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‘Time’ is only sometimes on your side

Award-winning paper explores limits of ‘chrono-centrism’

‘Time’ is only sometimes on your side
A paper that takes a provocative look at time, co-authored by Shaz Ansari of Cambridge Judge Business School, has been named Best International Paper by the Organization and Management Theory Division of the Academy of Management.

The paper, which explores the shortcomings of “chrono-centrism,” has now also been accepted for publication by the Academy of Management Journal (AMJ). The paper – “When Times Collide. Temporal brokerage at the intersection of markets and development” – is co-authored by Juliane Reinecke of the University of Warwick and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge, and by Shahzad Ansari, Reader in Strategy at Cambridge Judge.

The paper focuses on Fairtrade International, an organisation that connects wealthy northern markets with low-income producing communities in developing southern countries. Fairtrade has become known for promoting ethical standards by promising fairer trading and developmental support.

By looking at the North and South of Fairtrade’s mission and operations, the research found that traditional clock-time orientation, though it may work well for markets, can often be unsuitable for managing unfixed and inexact processes such as human development.

For example, many standards promoted by Fairtrade are “progress criteria” – which emphasised continuous change by using such open-ended phrases as “measures are being taken” or “shows efforts” or “the organisation will continue to develop” – a far cry from the sort of precise language and metrics usually seen in corporate reports and other market-oriented literature.

“While our research focused on Fairtrade and development issues, our findings on the limitations of a time-centric approach have implications for many businesses and organisations,” Ansari said.

Processes such as learning and innovation don’t follow managerially imposed timelines with predictable durations and sequencing, and are ill-suited to clock-based metrics such as quarterly sales cycles.

“This means that consumer expectation of time-predictable improvement in technology is often misplaced, even if some innovators aspire to deliver it.” says Ansari.

Based on extensive fieldwork and interviews, the researchers found the difficulty of squaring open-ended and time-oriented goals burst into tension between Fairtrade’s two units, the producer-oriented standards setter FLO and the market-oriented certifier FLO-CERT – which looked at development through a different time lens.

Those working in standard setting, some of whom described themselves as “Fairtrade crusaders” and “keepers of the grail,” emphasised the continuous and non-linear training, development and empowerment of agricultural producers, while the time-oriented certifiers stressed certification in order to satisfy big supermarket groups and ensure consumer trust in Fairtrade’s supply chains.

Although Fairtrade was able over time to reach a middle ground through what the authors term “ambitemporality” – the accommodation of multiple ways of dealing with time – other organisations may not prove so capable.

“Clock-time is a structuring device because it provides external order,” the paper says. “But clock-time also rests on a fiction as it construes processes as linear and predictable, even when fluid and emergent.

“While abstracting time from processes creates pockets of order and stability, it keeps us from understanding non-linear processes. Nevertheless, the lingua franca of clock-time has permeated not just business but also education, creative arts and innovation without regard for the unique temporal complexities involved,” the paper says.

Thus, the authors conclude, the limits of a clock-based approach in managing locally variable processes such as human development suggests the need to “reconfigure” market-led models to make them more suitable for the complex, specific contexts of our globalised and interdependent economy.