being in the architecture industry.

There is a problem here, well recognised by people (like me) who work across these boundaries. It’s that the inability of the individual sectors which fill up the grab bag of industries labelled the “creative industries” to coalesce into a unified group, has prevented effective lobbying to government to support those creative industries. That problem can be seen as an inevitable result of imposing a definition of creative industries on those sectors; the term didn’t come from them so no wonder they have trouble adopting it.

The political element is then expanded upon:

The Creative Industries in Australia was a “third way” rapprochement similar to Cool Britannia under Blair. From the historical moment that we are in now, it looks like a hubristic miscalculation of the stability of a liberal democratic centre and its capacity to constrain neoliberalism through neoliberalism’s own mechanisms.

Which, I think, is fascinating. They’re saying, “you tried to play the bean counters at their own game, but you got it wrong.” And what was wrong was, again, their measurement of value.

… its imprecise use of language reduced terms of policy capture like “excellence”, “access” and “innovation” to abstractions evacuated of precise critical meaning. At the same time, it presented numbers as a tool for demystification that stripped away the obfuscating rhetoric of public value to reveal its privileging of high art in comparison with popular culture. In this way, cultural studies researchers – those who should have been most alert to the inculcation of neoliberal techniques – condoned quantification as the price for a non-exclusivist conception of culture.

All of which leaves me pondering three (ish) questions.

  1. Is “creative industries” just a rebadged version of “the arts” designed to be more economically justifiable?

Personally, I have never seen it like this. My own experience is from working with the film and TV industry to then working within “the arts” sector, which existed, at least in a policy context, separately from film and TV. So that gave me the sense that there existed creative industries outside the arts. From there I moved to working in a quasi government role with creative industries businesses/organisations of which the arts was a subset, and the measurement of those organisations in that context was not about intrinsic value, but about performance improvement and sustainability. I’ve never felt that the Creative Industries was the Arts made more palatable to neoliberals, but it can clearly be read like that.

  1. Was adopting the term “creative industries” part of an agenda to measure the arts to death? Or were the two things just happening at the same time? (Is it correlation, not causation?)

To which I think it’s probably just both happening at the same time, but nothing ever exists in a vacuum. It seems plausible that both these developments – both seemingly motivated by a desire to change how those industries are viewed externally – fed off each other.

  1. Does the creation of the term “creative industries” have a political element?

And clearly for some people it does. This is a reminder that definitions themselves – what we list, what we include, what we leave out – create meaning. Definitions are therefore inherently political; you can’t create or adopt one in an ideological vacuum.

I have been thinking about how to talk about definitions of the creative industries without resorting to simply comparing and choosing between various lists of industry sectors. And here, I think, is an indication that definitions are never just that. They are designed for a purpose, informed by ideologies and infused with motives. They are, in themselves, narrative processes and the stories they tell are contested.

Meyrick, J (2017) “A new approach to culture”, The Conversation, viewed 30 Sep 17. https://theconversation.com/a-new-approach-to-culture-82448
Robert Phiddian, Julian Meyrick, Tully Barnett & Richard Maltby (2017), Counting culture to death: an Australian perspective on culture counts and quality metrics, Cultural Trends, 26:2, 174-180, DOI: 10.1080/09548963.2017.1324014

Serial and how to tell a long story well.

I am late to this particular party, but have now caught up with the first series of Serial. Because I’m late, you probably know that it’s a podcast from the makers of This American Life which documents the journalistic re-examination a cold case; the murder of a teenager in 1999. The story is narrated by journalist and would be investigator Sarah Koenig.

Like many others, I was hooked and have listened intently to all 10 episodes and 3 updates. My interest though is divided between the story it’s telling and how it’s being told. Because what this series does expertly is tell a long story, in a detailed but also compelling way.

In some ways this is counter intuitive; it shouldn’t work. Are we not conditioned to the short story? To want to get to the point, omit the unnecessary detail and demand the edited highlights? But on the other hand, the saga is still with us, in new media – devouring full seasons on TV drama on streaming services, for instance, remains popular. It seems audiences still want to follow one story over multiple installments. Even the name Serial recalls the serialised stories told through periodical magazines at the turn of the last century.

