Professor Cath Explores Sustainability in Business

As an expert in coping with complex issues, turning his attentions to sustainability and climate change was a perfect fit for Professor Albert Cath. Here, he dives into his journey to AUP and into how we can bridge the gap between on paper solutions and their real world execution.

Professor Albert Cath

How did you come to AUP?

I arrived at AUP in the fall semester of 2015. I was asked by Robert Earhart to teach the Sustainability in Business course. Robert and I know each other from the critical management PhD/DBA program of the University of Humanistic Studies in the Netherlands. He indicated that he wanted to strengthen critical management theory in the curriculum, which is an area that we had worked on in our doctoral program.

What are your main fields of interest and have these changed since coming to AUP?

My main field of interest is ‘coping with complex issues, in the context of organizational theory’. Coping with complexity is the most fundamental and unmet challenge facing management (studies). 

An excellent example of this is the world-wide challenge of climate change, with a multiplicity of impacts now confronting us. These issues also show the interrelatedness of local and global levels of policies and strategizing. In other words, it demands a radical rethinking of our business models, economic models and politics, and the values and norms they are based upon, informed by critical business ethics. Wicked problems are marked by little agreement on relevant policies and relevant knowledge. Science and management are in this context not so much problem solvers, but more problem recognizers. That implies openness to innovation and radical novelty. For example, forms of sustainability management that include the perspectives of all societal stakeholders during the problem-recognition process, rather than focusing on the issues concerning only a few shareholders or management interests. 

Before AUP, you worked in traffic and transport, water management, climate and sustainability, healthcare, the cultural sector, and knowledge-based institutes. How does your broad professional background inform your teaching at AUP?

My teaching is deeply rooted in my professional background. Teaching is all about real-world issues that should be critically reflected in class – i.e. no theory without practice, no practice without theory. 

Hypermanagement book

In your research you talk about the stark difference between how complex issues are experieced in practice by those on the ground and how they are often simplified on paper into top-down 'solutions.' How does this impact problem-solving, and is there a better way to approach complex issues?

Top down solutions deny and/or ignore the complexities of everyday life in organization and/or organizing. It implies an “all-knowing” management, which is an absurdity. Top down planning might work to address tamed problems but it is counter-productive in dealing with wicked problem-solving. This presents us with a naïve simplification through codification expressed in rules, labels, models, protocols and prescriptions of our practice and thus takes away our lived experiential knowledge of our practice. This denial of our experienced coherence of our practice leads to the disclaimer of Albert Einstein: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." But old habits die hard, as we know.          

I experienced that in my Sustainability Business course. Most students came in with little foreknowledge and left the course with a strong commitment to start a career in the context of sustainability. 

What is your teaching philosophy? And what do you hope students will take away from the sustianability business course?

The dialogues between a plurality of perspectives, knowledge backgrounds and methodological positions is very fruitful and inspiring and is still formative for my organization/management philosophy, my pedagogical philosophy and my practices up to this day. For example, a classroom is seriously ill when the teachers are responsive to the stories in management books and not responsive to the stories of their students. My claim is that teaching can and needs to be developed as situated knowledge-in-practice. I place education in a more pragmatist tradition as opposed to utopian rationalism that can be narrowed down to separation of scientific conceptualization and real-life world problems. This does not imply a rejection of theory; on the contrary. But there will always be a gap between theory and practice, and this gap is not static or fixed; it is highly fluid and changing. I also believe that students with little foreknowledge in Business Administration, or any other intellectual discipline, and who have different educational and cultural backgrounds and levels, should first learn to walk before they are invited to run. That begs for a critical pedagogical philosophy that puts experiential learning as opposed to instructional learning in the foreground. As the French philosopher Edgar Morin asserts: “education is about learning to live.”  

A classroom is seriously ill when the teachers are responsive to the stories in management books and not responsive to the stories of their students. 

– Albert Cath

Has the relationship between the private and public sector changed in the last few decades?

The private and public sectors have become, in the past decades, more and more intertwined through the neo-liberal marketisation ideology of New Public Management. The principles of New Public Management theory, which are derived from mainstream management theories, advocate that public services should be run as a business. This is a contradiction in terms. Public services were originally developed because business saw no venture in these services, and thus left them to the public. Another paradox is the observation that most fundamental innovations are not developed by business, but by publicly funded institutions such as universities and other institutes of knowledge. These developments, of course, have led, for example, in the Netherlands, to the devastation of many public services. This has resulted in an on-going social discontent and activism. Do not get me wrong, I think that the private sector can be incredibly effective in many domains of life when well regulated, but there are also as many areas where public services should act upon their own principles - not for profit. 

You recently had a new book come out. Could you tell us a bit about it?

My book (PhD/DBA doctoral thesis) researches and elaborates on social complexity marked by emergence in the context of organizational studies. Emergence is a key quality of complexity. Emergence is difficult to understand: in practice and theoretically. Emergence connotes radical otherness – i.e. something that arrives or comes that was not there before and could not be linearly predicted. Emergence refers to radical novelty, i.e. miracles and nasty surprises. Mainstream organizational studies researches emergence badly because they try to ignore and/or deny it. In most mainstream organizational studies programs they address complicatedness, which tries to domesticate emergence – i.e. tries to make it a predictable entity, which is a contradiction in terms. Here another paradox is introduced : most mainstream management textbooks start and end with the observation that the world they try to describe is complex. In addition, managers, governors, politicians, scholars, and policymakers repeatedly state that the issue at hand is complex while acting as if it is a complicated problem. The distinction between complicatedness and complexity is relevant. Emergence respects ambiguity, uncertainty, indeterminacy, disorder, paradox, historical process, and ongoing contextualization; complicatedness vs. simplicity largely denies these qualities. In sum, this book opposes the complexity dialogues to the worldview of simplicity that informs most mainstream management theories and practices, which deny the fundamental complexities of the everyday of organization and/or organizing.