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Professor Denis Pym

Denis Lisle Angelo Pym, May 3, 1936 – May 21, 2019.

Contributed by Pat Shipley

Denis Pym first came to the UK aged 21.  As a mature student at London's Birkbeck College he acquired a Masters and a PhD in Occupational Psychology, before joining the academic staff of the department. As a pupil at Geelong Grammar School in Victoria, Australia, he excelled in sport, before graduating at Melbourne University in Psychology with Economics and Political Science. His mother's family was descended from the Angelos who taught fencing to Italian royalty. He left Birkbeck in 1970 to become Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the London Business School (LBS), resigning in 1990 to work on the family's organic farm, on the Essex/Suffolk border, which he had earlier established with his French wife Paule. Here he practised what he preached; at the farm, he and Paule were active members of the local rural community and members of the WOOfers movement ('Workers on Organic Farms'). Denis died from Parkinson’s disease this year and he had a green burial on the farm.

At Birkbeck, Denis was an inspiring teacher and scholar. A special person who had arrived at a special place, like Birkbeck's founding father, Denis was a radical and innovator. Like George Birkbeck, he wanted to influence education and working life for the better, and to contribute to a more humane society.  He challenged mainstream ideas in Occupational Psychology and Birkbeck gave him the freedom to develop this Pymian approach. He followed the department's ethos by researching large firms for information about how they worked, the effects these practices had on their workforces and for the future viability of these organisations. Working for the Air Ministry as an Occupational Psychologist, he was based for two years in the Mediterranean. He used these experiences to inspire his teaching. For him, theory and practice belonged together.

At the LBS Denis taught interpersonal and other management skills.  In 1983 he returned briefly to Birkbeck as the first of the invited speakers ...''who have made a distinguished contribution to and demonstrable impact on organisations in academia, public service and commerce'', to deliver the annual public 'Alec Rodger Memorial Lecture'. His title was: 'Beyond Rationality and Employment'. He was prescient about the future of employment - the decline of fulltime, lifelong, secure and skilled employment, to be increasingly replaced with 'inauthentic' junk jobs with low reward, insecure zero-hours contracts, and about the growth of digital technology and automation and its potential for abuse.  His argument instead favoured the idea of the dual economy combining the best of both the formal and the informal sides of our lives, both the social and the economic. He enacted the ideals of the informal side of this dual economy at the organic smallholding in East Anglia in which the values of self-discovery, self respect and autonomy through self employment could be nurtured. Individual freedom from dysfunctional, constraining  institutions mattered greatly to him, these ideals and values he espoused captured in his 1986 monograph: 'The Employment Question and Other Essays', published by the Freedom Press of the Freedom Collective in Whitechapel.

In his teaching at the LBS Denis took risks when tirelessly pointing out the failures of senior management in typical organisations, particularly their failure to release the creative energy of the lower ranks, because of a groupthink culture of club-like mutual admiration, and for macho bullying of others less powerful in the hierarchy; to him they were emperors without clothes. There were two sides to this, however, since he equally criticised workers for failing to use their countervailing powers, any freedoms they had, in the service of necessary change for organisational renewal.

These qualities are endorsed in the recent tribute from John Hassard, Denis' former LBS colleague, now Professor of Organisational Analysis at Manchester Business School, who emphasised Denis' willingness to write “against the grain''.  We learn from John that, always fearless, Denis founded 'The Marginals Club' at the LBS, a place for new ideas, and a “sanctuary for those who shouldn't have been working in a business school”.  Hassard continues that: “While colleagues talked about 'bottom lines' and 'profit ratios' we talked about the theory & philosophy of organizations''. This theme was the title of their jointly-edited book, published in 1993. By then, flaws in traditional textbook economics were becoming apparent, with LBS students, according to Denis, calling for more teaching in 'interpersonal skills', and other aspects of the behavioural sciences, hinting at the promise of a new era of regenerative economics. 

Many of Denis' phrases are memorable, such as 'brains down drains'. One phrase from his early Birkbeck lectures was the distinction between what he called 'authentic and inauthentic ritual'. This was an unusual idea for Occupational Psychology and an early indication of his readiness to cross interdisciplinary boundaries, from psychology to industrial sociology, to philosophy, then to social anthropology especially in the analysis of the uses of myths. He excavated the cultures of organisations, even so-called rational organisations like multinational corporations, which he persuaded us were as much governed by myth as were older cultures presumed to be more primitive. One destructive and persisting myth was that of the worker as another version of the machine following orders, routines and rules. The label, 'Organisational Anthropologist', seems as fitting for Denis as that of Organisational or Behavioural Psychologist.

With his informal and irreverent 'Down Under' manner, the antithesis of the stereotyped buttoned-up introverted British academic, Denis was a notably good listener, treating people as equals. He was uninterested in status, reputation and financial rewards for himself, preferring to be identified professionally as author, critic and editor, rather than use academic titles. He saw himself as enacting the role of the holy fool, or licensed court jester allowed to whisper in the ear of the medieval king warning him of the trap set by hubris, like the myth of the lowly slave in Ancient Rome warning the triumphant returning general not to get too big for his imperial boots.

Another Pymian image was his hero the bricoleur, the skilled 'fixer' who freely gave his labour, often unbidden, to help people out as in his local village. This is a practical example of what Denis meant by dignified work in the informal economy, where individuals are enabled to recover self respect, reclaiming some lost authority through self employment and warm meaningful relationships in the community. A key figure in his locality, Denis loved social gatherings and was a great entertainer. He bred prize-winning Suffolk rams, and, with his family, planted thousands of trees, another of his many passions which he thought may be his most lasting legacy.

A deep thinker, Denis Pym wanted us to wake from our slumbers, from the abuse of modern technology and other forms of abuse, to take back responsibility, our autonomy, and believe in ourselves, our capacity to add to the common good. For Denis Pym, Birkbeck was an enabling institution. It enabled him to build the solid foundation to his professional career; the freedom to develop in his unique way. It enriched his life, and in turn, he enriched the lives of many others. He was consequently much-loved, and is much missed.