Serial’s story is intricate, complicated and spans many years. It involves dozens of people and a dizzying array of data: dates, names, titles, legal jargon and procedural ephemera. How does Serial construct a narrative out of this birds’ nest of input, let alone one which has kept listeners engaged, episode after episode?

Part of the answer is structure. Telling a long and complicated story involves a set of decisions about what to tell first, next and last. In Serial’s long and winding case, the choice of what topics to cover in each episode is crucial. Early episodes concentrate on introducing the people involved and telling their stories, setting up the case’s unanswered questions. The middle episodes follow the narrator’s attempts at investigating the story, in a roughly chronological fashion. The final episodes provide us with expert opinions and nuances on information previously offered, leading us to a conclusion. The structure is not hidden from the listener. Instead it’s regularly referred to, most memorably at the start of the final episode when the man convicted of the murder, Adnan Syed, tells Koenig, “I’m worried you don’t have an ending.”

Some of the reasoning for these structural choices is self-evident. You wouldn’t lead with an episode focusing on the deficiencies in the defence lawyer’s performance at trial; the audience needs to be both well grounded in the case and invested in Syed’s fate before diving both hands into that legal cat’s cradle. Other narrative strategies are subtler but also more oratorical. Koenig will often give the listener navigational pointers throughout her narration – I’ll tell you this bit later, I’ll cover that in another episode, go back and listen to this part again, here’s an interesting side issues, you’ll remember this incident from last episode. She’s part re-teller, part story satnav.

Koenig is a gifted narrator. She speaks in a precise yet conversational style, somehow simultaneously relaxed and authoritative. Her accessibility is crucial to telling the long story, as is her fascination with the case, apparent even when debating mobile phone tower call logs or calculating driving times between local landmarks. Because she cares about the case, we care about it. We want her to get to the bottom of it. Like Syed, we want her to find an ending. So a kind of empathy for the story teller becomes important. Part of the reason we stick with the story is to see if she succeeds in her quest for the truth.

Her relationship with Syed, told through a series of recorded phone calls, peppers the series, and fragments of those conversations become touchstones in each episode. We return to them regularly, to help us make sense of each new piece of information we’ve heard. They are narrative downtime, or perhaps processing time, for the listener. Syed is a measured, charismatic figure, but worryingly ambiguous for Koenig and therefore for the audience. Her concern, voiced many times throughout the series, is that although she can find fault after fault with the prosecution’s case against Syed, she may ultimately be being duped into believing in a guilty man’s innocence.

If this was a movie, we’d call Koenig’s and Syed’s relationship the sub plot. It provides another strand of the story to follow alongside the murder mystery and helps highlights the narrator’s confusion and frustration, as the case gets more and more complex, but answers prove elusive. In dramatic terms, Koenig’s dilemma gives the story’s it’s momentum. It’s the “what’s at stake” you search for in any drama. And what’s at stake is worth caring about. Koenig’s investigation could result in an innocent man being awarded long denied justice, or a guilty man using her as an escape plan.

(I should also note the criticism of Serial for using a family’s very real pain as vicarious entertainment for the masses. Who owns these stories and is permitted to tell them is important. For now, I hope that analysing the way in which Serial works doesn’t perpetuate that approach and continue what others may see as the trivialisiation of that case.)

As we reach the later episodes, real life events start to influence the narrative. People start to write in with new information. Others who had previously declined interviews with Koenig now contribute. Prior speculation is clarified, facts put into context. Even the podcast’s ads start to get slicker. People are engaging with the series, and showing that legitimises our interest in it. See – it was worth sticking with. People are noticing. This thing is important.

So structure, guidance, personality, responsiveness and communicating why it all matters. Plus, although I haven’t mentioned it above, knowing what to leave out. This is how Serial kept us all listening.

 ****

PS While embedded in Serial, I started reading another long story: a PhD dissertation on a topic similar to mine (will be), by a researcher I know through my work. I’ve descended upon it, hungrily. I wanted to see how the author put her ideas together, linked one concept to the next, kept me wanting to read the next page, in much the same way as Serial encouraged me to click through to the next episode. Both are long, complex stories demanding to be told in a compelling way. Although one is journalistic and one is academic, I think the tactics for telling a long story well – structure, guidance, personality, responsiveness and communicating why it all matters – are applicable to both.

