This Research Bulletin has been published in Urban Studies, 44 (9), (2007), 1635-1656.
Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.
Academic interest in clusters is evidenced by the volume of scholarship and intensity of debate about the usefulness of, and spatial characteristics and practices related to, the cluster concept (Martin and Sunley, 2003). A primary preoccupation has been with better theorising the complementary local (cluster) and global (stretched) spaces of knowledge production and flow and the way this informs competitive and flexible responses to changing marketplaces (Keeble et al, 1999; Saxenian, 1994; Saxenian and Hsu, 2001; Sturgeon, 2001). Consequently, to suggest that clusters are knowledge ‘nodes in global networks’ (Amin and Thrift, 1992) is now somewhat banal. It has proven somewhat more pertinent, however, to engage in explorations that attempt to deepen understanding of the different practices involved in the local and global geographies of learning (Leamer and Storper, 2001; Storper and Venables, 2004). This is now most commonly conceptualised as the differentiated ‘urban buzz’ and ‘global pipelines’ of knowledge creation and ‘flow’ that together sustain successful clusters but through dissimilar forms of learning (Bathelt et al, 2004).
Recent work has revealed, then, how firms in regional spaces benefit from spatially diffuse sources of learning that inform competitiveness. Tallman et al (2004, 268) note that “regional clusters indeed do possess certain competencies that provide competitive advantage to their constituent firms as a group…Part of a regional cluster’s advantage in its industry is tied to component knowledge that has originated within the cluster and remains there”1. At the same time, the now well recognized caveat to such arguments is the fact that “Networking and collaboration with other local firms and organisations…play[s] a major role in recent theories of local clusters…However, such linkages are also becoming a global phenomenon, one that has come to coexist with networking and collaboration within particular localities” (Nachum and Keeble, 1999, 12). Scholars have, therefore, increasingly argued that analysis of the global interconnection of regions through trans-local networks of knowledge flow must form an integral part of all theorizations of the ‘regional’ phenomenon (Simmie, 2003).
This paper uses case studies of advertising and law professional service firms (PSFs) in London and New York to explore, but also reconfigure thinking about, the geographies and practices involved in such local-global, ‘buzz’ and ‘pipeline’, learning. It suggests that recent conceptualisations of the local-global geographies of learning have deconstructed one misleading dichotomy (that of locally bound, impervious clusters) but created another by suggesting there are dichotomised practices of learning at local and global scales. It queries whether terminologies such as ‘local buzz’ and ‘global pipelines’ are appropriate because of the binary suggested between locally and globally scaled learning. The paper therefore proposes a more elegant and refined conceptualisation that recognises the scale transcending practices of learning, their decoupling from scalar limits and the relational forces that render less meaningful local-global distinctions (Amin and Cohendet, 2004; Jessop, 2000).
The rest of the paper develops this argument over four further sections. Section two reviews extant literatures describing the local and global practices of learning that influence the competitiveness of firms in urban clusters. It suggests analyses are needed that draw on a relational, network, perspective acknowledging the spatial subtleties of the scale-transcending practices involved in learning, instead of the scale-informed ontology often used to differentiate and create a binary between local and global spaces of learning. Sections three and four develop this idea through an exploration of empirical material collected from interviews with advertisers and lawyers in London and New York. This shows that the embedded network architectures of learning are fundamentally the same both within and between regions. Therefore, it is argued that distinctions such as ‘local buzz’ and ‘global pipelines’ might obscure important continuities in the nature of learning across local and global scales. Section five draws these ideas together and suggests that learning should be conceptualised as a network practice that cannot be explored or labelled using a scalar ontology.
Scale transcending networks of knowledge and learning?
Recent research has deepened our understanding of the complex ways firms benefit from knowledge production that informs innovation and, in particular, drawn our attention to the interlocking local and global forms of learning influencing the activities of firms (Amin and Cohendet, 2004; Gertler, 2005). Examining the geography of learning in the global advertising and law PSFs of London and New York offers the opportunity to strengthen our grasp of the nature of this local (buzz based) and global (pipeline based) learning (see Bathelt et al, 2004) and to further enhance descriptions of the synergistic effects of local-global spaces of learning.
The practices of learning performed at the local scale have been widely described under the rubric of ‘urban buzz’ (Bathelt et al, 2001; Henry and Pinch, 2001; Storper and Venables, 2004). The gossip, rumour and discussion of industry specific topics involved in such buzz has been shown to be a valuable source of insights for members of ‘professional communities’ in regions but also to be a uniquely local asset. Two reasons lie behind this suggestion. First, buzz is said to be the result of serendipitous encounters facilitated by spatial proximity between individuals working in the same professional domain (Henry and Pinch, 2001; Leamer and Storper, 2001). Studies suggest chance encounters, for example on the street or in restaurants and bars of a city, create the ‘networks’ that enable learning and the informal ‘flow’ of tacit knowledge. As a result, “participating in the buzz does not require particular investments. This sort of information and communication is more or less automatically received by those who are located within the region” (Bathelt et al, 2004, 38).
Second, buzz is said to also benefit from a number of complementary factors that enable individuals to make sense of conversations and, therefore, learn. ‘Shared heuristics’ possessed by those working in the same region "enable firms to understand the local buzz in a meaningful and useful way. This is because co-location within a cluster stimulates the development of a particular institutional structure shared by those who participate. Firms develop similar language, technology attitudes and interpretative schemas” (Bathelt et al, 2004, 39). In addition, Storper and Venables (2004, 353-354) argue that face-to-face contact also eases this process, something facilitated when individuals work in close physical proximity to one-another, whilst in a similar and complementary argument Morgan (2004) suggests the trusting, reciprocal, relationships involved in buzz can only be constructed through regular face-to-face encounters between parties. Consequently, this means “Buzz cities…are places where, more than ever, critical problems of coordination in the modern economy are resolved through F2F [face-to-face] contact” (Storper and Venables, 2004, 366).
