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date: 09 July 2020

Handbooks, Swarms, and Living Dangerously

Abstract and Keywords

In discussing the ‘official history’ of Critical Management Studies (CMS), which in its capitalized form is said to date from 1992, Grey and Willmott engaged in some mixing of their metaphors when they suggested that it had become an ‘identity, badge or brand’ that had ‘chimed with a series of developments within the business and management research community’. CMS signified, within ‘a receptive climate’, an ‘unfolding of a conceptual umbrella that has been found useful in those engaged in seemingly unrelated projects to recognize some family resemblances’. As a term, its adoption is an ‘embryonic form of institutionalization’ that has provided certain advantages. Firstly, it is not directed at any particular management specialism; secondly, it is concerned with studies, not study, suggesting ‘diversity and fluidity’; and thirdly, it may be rendered critical of both ‘studies’ and of ‘management’. This text is a useful articulation of the context, but, if one undertakes multiple readings, one is struck by the valorized imagery quietly drawing upon imaginary rural shelter, family, and babies.

Keywords: critical management studies, institutionalization, business research, management specialism, diversity, business development


Intriguingly, one meaning of the word “Handbook” is a betting shop, a book-making establishment in nineteenth-century USA, particularly in New York, where gambling could take place on prospective winners and losers of races. “Wall Street” in the early years of the twenty-first century has acted as a Handbook of significant proportions and so too has the “City of London.” These metonyms of place, by standing in the stead of naming organized congregations of bankers, traders, and their professional acolytes, serve only to obscure what has gone on in these spaces. Metonyms allow reification of the system and mask the huge gambles that have been taken by the managers of money within “casino capitalism.” And yet, these “masters of the universe” seem to have secured their own position, even as their companies went bust. But within the current circumstances of fiscal and economic crisis, by plundering their own companies in the last dying days of solvency, these institutional executives finally render themselves visible and open to questioning. Henry Waxman, Chair of the House oversight committee, asked Lehmann Brothers (p. 552) CEO, Richard Fuld on October 7, 2008, “Your company is bankrupt; you keep $480 million. Is that fair?” So, as I write this piece in autumn 2008 for one Handbook, it is not totally clear who will under write the losses of those who have populated the other “Handbook.” One suspects it will not be the finance capitalists. Despite the neo-conservative doctrine of the sanctity of the market, if the state does not show its immediate and generous willingness to bail out all corporate victims, the market within the Anglo-American model of capitalism (and beyond) now crashes and renders itself non-functioning. Surely, the notion of the “market,” in whose ideological shadow critical management studies has grown up (Parker 2002), cannot escape from this crisis un-besmirched?

So, then, can this Handbook allow us to critique that Handbook? Is this financial, economic, and political crisis about to launch a golden age for critical management studies? On reading these chapters on contemporary issues and topics, one can see that “critical management studies” (CMS) has a role to play in the modern world as we confront it. True, Rowlinson et al. in Chapter 14 remind us that “the modern world” is itself a difficult notion, and Morgan and Spicer in Chapter 12 do point to the importance of not overestimating how much change has occurred to it, yet we must stabilize the point from which we begin, however difficult that task is. The origins of the “critical project,” of course, go back into the Enlightenment and, it has to be noted well, to its unremitting anti-clerical stance. Scherer in Chapter 2 does quote Kant's argument that a “lack of resolve and courage” to use understanding “without guidance from another” was a sign of immaturity. Yet, Scherer does not make anything of the fact that the source of unwanted guidance was, most often, the priesthood. Religion and the priests were the enemy within. Against them, were pitted Reason and Rationality whose objective was to come to understand how people believed what they did and with what consequences. “Critical” in the tradition of “Critique” means inter alia, that our work within the human sciences should be investigative, incisive and iconoclastic. It should be revelatory (c.f. Reed in Chapter 3). The University of Leicester School of Management's “Statement of Intent” put the elements of CMS this way:

Critique is about power and its distribution. Without a sense of power and its use, and of the politicization of the social world, there can be no serious critique in place. To ask questions about how power is conceptualized, how it is measured, how it is reproduced and how it might be challenged is itself a political act.

