The Practitioner Scholar

Doctor of Management Blog

Nancy King Studies Zoo Employees to Learn about the Future of Work

April 27, 2010 ·

The management discipline is continually looking to understand what motivates people to be engaged, learn, and lead effectively in organizations. Answers often lie in novel incentive structures, cultural change, and top management leadership.  Rarely do managers and scholars look to the relationships of those people as a source of motivation.

Nancy King (DM 2004) focused precisely on such relationships in her DM research, and she argues that relational elements of organizing are particularly important in contemporary society.  To explore the interplay of relationships and organizing, Dr. King studies a novel set of research subjects: zoo docents.  Zoo docents are those folks that teach zoo visitors about the animals.  They are a particularly interesting group because they are completely devoted to the zoo, actively take on additional responsibilities, are continually, enthusiastically learning, and go to great effort to teach new docents.  Most importantly, docents are paid nothing.  That's right, Dr. King was studying volunteers.

In studying volunteers, Dr. King was free to focus on the unorthodox elements of their motivation.  After extensive observation and interviewing, she concluded that "relational practices" are the primary elements of the docent experience, and these relational practices are important to the passion, autonomy, and responsible ethic that is critical for docent-like performance. 

Dr. King argues that docents give us a view into the future of work, an alternative to command-and-control bureaucracies and standardized processes: "In light of the tendencies toward individualization in late modern society, relational organizing provides an opportunity for volunteers to experience a passion for their work, achieve desired social proximity, and be highly efficacious and respected.  In a larger sense, the docents' agency produces a relational model of self-organizing that stands as an alternative to that of bureaucratic, staff-managed volunteerism and, more broadly, to that of impersonal, technocratic and proceduralized depictions of organizing."

Dr. King has co-authored a book chapter on this research with her advisor, Paul Salipante.  The book, Relational Practices, Participative Organizing, (Steyaert & Van Looy eds). will be published later this year by Emerald Publishing in its Advanced Series in Management.

Tags: DM Research

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