Chicago Public Media (2014). Serial. [podcast] Serial. Available at: https://serialpodcast.org
Savage, S (2017). An investigation into local government’s ideal role in enhancing community liveability via the creative industries, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, School of Management, Operations and Marketing, University of Wollongong. Available at: http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses1/38/

 

 

 

The Dimensions of Worth

Everyone loves a good list. Lists of things, if complete, give us a definitive account of the contents of a category. They let us put things into easily understood groups and help us make sense of what those groups are. Colours of the rainbow. Planets in the solar system. Quantifiable and legitimised, tick ‘em off at your pleasure.

Lists also provide great fodder for debates, because who’s to say that a list is truly definitive? It’s not just that everyone loves a list, but that everyone loves the list they love, and loves to contest the lists other people love. Seven colours of the rainbow? What about the myriad hues between those seven colours? There are lots of people still insisting on putting Pluto on their list of planets.

Defining the creative industries seems to me to be a similar debate about what to include on a list. It seems to have started, by nearly all accounts, in 1998, when the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (those three happy bedfellows) described the creative industries as “those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property” and provided a handy list of 13 sectors. And it seems people have been arguing about that list ever since.

I’ve written about that debate before and the variations proposed and rejected. It is a crucial debate for policy makers and researchers, as boundaries need to be set in order to effectively map, measure and learn about the creative industries (how can we analyse the solar system if we don’t know where it starts and finishes?). At the same time, it’s a pointless debate for many creative industry practitioners, with no day to day impact on their activities (call it what you like, Pluto is still a big ball of rock and ice orbiting the sun).

Having sampled this debate, I’ve been considering a couple of questions. One, how to add to this discussion, in a way which isn’t simply arguing about other people’s lists. And two, what do we mean by the term ‘industry’ anyway? What is one and how do we recognise it?

This article, by Mukti Khaire, offers an interesting perspective on these questions. In it, she talks about the identification of a new industry, not by its vital statistics (is it in orbit around the sun, does its self-gravity make it a globe, has it cleared its orbit of smaller objects) but by a series of socio-cognitive actions.

An industry is self-defined by a process she calls “distributed sanctification”, whereby a variety of participants in an activity take a series of self-directed actions which legitimise that activity as an industry. It is a gradual and unplanned process, the start and end points of which are undefined. In essence, no-one says, “this is now an industry,” in an ABS sort of way. Instead, people start behaving like they’re in an industry and sooner or later, everyone else agrees with them.

To illustrate this process, she looks at the rise of the high fashion industry in India. This is useful because she can identify a time period (the 1980s) before which there was no such thing and after which there was. She then examines the actions which participants in the formation of the industry took during this time.

As might be expected, the steps taken by designers, clothes makers and sellers are important, but she argues, so are the actions taken by other more tangential players – educational institutions, the media and so on. The cumulative effect of these actions is the accumulation of social currency in the term “high fashion industry” in India. In her own words, she is mapping “the dimensions of worth.”

This process, she says, is difficult but essential for new industries:

These complexities make the construction of worth of new industries particularly difficult. New industries […] lack definition and coherence—that is, clear boundaries and identities, so they are difficult to understand.

Which seems to be to be exactly the problem faced in describing the creative industries. She goes on to say:

In addition, new industries  […] typically lack norms and conventions of evaluation, so it is difficult to determine their worth. However, the construction of the worth of a new industry is particularly important because worth is a prerequisite for cognitive legitimacy, which is a critical resource that pioneering entrepreneurs in new industries lack. A cognitively legitimate industry—one that is accepted “as a taken-for-granted feature of the environment”—is well defined and understood by both industry actors and audiences and broadly accepted as appropriate. Cognitive legitimacy, or taken-for-grantedness is a condition of complete intersubjective agreement and total absence of dissent regarding the right of an entity to exist.

