learning to live with complexity: marketing vs. OB

The Harvard Business School is a class system.  In this system, the Marketing Unit ranks lower  than Organizational Behavior.   

There is some justice to this, of course.  OB has (and had)  stars  like Rosabeth Moss Kanter.  Also, OB does a better job of thinking about culture than the Marketing Unit  (yes, even with me as part of the team).

But from an extra-HBS point of view, this arrangement seems wrong.  In the "real world" of business, marketing has more on the ball.  It is learning to read turbulent marketplaces.  It is responding to shifting taste and preference.  Some of this is a "foxhole Christianity" of course, adaptation forced by necessity.  But some of it is due to the deep and sometimes anquished thinking on the part of marketing professionals and professors. 

One of the things that marketing has got good at is seeing and adapting to the consumer’s new diversity.  Mass marketing has given way to micro marketing.    The marketer understands that there are many types of consumers, and that any given consumer is a bundle of many, diverse tastes.  In sum, marketing has learned to deal with multiplicity, fragmentation, diversity, or as I sometimes call it, plenitude.

OB has a long way to go to catch up.  Here’s what Fast Company says:

Typically, HR people …. pursue standardization and uniformity in the face of a workforce that is heterogeneous and complex.  […]  The urge for one-size-fits-all, says one professor who studies the field, "is partly about compliance, but mostly because it’s just easier."  […]

There’s a contradiction here, of course: Making exceptions should be exactly what human resources does, all the time–not because it’s nice for employees, but because it drives the business.  Employers keep their best people by acknowledging and rewarding teir distinctive performance, not by treating them the same as everyone else.  […]

Human resources, in other words, forfeits long-term value for short-term cost efficiency. 

Hmm, if what Fast Company says is true, the world of business really only grasps plentitude on the demand side of the equation.  The supply side…oh, here, we expect everyone to conceal their differences, suppress their individuality, and pretty much act like that robot in the "gray flannel suit." 

I’m sorry but this just seems really, really stupid.  Not because I am one of those bleeding hearts who believes that we all should cultivating the flower of our personhood.  No, recognizing the internal diversity of the corporation looks like a good way of responding to the external diversity of the marketplace.  Every corporation has marketing intelligence on tap.  Every corporation is filled with people who understand some of the diversity out there because, hey, they live it all the time. 

And let’s be clear.  When we talk about "diversity" here, this is not a code word for "alternative lifestyles" (itself a codeword for gayness).  Gayness is good.  It should flourish in the corporation.  But so is all the rest of the "diversity" out there and in this case, we mean that guy who does base jumping, the woman who drives muscle cars, that small coterie of people who are still, bless them, line dancing, the radical Christians, the radical Buddhists, the full force gardeners, and the devotees of Hi8 cinema.  These people are a marketing gold mine.  Their heterogenity makes it easier to respond to the world’s heterogenity.

And let’s be clear on something else.  Wasn’t it the people in HR and Organizational Behavior who keep talking about exploring human potential?   As it turns out, there is a big fat condition here: we can explore our potential at work, as long as it doesn’t complicated or inconvenience the people in HR.  And while we are remarking on this contradiction, we might dwell for a moment on the truth it appears to witness: that the marketplace is more accomodating of human difference out of commercial interest than are all those full hearted people in the human potential "movement" who claim to work from higher, purer motives.   The trouble with this group, in my experience, is that when they talk about human potential they mean their idea of potential (and the rest of us can just f*ck right off).

This is an unusually bad tempered way to end a post, but then, hey, it’s Friday. 


Hammonds, Keith H.  2005.  Why we hate H.R.  Fast Company.  August, pp. 40-47, p. 45.


To Jason Kottke who put this blog on the map today.  Welcome to all the visitors he sent our way. 

7 thoughts on “learning to live with complexity: marketing vs. OB

  1. JohnO

    Glad Kottke put you on the map, you’ll get lots of visitors, and your writing should keep them wanting more 🙂

  2. Matt

    Those of us who recognize that human potential is not centrally defined don’t need a movement. It is thus no surprise that the HP movement is dominated by our ideological enemies.

  3. Irene

    I’m out of my depth (a way of life for me, really) but isn’t the one-size-fits-all human resources approach driven in part by legal considerations? If an organization treats the line-dancer differently from me, the muscle car-driving woman, can’t I just turned around and sue their ass for some sort of discrimination? Or is that just another convenient excuse for HR’s lack of imagination? Also: I’m filling out my appointment book for the next few weeks and need to know if story time will return. Thanks.

  4. Grant

    Matt, beauty (a Canadian’s highest term of praise). Thanks, Grant

    Irene, It’s a great point. We demand equal treatment and then resent the outcome. And this says the employee has to change just as much of the employer. Thanks for giving this post new purchase on the real world (not really a way of life for me). As to story time, thank you very much for asking and I will meet you at the library next friday! Promise. Grant

  5. Ed Batista

    Clemenceau said, “War is too important to leave to the generals.” And organizational behavior is clearly too important to leave to the human resources department.

    OB outranks Marketing at Stanford, too, in my experience, and I think this contrast with real-world priorities is partially but not fully explained by commenter Irene. HR departments do little or nothing to to unleash actual human potential through their influence over organizational culture; as Irene notes, they exist to insure that an organization’s culture conforms with legal requirements.

    The people who are actually responsible for an organization’s culture (and thus its behavior) are the mid-career leaders making their way into the upper echelons of senior management, and these people come from many different functions depending on the organization–finance, sales, engineering–but they almost never come from HR.

    While I was in business school, I attended talks by dozens of grads who had come back to campus to share their experiences with the current crop of students, and almost every one was asked, “What was the most important class you took?” And almost every one of them said the same thing: 1) their most important class was organizational behavior, 2) but they didn’t take it seriously when they were in school, and 3) they didn’t realize how important it was until they were 10 years into their career.

    So there’s reason for hope yet, Grant.

  6. steve

    A little late to the party here, but I can explain the relatively high academic status of OB relative to marketing: OB is perceived as closer to fundamental human questions and core disciplines (psychology and sociology), while marketing is more an applied, commercial field which borrows from psychology, economics, anthropology, etc., but doesn’t contribute much there. (I should point out that most OB people have nothing to do with HR, which is often a separate group or a little sub-group with its own legalistic and procedural interests. Someone like Jim March would never be caught dead writing about practical HR questions.)

    The things marketing studies are seen as ephemeral and practical rather than eternal and fundamental, and hence of less scholarly importance. I don’t think anyone explicitly articulates this distinction, but it pretty much explains the status hierarchy of disciplines at universities.

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