Jean-Claude Thoenig

EGOS Honorary Member 2005

 Laudatio by Arndt Sorge

The Formative Origins

Jean-Claude Thoenig was born in Biel/Bienne, a town nowadays above all distinctive for the headquarters of the Swatch company. It sits right on the border between French and German speaking areas in Switzerland; not near that border but right on it, as the usual double naming in atlases or maps indicates. Moreover, in his childhood socialisation, there has been a multitude of influences: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Agnostic. Coming from a business family, young Jean-Claude started off by doing the decent thing and studied business administration at the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce at Neuchâtel. That, however, did not turn out to be completely intellectually satisfying. In the search for more profound explanations, he studied sociology at the University of Geneva. But it is significant that this did not divert him from an interest in business: The positions including professorial chairs which he has held in succession, exhibit an almost regular iteration between Business, Sociology and Political Science. Similarly, he has done both basic research and consulting, both in public administration and commercial enterprises. Our laureate does not turn his back on an earlier specialisation as he moves into others. He has consistently held and practiced the view that any of the specialties that he has developed and taught, have a lot to learn from the respectively other discipline. Here, too, he has been moving to and fro across borders many times. Although he has more firmly settled into a career in France, mainly in the CNRS, and also holds French nationality, there was also a period when he alternated between positions in Switzerland and France.


Without becoming a social science generalist in the sense of specialising in general social theory, the laureate has thus become a multi-specialist keen on combining methods, theory and findings from neighbouring fields of theory and research, learning from other fields, notably with a view to providing a thorough clinical analysis of areas that pose inter-linked conceptual and practical problems. His formative origins and development have turned him into a unique integrator of research, concepts and enlightened practice, across cultures, geographical areas, the private-public separation of domains or sectors, and, as he now indicates on his personal website, across actors distinguished by their particular logics of action. The best proof for Carol Weiss’s finding that the best applied or policy research is that which follows the ‘enlightenment model’ and is linked to basic research, is the bibliography and biography of Jean-Claude Thoenig. The Swiss may be led to build bridges between neigbouring valleys insisting on their own dialect, government, religion, practices and language, because the country despite its small size is divided by cross-cutting cleavages like few others. Jean-Claude has internationalized this competence and turned it into an asset for our academic fields and, not least, for public organization and policy studies and practice in France. In this, he has become unique. This performance was honoured by several distinctions, including that of chevalier of the légion d’honneur and the Order of Agricultural Merit in France. The last-mentioned was probably not for research or consultancy in agriculture – which is the domain of his wife – but for running a vinyard. To this, we now add a more profane one, which does not carry a medal and does not date back to Napoleon. But it might be as meaningful to the laureate as the more prominent distinctions, because he has voluntarily given EGOS more than most of us. It might even closer to his heart than most of the things to which he has dedicated his efforts.


The Scholar

In theory, the most significant and prominent expression of the laureate’s conjoint cultivation of Business, Sociology and Political Science has led him to pioneering contributions in the sociology of inter-organisational relations. His article with Michel Crozier in ASQ was a milestone in the development of this field. He has regularly visited the United States and promoted an interest in the reciprocal fertilisation of more American and more European research perspectives and contributions. Another highlight in his long list of publications is his article, with Mitchell Koza, comparing conceptual orientations in the two continents. But there again, he has tried to be a bridge-builder rather than putting an ocean between different perspectives and stylised continental research traditions. Indeed, one of the theoretically formative influences on his thinking has been Philip Selznick, with his masterful analysis of the Tennessee Valley authority, in ‘TVA and the grass roots’. TVA and its institutional combination of actors with different action logics – Midwestern engineers that remind you of Switzerland, a grand public purpose that informs a large enterprise and reminds you of France, farmers in agricultural projects with different interests from energy generation and also regulation of large rivers in lakes and dams, and politicians that have to serve the interests of very different clienteles – has exhibited in a nutshell all the concerns which the laureate has developed over his professional career. Likewise, Selznick's masterful analysis of institutional leadership which was based on the TVA has informed and marked him profoundly, in scholarship and in practice.


The laureate has planted his conceptual roots very firmly within the writings of social science classics, such as Selznick. For him, the study of a range of different policy fields, between public administration in France more generally down to road haulage regulation and strategies, has always implied the necessity to go back to the classics. Concepts such as that of institutional leadership or entrepreneurship put forward by Selznick have proven of lasting value, in order to address competently what are the more specific organisation and policy questions of the time. If Jean-Claude had his way, university instruction would bear regard to this, such that no participant in an EGOS Colloquium meeting would ever have to ask the speaker what he meant by institutional entrepreneurship.


