Consequences and choices of life through digital interfaces

Picture credit: Me 4 (digital), Davis, Scott J. / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

Increasingly our experience is mediated through a digital interface, or system, of some sort. This raises important questions as to how we understand and engage with the world. Here I am going to take two examples of being an external examiner at a large UK university and an associate editor of an academic peer reviewed journal to explore the consequences and choices.

Example 1: Along with others I am steering a special issue of a journal through the blind peer review process and we are getting towards the end with some very exciting papers. To make the process more efficient, cheaper and easier to scale there is a digital interface that links me to the reviewers, to the authors and the editor in chief. It is a system that is widely used despite having the feel of something that has been designed by a 14-year-old on work placement. The interface forces us to answer closed questions such as: accept, reject or changes required. There is little opportunity to share uncertainty or be explorative that you might have in a conversation. I am not saying that the double-blind peer review is not important – it is. However, we can challenge the system that has been created for us and to ask questions. In other words to engage in it in our terms. We also have choices as editors. In the special edition that I am working on we encouraged some of the reviewers to have a conversation with the authors after the first round of anonymous per review. Clearly this has to be done carefully and sensitively being aware of the power dynamics at play, but it did create something novel. I was struck by how some (but not all) authors and reviewers were enthusiastic of the idea with one reviewer writing back with ‘How amazing is this!’ The nature of the conversations created several ‘a-ha’ moments, of bridges of mutual understanding being created. And finally, there was an honouring of the authors’ and reviewers’ work. This was just an experiment and would not be suitable for all journals, but it gives a flavour of the choices that we have. In short, we can challenge and mix things up and create new connections and understanding.

Example 2: Being an external examiner I need to look at the university programme through the eyes of the student, to make sure the work is of the right standard, to understand the teaching and to assure myself that marks are compared and moderated. In short to get under the skin of the programme and its culture. However, in the course that I am an examiner for student work is in one system and the marks, feedback and evidence of moderation is in another. And then I have to log into a separate system to get to the learning and teaching materials. There are quite a few modules, each one with several cohorts. As I plough through the work with lists and notes of what I have looked at there is a problem.  Despite being impressed by the work I cannot quiet get a sense of how it all holistically connects together. The samples of work do not yet amount to the wider landscape that would assure me. The systems take me down clear tracks without offering me the opportunity to explore the terrain.

Both examples question the interfaces that funnel our attention in pre-set directions yet miss the bigger picture.  I am advocating for a subtle change of emphasis that pays more attention to person to person interactions and how these might unfold in new and exciting ways. I am suggesting is that these interfaces be used lightly. By this I mean that those that design them should be cautious about how they funnel our attention as users. For us as users to be more curious about how systems are shaping our world and to take active steps to take our own path and to challenge what is happening.

Backdrops, Zoom and Culture – a year on

Working in my study …

In the UK it has been a year since the first lockdown as a result of covid-19 and I have been working mostly from my study, a situation common to many people. A few days ago I met someone for the first time on a Zoom call. They were slightly late and flustered and reeled off various things they had to do before joining including ‘to sort out my background’.

What is it about a Zoom background that now has to be managed like one’s appearance? What to show, what do we conceal, what is it to appear professional, what glimpse of the family person do we offer? These are questions that our Zoom world now forces us to answer. Also, how much choice do we have: are we forced to use the corporate backdrop and are we constrained by our personal circumstances. And then there are the random guests: lockdown dogs, stroppy cats, children keen for attention.

Like many I have been influenced by the work of Edgar Schein (Schein, 2004, p25-37) particularly his thoughts around levels of culture. Here he draws attention to the interconnections between the artefacts we see in an organisation, the espoused beliefs and values we talk about and finally how these are rooted in the underlying assumptions and taken for granted perceptions and feelings.

