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

tamara

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.

Organisation Development (OD): tales of craft, style and making do

20160711_160754A few days ago James Traeger and I were sitting in a rather lovely room overlooking the lawns at Ashridge management college. Here we signed a contract to write a book together; a moment that focuses the mind!

We are writing a book on organisation development but one that pays attention to the ‘craft’ in different ways. Having worked in and with many organisations I am intrigued as to how things actually happen. I am less interested by the grand proclamations and planned activities that may appear in newsletters, company reports and ‘town hall meetings’; but instead I am drawn to the actual conversations that happen everywhere from boardrooms, corridors, phone calls, e-mails in what is a confusing world where we can only make the next sensible step with the information we have at hand. And with the constraints and enablers that we are aware of – those that we are not aware of soon become apparent! So how does the OD practitioner move into these spaces and conversations and to act ethically in ways that are in the best interests of the people that we call the ‘the organisation’ and those affected by it? This is the substance of the book, told with tales of the craft of how people make do with what they have to create interactions and understandings that are helpful. We are interested in the full gamut ranging from set piece events with flip charts and marker pens to chance (or carefully arranged semi-chance) conversations in car park or corridor.

We are aiming this book at the curious, the practitioner (and the occasional academic) perhaps frustrated with ‘how to’ explanations. Instead we are looking to share, show and build bridges of understanding that might be useful in:

  • Making enough sense of complex situations we find ourselves in.
  • Enabling wise choices to be made.

And in doing so how move forward with those around us.

Through difference comes a deeper confidence

cropped-picture-of-dunes-2.pngThis week I was at conference in Bristol, UK on the ‘contemporary relevance of the work of Pierre Bourdieu’ where I presented my paper on the connections and opportunities between Bourdieu’s thinking and action learning. It was one of the best conferences I had been to drawing people from all over the world and importantly working with Bourdieu’s ideas in very different ways.

I have been deeply affected by his work which has influenced a number of my books, papers and thinking in general. But I have lacked confidence on two counts. Firstly, his life’s work was enormous, there are few who have a deep understanding of his work and the context from which it emerged. Secondly, appreciating the contemporary ways in which those ideas were being taken up by people at the conference. In other words, I was very aware that my interest was focused on a small area of a far wider moving project.

Over the three days it was great to see the myriad of ways that people were working with his ideas. Some I was deeply drawn to, attracted by the interaction between excellent empirical work and theory. Others like Lisa Mckenzie’s work on the working class in London made me wonder what sort of world we had created. But others took Bourdieu’s work and applied multiple correspondence analysis (MCA) and other quantitative techniques that left me cold wondering what Bourdieu would have thought. Similarly, words and phrases such as ‘technique’, ‘tool’, ‘using’, ‘framework’ were applied to some of Bourdieu’s concepts in a way that just seemed to miss the shifting, relational, emergent qualities of his ideas reminding me of his comment: ‘Everything conspires to encourage the reification of concepts, beginning with the logic of ordinary language, …’ (Bourdieu, 1973, p62). Despite these differences and affinities my thinking was being challenged.

Through these differences and talking with those people who saw his work from other angles I became more confident about my areas of interest, that of reflexivity and the ‘friction’ between his concepts of habitus and field. This was not an arrogant confidence; I knew that I had something that was worth saying but with a humility to explore other ideas and how these were being taken up.

What implications does this have more generally? It is by being with other people of differing views and exploring their ideas that we become more confident and curious about our own position and how that position might develop. But that is not what I see around me. Politicians talk of building walls (metaphorically, literally and implied in their ‘dog whistle’ speeches), or they just talk and don’t listen. Perhaps we do the same; we surround ourselves with likeness amplified by our interaction with Facebook, Twitter and the like.

Here I am suggesting a different type of deeper confidence. I am not talking about an arrogant confidence that is defensive, inward looking and is brittle to challenge. I am talking about confidence that is open to the development of thought and keen to engage others with differing and challenging views. I think Bourdieu himself would have had views on this …

Bourdieu, P. (1973). The three forms of theoretical knowledge. Social science information, 12(1), 53-80.