A range of empirical studies have documented the importance of such buzz, with Henry and Pinch (2000, 202) providing an especially clear example in relation to Motorsport Valley in Oxfordshire, UK. In this paper they describe the “‘leakage’ of knowledge throughout the industry as a whole” that results from buzz between fellow participants in the motor racing community. This is principally driven by “gossip, rumour and observation [that] defin[es] productive knowledge” and occurs in the shared industry spaces such as the pit lane of the test track used by firms in the cluster.
The value of such local ‘buzz’ has increasingly been suggested to be complemented by what Bathelt et al (2004) describe as learning through ‘global pipelines’. This idea draws on the gradual acceptance of long-developed arguments about the simultaneous importance of local but also global relational spaces of learning in economic activities (Amin and Thrift, 1992; 2002; Gertler, 2004; Simmie, 2003) and has enhanced academics ability to describe the way knowledge production “involve[s] a complex and evolving integration, at different levels, of local, national and global factors [not] exclusively at one particular scale but instead across various spatial scales simultaneously” (Bunnel and Coe, 2001, 570). Studies have shown that ‘globalization’, however one chooses to define it, necessitates the widening of analytical lenses to “consider industrial districts and local complexes as outgrowths of a world economy” (Amin and Thrift, 1992, 574). Taking such an approach has helped deal with complaints such as those by Lagendijk (2002, 77) about the difficulties of ‘regional’ literatures, “whil[st] acknowledging [the] heterogeneity of knowledge, assets, organizations and institutions, tend[ing] towards a rather generic image of the region and its scale-specific qualities”. A significant advance of the past decade in urban and regional studies has, then, been the conceptualisation of regions as relational spaces (Amin and Thrift, 2002).
However, d escriptions of the integration of local buzz with global pipelines often continues to suggest that there are stark contrasts between ‘local’ buzz and “nonincremental knowledge flows [that] are often generated through ‘network pipelines’, rather than through undirected, spontaneous ‘local broadcasting’” (Bathelt et al, 40). The implication of global spaces of ‘pipeline’ knowledge being ‘nonincremental’ is that whilst “[l]ocal buzz is beneficial to innovation processes because it generates opportunities for a variety of spontaneous and unanticipated situations…global pipelines are instead associated with the integration of multiple selection environments that…feed local interpretations and usage of knowledge” (Bathelt et al, 42). In effect, globally stretched learning is said to be of a lower order of value, complementing but only consolidating what can be gained from local buzz. Indeed, Nachum and Keeble (2000, 28) conclude their analysis of the global integration of London’s global advertising agencies by arguing that “non-codified, not easily transferable, types of knowledge, are best transmitted when the parties involved are in close geographical proximity, and internal linkages within the TNC cannot provide similar benefits to those accruing through local interaction”. In effect, they return to the troublesome local-tacit/global-explicit binary scholars have strived to deconstruct in recent times (Allen, 2000; Amin and Cohendet, 2004).
Relational, Non-scalar, Analyses of Learning
This paper argues that setting up the geographies of knowledge as local-global (buzz and pipeline) serves to create a new qualitative dichotomy in relation to the practices of, and value-added gained from, local and global spaces of learning. In effect, it replaces the advances made in relation to the theorizing of the synergism of local-global practices of learning with a new value laden qualitative binary. This seems questionable when studies such as that of Grabher (2001) suggest the practices and nature of learning at both urban (village) and global (group) scales share similar architectures and characteristics. Conceptualising the social space enabling learning as a heterarchy2, Grabher argues that the same forms of social organization allow advertisers working in London’s Soho district to learn from conversations with both their local rivals and distant members of the global advertising group. Conversations thrive on rivalry, can involve disagreement, but benefit from highly convergent logics, motivations and heuristics whether with other members of the London village or the global group. Saxenian and Hsu (2001, 898) similarly describe the way engineers working in Silicon Valley have “built a social and economic bridge linking the Silicon Valley and Hsinchu [Taiwan] economies”, something base upon “share professional as well as ethnic identities and by their deep integration into technical communities of both technology regions”. In both of these examples equally valuable learning and knowledge production is facilitated through relational networks both within and between clusters.
Amin and Cohendet (2004, 86) summarise neatly such arguments when they state that it is misleading to “assume that knowledge falls into bundles organized along neat geographical scales and contours…Instead, [we] defines spaces of knowledge and learning in terms of the traces of corporate organization and communication – that is, as organized spaces of varying length, space, and duration…The spaces are defined by the contours and forcings of actant effort and by organizational architecture”. This reflects calls for analytical approaches that problematise scale-based analyses assuming geographies of economic, political and social practices delimited by bounded, discrete, spatial scales (Jessop, 2000; Marston, 2000; Massey, 1999). In their place, approaches recognising the fluidity, social construction and blurring of scale by practices such as learning are proposed. This requires a new form of spatial ontology to overcome distinctions such as local and global, as prescribed to local buzz and global pipeline learning, so as to recognise the simultaneous localness but also globalness of many practices. As Brenner (2001, 602, original emphasis) suggests:
Similarly, Dicken et al (2001, 90) believe that, “Too often a particular (for example local) or a bifurcated (for example local-global) geographical scale analysis is used in ways that, in effect, preclude alternatives and that obscure the subtle variations within, and interconnections between, different scales”. They therefore suggest a relational view of networks as a methodology for analyzing economic practices. This focuses upon the spatial networks and their socio-cultural constitution instead of scale bound, container like, delimitations of practices such as learning. Hess (2004, 176) pushes such an approach one stage further when he argues that the concept of embeddedness (Grannovetter, 1985) does not necessarily signify a locally scaled force. Instead, he argues “Globalization, then, is obviously not a process of disembedding based on mere market transactions and impersonal trust, but rather a process of transnational (and thereby translocal) network building or embedding, creating and maintaining personal relationships of trust at various, interrelated geographical scales”. This does not mean it is possible to discount the spatial subtleties and nuances in the organization of relational networks, but rather that it is more productive to explore the complementary methods used to embed such scale-transcending networks.