Critique is about being iconoclastic and challenging the dominant icons and prevailing sets of imagery of the present day. Potent symbols such as that of the organisational “leader,” for example, may well be seen as having an iconic status that needs considerable analytical attention. The intention of this analysis is subverting the concept itself. No icon is above critique. No symbol is beyond being unmasked.

Critique is about knowledge and the bases upon which our knowledge claims are erected. Upon what foundations do claims to scientific and everyday knowledge rest? The critical approach to knowledge has behind it the idea that conventional forms of empirical science (p. 553) are more likely to be locked into superficial acceptance of the taken for granted, and less likely to look for ontic depth or epistemological complexity.

Critique encourages an approach from the researcher which is investigative. Here, the role and behavior of the ruling elites is subjected to close scrutiny, with the aim of bringing onto the public agenda items the powerful might prefer to remain unexamined. This concern to provide new agendas, and to ignore perhaps the agenda that is laid out by the “establishment” because it is seen as deeply suspect, is a crucial part of the investigative role played by the “critic.”

Critique is also about some vision, call it Utopian if you will, of a better, more human future. Of course, critical theorists will differ about the nature and parameters of such a better world but they do at least possess one. The creation of a Critique of what currently exists as paramount reality, perforce has behind it an image, however vague, of a world that is better on the dimensions identified in the critique. To criticize implies that it could be better. To critique creatively is only possible if one has at the back of the mind a hazy image of a utopian world.

Critique, if done properly, is also driven by a sense of intellectualism. That is, the power of the set of ideas being used has had some revelatory effect upon the user. Of course, it would be foolish to believe that every student or reader would have the same liberatory experience as the author when confronting new ideas and methods and frameworks for the first time. But “critique” is driven in part by the desire to teach, to spread the word, to engage in debate and contestation and to proselytize. It believes in education. Critics believe that education means e-ducere: to lead out by the illumination of new ideas.

Critique, above all then, was and is “oppositional.” The concept that ties all these six strands together is that of continual challenge to the powerful, the orthodox, the iconic, the Panglossian; in short what Deleuze and Guattari called “Royal Science.” Of course, this leads to a nice paradox in that the concept of “critical management studies” itself has to follow such a path and therefore has also to be critiqued and opposed. The critique of our critique has to be welcomed and celebrated as a part of permanent opposition. (2004: 6)

This position of permanent opposition is one that hopefully informs the rest of this chapter.

In Search of Permanent Opposition

In discussing the “official history” of Critical Management Studies, which in its capitalized form is said to date from 1992 (although those like Spicer, Alvesson, and Kärreman (forthcoming) and Wood and Kelly (1975) might disagree), Grey and Willmott (2005: 3–5) engaged in some mixing of their metaphors when they suggested that CMS had become an “identity, badge or brand” which has “chimed with a series of developments within the business and management research community.” It signified within “a receptive climate” an “unfolding of a conceptual (p. 554) umbrella that has been found useful in those engaged in seemingly unrelated projects to recognize some family resemblances.” As a term, its adoption is an “embryonic form of institutionalization” which has provided certain advantages. Firstly, it is not directed at any particular management specialism; secondly, it is concerned with studies, not stud y, suggesting “diversity and fluidity”; and thirdly, it maybe rendered critical of both “studies” and of “management.”

This text is a useful articulation of the context but, if one undertakes multiple readings, one is struck by the valorized imagery quietly drawing upon imaginary rural shelter, family and babies. Contra Spicer, Alvesson, and Kärreman's (forthcoming) contention that CMS enjoys darker metaphorical constructs, it is the sheer homeliness of the metaphorical range in Grey and Willmott (2005) that is quite striking. In and through this imagery, CMS is domesticated.

