HR in 2037: Organisation Development for Robots


Over few months James Traeger and I have been busy, we have been writing a book on organisation development and we are nearing the completion of our first draft. Here is what James has to say about our project:

My colleague Rob Warwick and I have been commissioned to write a book about Organisation Development. We are delighted and daunted by the prospect. We want to write a kind of ‘truth about OD’ handbook: it’s all very well what it says in a text book but, what’s it like for real, when we get our hands dirty? And what might become of the world in general, and the world of work in particular, that might shake up our settled (and possibly self-satisfied) view of what we do?

This made us think quite broadly about not just the past, our stories of practice as they have been, but what might become of us. It invited us to imagine not just the last couple of decades of practice, but the next couple as well. What would the world of organisations be like in, say 2037?

To help us with this, we invited some fictional characters into the story. The first to arrive was Jas. He is in his seventies by then, and has had a long and more or less successful career in this world. Jas was followed by Winona, a younger woman, very much at the outset of her working life, who actually is, as it turned out, what they call an ‘MG’ – a mixed genotype. This means that Winona is part human and part android. One of the most striking things we discovered about Jas and Winona’s world is that androids and humans co-inhabit the workplace.

There is no ‘I’ in Robot

This may sound like a strange idea. It does shake up our view of people, work and organisations. That is the point. What does it do for our understanding of the future of OD, for example, when Jas finds himself confronted by a client, a global shipping organisation, that has finally decided to outsource all of its manual work to androids? Imagine hundreds of enormous merchant vessels sailing all over the world, with no people on them. It sounds like a dystopia, but one that may well be a reality quite soon. Indeed, the technology for this is available now.

This is an age-old challenge facing humanity, in fact, it’s one we had to grapple with ever since we started to make and use tools. In the words of phenomenologist Maurice Meleau Pointy, who investigates the nature of the self explained:

“When a blind person holds a white stick, where do they in fact exists, in relation to this object? How far does their ‘self’ extend into the world? Where does their familiar stick become part of them? Is it at the end of the stick, where it hits the pavement, or at the junction between their stick and their hand? Or halfway down?”

Spot the difference: Drones and video conferencing

Thinking of robots, androids and non-humans in the workplace is asking us to confront confused and confusing notions of what constitutes ‘us’, our ‘selves’. These notions are likely to become even more confusing as our interrelationship with technology shifts. This will no doubt affect our notions of self, work and organisations in profound ways. To illustrate further, here are a few thought experiments to consider.


When a drone pilot controls a drone that is flying thousands of miles away, where in fact are they? Do they exists, both in the windowless room in the middle of the desert in the United States, as well as somewhere in the sky over Afghanistan, connected as it were, by a thin filament of self that stretches between?

Video conferencing

When our colleague joins us in a business meeting, whilst she is in Rome, and we are in a room together in London, where in fact is she? With us in the room, at her kitchen table, or is she in fact constructed somewhere on a server in Ireland or California?

One hundred years ago, when automobiles were in their earliest stages of development, there wasn’t yet an agreed convention for the interface between the human and the vehicle. The Model T Ford had the three pedals we might recognise, but instead of an accelerator, brake and clutch, two of the pedals actually operated the gears. By the 1920s manufactures had more or less settled together on the interface that we know now to be familiar. Perhaps this is indicative of the likely evolution of virtual interfaces that we use, like Skype, Zoom, Webex etc? Perhaps the convention for interconnectivity is yet to be developed, and will one day be as familiar to us as the controls of a car.

Adapting is not a technicality

These thought experiments point out that the human/technological interface is an ever-evolving phenomenon, one that we have been adapting to for centuries, millennia even. As far back as the mythical time when Oedipus was invited to solve the riddle of the sphinx, which asked ‘what walks on four legs, then two legs then three?’ (You can try and solve it yourself, or of course you can google it).