Local-Global Networks of Learning in Advertising and Law Firms
Advertising and law PSFs provide ideal candidates to explore the local-global dynamics of learning and to investigate the extent to which local buzz and global pipelines offer contrasting forms of learning. It is timely to explore the geographies of learning in advertising and law PSFs because of the increasing recognition of the vital role of all PSFs in the global economy and, in particular, in the knowledge economy (OECD, 2000; UNCTAD, 2004). As ‘lubricators’ of the economic activities of other capitalist actors, these firms provide knowledge-rich services to clients in the form of professional advice that enables the most effective management of business activities (Morris and Empson, 1998). For advertisers, this is advice to clients about how to effectively market products and solicit demand from consumers, whilst for corporate lawyers it is advice about how clients might complete major transactions that allow, for example, the merger of two firms or the financial restructuring of an existing business entity.
The importance of advertising as a global industry is demonstrated by the value of the combined annual revenue of the World’s 50 largest agencies. This totals over US$30 billion (Advertising Age, 2003) 3, much of which is concentrated in the top 10 firms (see table 1). London is well recognised as one of the key international centres of advertising expertise and activities (Grabher, 2001; Nachum and Keeble, 2000) with, p articularly during the early 1990’s, firms tending to locate themselves within the Soho district of the city. Grabher (2001) notes that the ‘ad village’ that emerged, although now becoming more dispersed throughout London, is a vital source of learning and knowledge for advertisers because of the social interaction and ‘buzz’ like conversation facilitated. New York plays a similarly important role in the global advertising industry. Leslie (1997) notes that, reflecting the trend in London, advertising agencies traditionally clustered around the thoroughfare of Madison Avenue in New York and, more recently, around the southerly districts of Manhattan’s cultural quarter (part of which is ironically called SoHo, an acronym for South of Houston Street). Here, individuals and firms again profit from interactions that allow collective learning in a similar way to in Soho, London.
Table 1 . The 10 leading global agencies by turnover.
Source : Advertising Age (2003); Fieldwork.
* Grey Worldwide was original part of the ‘Grey Global group’ but was acquired by WPP in 2005.
At the same time, Grabher (2001) and Leslie (1997) also note that globally stretched learning is equally important to the competitiveness of firms in London and New York. This is facilitated, in particular, by the global corporate networks of the global advertising agencies/groups working in each city. Firms such as Saatchi and Saatchi and McCann Erickson are at the centre of the advertising clusters in each city, as are the major media groups such as WPP and Interpublic that the global agencies are a part of (see table 1). Grabher (2002) describes how important inter-personal networks develop between individuals in different offices of global advertising firms and groups, thereby locating individuals in complex local-global webs of learning.
The clusters of legal PSFs in London and New York have, surprisingly, been less well explored in academic literatures and, despite their documented existence (The Corporation of London, 2003; Warf, 2001), uncertainty exists as to whether any form of collective learning occurs. Extant literatures reveal that London is an important location for the activities of global law firms and is also a highly interconnected location in a global network of legal practice. 17% of US law firms’ overseas offices are in London (Beaverstock et al, 2000), as are 16% of US law firms overseas workers (Warf, 2001), whilst a massive 80% of total FDI by US law firms is focused on London (Cullen-Mandikos and MacPherson, 2002)4. New York is recognized as similarly important for the activities of global law firms (Beaverstock et al, 1999; Warf, 2001). However, for both cities there is little, if any, literature that examines the affect of the clustering of legal PSFs and the potential it creates for collective learning, nor whether the global firms present, such as Clifford Chance and Baker and McKenzie (see table 2), benefit from globally stretched knowledge networks. This seems somewhat surprising and troublesome and is a void this study can begin to fill.
Table 2 . They key 20 global law firms as of January 2005.
Source : The lawyer (2004) and Fieldwork.
‘Buzzing networks’ in and between London and New York’s advertising and law clusters
This paper draws on insights gained from 58 interviews with advertisers and lawyers working for global advertising and global legal PSFs in London and New York. Interviews were conducted between September 2003 and June 2004, lasted between 30 and 80 minutes (50 on average), and were tape recorded and latterly transcribed. Interviewees were questioned about: the extent to which they talked to and learned from other advertisers or lawyers; what type of architectures (events) facilitated this learning; and the spatial reach of these interactions. The aim was, drawing on the network methodology outlined in the previous section, to understand the various spaces of learning without resorting to analyses of local versus global scales. To maintain anonymity, the quotes from interviewees used here are identified only by the prefix A for advertisers and L for lawyers and interviewee number.