On the other hand, Parker's imagery of the CMS field is much more urban and post-watershed. Management is “fucking” or at least to be stood “against.” True, the epithet within critical management studies of “management” is undoubtedly problematic, but for me (and methinks Parker) CMS does not mean “we hate managers.” Several factors might be pointed out in rejection of this easy identification of the Other. Firstly, managers are often as much victims of the system as are the laborers. Secondly, management is an activity that most of us undertake sooner or later, and we tend to turn our faces against self-loathing. Thirdly, managers themselves engage in (uncapitalized) critical management studies. Keenoy, in Chapter 22, offers the view that when it is said within corporate-speak that “people are our most valuable resource” this is met with “cynicism, ridicule, and disbelief.” They are met with such scorn, of course, not only by knowing academics but also by managers and employees alike. Ask yourself what are the best-selling management texts of the last ten years? They are in fact the Dilbert books by Scott Adams. He uses his own MBA to market and control the cartoons, certainly, but what he provides is a “truth” about US and Western European management which resonates with his middle management readership. This demand for realistic insight as to how management itself is hierarchically controlled is enormous. Middle managers in large numbers read Dilbert and know that their organizations are and can be like those that Adams (and Ricky Gervais in The Office) depicts. Johnson and Duberley in Chapter 17 opine that CMS will be judged to the extent to which it enables freedom from oppression within organizations. As part of the “criteriology” for which these authors search, perhaps the life-affirming sardonic humour that Dilbert represents is a sparkling fragment of just such a critical management studies. The academic community of CMS could surely build more upon this folk understanding of life in the organizations of late capitalism. Critical management does not have to be sold cold to an unwilling mob of otherwise “occupied” MBAs. In this view, as Karen Legge so beautifully puts it, one is merely throwing real pearls before real swine. On the contrary, however, CMS can resonate constructively with an interested and possibly receptive audience. There (p. 555) is discernible upwelling of critical concerns within the managerial audience (as well as in those more managed-against than managing), not least because of the individuated consequences of the collapse of the money markets at the time of writing.

In moving on, let us please note that it is always easier to write something that is different, than it is to do something that is different. Of course, “writing” is always a form of “doing” (Fleming and Sturdy 2003) and if done properly it remains a difficult task, even at the level of the 4, 000-word article. Yet, it should be recognized that as academics, we inhabit privileged positions, stoutly bounded by the notion of academic freedom from which it is possible to say and write much without dread fear of retaliation. This privilege, however, needs constant defence. My institution's previous Chair of University Council opined: “Academic freedom? That's a much over-rated concept, Gibson.” In the light of such attitudes to university values, one unrecognized yet salient issue for the prospects of CMS within Britain is the structures, systems, and administrative staff locked into and behind university councils. No doubt, there will be an equivalent institution in perhaps all nation states with established university systems. As employed members of a university, critical management scholars, like their opposite numbers, tend to know remarkably little of how their organizations are actually run. Senates have increasingly become overshadowed, in the vast majority of British institutions of higher education, by the power of councils, usually made up of local worthies, often from the business community and the legal, property development, and accounting professions which serve it. For scholars of my hoary generation, councils increasingly flex their muscles compared to how it was in the “glorious” early 1970s when the academic community made its own decisions. Yet Shattock (2006) has shown how we are returning to something closer to the situation in the early twentieth century when local commercial involvement in universities was the norm and was highly successful in having “provincial” universities recognized by the State. The power of the Wills tobacco family and the Fry chocolate dynasty in getting Bristol established as a university in 1904 is but one example. Irrespective of the relevance of long-term historical cycles here, CMS now faces a problem that we, currently employed in the profession, have not faced before. Namely, closer and closer linkages of power with the business and commercial sector are being mooted which Knights touches upon in Chapter 7. The British Treasury, through its regime of funding of HEFC and beyond, ensures closer mimicry of American university/commercial practices, and all the research councils, including ESRC and thence AIM, follow in train. It was the University of which Shattock was Registrar, of course, that pioneered this (re)turn to commercial connectedness, adopting the guise of “Warwick University Ltd.” Now this may not be surprising news to anyone within the business school community, but I hope they are aware that it is precisely this commercial connectedness which has led to the appointment of those members of university councils with particular business skills to specifically enhance this (p. 556) university/commercial networking. At the same time, as noted above, the power of council has overtaken that of senate. Our work in schools of management is increasingly accountable to local and regional business. However, it is important that we note here that university vice chancellors cannot be expected to delight in this shift in power to councils, for whilst VCs often carry the respect of their senates, they find local and regional businessmen and -women less likely to share in the values of international research, academic freedom, and the fine honing of a critical edge.

