25th February 2012: Mailroom Jobs & Superstar Economics

The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood (2000)


For the past week I’ve been writing about academic entrepreneurs and superstar economics. Now, NPR’s Adam Davidson has a great New York Times article on why many careers are becoming lotteries in which a small group has a ‘winner-takes-all’ or ‘success to the successful‘ dynamic and others can miss out. Davidson’s key insight:


Hollywood is, in some ways, the model lottery industry. For most companies in the business, it doesn’t make economic sense to, as Google does, put promising young applicants through a series of tests and then hire only the small number who pass. Instead, it’s cheaper for talent agencies and studios to hire a lot of young workers and run them through a few years of low-paying drudgery. (Actors are another story altogether. Many never get steady jobs in the first place.) This occupational centrifuge allows workers to effectively sort themselves out based on skill and drive. Over time, some will lose their commitment; others will realize that they don’t have the right talent set; others will find that they’re better at something else. [emphasis added]


Davidson’s thesis is that this “economic lottery system” pushes talent to the top. He cites Hollywood actors and directors, and Big Four accountants who survive the ‘up or out’ system to make partner (William D. Cohan has interviewed the Wall Street losers). Davidson connects tournament theory — the study of individuals who have relative advantages in salary and wage negotiations — to disruptive innovation (PDF), globalisation, technology and other mega-trends that are creating a ‘race to the bottom’ dynamic. How can individuals cope with these changes? “In a lottery-based economy, you need some luck, too; now, perhaps, more than ever,” Davidson advises. “People should be prepared to enter a few different lotteries, because the new Plan B is just going to be another long shot in a different field.”


For Davidson the “economic lottery system” model is the New Hollywood. The reality is a little more complex. Classical Hollywood’s studio production system flourished from the 1930s until the ‘go go’ Sixties when the modern conglomerates collapsed. For a brief period from 1968-73, independent producers flourished before the studios fought back with the blockbuster film, new marketing, distribution, and control of ancillary revenue streams. A similar pattern occurred in the 1995-2000 dotcom period (PDF) in Los Angeles, New York, Austin, and London. Ben Eltham and I found in a 2010 academic paper that Australia’s film industry fluctuated depending on a mixture of Australian Government intervention, available labour, and international tax arbitrage. Eltham and I both read Nikki Finke’s influential blog Deadline Hollywood.


History also differs on the New Hollywood exemplars that Davidson selects. “Barry Diller and David Geffen each started his career in the William Morris mailroom,” Davidson observes. Tom King’s biography The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood (New York: Random House, 2000) details what actually happened over this six month period in late 1964-early 1965 before Geffen became secretary to television agent Ben Griefer (pp. 46-52). Geffen lied to WM’s Howard Portnoy that he was Phil Spector’s cousin. Geffen lied about having a college education and persuaded his brother Mitchell to write a letter and cover this up. When they met, Diller “thought Geffen was a rather odd duck for using his vacation time to work in the company’s other office” (p. 50). Geffen networked with agent Herb Gart, “stalked” New York office head Nat Lefkowitz, and got his break from Scott Shukat. Geffen relied on chutzpah, hard work, networking, and having a career goal: “signing actors.” No wonder that Geffen hated King’s biography.


These qualities are essential to Davidson’s “occupational centrifuge.” When academics ask me about their Dean’s budget and resource allocative controls, and why universities are now like Davidson’s “economic lottery system”, I suggest they invest time in watching the film Moneyball (a film in part about tournament theory), and understanding the performance and value creation goals of private equity firms (the mental model of consultants who possibly advise the Dean).


I haven’t finished the academic journal articles on those ideas yet . . .

17th February 2012: Academic Entrepreneurs & Intellectual Property

The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeven recently started an important debate about academic blogging in the Australian community of international relations (IR) academics. It raises issues about communicating IR and national security knowledge to a broader audience. Roggeven’s post attracted responses from Professor Nick Bisley (La Trobe University), Dr. Nicholas Farrelly (Australian National University), and myself. In an overview, Roggeven also mentioned the role of intellectual property in either fencing off or facilitating the dissemination of academic research. A response to several points that these authors raise:


1. The academic entrepreneur may be an empowering self-image. Benjamin Cohen suggests in International Political Economy: An Intellectual History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) that those who conceptualised IPE in the 1970s were intellectual entrepreneurs. Lisa Stampnitzky‘s influential 2008 PhD on counter-terrorism studies (PDF) juxtaposes the efforts of core academics, think-tank pundits and journalists as idea entrepreneurs. Richard Slaughter, Sohail Inayatullah, and others played similar roles in the formation of academic futures studies and strategic foresight. At its extreme are former academics like David E. Shaw and Jim Simons who left academia to fund ultra-secretive quantitative hedge funds. The mid-ground is held by academics like Clayton Christensen, Andrew Lo and Robert Shiller who separate their basic research from commercially-oriented applied research and institutional vehicles.


2. Universities and the higher education sector face disruptive innovations. This point came up in a Twitter exchange I had with Ken Wark. Canadian academic David Robinson emphasised the death of universities in New Matilda. Nick Bisley mentions several factors: aging demographics, small numbers, avoidance of “semi-digested thought bubbles”, time, and research incentives which emphasise peer reviewed journal articles over other contributions. I see all of these factors on a daily basis as a research administrator who teaching staff confide in. The Golden Age for professors that Robinson yearns for does not exist for the mid-level or early career academic who is on a casual or short-term contract. I see people trapped in poorly working administrative systems and broken processes that a Six Sigma consultant would reengineer.  Today’s undergraduate students have grown up in a world where the corporate ideals are firms like Apple and Google, whereas many universities are closer to a Yes Minister public service. In this environment, academic blogging is embraced by a minority — usually digital media academics — who see it and social media platforms as a creative tool for self-liberation.