Donna Harraway wrote the Cyborg Manifesto in the 1980s. In it she suggested that people– and women in particular– have been in fact liberated by this technological interface, but not always in altogether positive or predictable ways. An example is Rosie the Riveter, the cartoon poster of the 1940s which was created to encourage American women to join the war effort. In the picture, Rosie is depicted as a strong young woman, flexing her biceps, under the slogan ‘We can do it!’ We presume by her epithet that she is technologically enhanced by the rivet gun she wields to assemble vast bombers for the air force. Ironically, these bombers are then deployed against the cities full of women and children just like her. It is an unsettling image of the complex relationship that humans have, and will continue to develop with technology. The next turn of this relationship will no doubt be equally liberating and troubling.

Upset your thinking for greater perspective

What happens when we are surrounded by artificial intelligences, androids with whom we can converse, collaborate and even cohabit? What happens when bio-medical advances finally sever the inevitable distinction in procreation between women and men? These are other less imaginable challenges will be vested upon us, our communities and indeed our workplaces over the next quarter century, and will no doubt make the revolution we have just witnessed over the invention and development of the internet look like a mere bump in the road.

So the purpose of bringing Jas and Winona into our story of Organisation Development has liberated our thinking, hopefully in the same way that Rosie symbolised the unpredictable, unsettling liberation of American women. We wanted our thinking around the past, present and future of OD to be upset, in order that a greater perspective could be engendered.

The educational tour and gift shop – No thank you!


Multiple shades of the Sussex countryside viewed from the Bothy at Standen House

I’ve got a confession to make. I don’t like reading management and leadership literature. Well, a lot of it. I should explain, my interest is in everyday experience and how we think, talk and write about it and how this might be of use to others. Sometimes this feels lonely, so it was wonderful to take part in ‘Voicing Experience: The 4th British Conference of Autoethnography’ conference at the University of Sussex this week. I know why kids complain when they are taken to stately homes and gardens, their hands tightly squeezed and marched along the most educationally economic route, to stand still in front of pictures and rooms belonging to long dead people. Look but don’t touch. And where lawns are not for running on. It seems to miss the point. I’m talking about my own experience here. And it is this that I react against in much management and leadership writing. As readers we get drawn predictably through introduction, methods, findings only to end up in the ‘gift shop’, that of the succinct conclusion. As writers (again I’m talking about myself) we are pushed to make our contribution clearer and clearer. In exploring experience, conclusions are often not clear, we have provisional ways forward that bring with them mixtures of hope and doubt. Sometimes we are just confused. Like a child I want to run about, play in the gardens, pick things up and bounce up and down on the sofas. I want to take fragments of insights gathered on my haphazard path and to relate these to my own interests and experience. This is perhaps why I am drawn to ethnography, a way of research that offers the textures and complexities of everyday life, from which we all might explore and rummage. The conclusions that we draw are tentative and created by ourselves with a gentle nudge and support from the narrator. I see this way of working most vividly in sociology and anthropology, but it has yet to fully catch on in leadership and management. A couple of things struck me at the conference: the variety of experiences we talked about; and, the variety of ways we talked about experience. What might management and leadership education be like if we adopted similar approaches? Perhaps being more tentative and less dogmatic might make management and leadership [development] less macho. It might also make us a little more reflexive of experience and keener to enquire of what we are doing and why. We might even be more cautious of articles in glossy journals that promise simple solutions to problems that we know are complex. We might even embrace poetry, filmmaking, storytelling and just experiment a little. And in doing so we might be more confident of finding our own leadership path.

John Shotter: a belated thank you

jsIt has been several months since the death of John Shotter and I thought I would reflect on his impact on me and implications for those of us in education. I’m not going to describe John’s achievements, I’ll leave that to his friend Michael Billig – click here. And I’m certainly not going to summarise his work and its impact on practice – that will have to speak for itself, at this point I can hear John reaching for Wittgenstein (probably On Certainty, p210, para 139-140).

I first met John in 2008 mid way through my doctorate. We met via a mutual friend, Patricia Shaw, in the Bunch of Grapes pub near London Bridge station. I remember being enthusiastic about my line of research on knowledge. John listened and seem to absorb and reflect my enthusiasm. Thereafter our paths crossed every few months. I last met John with his wife at his home in Cambridgeshire with some good friends sharing readings, writings and understandings of our various interests and projects.

