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Re:Thinking Management as Translation

Dear colleagues,

it is probably rather easy to find people to agree that the way we conceptualize, research and teach «management» is in need for rethinking. In management studies, like in many areas of economics, quantitative, pseudo scientific concepts still loom large. Although management undoubtedly is a social practice (not a «natural» given), management studies usually seem more at home in the context of economics and mathematics than the social sciences and humanities. But while we might quickly find allies who agree that we have to rethink management (research, teaching and practice), it will be much harder to agree on how this rethinking could actually look like if it was to be productive.

One of the basic assumptions of our conference is the idea that the «cultural turns» which have emerged in the humanities and social sciences in the past decades could prove to be inspiring and productive in our endeavor to rethink management. I want to highlight one specific, rather recent turn to illustrate this thought: the «translational turn». This turn is about much more than the translation of texts between languages. It takes the metaphor of «translation» as a central category to analyze many different social practices which can be seen as acts of translation in a broader meaning: the application of theoretical concepts in a social practice, for example, might be considered as an act of «translation», the integration of an academic theory from one discipline into another can also be described as a «translation», and the acquisition of a company by another one and the subsequent integration of different organizational cultures similarly call for numerous acts of «translation» etc.

The term «translation» draws our attention to at least two important facts: First of all, translation does not «happen» by itself, but it needs actors who act as translators. «Concepts», for example, do not «travel» out of their own (as Mieke Bal would have it, cf. Bal 2002), but they are made to «travel», i.e. they are «translated» from one academic culture or discipline to another by people who act as «exporters» or «importers». To highlight the idea of agency in translation also hints at the dimension of power and ideology: what gets translated and what doesn’t is always (at least partly) a matter of power and politics.

Secondly, «translation» is a concept which inherently incorporates the idea of un-translatabilities. We are intuitively used to the idea that meanings can get «lost in translation». Thus, the term «translation» draws our attention to frictions, failures, paradoxes. We know from school that it is hard work to translate, say, a poem into another language and that a «true» translation is nothing more than an idealized fiction that can never fully be achieved. «Translation» as a cultural concept stresses the fact, that we should neither expect nor look for «true» translations when comparing, for example, the concepts and models used in theories and the respective fields of practice. It would be astonishing if any theoretical concept had its «pure» translation in a social practice. It is the process of translation which is worth investigating: who acts as a translator, which aspects get stressed and which are «lost in translation» etc.?

What does this have to do with the endeavor to rethink management? A lot. Because, as I see it, «managers» are to a high degree translators in this sense – or so they should be. I want to exemplify this thought with my special field of research and teaching at Karlshochschule, i.e. arts management. Managers of artistic projects or institutions face the task of dealing with a variety of challenging actors, each with their own goals, values and logics, ranging from artists to audiences and including political governing bodies, commercial sponsors, local communities etc.

Asked about their jobs, most arts managers stress the «human factor» as the most inspiring and usually also the most challenging part of their job. The challenge here is a challenge of translation – finding the right «language» for every individual group so that each group can participate in and contribute to the artistic project in their own way. It is, for example, a commonplace that artists complain how grant awarding institutions do not understand what their work is about and what they as artists need – this is a classical situation where productive cultural translation is desperately needed and only rarely achieved.

In order for arts managers to become proficient cultural translators it is not enough to teach them about budgeting, controlling, fundraising or marketing. Heinz von Foerster famously coined the phrase «The hard sciences are successful because they deal with the soft problems; the soft sciences are struggling because they deal with the hard problems.» In rethinking management, we should not be afraid to struggle and tackle the hard problems. We need to turn to the humanities and the social sciences in order to understand cultural translation, and we need to understand that «translation» is central to what management means – not only in arts management, but in practically any field. This, I believe, would be one important facet of a bigger project to rethink management research, as well as teaching and practice.

Looking forward to your thoughts about this,

PS. Almost all I know about «translation» as a cultural concept, I have learned from Doris Bachmann-Medick, who will also give a keynote speech at our conference. A detailed bibliography of her works, which I can strongly recommend, is available on Doris’ website.