Geographies of Learning
The advertisers interviewed confirmed extant suggestions, whilst lawyers illustrated the logical suspicion, that the clusters of each industry in London and New York result in a form of urban collective learning. The knowledge this produces is valuable because it informs decision making, strategy and understanding of the challenges all advertisers and lawyers working in each city’s marketplace share. Conversations focus upon pertinent issues such as, for lawyers, changes in legislation, and for advertisers, the reactions of consumers to recent adverts. As two interviewees described their conversations:
The importance of such buzz was reiterated by the majority of interviewees with, in particular, those with many years experience of working in London and New York having developed extensive contact networks that facilitate learning. The advantage of such learning comes from the opportunity provided to exchange experiences and ideas in relation to common topics, the result of which is new understanding informed by learning from the knowledge and insight of multiple parties. The quote from the following interviewee summarises well the opinion of all those interviewed:
In the same sentence, however, interviewees would often also describe the importance of conversations with overseas colleagues that prove equally valuable. For advertisers, spatially stretched conversations allow learning in relation to issues such as: the most effective way to deal with the affects of global media events on the behaviours of consumers throughout the World (e.g. the September 11 th terrorist attacks). For lawyers such stretched conversations deal with, for example, innovations in the structuring of cross-border deals. As one interviewees noted:
Again, whilst these conversations were most common for senior interviewees, all advertisers and lawyers placed value on intra-firm relational learning ‘networks’ that connected them to colleagues in overseas offices of the global firms worked for. When questioned, interviewees described almost identical benefits and learning processes for such globally stretched learning as for ‘urban’ buzz. As one interviewee described the value of globally stretched learning (and compare this to the previous quote in relation to the nature of ‘urban’ buzz):
Of especial interest here is the way interviewees described the architectures of both the ‘urban’ and ‘global’ conversations that together informed their work. A remarkable level of similarity emerged between the way advertisers and lawyers participated in conversations, regardless of whether they spoke to other members of the local cluster or an overseas colleague.
Inter-personal Networks of Learning
Various forms of interpersonal network facilitate learning from buzz in the advertising and law clusters in London and New York. One of the architectures of learning was a result of the internal churning of regional labour markets in each city (Keeble et al, 1999). The professionals interviewed had worked, on average, for three firms within London or New York during their career. Staying in contact with past colleagues was a valuable way of participating in discussions about shared advertising or legal challenges. This principally took the form of infrequent luncheon or after work meetings with, on average, interviewees having one meeting a week with a past colleague and meeting the same individual once every two or three months. Several interviewees suggested they would strategically arrange such meetings when they had a particular issue they wanted to share with, and ‘pick the brains’ of, a past colleague. As two interviewees described such meetings:
Such conversations were valuable because, as the second quote illustrates particularly well, they allow individuals to exchange ideas, experiences and the latest hear-say in relation to shared areas of interest. As suggested above and in extant literatures (Grabher, 2001; Leslie, 1997; Saxenian, 1994), this develops the ability of individuals and firms to respond effectively (in a ‘protean way’) to the latest client demands and evolving marketplaces. Of course, for advertisers and especially lawyers maintaining client confidentiality means it is not possible to hold conversations that reveal the details of a specific campaign or transaction. However, all interviewees agreed that it was possible to describe the situation without divulging confidential material, therefore still being able to hold a conversation at a level of detail that allows learning5.
In this sense, then, the bars and restaurants of London and New York are, as others have suggested, important for knowledge production through buzz. However, the empirical material suggests such meetings are not serendipitous encounters but, instead, planned interactions between previously familiar parties. This is a different dynamic to that often described in the creation of urban buzz. Indeed, of all the advertisers and lawyers interviewed, only two advertisers suggested they benefited from frequenting coffee houses, bars and other public places. However, this was not because of the other people they serendipitously met, but because of the inspiration gained from watching the general public and from being in a different environment to that of the everyday office. Consequently, all advertisers and lawyers agreed that chance encounters with individuals from rival firms or industries allied to advertising or law (e.g. design or finance) were of little significance in their daily lives. Part of the reason for this is, as interviewees regularly commented, that there is rarely time to frequent the local bars and restaurants surrounding the clusters in London and New York because of the pressures to complete projects6. Moreover, interviewees suggested they only wanted to have such conversations with ‘trusted confidantes’ (this is discussed further below), something that further meant serendipitous encounters were unproductive.
The lawyers interviewed did also have a number of non-transactional, untraded, relationships with professionals outside of the legal industry that provided an additional form of inter-personal network. The corporately orientated work of global legal PSFs means that it is essential to understand the thinking and norms of major financial institutions involved in, for example, the financing of the mergers and acquisitions global legal PSFs specialise in structuring. Consequently, the bars and restaurants were important places where lawyers would meet with professionals working for financial institutions to discuss the latest gossip, thinking and product development in large investment banks such as Merrill Lynch. This was beneficial as it provided insight into the factors likely to influence the success of attracting such institutions as clients or, in future transactions where the banks had a financial interest in a company, the key characteristics of an acceptable transaction structure from the banks point of view. However, again these interactions were not serendipitous, but instead planned and organized between individuals who already knew one-another. Lawyers developed such contacts by cultivating relationships with members of financial institutions involved in past transactions and staying in touch with past colleagues who leave to become ‘in house’ lawyers for financial organizations. They then arrange to meet, again both informally as friends but also strategically, when they believe they can gain from, as several interviewees put it, ‘bouncing ideas off on-another’. As one lawyer described this facet or urban buzz:
This quote highlights and important additional dimensions to such networks, the value gained in terms of insights into competitors strategies. As Rantisi (2002) described in relation to the fashion industry, keeping up with rival firms and both knowing about and, where appropriate, adopting and adapting their strategies is vital. This type of relationship was most important for experienced partners in the law firms studied. These individuals, in contrast to junior associates, had cultivated over time a wide network of contacts that formed part of the toolkit they used to maintain their position as a leading corporate lawyer. As past colleagues moved between law firms and financial institutions (something becoming increasingly common) these partners were able to tap into the ‘inside’ insights of the members of their relational network.