In the absence of offices, staff restaurants, corridors, lifts, reception areas, workshops etc how do we sense our new world – the artefacts we see in an organisation. Coming back to my new friend, I become fascinated by her neatly curated backdrop; the small plant in its glass box, the white shelves the books (some lying flat, others vertical). In this sense when we are joined by a few people in ‘gallery’ mode we are creating a shared work environment. It will be fascinating to see how this comes to affect an organisations culture over the longer term. I was talking to someone at work about my experience when she said ‘I’ve always loved your study Rob, the books, the things around you, it looks so interesting … but I couldn’t live like it.’ Even if we don’t make a conscious choice about our backdrop it creates an impact, or at least a ripple.

Schein, E. (2004). Organizational culture and leadership (Third). Jossey-Bass.

Zoompartheid: Brave New World 2.0

It is 2022, the 90th anniversary of the publication of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian book Brave New World. Comparisons are being made to what working life has sadly become. People now talk about Alphas, Betas and Gammas to describe how they have slotted into the new reality.

Alphas occupy the physical world of actual offices and face to face meetings. At the top end, the Alpha Double Plus are citizens of world jetting between one major world city and another – these people are hyper-connected, they have done well. Aspiring Alphas (ie children of Alphas) go to the best universities and develop their contacts and social capital just like people did in the Old World (as people now call it).

Betas occupy the digital world where people communicate through plastic windows between one bed/spare room and another. Taking their orders from the Alphas there is little chance to shape ideas. Betas have become frustrated; there is no career progression. Opportunities to work with more senior people on projects, to experience the organic nature of organisational life, to take responsibility and shine have dried up. Generic e-courses offered free by the mega tech giants have replaced dedicated learning and development.

Gammas occupy the world we do not see. They wear HiVis jackets, badges with their first name, ties and uniforms and give us our own personalised coffee. They have experience, qualifications and degrees that have yet to catch the slipstream of neatly defined job descriptions. This is the most diverse group, they see the world differently, opportunities and problems that other don’t get. Here lies creative potential.

Company CSR reports and micro-sites show different faces starring back at us, inclusion metrics are looking up. However, there is no mobility of thought, each group is stuck and caught up in their own world without the imagination to see worlds as others do.

Back to today. You might agree with all of this, or see the possibility in just some of it. You might even see evidence of this today. For those of us who work in organisation development there are choices about relevance and responsibility about what we do now. Here are three ideas:

  • In a world that is increasingly digital how do we create an accessible learning environment that is both equitable and engaging. Equitable in terms of making sure that people have a fair opportunity to take part. Engaging in terms of reflecting the new developing real world and how they can develop their choice and agency.
  • How we break barriers between the Alphas, Betas and Gammas to enable people to see the world as other do, to be creative and see new possibilities, to create happenstance and chance that is important in development. Afterall, each of us has a story or two about a chance conversation that made us see the world differently and set us off on a new path.
  • The chances are that people will increasingly work for more than one organisation at any one time. For the Alphas their networks already exist. How then do we support others to achieve this? This calls for outward focused organisation development to accept that people develop on a wider stage of ideas and experiences.

We must prevent ourselves sleepwalking into organisational life with less social mobility and fairness. Instead we need to take brave steps to enable people to make the most of their potential in a changing new world that we are just starting to see.

Presence with Rothko

I’m by myself in a large room wearing a mask. In front of me is Black on Maroon 1958 by Mark Rothko and around me six other Rothkos. It is Saturday 6th September and I am at Tate Britain Turner Rothko’s exhibition with Linda who is in another room. We are emerging from the pandemic, death rates are still falling, but winter is ahead. London is quiet.

I have been looking at Black on Maroon for about five minutes and my awareness of myself and what is happening around me is changing. I’m drawn to the top right hand corner where Linda casually asked me if I had noticed some red before going to look at the Turners: a brief comment and my experience is different.