Which again, seems to aptly describe the creative industries – lack of definition, leads to complexity in evaluation, leading to a lack of legitimacy and “taking-for-grantedness” which in turn is an impediment to entrepreneurship.

It’s tempting to describe Khaire’s approach as the opposite of “definition by list making”. But actually, she does provide a list of actions she says participants take which legitimise an industry:

Curation Customers and outside influencers, like education, media and government orgs, identify what’s high and low quality product.
Certification Educational institutions start offering qualifications for entrants into the nascent industry.
Commentary Educational institutions offer instruction on what’s good and bad practice in the industry.
Critique Media publications offer opinion on what’s good and bad practice in the industry.
Co-presentation Various examples of competing product are displayed together enabling…
Comparison Customers to make judgements about the qualities of those products.
Commensuration The growing number of comparisons allows the development of standard measures of quality.

Khaire’s example (high fashion in India) springs from the creative industries, which she says is appropriate because, “the highly symbolic nature of the products makes collectively understood definitions, shared meanings, and broad agreement on norms and rules crucially important…value construction in creative industries is a complex process because of the relative “singularity” of the products, and involves multiple actors and cognitive processes.”

No argument there. But while her criteria can be applied consistently to fashion, I suspect they could not be as easily applied to the creative industries, as defined as a collection of creative sectors, of which fashion is only one. I think all of her 7 Cs listed above create the “worth” she describes, but only within each creative sub-sector. We can’t measure a fashion designer by the same yardstick as a musician or an architect and so on.

This is leading me to the conclusion that whatever the “creative industries” is, it is not an industry in and of itself – at least not yet. It might be more helpful to see it as a selection of like industries, and that selection as being influenced by a variety of social and political pressures on the entity defining the term.

What makes them “like” is something we can’t quite grasp. Something alchemical, the transformation of imagination into IP. But just because a beautifully designed gown springs from the same creative well as a symphony or a grand old building, doesn’t necessarily mean they together form a cohesive creative industry. Pluto’s a really different place to Jupiter.

Khaire, M. (2014). Fashioning an Industry: Socio-cognitive Processes in the Construction of Worth of a New Industry. Organization Studies, 35(1), 41-74. Available at http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/doi/full/10.1177/0170840613502766

What I learned from 100 Uber rides

About 18 months ago, my boss issued an instruction to all staff: for regular travel to client meetings, work functions and so forth, he wanted us to use Uber-X. His reason was simple; it’s cheaper than using taxis.

The biggest taxi user in the office is me; my job requires me to shuttle around Sydney to meet clients on a daily basis. I hadn’t tried Uber before, but I was happy to comply. And I quickly became oddly fixated on it. Yes, it was saving us a few bob. And yes, it was a novelty. But it also gave me a new mini hobby: talking to Uber drivers.

I made a decision before that first Uber ride, that I would talk to every driver who picked me up. I have now taken about 100 Uber rides in the last year and a half. I have only broken my “talk to every driver rule” twice. Once when a driver and his car smelt so terribly that the olfactory assault of it all shocked me into stunned silence. And once more when a driver’s inability to follow his own GPS system, made him take a wrong turn, and head to the other end of the Harbour Bridge from where my meeting was at, making me embarrassingly late and leaving us sitting in awkward silence with each other.

I had no strong reason for wanting to talk to Uber drivers, other than to discover what (ahem) drove them to take it up in first place. Was there also part of me which wanted to democratise the whole process? Did I not want to feel like I was participating in a sort of 21st century servitude? I don’t know. But I can report back on what I’ve found after slightly fewer than 100 conversations with Uber drivers.

I always start off by asking how long they’ve been an Uber driver. There is a genuinely wide response here, but I think within that range there are two clusters; people who have been doing it for less than 3 months and people who have been doing it for over 2 years. The newbies and the veterans. Interestingly, the veterans aren’t necessarily jaded and the newbies aren’t necessarily in love with it all. Why there’s not as many people in the middle of the range, I don’t know.

But nearly all of them are men. In 18 months I’ve had two female Uber drivers. One, a cheery middle aged woman in an SUV who had started driving that day (“you’re my third passenger!” she beamed) and one rock chick with purple hair and a silver floor matted hoon mobile. She advised me to correct my pick up address if the app had got it wrong, which it frequently does. This was after she gently scolded me for not being where the pin said I was.