The empirical material also highlighted the fact that such interpersonal networks and meetings are not exclusively local architectures and practices of learning. Both advertisers and lawyers hold conversations with colleagues, but this time present colleagues working in an overseas office of the same firm, who form a network of overseas piers that are regularly spoken to and, based on the insights gained, learned from. All interviewees argued that such interpersonal networks regularly lead to discussions about issues of shared interest, thus allowing learning. They are formed in two ways. First, as a result of the cross-border project teams used in both advertising and legal PSFs to meet the needs of TNCs for integrated global services (Grabher, 2004). The constant formation and reformation of such teams, and the churching of individuals between teams, allows advertisers and lawyers to work, meet and develop friendships with a number of their overseas counterparts. As two interviewees noted:
As Grabher (2004) has shown, there is much greater complexity to this process of relational network formation, something that cannot be fully explored here except through a few key illustrations. For example, whilst the exchange of insights between individuals within teams is commonplace and extensive, most individuals only maintain one or two of the relationships once the team is disbanded and the project completed. Other networks quickly disintegrate. For those networks sustained, however, interviewees described how they spoke to their overseas colleagues at least once a week, sometimes to ask for specific advice, and other times for a general chat that might incidentally lead to an informative discussion that resulted in valuable learning. The second way of developing relational networks with overseas colleagues, the global practice group also demonstrates similar formation processes and degrees of complexity. In both advertising and law firms each individual is part of one or more practice groups which bring together individuals with shared lines of work (e.g. account planning in advertising and mergers and acquisitions in law). These more permanent teams also lead to the cultivation of a number on inter-personal networks that, through regular conversations outside of the formal activities of the practice group (which in themselves are valuable and are explored further below), lead to learning. As one interviewees noted about the value of regular conversations with overseas colleagues facilitated by the relational networks produced by these types of team:
Again, there is more complexity to these networks that the description offered here might initially suggest. Fore example, as with the ‘urban’ networks, relational networks with overseas colleagues take a significant amount of time to develop and, therefore, are most effectively used by more senior professionals. The temporal dimension to the development of global relational networks is explored further in the next section of the paper.
The empirical material suggests, then, that buzz from a network of piers has both urban and global geographies with slightly recalibrated, but fundamentally the same, organizing architectures. As described, learning, for the advertisers and lawyers interviewed, was based on a number of relational inter-personal networks that operate in the same way with the same benefits regardless of degrees of spatial proximity. Talking to fellow professionals with whom a long-term relationship has been nurtured is not, then, a practice that can be defined or delimited by scale or spatial (metric) categories and cannot solely be associated with the local scale. Moreover, the quality of the learning cannot be differentiated based on a scale register with both local and global relational networks having equal value. As the quotes used from interviewees show, there is no recognition of a qualitative difference in the form or nature of learning at different spatial scales. The next section builds on this idea to further highlight the scale transcending architectures of learning.
Coordinated Learning Events
The empirical material explored above also questions the importance of serendipitous encounters in the learning process, something that can be further reinforced by examining empirical material documenting the role of coordinated learning events and the scale transcending networks of buzz-based learning they facilitate. Conversations and meetings mediated through the professional associations for advertisers and lawyers in London and New York are key coordinated learning events facilitating buzz. In each city a number of professional associations exist. In London, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and Account Planning Group were regular mentioned by advertisers, whilst for lawyers The City of London Law Society and the Networking for Know-how group were important. In New York, advertisers drew attention to the role of the American Association of Advertising Agencies whilst lawyers described the importance of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.
For all of these professional associations, whilst have differing aims and structures, key activities include: lobbying regulators to promote the adoption of preferable legislation; providing guidance about management issues; and providing training to members in relation to common areas of need. To fulfil these roles, the professional associations use various forms on social gatherings that bring together individuals from a range of firms within the city’s they are based (i.e. London and New York). These events take the form of discussion forums, committee meetings and training events that take place on a frequency varying between weekly and quarterly. Those interviewees that participated in the activities of professional associations (42 out of the 58 interviewed) attend all events when they are less frequent but only selected events (on average once a month) when they are more regular.
One of the affects of such events is to facilitate the forging of new relationships between professional working at rival firms and, through the presence of several professionals in one room, the stimulation of conversations about shared challenges. This means the buildings of professional associations are filled with ‘urban buzz’ during the events organized. As interviewees described the benefits of professional associations for catalysing such buzz:
As these quotes highlight, professional associations provide a key forum where individuals with shared interests can come together and exchange insights and ideas, as a result learning from one-another. Whether it be a training event or formal committee meeting, individuals make use, in particular of the social time before and after meetings, to talk about the most recent changes in consumer behaviour or legislation that is affecting and/or problematising current work. Hearing the ideas and experiences of others is vital in developing a full understanding of topical and pressing issues in each industry. It is important to note, however, that whilst such co-ordinated learning events are valuable, there are important power dynamics that influence involvement in such learning forums. Of particular significance is the fact that the type of learning described occurs in ‘informal communities’ that are gelled together by close, collegial (some might suggest exclusive) relationships. The influence this has on the inclusiveness (or exclusiveness) of such learning is explored further in the next section of the paper and can account for the non-participation of some interviewees in the activities of professional associations.