As I breathe out my glasses mist slightly, inhale and they clear. I’m aware of the pressure on the bridge of my nose and the warmth on my face. My experience of Rothko is different today, my mind travels back to last year at Tate Modern, the last time I saw his work. Normally I’d be tumbling into the painting (that is the only way that I can explain it); the clatter, talking and bustle of those around me in a busy gallery both annoying and intensifying my experience. A few rooms away I can hear someone walking with rubber soles on polished floor and I sense the squeakiness in my own feet, ankles and shins.

For several years in my twenties I used to go to yoga classes with Linda, it was the focusing and meditation that became important. Sitting in front of Black on Maroon 1958 I was aware of myself, my state of mind, the reaction and rhythm of my body. I was able to travel back in time and relive experience and together the present and past felt jarring and created something new, a further twist of presence.  Hearing those footsteps took me to another place in my imagination that I felt bodily connected to. Organisational life to me is about being and noticing, particularly those moments that come and go in a blink yet seem to change the mood and how people are with each other. These moments can impact on the choices made and the direction of an organisation so are important to pay attention to. For Rothko is a form of workout and enjoyment.

Artful ways – practice-based learning.


In our latest project James Traeger and I have returned to the traditions of smudgy ink and thin paper of the pamphlet. At its heart is a reminder that we are people and change happens through relationships, in all their forms. Here we make the case that development comes from getting close the grain. By this we mean that we can find rich learning in the fine detail of our day to day work and the relationships that sustain or diminish our efforts.

Tight knit arguments and focused data sit under the influence of the scientific method. This has led to all manor of good things (and a few problems), but it is not the whole story. In fact it suppresses other ways of knowing, particularly when it comes to being creative and artful and it is this that we explore.

To read our smudgy pamphlet here it is: Artful Ways Pamphlet

Academic publishing – peer review and rejection

To my friends in the business and management academic community, a few of us have become fascinated by the peer review process and rejection in publishing and research, particularly when it comes to motivation. In many conversations it quickly becomes clear that this is a taboo subject and one that people feel very strongly about. Like all taboos, we feel that this is a stone that needs to be turned over. We would be very much like to hear your experience. Here is a link to our questionnaire. Please feel free to pass this onto others who might be interested. We will post our research finding later.


Obvious, it’s obvious really


A few days ago Douglas Board, a friend and writing partner or mine, and I ran a Zoom workshop for organisation development professionals. The topic being:

Working with changes in the obvious: why do meritocracies produce glass ceilings

The aim of our session was to ask the question, why is the obvious not obvious to us and what might the consequences be – in this case unintentional effects of creating better and fairer places that sadly can result in the opposite. At least they can do without careful attention to the unintended, and how difficult this can be. For an exploration of some of the ideas we explored at the workshop click here.

However, in this blog posting I want to make some broader observations notably that the obvious is anything but! In a reflective conversation with Douglas after the session we focus on this and the experience of running a workshop for thirty people on Zoom, click here.

At the University of Chichester, I run an MBA for experienced managers as well as an MA in Leadership and Management. I know lots of things about the subject. There was a striking moment in my early thirties when I was presenting a strategy to a group of directors.  In an hour my paradigm that management was all about rational clear-headed argument and evidence was turned on its head. I had realised the importance of power, anxiety, conflict, influence and politics during the course of a very mundane side conversation about catering arrangements for the meeting – what were they doing and why? I can look back to see that this helped spark my long-held interest in management and leadership.

When I work with participants on our programmes a part of my work is knowledge sharing, but this is second order, it is not where I believe that I add the most amount of value. After all, when it comes to knowledge in management there are no ‘proofs’ like you will find in mathematics but ideas, fads and rules of thumbs that tend to work backed up with empirical studies, philosophy, sociology or psychology.

Instead I shake people up so they perceive their ‘obvious’ in new ways: they see it, feel it, hear it etc in a way that they can make sense of and act. And from that action further noticing of the obvious occurs and the ripples continue. I could be running a workshop on decision making and strategy, facilitating an action learning set or having a one-to one coaching conversation – they all shake up the obvious, albeit in different ways.

