77th Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management
THEME: At the Interface
At the Interface
Interface: A common boundary or interconnection between
systems, concepts or human beings (Random House Dictionary, 2016)
That definition highlights the dual nature of interfaces.
Interfaces establish boundaries that differentiate and separate; they mark a
space where insiders can jointly define an organization’s mission, develop an
organizational identity, and participate in organizational activities. But
interfaces also develop connections that facilitate communication, negotiation,
and exchange across organizational boundaries.
Interfaces are increasingly relevant to today’s
organizations, as information, people, and other resources cross organizational
boundaries at unprecedented rates. An
employee conversation held around the company water cooler today is likely to
appear on social media tomorrow. In the
“gig economy,” people may work as employees for only a few short weeks or a
handful of quick shifts, moving from one organization to another without fully
integrating into any of them. And even when
people are in traditional employment relationships with a single organization, mobile
phones and Internet capabilities let them psychologically cross the
organizational boundary dozens of times a day.
As traffic at the interface intensifies, how do we distinguish between
insiders and outsiders, and identify who has a legitimate stake in influencing
organizational missions, decisions, and activities?
Interfaces create “interstitial spaces” in which information,
people and resources are situated neither inside nor outside, but somewhere in
between. Organizations leverage these interstitial spaces as they develop
alumni networks for former employees, encourage family and friend referrals to
job openings, ask customers to bag their own groceries, and crowdsource ideas
for new products and markets. These activities are designed to benefit the
organization, but society might benefit as well. Today’s Grand Challenges
(e.g., aging populations, climate change) increasingly demand large-scale
multi-perspective strategies. When the
interstitial space is large, organizations may feel greater responsibility to
tackle societal issues that are not part of their formal mandate and are
unlikely to deliver any immediate benefit to their traditional stakeholders
(e.g., employees, customers and investors). But how far can organizations
expand their missions before they are rudderless and off course?
Organizations continually redesign their interfaces as they
decide which activities they will undertake and which activities will be
purchased or contracted out. Organizations form and disband partnerships and
alliances, changing the shape of organizational networks. These interface
changes affect outcomes ranging from the employment opportunities of
individuals to the wealth of nations.
And when the interfaces connecting organizations and networks span
national boundaries, new opportunities for organizations to shape (and be
shaped by) political and social systems also emerge. The sheer scale of organizations and
interorganizational networks permits organizations to unintentionally and/or
deliberately influence governments and societies in ways that are
controversial. How accountable should
organizations be for the economic and social consequences of their actions at
the Interface is an invitation to reflect on the many ways that interfaces
separate and connect people and organizations – and to consider the
consequences of those separations and interconnections. Some questions to
of dynamics (linear, fluctuating, punctuated equilibrium) characterize the
development of new interfaces and the transformation of existing ones? What institutions affect the emergence,
location, and maintenance of interfaces within and across organizational systems?
- How do organizations attempt to
manage and control their interfaces within interorganizational networks,
and what are the consequences of these attempts? What are the relationships between
organizational boundaries and national boundaries, and how do these
relationships affect both organizations and nations?
- How do interface changes
generate opportunities for the creation of new firms and the dissolution
of other types of firms? How do
changes in the interfaces between firms affect the economic and
psychological definitions of industries and professions?
- How do the characteristics of
organizational boundaries (e.g., their permeability or fluidity) change
the activities that are initiated at interfaces and the resources that
move through them? What new roles
are created for “interface experts” in the form of consultants, brokers,
- What roles do different types of boundaries –
physical, social and symbolic – play in shaping activity at the
interface? For example, how does an
organization’s physical location (e.g., in the central business district
or within an indigenous community) influence the quality and character of
organization-community negotiations relative to less tangible boundaries?
- What kind of “boundary work” do organizational
insiders and outsiders initiate at the interface to create, maintain,
cross, or dissolve boundaries that interfere with their individual and
shared goals? When every
employee is a prospective boundary spanner, how do organizations decide –
and then monitor and control –what is allowed in and what is screened out?
- Exchanges across the interface
can stimulate innovation by integrating new resources and fresh
perspectives; they can also generate process losses and brain drain. How do changes in organizational
interfaces affect the processes of innovation and the development of new
technologies? How do organizations manage their interfaces to balance
creativity against protecting their intellectual property?
- The frequency of organizational
change (e.g., restructurings and mergers) and diversity of organizational
forms (e.g., virtual and alliances) exponentially multiplies the number
and importance of interstitial spaces. What knowledge, processes, and
strategies are necessary to successfully plan and implement organizational
change efforts in this context?
- What can leaders do to influence information
exchange/flow in interstitial spaces? How do organizational leaders help
employees to manage and prioritize information and interactions? What role
do social networks play in structuring interactions at the interface?
It is fitting that Atlanta is the site of our 2017 meeting,
because Atlanta’s history displays some of the most dramatic separations and
connections that interfaces generate. The
city rose from the ashes of the American Civil War in the 1860s, was a primary
organizing center of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and today is a
major transportation hub and home to one of the world’s busiest airports. Let’s draw inspiration from the Atlanta
context as we explore interfaces in all their complexity.
Carol T. Kulik
2017 Vice President and Program Chair, Academy of Management