In relation to this set of organizational changes, going on largely unnoticed around us, let me speak here briefly about some problems encountered in attempting to develop a community of scholars committed specifically to research and teach “critical management studies.” I used elements earlier from Leicester's “statement of intent” in its attempt to develop CMS, but now is time to look at the outcomes. At the same time as we were recruiting to this project, Willmott (2006) and Grey and Willmott (2005: 10–12) were discussing the institutionalization of CMS within the business school community. They argue that this “success” comes in part from the norms of academia (with publication in peer refereed journals) being met by CMS scholars who, for their deans, may “compensate” perhaps for the “trade” orientation of their other research inactive, consultancy-orientated colleagues. They maintain that whilst “CMS relies for its existence upon the business schools which it critiques,” in contradiction, “they are also the place from which CMS is most likely to exert whatever influence it may be capable of having” (Grey and Willmott 2005: 11).

Before dealing with the internal university reception of our collective efforts “within the business school,” let me just mention the “external view” of building a department around notions of critical management studies. What we attempted at Leicester was recognized in print in the June 2007 issue of Long Range Planning, where a piece by Don Antunes and Howard Thomas entitled “The Competitive (Dis)Advantages of European Business Schools” (pp. 382–404), spoke in supportive terms of what our departmental aims and objectives were. Elsewhere in the system, however, who-knows-what-gossip passes between colleagues about any other sister institution. Gossip keeps the wheels of interest moving of course, and the only thing worse than being gossiped about perhaps, is not being gossiped about. Nevertheless, we might remember that Professor Robin Wilson said of his father, the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, that “he used to joke that there was too much back-stabbing in academia, so he went into politics instead.” And so there is, even within the CMS project.

Within the university however, in the face of the everyday ontology of being in “a business school,” it was considerably harder to do critical management than to write about critical management. “Doing” is different from writing because it is about day-to-day administration and living with and through (and contrary to) “critical management” tenets. As Wray-Bliss argues in Chapter 13, individual (p. 557) managers (and their staff) draw upon a wide range of competing ethical demands in their striving to be morally acceptable to themselves and their colleagues. A head of a university department is fully implicated in this moral maze, and should contemplate the horror of the tensions regularly. Not least, tensions might arise because some critically orientated staff seem to want to treat their own work colleagues in quite conventional (i.e., punitive and hectoring) managerialist ways. Whilst Newton in Chapter 6 talks of the problematic nature of an “idealized view of nature” one often finds that colleagues have eschewed such idealized notions of humanity by the end of their first academic staff meeting. In my own institution, despite a vice chancellor who was broadly supportive, there was a huge threat perceived in one of “their” departments being attached to “the critical project.” This threat was seen to be both financial and ideological. Our financial performance was constantly monitored for signs that the project was adversely affecting recruitment. Our agents abroad were encouraged to question the effect that the word “critical” might have on MBA recruitment in, say, “the Middle East.” There was constant surveillance of the school's website for hints of rude or challenging words and intense scrutiny of the internal workload model which created space for younger probationary lecturers (“you are not getting enough out of them”). There was brutal, unsophisticated politics in confrontations with council and its senior members, who tended, even today, to identify themselves with Thatcherism. There was pressure, through a constant drive to increase income, to ride roughshod over deep departmental concerns about working with companies with highly questionable ethics (c.f. Wray Bliss in Chapter 13). There was an intemperate relationship with the professoriate in economics, which, in its interdepartmental struggle with us, constantly characterized the school to university committees as anti-management. Yet, in some ways this pressure made some staff feel that the project could only be worthwhile if it was generating such hostility from such sources. Our struggle to secure resources, of course, is the conflict where the school was and is most vulnerable. One can have clear lines of argument in institutions built upon the foundations of the Enlightenment project, namely reason and rationality, but after the debate is over and closed committees make their financial decisions, then “critique” loses its force. Notwithstanding McClellan and Deetz in Chapter 21, power stands outside of debate and dialogue when it suits it.

This is why, for British scholars, there is an investigative possibility. There is a case for much more research to be done on the role, within a network of formal and informal arrangements, of the British Treasury in contemporary institutional life. Here within its newly designed open-plan offices, decisions are made about the past, present and future Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), about university funding across Britain, through the mechanism of the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) on one hand, and the research councils on the other; about student support and the level of student/parent contributions, about population targets and the role of higher education in the economy. Yet, as scholars what do (p. 558) we know about the Treasury's structure, staffing and strategies? How does it fit within a wider regime of educational, financial political and business structures? Critical management studies should investigate that which affects its activities and that which governs the lives of British citizens: and the Treasury seems like a good place in which to carefully insert an iconoclastic inquiry.