Perhaps those conversations with Douglas, writing this blog, reflecting on my own work has made obvious to me that little bit more is obvious. And so our work goes on.

Picture credit: Multi Color Abstract 2, 2018 (photo) / © Susan Vizvary / Bridgeman Images

Purpose and ethics of organisation development: moral practice of the moment

Picture credit: Blest are those of integrity, 2000 (acrylic on board), Waddams, Ron (1920-2010) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

James Traeger and I have been working with ODN Europe to ask some fundamental questions about the future of organisational development. Here is our letter on where we see the future and ethics brought into sharp relief by the ongoing pandemic. 

It is April 2020 and Covid-19 is ripping its way through the populations of the world. Both of us work in organisation and people development and are struck by the moral gravity of recent conversations. We have listened to people talking of their role in making mass redundancies of garment machinists in developing countries; laying off highly skilled people in the European pharmaceutical industry according to the rules dictated by American owners and the dilemmas of senior leaders weighing up the optics of releasing prisoners early into society. These are conversations unthinkable only weeks ago. Yet this is not the whole story. In nine days London has a new 4,000 bed hospital – one of the largest in the world.  People have organised with their neighbours to support the old and vulnerable and there are companies that have turned their operations around to make ventilators, masks, sanitizers in just days. There have been extraordinary acts of kindness, flexibility and solidarity and yet there are we see examples that make the heart sink.

For those of us in the field of people and organisation development we are reminded of the impetus of a founding father, Kurt Lewin (1890-1947). Lewin was driven to make the world a better place having been horrified by the inhumanity witnessed in the Second World War. But we should not wait for hindsight to prompt us to consider how to make sure people act ethically.  Petruska Clarkson (1947-2006), another luminary of humanistic psychology suggested we might use ‘midsight’ as reflexive awareness of our actions and mindset in the here and now is a better place to start. The world will be changed by this and we can help be better, by what we and the leaders we work with are doing right now. In all of this there is a question: what are the values of social justice that guide what we do? At some point history will judge us; each person, organisation, government and community. With the immediate transparency that is piped into our mobile devices, we will judge and be judged. Judgement starts right here, right now: the world is looking.

Over the past twelve months we have been working with ODN Europe, a professional body aimed at developing the theory and practice of organisation development (OD), to rethink OD. James has been working with others to ask the question: what is the future of OD? Rob and colleagues have focussed on the question: what are the ethics of OD? This pandemic brings the two together. At times of upheaval our true values come to the fore for both good and ill. It is now that those carefully crafted words in the corporate social responsibility policy are put to the test.

Even before the pandemic, organisations were changing unrecognisably. They have become loser, less connected and less bounded. This is characterised by long supply chains, networks of people coming together to work on projects and then moving on, casual employment and zero hours contracts and automation. But people have the same hopes, anxieties, worries, dreams and instincts that they always have. So, what is the role of organisation development? We believe that there are two important themes if we are to create better organisations and a wider society that Lewin might recognise. Firstly, the development of profound relational skills between people. In short, how people influence and how they are influenced in creating a better world. Secondly, to enable people to made sense of their experience, to challenge assumptions that would otherwise wash over them. All of this is serves the need for better decision making as well as social justice. We do not come to this from a privileged position of knowing the answers, instead we are part of a process of living inquiry of discovery and improvement.

The question is: how will we hold each other to account and bring about positive change? At its most radical, it is about everyday normal interactions that we all have as we understand the world, involve others and make decisions. It is not about abstract theory, policy or ‘key performance indicators’.