Interviewees also described conversations with their overseas colleagues facilitated through similar coordinated learning events that bring together from throughout the World advertisers and lawyers working for the same firm. The global practice groups discussed earlier provide one form of coordinated learning event. Formal interaction between members principally occurs through (normally weekly) telephone conference calls but also through less frequent (normally annually) practice group conferences. During these virtual and face-to-face meetings, members of the group share experiences and ideas in relation to globally common advertising and legal challenges (e.g. how to deal with the effects of the September 11 th terrorist attacks; handling the types of issues that regularly come up in cross-border mergers). The ensuing discussions mirror, as the following quotes from interviewees suggest, those held at the professional associations in London and New York:
Needless to say, not all interviewees could effectively participate in such networks for a variety of reasons. The most important influence on this was the development of what many interviewees termed ‘close’ relationships with other members of the practice group. Both the practices involved in creating such relationships, and their importance for facilitating effective learning, are described below. It again becomes clear that time and seniority play a significant role in determining inclusion in relational learning networks.
The discussion this far suggests that the networks of learning, whilst being organized in slightly different ways, operate in fundamentally the same fashion both within clusters but also where stretched between them. For interviewees, it was the ability to learn from both urban and global buzz simultaneously (as well as from conversations with colleagues working in the same office), thus resulting in a synergistic form of learning, that was key to successfully meetings clients needs. They were, in effect, benefiting from being part of relational learning (buzzing) networks that reach within and between clusters and localities concurrently. Exploring the social spaces constituting these networks reinforces this idea and further highlights the scale transcending, rather than scale differentiated, nature of learning.
The embeddedness of learning networks
Describing the architectures of learning provides only part of the explanation of the success of buzz. Advertisers and lawyers interviewed suggested, as Bathelt et al (2004), Storper and Venables (2004) and others have argued, that the value added from buzz is a result of the ‘shared understanding’ and trust and reciprocity that embeds learning networks. It is vital to understand the social complexities underlying the collective learning architectures described above and, in particular in this paper, to explore the way such features develop scale transcending qualities that mean learning benefits from trans-local embedding and, therefore, similar learning experiences at local and global scales.
Interviewees suggested they had to be able to trust the judgment of those they spoke to and learned from and, in particular, be sure these individuals were not misleading them or failing to be reciprocal in the sharing of insights. Consequently, urban buzz produced through interpersonal networks was lubricated by trust produced in various ways. For interpersonal networks with past colleagues trust existed because of previously established relationships, whilst also being reinforced over time as individuals benefited from the advice and ideas gained in conversations. Meetings would only be held with those colleagues that had both been supportive and also professionally effective when working at the same firm. Inevitably, this meant that most networks were based on personal preferences and restricted to below ten people in number.
In the professional associations that facilitate learning, trust grows over time as regular attendees get to know one-another and form a community gelled together by reciprocal relations, the genuine helpfulness of other members and, consequently, the advantages gained from insights shared. Those who do not display such behaviours are quickly excluded from the type of relationships and interactions that produce buzz. The result is a form of self-selection which means that cohesive groups emerge that can be hard to break into. Junior professionals have to ‘prove’ their worth in terms of their willingness and ability to provide useful (experience and insight rich) input to discussions. As two interviewees described these trust-filled relationships and their importance in facilitating learning from buzz:
The outcome of developing such trust-laden relationships was both openness in discussions and a sense of security in the advice given. Interviewees felt confident in turning to these people for advice, believed that their discussion would not, as many interviewees put it, be ‘held against them’, and had confidence in the value and truthfulness of the opinions and ideas expressed by those spoken to.
It was similarly essential that the advice and ideas gained from non cluster based buzz could also be relied upon in the same way and, therefore, that relationships were again embedded in trust. The process of developing trust in overseas colleagues was a tri-part process that, although organized differently to the processes described above, had similar outcomes. First, trust developed over time and as a result of recurrent interactions in much the same was as it did in relationships producing urban buzz. As individuals became more acquainted with their overseas colleagues and learned from and benefited from the telephone interactions that produced global buzz, the trusting relationships were strengthened. A common theme to emerge from interviews was the importance of working towards developing the relationship and not letting disagreements or misunderstandings degrade trust that had been developed over time. All of the firms studied in this research had various strategies to help further smooth this process ranging from the formal (guides outlining how to develop relationships and deal with and recognise cultural differences) to the more informal (the use of activities that highlight the stereotypical cultures of each office as part of practice group conferences). As one interviewee described the importance of overcoming any challenges to developing ‘strong’ relationships:
Secondly, an important theme that also emerged from interviews was the way trusting relationships with overseas colleagues were reinforced by the security of speaking to someone working for the same firm. Maister (2003, 307) suggests a ‘one-firm-firm’ logic often exists in PSFs which encourages the trust and respect of all colleagues. This is based on the fact that in all PSFs both securing and then maintaining employment in the leading firms, such as those studied here, is only possible through a high level of profit generating professional performance7. The majority of interviewees reflected this idea and, whilst always being more cautious of previously unencountered individuals than well known colleagues, to some degree felt they could automatically trust overseas colleagues. This was most important within law firms and less accepted by advertisers. As one lawyer summarised such intra-firm social dynamics and the scale-transcending nature of the social (trust based) space that embeds buzz:
Again, this type of trust could be degraded if individuals developed a negative reputation within the firm or, at the individual level, if initial contact was unproductive and resulted in an unsympathetic and ‘non-collegial’ response from colleagues. Finally, to some degree trust in overseas colleagues was developed through face-to-face contact. Contrary to the argument put forward in some literatures (e.g. Morgan, 2004), interviewees suggested that occasional face-to-face encounters at practice group conferences or during business trips could cement relationships into trusting, reciprocal and socially embedded foundations that then smooth the non face-to-face, telephone based, learning. As two interviewees commented:
Developing trust through face-to-face contact was not, however, something all interviewees experienced uniformly. In particular, the expense associated with business travel has become even more controversial within many firms in recent times as, advertising agencies in particular, aim to reduce overheads and raise profitability. This has meant the number of face-to-face encounters between colleagues working in different parts of the World has reduced and that for junior professionals they are rare. This is most extreme in advertising firms where junior advertisers often commented that they only travelled to other offices (or to global meetings) every other year on average (in contrast to several times a year for senior executives). Lawyers travelled more regularly (up to 12 times a year for the most senior partners) but again junior associates travelled much less (normally between one and three times a year). This can impede the development of the type of trusting relational networks described above.