3. Open publishing can enhance peer review processes. Nicholas Farrelly and co-author Andrew Walker extol the power of public blogging to improve the quality of academic research and to create feedback loops with different audiences. Blogging can do so, under specific conditions. Peer review depends on the field, its norms, the specific academic journal, the editorial panel, and the developmental awareness of the reviewers. Unfortunately, the one-way nature of blind peer review in the Australian Research Council competitive grants process and in many journals can lead reviewers to write nasty, brutish, short feedback. This dynamic often disappears when the reviewers’ identities are known to all parties or where the authors have a rejoinder process to clarify the feedback. Blog publishing platforms are perfect for this — but research incentives, metrics and journals prevent the public circulation of drafts for comment outside a conference, seminar, or peer group. An academic with a personal webpage in 1998 had more freedom than an academic does today: publishers have serious restrictions on public dissemination that didn’t exist a decade ago. Institutional repositories are a positive development.


4. Bloggers often have to fight to do academic blogging. In 2003-07, I was a senior researcher at Swinburne University in the Smart Internet Technology CRC. Its brief was to explore the internet’s possibilities – but this didn’t extend to research management or to how it published its own research. The work I did had to navigate institutional capture and commercial embargoes. At the same time, at night I edited the US-based alternative news website Disinformation: we daily published stories and an email newsletter, and I got immediate feedback from readers. “We own you,” was the CRC’s response. Towards the end of my CRC contract, I convinced the CRC to let me write a daily, public blog about relevant news items, trends and developments. It lasted about six weeks before I left: I wrote more timely and public information than the CRC had published of my research in the previous year. Bisley’s “semi-digested thought bubbles” can have more relevance in a climate of time-based competition. Blogging — like regular writing — is not about scarcity and can help you to self-reflect and to write more productively. It’s closer to being a like a good DVD extra or director’s commentary than a finished motion picture film: it can give insight into the creative process and inspire dialogue with others. Apart from writing a PhD, I already have enough journal article ideas for the next four years.


5. Academics need to know — but often don’t — about intellectual property. Sam Roggeven raises the role of intellectual property (IP). In reality, most academics face a ‘stacked deck’ about IP. Teaching staff face complex workload models that are calculated retrospectively, to gain research time. International publishers usually demand that the IP be assigned to them for academics’ journal articles (unless they advocate open publishing).  The articles are needed for competitive grants and for convincing promotions committees about your research track record. Getting research incentive money for published articles depends on knowing how the institutional system works, on your Faculty’s policy, and whether or not you have a full-time academic contract. Some academics try to play the system: ancillary income via consulting and speakers bureaus; publishing in obscure conferences; or going to academic conferences that are really junkets. Research administrators can spot these strategies from looking at the data. Many academics have no idea about how to translate their research into an entrepreneurial venture. This frustrates the IP specialists, lawyers, and research administrators that I know. Areas that have a more laissez-faire approach to IP — like digital media — are more likely to embrace academic blogging. Despite these challenges, it’s possible to still blog about your initial ideas and the writing process, and to craft the insights for a good academic journal. A blog also gives you the visibility for academic citations and helps to build the international research networks needed to advance your career.

16th February 2012: Academic Blogging

fred and academic blogging


The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen contends that Australian academics would benefit from blogging their research (in response to The Australian‘s Stephen Matchett on public policy academics).


I see this debate from several perspectives. In a former life I edited the US-based alternative news site Disinformation (see the 1998-2002 archives). I also work at Victoria University as a research administrator. I’ve blogged in various forums since 2003 (such as an old LiveJournal blog). In contrast, my PhD committee in Monash’s School of Political and Social Inquiry are more likely to talk about book projects, journal articles, and media interviews.


As Roggeveen notes, a major uptake barrier is the structure of institutional research incentives. The Australian Research Council’s Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) initiative emphasises blind peer reviewed journal articles over other forms. Online blogging is not included as an assessable category of research outputs although it might fit under ‘original creative works’. Nor is blogging included in a university’s annual Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) outputs. University incentives for research closely follow ERA and HERDC guidelines. The ARC’s approach is conservative (in my view) and focuses on bibliometrics.


I know very few academics who blog. Many academics are not ‘intrinsic’ writers and are unused to dealing with developmental editors and journals. University websites often do not have blog publishing systems and I’ve seen several failed attempts to do so. Younger academics who might blog or who do use social media are often on casual or short-term contracts. The ones who do blog like Ben Eltham have a journalism background, are policy-focused, and are self-branded academic entrepreneurs.


Roggeveen is correct that blogging can potentially benefit academics — if approached in a mindful way. I met people like Richard Metzger and Howard Bloom during my publishing stint. I am regularly confused with QUT social media maven Axel Bruns — and we can now easily clarify potential queries. Blogging has helped me to keep abreast of sub-field developments; to build networks; to draft ideas for potential journal articles and my PhD on strategic culture; and has influenced the academic citations of my work and downloads from institutional repositories.


Problem is, HERDC or ERA have no scope for soft measures or ‘tacit’ knowledge creation — so blogging won’t count to many universities.


That Roggeveen needs to make this point at all highlights how much the internet has shifted from its original purpose to become an online marketing environment. Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal HyperText and CERN (1989) envisioned the nascent internet as a space for collaborative academic research. The internet I first encountered in 1993-94 had Gopher and .alt newsgroups, and later, web-pages by individual academics. Regularly visited example for PhD research: University of Notre Dame’s political scientist Michael C. Desch and his collection of easily accessible publications.  It’s a long way from that free environment to today’s “unlocking academic expertise” with The Conversation.


Photo: davidsilver/Flickr.