The opprobrium I face here, of course, is one based on the charge of parochialism and of starting from the narrow, self-interested concerns of academics. Howcroft in Chapter 19 argues that IS research is marked by a distinct parochialism and that this is an ever-present danger. Surely, might say the critic, these institutions of higher education and their funding from the state are minor themes in the scheme of things? Just look at the broad and significant topics discussed here in this Handbook. Surely, they might continue, it is the issues of global capitalism that CMS should be addressing, rather than gaze at its own institutional locus. Of course this is correct—but only to a point. Thomas in Chapter 8 talks of the absent dialectic between the “self” and the “social,” so that CMS faces a situation in which individuals allegedly do not connect their own lives lived in “private” to global events “broadcast” on the 24-hour news channels. What mechanisms link the world economy to our own doorsteps, and analytically, can they be traced? Thomas goes on to remind us that those excluded from the ontological security of the world may be so because they lack a clear identity. I would wish to make the point that security often comes from obscurity rather than identity. Individuals hide behind many masks. Some institutions seek public obscurity in order to secure their power., and if we were to investigate the British Treasury in some concerted way, it might be possible to uncover the meso-level connections between the macro and the micro, the self and the state, our home and the globe, the secure and the obscure, between discourse and materiality (Grant et al. in Chapter 10), between human life and the world's environment (Newton, Chapter 6). Institutions that network with the Treasury might all be rendered more open to investigation. The priestly caste of Whitehall mandarins, with their origins, education, networking, and habitus, all darkened in club-ish obscurity, might be the focus of our anti-clericalism.

Living Dangerously

However, returning to the history of management studies, and the “embryonic institutionalization” of CMS that Grey and Willmott identified, what worries me about “doing” in the context of “critical management studies” is the real temptation for us to establish yet another new but empowered class of priests who defend a nativity story, a litany and a set of beliefs in the time-honoured way. As pointed out (p. 559) earlier, in Grey and Willmott (2005: 3) there was an effort to identity the moment of birth of the “capitalized phrase Critical Management Studies” placing it in ad 1992. If I may say so, as a contributor to that particular edited collection and to the Studying Management Critically book that built heavily upon its foundations, it seemed to me then that this was not so much the originary point of a “movement” but more part of an ongoing problematization of the institutions and the curricula in and with which individuals worked and continue to work. Beginnings are notoriously difficult to identify in the world of social science, for such a notion of “a point of origin” is a product of the valorization of stasis rather than of dynamics; it is the overvaluing of “structural” rather than “processual” thought, and if identifying points of origin is dangerous, so too is the way in which we begin to treat criticism of the “movement.” That is to say the new clerics tend to establish a church (perhaps even Establish a Church) that gradually inures itself to outside criticism and then, once sealed off, turns inward to weed out the heretics. If you ask me for concrete examples of this, as Mats Alvesson has done in his comments on my first draft of this article, I think we, the church elders, came too close to that unreflexive and establishment position when dealing with published reviews of Studying Management Critically (c.f. Ferdinand, Muzio, and OʼMahoney in Organization Studies 2004: 25, 1451–1465 and Willmott's response in the same journal, published as “Muddling with CMS” in 2005: 26, 1711–1714).

The problem of turning inward is that it displaces desperate political struggles with the enemy into a bickering politics of the hearth. Thus, Ezzamel and Robson in Chapter 23 speak of critical accounting as “an area riven with rancour, dispute and intellectual fissures.” OʼDoherty and Thompson entitle one of their sections in Chapter 5 as “Territory, Tensions and Tantrums.” And Banerjee et al. in Chapter 9 talk of the “philosophical parlor games” characterizing the study of global capitalism. Thus, the debates that are generated inside the community and adjudicated upon by the senior priests are often at the cost of investigation, incision, and iconoclasm. These debates may still be able to deal with Fournier and Grey's three interrelated core propositions for CMS, namely, de-naturalization, anti-performativity, and reflexivity (Fournier and Grey 2000) but these propositions, however important to theorizings, can sometimes appear more to be intellectual moves of the senior common room than the yare actions in the face of the enemy (Thompson 2004). They prepare us not for confrontation with those who would see CMS forced outside the institution and “onto the cobbles” but merely produce “minor domestics” between us. The “othering” process by which our enemies should be identified and addressed becomes limited to a selection of only those closest to us.