But what was it about John that I came to value? Many people would point to his encyclopaedic knowledge of the likes of Wittgenstein and Bakhtin and his ability to pull a quote from thin air. In addition to his focused understanding on these writers and more it was also his knowledge of a wider terrain of culture and that seem to connect people together in a shared experience and understanding. And of course, there was his enthusiasm for learning and knowledge tinged with sadness of our entrenched views and the political games we play in academia.

For me there was something more important that I try to take forward in my own developing practice as an academic. He would get to a nub of something that I was struggling with, drawing a few threads together that I had not noticed. And from this (and with a pile of reading) the world become a little clearer, or usefully unclear, and a small step would have been made. His impact at the time was subtle but when I look back the effect was substantial and deep. In short, he had the knack of pointing me to new avenues at just the right time: Gilbert Ryle, Raymond Williams, Henri Bortoft to name a few.

I came to wish that I had recognised his contribution in the acknowledgements of my thesis and in some respects this posting makes up for my omission.

And here are the paragraphs I mentioned:

  1. Not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself.
  2. We do not learn the practice of making empirical judgements by learning rules: we are taught judgements and their connexion with other judgements. The totality of judgements is made plausible to us.

Wittgenstein, L. (1969), On Certainty, (Anscombe, G. and von Wright, G.,Eds.), Harper Torchbooks, New York.

Shining a light on critical action learning with the work of Pierre Bourdieu

pbA couple of years ago I became intrigued by the interaction between the theory of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and the practice of action learning, a process of facilitated group coaching. In other words, how the theory of one might shine a light on the practice of the other. The aspects of Bourdieu theory that I was intrigued about was habitus and field. Habitus being a generative process of habit and repetition, but not one that implies an automatic reflex; instead it is a condition of practice that short cuts the numerous options available to the novice to a narrower range of reasonable contextual possibilities. This being dependent on field, an array of externalities and relations in which one has to move. Each player whose relations constitute the field of a particular practice has their own internalised expression of habitus. This gives everyone in the field an individualised sense of their next step, sensible or not, that needs to be reacted to by others. The field is therefore a complex dynamic affected by power, reputation, tradition, gestures and so on. In short, the ordinary goings on of organisational life of what we might see as common sense hitting a brick wall of unfathomable objection that makes us ask the question: why? Or as we have called it ‘social friction’, a process of noticing between our taken for granted practice and how this is reacted to by others who have their own assumptions and practice too.

Over the past year it has been great to work with Janet McCray and Douglas Board to explore these ideas drawing on interviews with nine medical consultants having gone through and action learning based leadership programme. Following a number of conferences (a notable highlight being the British Sociological Association’s first conference on Bourdieu last year) and workshops our work has now been published in Action Learning: Research and Practice.

To read our paper click here.

Reflexivity – some useful prompts in fiction


The cover of Tamara: Journal of Critical Organization Inquiry

For a number of years I have been intrigued with reflexivity, that form of deep personal reflection that entwines ongoing thought of one’s practice with the practice of thought.  And it is really difficult, particularly when we are part of a group at work that sees the world in a similar way and have been working together for many years. There can be very little to challenge us to see the world differently and our thought and practice as part of it. This is important, as the world shifts we need to be attuned to this and react, but we have seen with the likes of Kodak and Blockbuster that despite advantages in their sectors they were left behind and are no more.

So, what can we do that might enable us to be more reflexive? Or, what prompts might be useful? At a group level one can mix people up and encourage new and different people to join. Or, to make connections with other people, groups or sectors. Recently I have been interested in what an individual might do and what they might draw on. Yes, they can visit other organisations and meet new people, but I was intrigued in something deeper and more accessible. Many of us read novels and books and I was interested in how fiction might act as a ‘reflexive prompt’ to enable us to see the world differently and thus shine a light on our thought and practice.