She gave an interesting response to another question I often ask, about whether or not it’s a lucrative exercise for them. Her system, she told me, was to drive each day for as long as it took her to meet her self-imposed sales target. Then she went home. Having such as system is rare amongst my informal sample. But the general consensus on it being a money making exercise seems to be that to make good money, you have to drive a lot of hours, capitalise on the surge pricing and drive on Friday and Saturday nights, thus running the risk of drunken revellers vomiting in your mobile workplace.

When asked what they like about Uber driving, there’s one thing I heard over and over again: flexibility. Flexibility is something I take for granted in my working life. Whether it be through understanding employers or a blundering habit of mine to do my own thing without asking, it’s something I’ve always felt I had and naively, I get slightly confused when I hear others longing for flexibility around hours worked, time off and so on. But time and again I’ve heard Uber drivers nominate that as it’s number one benefit. I work when I like. I’m my own boss.

If I’m being judgemental, some of these blokes (as they almost overwhelmingly are) don’t seem like the sorts who would be happy working for a boss anyway. There’s a notable subset of people who quit their last job because, “the boss was an idiot” or something similar. There’s a definite streak of anti-authoritarianism. Many are between jobs; the one who sold his café and looks for a site for his next business as he drives around, the 63 year old laid off last year who’s doing this while waiting for job interviews and – worryingly – the management consultant who takes it up during the inevitably quiet months of December and January. The film producer, waiting for his project to be financed (turned out we once both worked on a location shoot for Home & Away which resulted in Chris Hemsworth being pushed over a cliff in a car).

Others have something else on the go. They’ve got a business on the side, there’s a project they’re working on, they work another job at night. Entrepreneurship can do with some regular income coming in. Some have grander plans; like the one who plans to use Uber to fund the purchase of a second car, which he’ll then lease out to other Uber drivers to raise money for a third car, and so on until he has a fleet of five and he’s given up driving, and living of the lease income.

Many are students; the engineering student who wants to work on cars, but can’t see the prospect of any jobs in Australia, the communications student selling health food parcels as well (“here, take my card”), the Iranian migrant earning money to complete his course in aviation.

Some gripe about Uber, but not many. Some gripe about riders, but not many. Some talk of the inevitable conflict with taxi drivers, of being abused as allegedly happened to one in Wollongong this week. Many are taxi drivers who having failed to beat ‘em, have joined ‘em. (These are the least talkative but the strongest on navigation, the perennial weak spot of Uber drivers, despite GPS assistance.)

And all the time, I’m thinking about the good and bad of all this. The freedom and flexibility of it, versus the lack of workplace conditions, seemingly left behind without a thought. In this post, futurist Sam Sammartino says we should all be giving up our fixation with jobs anyway, thinking about how we can use our own assets and skills to generate the revenue we need and want, taking charge of our own destiny. I think that’s hugely problematic, but his call is part of ongoing national crush on entrepreneurship. Through this lens, being an Uber driver is the opposite of servitude; it’s picking yourself up by the bootstraps and having a flamin’ go.

I wouldn’t discount this view out altogether, but it neglects that at the end of all of this homespun entrepreneurialism, there’s a multinational corporation taking 25% of every drive, not paying for leave or insurance and waiting to replace the whole system with driverless cars. Can something be entrepreneurial on a personal level for its participants, while being an exploitative business with lowly paid suppliers at heart?

My one-hundredth Uber ride was to Melbourne airport with a man from Pakistan, and if he felt exploited, he didn’t show it through his cheery demeanour. I asked all my questions and got my standard responses. Then the subject turned to Australia and he said he had come here by boat. From Pakistan to Malaysia to Indonesia to Christmas Island. From there to months in a detention centre in Weipa. And finally on to Melbourne where no job awaited, but where he could drive an Uber and work on his citizenship application. Enterprise. Entrepreneurship. Courage. Tenacity.

“Thing is,” he says, “when Chinese people get out at the airport. They don’t know how to call a cab. But they can work Uber. Uber is everywhere.” He’s got that right.