Ancestor Worship and Founder Myths: The role of John Spedan Lewis in decision-making in the John Lewis Partnership

Organisation Studies

Speaker:Dr Abby Cathcart, School of Management, Queensland University of Technology, Australia
Date: Tuesday 14 January 2014
Time: 4.00 - 6.00 pm
Location: Bateman Lecture Theatre, Building One

Further details

The John Lewis Partnership was founded in 1929 as an experiment in industrial democracy (Lewis, 1948). Today the organisation employs 85,000 people and consists of 40 department stores and 300 Waitrose Supermarkets. It operates a form of organisational democracy where staff are called partners and have a voice in decision-making and a share of profits. John Lewis has been described as a workers paradise (Stummer & Lacey, 2001) and a blueprint of a perfect world where everyone is decent and fair(Reid, 1995). This paper explores the role of John Spedan Lewis, the founder of the Partnership who died in 1963 but whose name is invoked frequently by management and workers in discussions about the future of the organisation. Drawing on interviews with partners, observations of democratic decision-making forums, and archival material, it is argued that a founder-centred narrative has become the dominant source of understanding about the firms history. However, rather than suggesting that Lewis should be seen as a culture creator (Martin, Sitkin, & Boehm, 1985, p. 100), it is suggested that management use the words of the founder to create incontestable truth (Cathcart, 2013) and close down dissent. In short, the founders own retrospective histories of the Partnership play an important role in the construction of truth in the Partnership today. Brief Bio Dr Abby Cathcart is a Senior Lecturer in Management at Queensland University of Technology, Australia. She completed her PhD in 2010 and has published papers in the Journal of Industrial Relations, the International Journal of Human Resource Management, and Social Responsibility. Dr Cathcart is currently working on an Australian Research Council Discovery project exploring flexible and customised work arrangements in a wide-range of Australian organisations. References Cathcart, A. (2013). Paradoxes of participation: non-union workplace partnership in John Lewis. International Journal of Human Resource Management, Online First Article 15 January 2013. DOI:10.1080/09585192.2012.743476, 1-19. doi: DOI:10.1080/09585192.2012.743476 Lewis, J. S. (1948). Partnership for All: A Thirty Four Year Old Experiment in Industrial Democracy. London: London: Kerr-Cross Publishing. Martin, J., Sitkin, S. B., & Boehm, M. (1985). Founders and the elusiveness of a cultural legacy. In P. Frost, L. Moore, M. Louis, C. Lundberg & J. Martin (Eds.), Organizational Culture. London: Sage. Reid, D. (Writer) & S. Lambert (Director). (1995). The Partners [Videocassette], BBC Modern Times. UK: British Broadcasting Corporation. Stummer, R., & Lacey, H. (2001, 25 February). John Lewis reinvented as retail theatre, The Independent