Several years ago I had a particularly fraught meeting with some surprising twists and turns. Not that unusual, far from it. After writing a narrative of the events at the time I explored what had happened with three small excerpts from fiction – very different forms of fiction. What occurred surprised me. On the one hand I could easily have closed down that experience and ‘moved on’. But doing this enabled me to notice what I had not explored in any depth before: issues of doubt, uncertainty and contradictions that I was experiencing before and during the meeting. We don’t often talk about these things in organisational life. I found a way of exploring this in a contextual way that helped my practice and thinking further develop. It also enabled me to discuss the events to a few trusted friends and colleagues and as such offered the potential to expand the potential for noticing.

If you are interested in these ideas in more depth I have written a paper for the Journal Tamara: Journal for Critical Organization Inquiry and it is available here.

Truth – the new reflexive duty that is all our responsibility

capture-final-picAs the year comes to an end I thought I would add a few lines on the one thing that has troubled me most – truth. By truth I mean dependable knowledge that enables people to form effective opinions and decisions. With the US Presidential Election and the vote of the UK to leave the EU it seems that the fragility of truth has become all too apparent to those of us who care. More worrying, those of us who care seem to be in short supply.

There is little I can do to affect global events, but at least I can look closer to home to make some sort of impact. I work with postgraduate and undergraduate students and delegates on professional development programmes. I have become intrigued as to what people count as dependable knowledge, more specifically how much critical thought is given to this.

We now have blogs (like this one), news aggregators, complexity delivered in 140 characters and so on. All of this amplified by virtual velcro, the means by which ‘news’ unknowingly sticks to people by what they ‘like’ and what ‘friends’ they have. In readymade communities anyone can say anything with the added double bonus of both instant credibility and a boost that brings forth further response; a rapid process that risks self-reinforcing groupthink.

What did we have before? Newspapers and books, both with some form of editorial process. Peer reviewed journals that sought to take a rigorous stance on what made it through. Professional and trade press again with editorial teams. None of these were perfect but all had editorial processes and people in place were invested in the long term. In other words, any claims on truth would be reconciled with the credibility they had developed and yet held hostage to future challenge. Of course we still have these sources, but like the patina of an antique they are outshone by the new.

I am not suggesting a rejection of these new sources. However, the new skill of the student, citizen, consultant, work colleague – all of us, is increasingly to establish the validity of those sources and to carefully explain them to those around us and to ourselves. In short to be a reflexive check to ensure we do not get sucked in. What questions might we ask? There are many, but I think the most important stem from: what is the network of relationships that this person is invested/nested in? People have a tendency to cite and draw comfort from like-minded individuals. What awareness do they have of this, and how overt is this? Do they make connections with people from other traditions and views? Can you draw a connection of thought back to ideas and areas that you relate with and you know to be valid?

This is not just a skill, but a set of skills. Firstly, there is the ability to work out these connections and to draw the messy map of relationships. Secondly, the knack of being able to critically connect any valid insights to one’s context and practice. And finally, and importantly, being able to stand up and to argue the case; this is important as in doing this we can shape the debate. By doing this we can be an informed consumer, contributor and curator of knowledge.

Action Learning: creating organisational impact

chichester-1Over the last few years I have become intrigued by what action learning can offer. It is a process where a facilitated group of people, curious in each other’s practice and problems at work, enables each other to move forward. Whilst it supports people to find practical solutions to knotty problems that don’t seem to go away there has been a larger question on its wider organisational impact. In other words, how does the impact of those private conversations in the learning set comes to ripple out to change and improve the wider organisation. Over the last couple of years this debate has been enlivened by those interested in ‘critical action learning’ and has become the focus of my research too.

In December 2016 I am holding a seminar here at the University of Chichester’s Business School (pictured) where similarly curious people are welcome to attend, details can be found here.

If you want to read more about action learning here are some useful places to start:

  • Pedler, M. (1997), What do we mean by action learning? A story and three interpretations. Action Learning in Practice, Gower Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, 3rded.
  • Pedler, M. (2011), Action learning in practice, Gower Publishing Ltd, Farnham.
  • Revans, R. (1980), Action Learning: new techniques for management, Blond and Briggs, London.