Also worrying as a prospect is the point made in Chapter 10 by Grant et al. (in quoting Thrift 2004) that under capitalism, “the field is periodically restructured into a new configuration of profitability.” The field, of course, to which the current Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University here refers, is that of the ever-changing (p. 560) actions and strategies of those in business and management positions (cf. Morgan and Spicer in Chapter 12). But what if this observation again refers to ourselves? Spicer, Alvesson, and Kärreman (forthcoming) argue that:

Although CMS was seen as an esoteric and marginal project fifteen years ago, it has recently achieved the status of an institution (Willmott 2006), with a strong presence in at least UK academia. It has a bi-annual conference, specialist conference streams, text books, and collections of classics. (Adler, Forbes, and Willmott 2008)

Does this commodification not faintly suggest that we are attempting to restructure the field in order to provide a new configuration for ourselves to exploit? Re-branding of industrial sociology and industrial relations, and active branding of labor process theory and Marxian political economy, have all taken place. Changes have been forced upon colleagues, as in, for example, the bloodless and consensual changes at Warwick from “industrial relations” to “employment relations,” or the very public and bloody attempts at restructuring “management studies” at Keele University in 2008. Life in the “ivory” tower perforce transforms when the precious stuff of which the tower is built is subject to an effective and heavily policed international ban. New materials, new markets, new products, new price structures, new international conferences, new concepts, new posts are all sought for our updated wares. Saren and Svensson in Chapter 18 are more alive to these issues than many of us perhaps, when they point out the need for self-critique. As in marketing, it is our own systems of categories that should themselves be treated with suspicion. Can we take the time for the terms de-naturalization, anti-performativity, and reflexivity themselves be denaturalized, rendered non-performative and reflected upon? We must critique the critique for, by not doing so, we fall back on the myth of progress (WOBS 2001: 1592) Is it not possible that our own labors of division, our own categorical imperatives, get rather more in the way of analysis than they aid it? Might it be that we are not offering a new Enlightenment, a new form of progress, a freedom from the accursed priests? Should we not merely offer “negations” (Marcuse 1968) whereby the challenge is to question the present and provide permanent anti-clerical opposition.

Swarms and Handbooks

As Ashcraft says in Chapter 15, trends that appear incontrovertible to us whilst seated in the safety of an academic office, in actuality, “swarm with variation.” In other words, like everyone else's, our concepts are reductive and represent oversimplifications. I end this small piece, not in offering an appreciation of what the Handbook contains in its entirety, but in reflecting upon the charming (reductive, (p. 561) over-simplifying) notion of “swarm” which has stayed with me. The Handbook contains not one coherent projection of one single project carried on into the future but, instead, a swarm of possibilities (Engestrom 2006: 1784–6). Depending on the observers' point of view, the swarm could be seen as in search of the “same thing.” One observer of the Handbooks swarm will note the unidirectional appearance of the group moving en masse as if it was a “smart mob.” Another will see the multitude adopt a tell-tale characteristic movement as their congregation engages in simultaneous followership of a “runaway object.” A third will be able to spot no central command, no leadership to this assembly, only that it appears crowded and throng like. Yet another observer will recognize that the dense crowd is held together by a faint whisper through which it strenuously suppresses its differences. Tension fills the air. Outside the summery collective throng, individual organisms would happily assault each other. The swarm disperses., and then they do.

So the Handbook is a swarm, but so too are the gambling dens we call financial markets and so too are academic departments. None are subject to Reason and Rationality—except as ideology. Collective efforts are sometimes rewarded, but on other days individual organisms will happily assault each other and feast greedily on the bodies. If you want to see this phenomenon in the United Kingdom, just wait until the RAE results come out. The issue, we are told by those in the Wall Street and Canary Wharf Handbook, is the collapse of “trust.” Handbooks of whatever kind are built on trust, and therefore, we should be grateful that the authors and editors have worked together thus far to make such an en masse movement around Critical Management Studies possible. In some ways, this swarming behind what is, after all, a runaway object is even graceful and pleasing on the eye.


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