The laureate’s scholarly writings add up to and impressively long and diversified list. But it is remarkable, and probably tells us something, that he has not single-mindedly persevered in the search for international top journal excellence, in the ritualistic fashion promoted by emerging research performance evaluation practices. His respect of national or local problem specificity has led him to standard monographs contextualised in time and place, such as on public administration in France, and to extremely stimulating articles on specific policy issues, also mainly in France and in French. It is precisely the art of combining diverse classical perspectives into an analysis that respects situatedness in time and place, which has led him to such significant contributions. It is again no accident that one of the most distinctive internationalists in EGOS, because he knows the pitfalls of universalistic nomothetic theory that he himself has helped to build, has become a keen student of problems that are situated in time and place. He is not one to go for a straight and tight coupling of a problem with a specific but universal theory and deduction of an instrumental solution on this basis. It is this which has kept him focussed on, and relevant for, problems and practical issues.


As an example, let me single out his article with Ocqueteau, in Sociologie du Travail, on public regulation and strategies of road transport in France. Not many readers in the EGOS community would know it. In its precision of a historical institutional analysis of how public regulators devise policies that are countered by transport firms, to which public regulation reacts with new policies that are again countered by firms, the article puts forward a succession of moves that although appearing erratic to some extent, feature a dense and relatively stable constellation of action logics which are both, complementary and adversarial. Unravelling such a constellation is both theoretically meaningful and practically enlightening. Looking at their interaction in the mirror of this analysis, the actors involved are not given an instrumental recipe of how to go on from there. But the perceptive practitioner will be able to draw inspiration from this reflection, wondering how to integrate better the expectable moves of the other party of the game, knowing that these will follow very regularly. Through this treatment, Jean-Claude has become the most erudite advocate and analyst of non-hypocritical and enlightened policy-making, in public administration and firms, separately or combined. The message is not propagandistic but low key, and it appeals by appealing to practical imagination combined with rigorous interpretation and insight.


The Institutional Entrepreneur

The laureate has always been a man of action and practice, in addition to the more academic achievements, but then again many academic roles require capacities of action in social, economic and political contexts. In the remarkable synthesis of research, theory and personal practice which he has achieved, consultancy has played an important role. Characteristically, it has been in both, the public domain and commercial enterprises. Furthermore, his action has invariably been characterised by strong entrepreneurial traits. He has studied and practiced entrepreneurship as something that was required in both public and private domains. Here again, the formative influence of 'TVA and the grass roots', of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the remarkable American Midwestern engineers such as David Lilienthal that gave it direction and meaning, has provided a powerful imagery and set of concepts that have fascinated our laureate all his life. He has followed such ideas, not only in research and consultancy but also in his dealings within the academic arena proper. This is reflected in his importance for the construction of professional networks and associations. Let me single out some different examples.

One is his role as vice-dean of INSEAD for research and development, which was crucial for the combination of executive teaching and academic excellence that INSEAD, despite some dilemmas, has brought about. INSEAD has been an American enclave in Europe for a long time, and the laureate has had a role in building this bridgehead. However, his openness to American business school ideas has been marked by constructive criticism throughout. One could be misguided by the language and style he practises, at times. An unmistably American style of argument and fascination by American concepts blend with a vociferous pleading for social science in universities and against one-sided emulation of the business school idea. Witness, e.g., his argument 'EGOS – manager la différence' in Les amis de l'Ecole de Paris (http://www.ecole.org), in 2004.


This takes me to the second example, the Ecole de Paris, a network for intensive interaction of management practitioners and researchers. This has also established a highly stimulating periodical with some of the most insightful and both intellectually and practically stimulating contributions one can find in Europe, with regard to the interaction between practical and academic settings in organization studies. It is written in French and none the worse for it, featuring a culture which unites intellectual sophistication with practical relevance, in the best tradition of the highly educated ‘mandarins’ that have dominated public and commercial management in this country over the ages. If there is a European template for enlightened discourse, involving researchers and ‘reflective practitioners’, the Ecole de Paris qualifies for emulation. Here again, Jean-Claude has not eschewed national or local culture and settings in order to achieve relevance and excellence, not being overly fascinated by an only superficially international lingua franca that English has become in our fields. May our internationalists heed the example and not be averse to the interest in local contextualisation, in aid of both academic realism and practical relevance.


Let me also mention GAPP, a foremost centre for the study of public policies in France, associated with the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan. The laureate was crucial in setting this up and has been central for its profile and achievements over many years. But the most significant international contribution in academic entrepreneurship next to his more national ones, has been EGOS itself. The reader interested in his own perception of this personal perception and a personal historical account should consult the Ecole de Paris newsletter cited above. The laureate was a key figure in two phases, the early phase from about 1975 to 1980, and the late phase from 1997 until now. In the early phase, entrepreneurship for EGOS was mainly about building interpersonal connections across countries, to mobilise good people for interesting Colloquia, and about giving EGOS a first administrative home, at the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris. However, over the years, EGOS was not as much administrated from Paris locations as his account indicates. In much of the 80s and the early 90s, it was SISWO in Amsterdam that was its administrative and communication home, and Bert van Hees was its longest serving coordinator to date. Parisians, even if they are of Swiss origin, may underestimate the smaller countries of Europe, but the latter forgive because they know their importance. The late phase began when a rapidly growing EGOS was cast into a formal association and needed entrepreneurial talent to achieve a sustainable co-evolution of increasing bureaucratisation with the conservation of the distinctive interpersonal culture and workshop ethos that had become the hallmark of the network.