The empirical material reveals, then, that trust and the cultivation of trusting relationships is, again, not something that can be defined as scale restricted. In particular, arguments that suggest trust can only be produced through face-to-face contact (Morgan, 2004; Leamer and Storper, 2001) would seem to oversimplify the processes involved in developing trust and, therefore, cannot be extended to associate trust-based relationships with the local scale. This scale-transcending dynamic to embedded learning relationships is further highlighted below.
Mutual Understanding and Shared Cognition
Learning smoothed by trusting relationships is also only of value when it informs innovation and flexible responses to market conditions. As well as having socially embedded, trusting, relationships it is also vital that conversations are smoothed by the existence of the type of shared cognitive spaces explored earlier (e.g. Bathelt et al, 2004; Leamer and Storper, 2001). For advertisers and lawyers in London and New York such spaces exist because of the common professional interests of those interacted with as part of both ‘local’ and ‘global’ buzz. The majority of advertising and legal PSFs in London and New York serve marketplaces dominated by large (often global) corporate clients whose projects can involve budgets of millions of pounds or dollars. As a result, everyone faces similar challenges both in terms of client demands and market related issues (i.e. consumer responses to adverts and legislatives hurdles and changes). Meanwhile, whilst advertising and legal marketplaces have important and continued local specificities, there is some degree of similarity in the problems faced by all advertisers and lawyers throughout the World working for the type of global firms studied. The practices used to develop solutions also, therefore, have a degree of similarity (De Mooij and Keegan, 1991; Trubek et al, 1994).
Consequently, sense making, understanding and learning is facilitated in conversations between advertisers and lawyers within the same, and also located in different, cities throughout the World by the fact that individuals share: understanding of the challenges and likely solutions; experience of the practices involved in serving such a marketplace; aims and aspirations in relation to advancing both the industry and the products offered to clients; and understanding of the context, norms and conventions of service production and delivery. Blanc and Sierra (1999) refer to this as various forms of ‘relational proximity’. As four interviewees described this embedding force, the first two about the local dimensions and the second two the global dimensions:
These shared practices are, in particular, tied to the different professional roles in advertising and law firms (e.g. account planner or merger and acquisitions specialist). A common analogy used repeatedly by lawyers summarises this idea nicely. Interviewees repeatedly suggested (using variations on the theme) that, for example, a corporate lawyer in London has more in common with a corporate lawyer in New York that an immigration lawyer at London’s Heathrow Airport. The same idea was echoed by advertisers (i.e. two planners, one in London one in New York, have more in common than a planner and a creative both in London). Consequently, most learning took place between counterparts in the same role with little interaction between disciplines.
Discussion and concluding thoughts
The empirical material analysed in this paper reveals important similarities in the way ‘buzz’ is produced in learning networks that operate across both local and global scales. In particular: the architectures of learning are shown to be similar and produce scale-transcending networks of learning; planned interactions are shown to be more important than serendipitous encounters; and the exclusivity of shared cognitive space and trusting relationships to cluster-bound interactions is questioned by the empirical material that highlights the existence of such features at both local and global points in learning networks. Some of these findings might be particular to PSFs and, in particular, global organizations. However, it is also possible to draw out a number of wider insights in relation to the way we conceptualise the spatiality of learning and buzz. In particular, it suggests dichotomising local and global forms of learning as qualitatively different is misleading and that, instead, the socio-spatial networks producing buzz should be traced without preordained spatial ideals.
Cities in Networks of Buzz
There is growing recognition (Amin and Thrift, 2002; Hudson, 1999) that urban spaces cannot be adequately understood through spatial binaries or spatially (locally) constrained studies. In its place, studies of the porosity and fluidity of urban space are suggested. The findings presented in this paper indicate that, more than ever, the competitiveness of a city’s clusters is influenced by the tying-in of firms to organized spaces of learning that create networks of buzz with both local and global dimensions. This paper shows that such buzz produces valuable insights that allow the co-ordination of advertising and legal services based on the learning enabled by conversations with both ‘local’ and overseas piers. It highlights the importance of the synergism of insights in generating value-adding knowledge and, therefore, the impossibility of separating, in terms of value or substantive content, buzz produced by conversations at local or global points in learning networks. Whilst advertisers and lawyers would not want to be removed from the benefits of urban buzz, they would equally be disadvantaged if, as Bathelt et al (2004) and others suggest, global buzz was only a source of ‘nonincremental’ learning. Consequently, to paraphrase Graham (1998, 172), cities such as London and New York and the clusters within them are places where buzz is produced and exploited through “a complex co-evolution, articulation and synergy between place-based and telemediated exchange”. Therefore, “urban places [clusters] and communications networks stand in a state of recursive interaction, shaping each other in complex ways” (Graham, 1998, 174, original emphasis).