We propose three question areas that nest together, sitting at the heart of ethical practice. These are as follows:

Firstly, how we are planning for the future? Here the focus is on how our actions might impact people in the longer term. Questions include:

  • How do I ensure that I ask the right questions before I decide on a course of action?
  • How do I know when I have involved the right people and information in planning a course of action?
  • How do I know if I have hurt or harmed?
  • How will I know if I have done any good?
  • How will I account for myself to others – what will I say in planning my course of action?

Secondly, how do we make the next step as we interact with others? Here are focus is in the here and now. Questions include:

  • How will I develop awareness of the wider influences and contexts of what I am experiencing?
  • How will I act in the network relationships in which some people are more powerful and others less powerful?
  • How can I ask questions that will enable me to get more insightful views of conversation?
  • How will I know that I have been ‘conditioned’ to act or think in a certain way?

Finally, In working with others how are we influence and how are we being influenced? Here we consider our impact on others. Questions include:

  • How can we stop ourselves sleepwalking into poor and unethical decision making?
  • How do we keep alive enough difference so that we can see our world with ‘new eyes’?
  • How do we keep aware of the changing contexts and how this affects our stakeholders?
  • How can we keep asking difficult questions of ourselves?

These are questions written in the first person; they are about ‘you’ and ‘me’, not the distant ‘them’. At this current time people are having to make extraordinary decisions where the normal structures and reassurance of knowledge and hierarchies are under enormous pressure as they change. This is becoming the new normal. If this is the case these questions of ourselves and those around us become ever more important. Today it might be about the pandemic but tomorrow we still face climate change, the impact of digital technology and the changing expectations and hopes of the world’s populations.

In summary, even before the pandemic organisations were changing rapidly responding to the realities of climate change, digital transformation and greater expectations from people and this will continue. Yet people have the same hopes, desires, anxieties that they always have. Through this we have choices to make and accountabilities to face. If OD is to remain relevant, to enable people to understand and navigate these challenges, we too have to change and to adapt in a similar manner.

This will bring into sharper focus the core of OD namely social justice and moral practice. This is achieved through developing profound relational skills and our ability to make sense and respond to what is happening.  This long tradition of OD practice is as relevant, if not more relevant, than it has ever been to make a positive change in the world.

Here is the paper: Ethics R Warwick and J Traeger

Having Kittens: rethinking research ethics – a provocation

Die Berliner Mauer mit Graffiti bemalt am Potsdamer Platz in Berlin (photo) / © SZ Photo / RalphH / Bridgeman Images

The aim of this provocation is to invite discussion on how we might improve research practice by shifting attention and conversation about ethics. Currently it is overly frontloaded at the beginning of our projects.  Instead it would benefit from being a continual thread of thought and conversation, in short an ever present form of social sensemaking.

In his book, Gang Leader for a Day Sudhir Venkatesh writes:

 ‘Grab his other leg!’ Charlie yelled in our direction. … I can see that Blue was struggling to breathe; he looked like he might pass out, or worse. I felt as if I had to do something. Running over to him, I kicked Bee-Bee in the stomach, which made him relax his grip on Blue. The other men smothered him, and I could hear his muffled words ’okay okay. All right, enough’ (p170).

Bee-Bee and Blue: Chicago gang members.

Narrator: Sudhir Venkatesh, a PhD student and author.

PhD supervisor: having kittens (if he had been there).

What conversations would have prepared Venkatesh, our PhD student, for what happened in that stairwell. What choices beforehand and in the moment did our student colleague have? The supervisor could just have said – no! But that would have denied us valuable and rich insight into gangland culture (and as it turned out money, financial control and how the gang was woven into the fabric of society). This might be an extreme case but micro-ethical dilemmas are common in the course of day to day practice, so much so they often go unnoticed; and we suggest this applies to research too.