Jean-Claude rose to the challenge on both occasions. When we (mainly Georg Schreyögg in contact with some Super-EGOS) set out to make EGOS a formal association to cope with increasing numbers of participants, thematic fields and purposes of the organisation, our view was that we needed a distinctive figure who had already been to the forefront in the earlier entrepreneurial phase, someone who did not need the function for his or her cv but was inspired with a work ethos and persistence that were badly needed in order to take EGOS across a few growth thresholds without losing identity and flair. It was my idea to ask him, very much approved by Georg (this is the way decision-making happened in that phase of transition), and his first reaction was distinctive. He asked for time in order to think about whether it was worth the time and effort and to see if he had that time. He was evidently weighing his own resources and objective possibilities to see whether it could be a worthwhile entrepreneurial task that could be seen to fruition. And then he did it. I have made few telephone calls that proved similarly well considered and fruitful in my life. The results are there for all to see and evaluate. If there is a distinctive personal influence on the direction EGOS took and the shape it is now in, apart from that of the main transition organiser (Georg Schreyögg) and the outstanding administrative and managerial stabilisers of the association during its most remarkable period of growth (Peer Hull Kristensen and Marianne Risberg), it is that of Jean-Claude, as chairman and then inveterate member of the Board of the association. Judge the result for yourself.


The Person

Entrepreneurs bring a full personality into the bargain. This has been so with Jean-Claude all along. And the personality was crystal clear for all those who got into contact with him. He is as forthright, dependable and forceful as few others in the business of academic management and leadership. His language, style of discourse, even the body and facial language, are the clearest, most honest and least deceptive of any person in such a function I have seen. What you see and hear is what you get, and you do not get small amounts of it. To me, this has always been a considerable advantage. Some may also have been daunted. But you could very well talk to him in an open manner. One of the more touching scenes in conversations off the record of the EGOS Board was when Jean-Claude talked to Silvia Gherardi in Italian. The interactive picture was characterised by politeness and sensitivity. Maybe we all should have learned Italian to talk to Jean-Claude, in order to maximise the benefits of the interaction. He evidently straddled another cultural border that his original home country features, between Italian and French expression and culture.


In the more Northern languages, including French, English and German, Jean-Claude did probably not always satisfy interlocutors preferring diplomatic dialogue and evasion of latent conflict. His style of expression in EGOS business and board meetings carried great frankness – not Frenchness, if the attempt at a pun is allowed. To do sensible business with him, a considered measure of quarrelling was probably inevitable. Some EGOS chairmen of the Board after him will have made this experience, and I have made it, too. But he has consistently been a very constructive person to quarrel with. You did not have to have ill feelings afterwards, and if you did not do so, he did not either. There are few people in our business that you can quarrel with as innocuously and constructively as with Jean-Claude – if you approach the quarrel in the right way. To me and others, I hope, this has been a relief. Organisations being political entities with conflicting goals and interests, they need disciplined quarrelling in order to arrive at purposes and action that are shared. They are too often tempted into an uneasy balance of superficial acquiescence and tactical manoeuvring.


Which way then is the right one, to quarrel according to the code our laureate is accustomed to? That takes me to a part of his identity which is not properly appreciated. He is not the stylised French scholar or technocrat, or Swiss banker, who translates intellectual sophistication into outward refinement and smoothness. In fact, he is closer to a type of small and medium enterprise entrepreneur one finds with great frequency in an area which is both regional and international, the Alemannic culture which stretches from French speaking areas of Switzerland up through Swabia in Germany. Forthright people that do not mince their words, worry a lot, and show that they esteem an interlocutor by considering him or her worthy of a vociferous and depersonalised quarrel about substance, as one of the most essential mechanisms of social integration. I have found the mode of working towards solutions he has practiced, as one of the most satisfying I have experienced. You have to understand the code, and if you do, Jean-Claude will be a greatly rewarding colleague. In addition to his scholarly stature and entrepreneurial contribution, he thus exemplifies regional but internationalisable virtues that will stand EGOS in good stead, whatever happens to it in the future: straight talking, looking things and people in the eye, and not avoiding or circumventing any problem that presents itself. And this helps to avoid the biggest problem arising in the course of institutionalisation, or the routinisation of charisma as Weber called it, namely becoming 'prisoners of myth', as Hargreaves pointed out. This problem has been central to Jean-Claude's worries, learning as he did from the TVA experience in a way which has been decidedly self-critical. When he became a bit gruff, he in fact invited others to reciprocate, because he has always been critical of his own ideas, and less sure than his firm pleading at any given moment may have suggested.


To conclude, let me express the hope that we will go on benefitting from his contributions, written, oral and behavioural, as EGOS enters another phase of its development, robbed of Jean-Claude on the Board (and Marianne Risberg in the office). We honour him as an honorary fellow. Honour is serious if it cuts both ways, i.e. if we stand by what we honour him for. Let us then be inspired towards new institutional entrepreneurship and scholarship across multiple borders.