Networks of (Scale Transcending) Learning
Suggestions that the geographies of learning and knowledge should not be typified by scale based delimitations such as local-global (Allen, 2000) and instead be recognised as contested, fluid and dependent on the spatial organizational of learning practices (Amin and Cohendet, 2004) are reinforced by the findings of this paper. In particular, both the architectures and embedding spaces of buzz have been shown to be fundamentally the same at local and global points in learning networks, whilst always requiring the organization and nurturing of networks and relationships through which learning can be mediated. This organization relies on a range of practices to produce both the ‘embedded’ relationships and ‘shared cognitive space’ needed for learning, something that cannot simply be reduced to the ease with which face-to-face contact is possible. This does not mean there are not complex influences and how the relational networks emerge. In particular, the paper highlights how the development of such networks takes place over an extended period of time and also involves important socio-political dynamics that can both exclude individuals and complicate the development of embedded network forms.
Nevertheless, it seems wise to avoid the a priori association of socio-spatial practices such as learning with labels derived from a scalar ontology such as ‘local-incremental’ and ‘global-nonincremental’ (Jessop, 2000). This does not mean we should be insensitive to the subtle spatial variations when viewing learning as a network practices. Rather, we must avoid preordained scalar specification and delimitation of the networks by tracing the practices of, and constraints on, learning (Dicken et al, 2001). The empirical material reinforces the call made by Hess (2004) to decouple the idea of embeddedness from a local (territorial) fix by highlighting the complex ways socially embedded and constituted relationships and forms exist in relational, scale-transcending, networks.
The remit of this paper was to explore the opposition between ‘local buzz’ and ‘global pipelines’ that has come to represent the way learning and knowledge are discussed in relation to clusters. Through analysis of case studies of advertising and law PSFs in London and New York the paper helps further advance our understanding of both the spatial dynamics of learning and knowledge and the intermeshing of urban and global spaces in economic activities. In particular, it continues to move us towards an understanding of the local-global intersects of the knowledge production that make clusters successful and the relational networks that transcend scale-defined boundaries to allow this. From this perspective, distinctions between ‘local buzz’ and ‘global pipelines’ become problematic. At the same time, however, those promoting a relational framework (in particular Dicken et al, 2001) suggest being sensitive to the subtle spatial differences in such networks. Indeed, the descriptions of the networks provided in this paper highlight how the construction of embedded learning architectures requires different strategies depending on spatial reach (and also results in different forms on inclusion, exclusion and complexity). However, the ultimate outcome is the same regardless of the practices used to construct or the geographies of the networks: embedded relational learning networks that allow individuals to learn from one-another’s ideas and develop innovative, creative, solutions to clients needs. In this sense, it is very much relational proximity and the embedded interconnection of actors, not scale-bounded practices, which need to pre-occupy our analysis of the geographies of learning, knowledge and innovation. Applying this style of analysis to the ‘learning networks’ of non-global firms in clusters (e.g. single site small-medium enterprises) might provide further valuable insights into how the architectures and embeddedness of relationships involve learning emerge and operate across scalar boundaries.
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1. Pinch et al (2003) suggest this new knowledge is in the form of what they call ‘architectural knowledge’. This is knowledge of how to deal with common problems everyone working in an industry faces. They exemplify this by referring to the type of knowledge produced in Oxford’s ‘motorsport valley’. Here collective learning results in a shared understanding of, for example, aerodynamics issues and how best to produce effective body shell designs. Firms benefit from this knowledge but also apply ‘component knowledge’ to gain competitive advantage over local rivals who share this ‘architectural knowledge’. This component knowledge is firm-specific awareness of certain practices and manufacturing skills that are used in producing the final body shell. When combined with the collective architectural knowledge this results in a firm-specific interpretation of the challenge based on insights from both the collective architectural knowledge and also the firm-specific component knowledge.
2. Grabher (2001, 353-354) defines a heterarchy as a form of social organization. This has five characteristics the affect how the system operates: the tolerance of internal diversity; rivalry between members and groups; tags that define the rules and protocols used to condition understanding; project organization that allow for collaboration; and reflexivity that allows the appropriateness of assumptions to be challenged.
3. Based on data for 2002.
4. This process was, in part, driven by the deregulation of the Law Society in the UK in 1990 in what was referred to as the legal ‘big bang’. For the first time foreign practitioners were permitted to become registered lawyers on completion of transfer tests or, where the individual was suitably experienced, through an interview assessment (Cullen-Mandikos and MacPherson, 2002).
5. For a number of lawyers in particular, there was always concern that the type of conversations described above might be counter-productive. As one lawyer put it, “it’s a pride point… I’d be very surprised if someone from a big firm rang me and said ‘I don’t know what’s going on here’ I’d be very surprised, I mean I’d be rubbing my hands with glee” (6). This was a minority view (expressed by only five lawyers) but an important caveat to discussions about such extra-organizational interactions.
6. This is, for lawyers, in part a consequence of the way lawyers charge for their services. Clients are billed by the hour and, therefore, all lawyers are under pressure to put is as many billable hours as possible. On average, firms expect lawyers to bill somewhere in the region of 2000-2500 hours a year to clients. This works out at between 38 and 48 hours a week, excluding any holidays. With four weeks holiday this increases to 41 and 52 hours a week. However, particularly in New York, holidays were a privilege not an expectation and often not taken.
7. PSFs generally use the ‘up or out system’ (Morris and Pinnington, 2002) whereby individuals only secure and maintain employment if they demonstrate the potential to attract clients, develop in their level of competence and gradually gained promotion as a reflection of this, becoming partner within a set period of time. Those unable to ‘move up’ in the firm in this way are ‘forced out’, thereby ensuring everyone in the firm is a high performer.
Edited and posted on the web on 15th February 2006
Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Urban Studies, 44 (9), (2007), 1635-1656