To the qualitative interpretivist university researcher the common approach to ethics is a problem. The problem stems from the need to have all risks and harms laid out at beginning; no action to be taken until nearly all eventualities and harms have been spotted and dealt with. In my own institution the blank canvas for this analysis is an eighteen-page form. And then there are associated information sheets and consent procedures. Imagine if your research involves, say, sitting in a waiting room watching the comings and goings of everyday people and their routine interactions with each other. Perhaps the venue is a hospital. Or, you are an auto-ethnographer exploring your own practice as a policy maker in government. How best can this approach serve everyone, including the beneficiary of your research, the researcher and those that you are interacting with?

The question is: how well does the form, associated paperwork, e-mails and meetings enable good and safe research? The question lying in the shadow is: what are we not paying attention to? In framing it like this we are not advocating the abandonment of one approach in favour of another, but rather how we pay attention to the changing obligations to ethics during the process of our work. How about a more reflexive approach that can shift the nature of these conversations?

To begin the debate on this question here are three areas that nestle together that are worth paying greater attention to in our research and everyday practice:

  • Ethics in planning – ‘thought before action’ (the traditional focus), what decisions are we making now (plans, policies, forms etc) that bind our actions in the future?
  • Ethics in action – ‘thought in action’ (ethics as we go along), what decisions are we make in the here and now as we try to make the next sensible step?
  • Enabling other ethical practice – ‘thought with others’ (awareness of and engagement with others), how are we being influenced an dhow are we influence others around us in the decisions that we take?

More thoughts on ethics to come.

Venkatesh, S. A. (2008). Gang leader for a day: A rogue sociologist takes to the streets. Penguin.


The changing world – conversations with MBA students

Publishers of Truth, 1988 (acrylic on board), Waddams, Ron (1920-2010) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

Over the last week or so I’ve been working with MBA groups – online of course.  In the midst of Covod-19 I posed the question ‘how our the world different now?’ And to explore the question I posed the following lines of inquiry:

  • How does your world look right now?
  • What sense of making of the future?
  • What are you leaving behind?
  • How do we capture the very raw (and fleeting) experience we are going through right now?
  • How is our decision-making changing?

Each one of these questions is fascinating, but here I am going to focus on the last one – how is our decision-making changing?

Key themes that came up in one conversation included:

  • Dispersal of decision making, particularly to the frontline.
  • How rapid decisions are having to be made.
  • How many of the assumptions that are there to help decision making are having to be redrawn.
  • Through all of this navigation is possible and is taking place.

However, there were two overarching themes that emerged which are important to draw attention to, these are trust and the changing role of senior leadership.

When it comes to trust we can spit this into two. Firstly, on an optimistic note, the here and now, our ability to decide in a rapidly changing context. Secondly, being pessimistic, the implications for the longer term, what problems are we storing up.

In this rapidly changing world it seems that we are more trusting in each other. Perhaps we have no choice. To trust someone is also to take a risk and to be vulnerable. But in trusting people, being prepared to take a risk and for this to work out well adds to a reinforcing cycle that enhances working relationships and enables us to see the potential in others.  Setting up hospitals from scratch that can treat thousands, how we are supporting hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable people, local authorities turning upside down how they provide services are all evidence of what can be achieved. I suspect all of this is dwarfed when we add up the small everyday efforts that millions of us are making.

But are we storing up problems for later, what might be the shadow that we might miss? In being adaptable and fast moving what are the rules and governance arrangements that we are leaving behind? Where does this leave democracy and the ability for citizens and elected representatives to shape decisions and to hold the powerful to account. These are questions that are not only important on the national political stage but are very real in all avenues of life: healthcare, police, where and how we work, who we mix with etc. Being generous, it will take time for the pulleys and levers of scrutiny to catch up, but it is a question that we need to keep on top of.

In all of this where does this leave the role of the Chief Executive and the top team? Leading from the front, or supporting and enabling the front line? Local knowledge, context and expertise are key. More than in any other time senior leadership is about enabling others to make good decisions, to make sure people communicate with each other and to provide the resources they need. In short, this is a form of more humble leadership that shapes, reassures and enables.

Click here for a video on how our world is changing and implications for MBA students.