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Professor of Sociology
Students who work closely with Dr. Powers leave Santa Clara armed with practical insights into today’s work environments, where organizational success is often contingent on moving the innovation process forward rapidly and effectively. Many college graduates fail when they have an opportunity to manage or lead because they mistakenly think the keys to organizational innovation are simply (i) hiring smart people, (ii) allowing people maximum flexibility to set their own goals, agendas, and time-tables, and (iii) providing a fun and perk-filled environment in which to work. These can indeed be useful features of a workplace trying to nurture creativity, but only if combined with less widely understood sociological requisites for sustaining organizational innovation. Successfully leading and managing innovation-oriented businesses and non-profits necessarily involves (a) helping to crystallize and clearly convey a driving sense of mission/vision/strategy, (b) maintaining systems of formal and informal communication which enable people to judge the relative impact of their various activities on the work of others in the organization and the success of the collective enterprise in achieving key goals, and (c) sustaining a culture in which each person sees it as her or his daily responsibility to diagnose/fix problems and steadily contribute to the organization’s achievement of its goals. This fundamentally requires (d) astute monitoring of ways in which peer interactions support or erode the operational workings and different facets of the culture of the organization. Being able to utilize sociological talent in the workplace is a tremendous asset when trying to exercise effective organizational leadership and management.
Innovation in business and non-profit environments is also impacted by workplace atmospherics (which is a subject of joint research by Dr. Powers and Dr. Fernandez). Workplace innovation is most likely to be sustained (a) where everyone is involved in conversation about the connection between work process and outcomes, (b) where people feel safe in expressing alternative views, and (c) where co-workers feel accepted as part of the environment in a way that goes beyond fulfilling specified job tasks. These factors all suggest that the presence or absence of interpersonal trust is a pivotal factor in determining workplace outcomes. Like the questions of organizational structure, culture, and communication, the question of organizational “atmospherics” is, at its core, a sociological matter. People who are sociologically prepared for workplace challenges have something special to offer as colleagues, managers, and leaders.
Dr. Powers’ special interest in business sociology distinguishes him from most other sociologists. His interest in concrete work organizations (meso level sociology) enables him to think theoretically about the social world as more than face-to-face interaction (micro level sociology), and to do so with a tangible focus which is hard to maintain when discussing features of society at large (macro level sociology) which by their nature are difficult to accurately define. Dr. Powers has made a number of contributions to the advancement of theory in the discipline and he is working on a unified framework that meaningfully interconnects some of sociology’s competing theoretical paradigms. Here are some illustrations of current workplace trends and happenings discussed by Dr. Powers in some of his classes.