Decoding Why the Amazon NYTimes Article Struck a Campus Nerve

Is this really what we need to do to increase our productivity?

August 17, 2015

Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace

Jeff Bezos Says Amazon Won’t Tolerate ‘Callous’ Management Practices

The NYTimes article on working at Amazon, and the response by Bezos, has struck a nerve on my campus. Lots of hallway conversation have started with, “Did you read the Times Amazon piece?” The sentiment that I’m hearing runs the spectrum from disbelief to denial, appalled shock to barely disguised admiration.

Amazon’s workplace culture may be a sort of Rorschach test, in that how we respond says more about us than what it does about Amazon.  

If you fundamentally believe that an organization will perform best when the people in the organization are given support and autonomy, then you will be appalled by an Amazon culture that seems straight out of the Cultural Revolution playbook. (Freedom through labor, encouragement to report on colleagues, and vocal self-criticism).  

Conversely, if you are driven crazy by the inefficiencies and group think inherent in any medium-to-large size organization, then you may applaud Amazon’s insistence that decisions (and workplace advancement or separation) be driven by data rather than organizational title and rank.

The question that I’d like to ask our IHE community is why the two NYTimes articles on Amazon’s workplace culture seems to have so many of us talking in higher ed? Why do we care so much? 

(And it would be good if you could validate or dispute my observation that the articles struck a campus nerve, as my sample size is admittedly small).

My theory as to why we are all talking about Amazon today is that we are secretly worried that Amazon’s workplace culture is toxic, unfair, and effective.  

Not-for-profit higher education is built to prioritize values over efficiency. Norms of shared governance and a commitment to equity and access run up against calls for greater productivity. Our long-time horizons and our belief in our core mission are not always, if ever, compatible with the demands of short-term market driven decision making.  

This is not to say that some people in higher ed don’t find themselves working in toxic work environments.  Bad management, and dysfunctional departments, can exist within even the most well-run and richly endowed institution. Contingent faculty, lacking livable wages and enduring a lack of basic job security, might just look at the Amazon workplace culture and shrug. 

Any honest accounting of the postsecondary labor market, an accounting not undertaken to grind an axe about the privileges of the professoriate or the profligacy of the administrative class, would find plenty of workplace stress.  In our age of diminished resources and expanding expectations, everyone is being asked to do more with less. We’ve moved to the 24/7/365 university, without anywhere near the commensurate increase in resources (particularly people) available to meet the new demands. Higher education is a competitive industry, and none of us are insulated from the harsh realities (diminished public support, new competitors, rising costs) of today’s postsecondary ecosystem. 

Still, very few of us in higher ed would want to work at the Amazon described in the Times article. Higher ed folks tend to value collegiality. We are suspicious of concentrated leadership power - and would resist any cult of personality that would develop around those at the top of the organization.  

The Times article on Amazon is disturbing because we want to find a way to accelerate organizational and culture change at our schools, while simultaneously avoiding an assault on the values and norms that have tied us together. We want to be more open, agile, and data driven - but we want to do so in a way that respects distributed decision making and professional autonomy that characterizes much of the higher ed workplace.

It is impossible to dismiss Amazon because Amazon seems to be doing so well. Who amongst us is not in some way dependent on Amazon for our books (especially digital books), our virtual data centers, and our assorted household goods? Could you simply quit Amazon because you don’t like how they might (and this is disputed) treat their employees? I couldn’t. I’m too tied up with the Amazon ecosystem to leave.  

What can we in higher ed learn from Amazon?

What are the lessons for us, if any, in the Times articles on the Amazon workplace?



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