MOOCs and their role in developing practical wisdom at work

I’m a senior lecturer at a small university on the south coast of the UK. Like many people I’ve been thinking about the future of higher education and the impact of technology, particularly MOOCs and other online learning approaches. I should add that I teach in a business school and am interested in strategy, organisational behaviour and management learning. And this frames my thoughts. I can see the point in MOOCs and their potential in spreading knowledge (both academic and technical), particularly to those groups that have been excluded in the past. But I’m wondering how it will help with the problems that I see. These include:

  • At the interpersonal level how people learn the practical skills and wisdom of working in organisations such as: influencing, negotiating, seeing things from the perspective of others, being challenging and supportive of colleagues (and accepting likewise in return), being thoughtful and reflexive of experience, or just how to get things done.
  • At the organisational level how decisions are made and how we can make better ones; how ethical practice is developed and sustained; and how organisations can be a force for good in society, rather than division.

These were some of the topics of a recent seminar I went to funded by the ESRC. What kind of knowledge are we talking about? To my mind it is the emotional labour of organisational life: empathy, emotional awareness, trust, sensitivity, political astuteness, knack or savviness. In other words the kind of abilities that Aristotle put under the heading of Phronesis. When I meet managers, at whatever stage of their career, these are the issues that are troubling them. I have just finished running an action learning based post-graduate leadership programme. All of the delegates were highly accomplished in their technical areas but most felt the need to develop their leadership and ability to get things done. Reflections on the programme included: ‘I’ve developed a different type of confidence’; ‘it has been the conversations that have made the difference for me’; ‘it has really empowered me’, ‘I’ve learnt how to go about things’. Returning to my question above, I’m intrigued as to how MOOCs and other online approaches to personal development and knowledge can tackle issues that people face in their organisational lives. I’m sure there is an important role – I just want to understand their potential.

Conscious Business parts 1 and 2

Originally posted on

A little over a year ago Rob Warwick and I, with great encouragement from Bob MacKenzie at AMED (the Association for Management Education and Development), started the process of writing two special editions of the journal eO&P (Organisations and People) on Conscious Business.

The first edition was published in 2013. It includes six diverse pieces around the topic of awareness from Dick Davies, Jack Hubbard, Paul Levy, Alison Donaldson, J Kim Wright and Patrick Crawford. We explained our caution about the way that Conscious Business might be reduced to formulaic frameworks and schema that play down the attention that we give to everyday practices and how people relate to each other.

The second edition is out now. Building on the first edition, the second leads into a discussion of purpose, practice and community.  We focus on purpose, including the reasons why we should bother with Conscious Business…

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Lessons from literature: opportunities for leadership development

EAPI have just finished the first draft of an article for a conference in the summer.  And I’m rather pleased.   That said it will need a lot of polishing before it is ready to see the light of day.  I have become fascinated in how literature can be used in leadership development.  The literature I have drawn on is an eclectic mix from Greek mythology, Victorian melodrama to Shakespeare. All too often case studies in management literature seem dull and flat. We do not share in the characters’ success or plight. Instead we are presented with facts and asked to make judgements without appreciating the connected themes of relationships, power and history behind the participants. It draws us to ask the question ‘why on earth would they do …?’

In literature we travel with the participants and share their risks, doubts and ambiguity as they take their next steps. We are therefore not prompted towards ‘clever’ solutions but instead we share a sense of their dilemmas. The point I’m illustrating is that instead of focusing on the separation between the subject (the reader) and the object (the participants in the case study) there is a temporal process of becoming engaged with the character’s story.   Literature can therefore be used as a catalyst to develop our own narratives of connected events over a period of time.  It provides insights into our own development in the context of our wider social story that we are part of. This is a useful addition to action learning and leadership development. I also argue that this way of engaging with our own stories can make a contribution to management knowledge, providing more realistic accounts that we can emotionally and logically relate to.

Exploring conscious business practice – Reflections

Last month Pete Burden and I were the guest editors of AMED’s Winter2013WSjournal eOrganisations and People on the subject of conscious business.  The editorial can be read here.

In this post I would like to reflect on a conversation I had with a good friend of mine.  If you read the editorial Pete and I are making the case that we should look beyond frameworks and schema to provide us with conscious, sustainable and more thoughtful business, business that is mindful of its impact today and years to come.  Many of these CSR and Corporate Responsibility frameworks have delivered many benefits over the years, but to rely on them is a contradiction.  In other words, to do so risks diminishing rather than enhancing consciousness by focusing on future abstract goals and polices at the expense of present day-to-day interactions and reconciling often troubling and contradictory pressures.   The point is that labelling a term ‘conscious business’ is a double edge sword: on the one hand it focuses a light on the issue and gives it a legitimacy; but on the other, it fixes the subject in some idealised state where it is difficult to talk about the challenges in the context of daily lives.

Returning to the conversation I had with my friend, I was struck by her feedback ‘… and what is conscious business?’.  It strikes me that how ever hard we try to divert attention from clear abstract definitions towards the hurly-burly, where definition emerges from action, we are drawn back to the siren calls of clarity.

This dilemma reminds me of the work of Raymond Williams; although better known for being a Marxist Sociologist, it is his reflexive thought that I’m drawn to (Williams, 1977).  He points to the tendency of description and analysis habitually being expressed in the past tense and the difficultly this causes in seeing the on-going human activity as anything but a fixed object.  He says: ‘the strongest barrier to the recognition of human … activity is this immediate and regular conversion of experience into finished products’ (Ibid, p128).  He then points to the tendency of engaging with these static forms as a means of currency in communication, particularly when he notes: ‘Analysis is then centred on relations between these produced … formations and experiences … so that now only explicit forms exist, and the living presence is always, by definition, receding’.

Williams explains the implications for reducing the fluidness of experience into static forms, they miss the: ‘… complexities, the experienced tensions, shifts, and uncertainties, the intricate forms of unevenness and confusion’ (Williams, 1977, p. 129).  If Williams points to what is lost in forming and working with abstractions in the present, he also illustrates the implications this has on the possibilities that are yet to come when he states:  ‘And from the abstractions formed in their turn by this act of debarring – the “human imagination”, the “human psyche”, the “unconscious” – new and displaced forms of social analysis and categorization, …are more or less rapidly developed”(Ibid, p13).

I find this a useful way of thinking about the interaction between frameworks and lived experience and my friend’s quest for some certainty.  I am not drawing an absolutist choice between one thing and another (frameworks versus ‘lived experience’) but the paradoxical interaction between the two and how important it is to be aware (or even conscious) of the vital interaction between them.

Reference:  Williams, R. (1977). Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


The Real Value of Totems

Originally posted on

We often get asked: “How do I know if a business I am working in is conscious?”

There are plenty of posts here, and on other sites, which attempt to answer that question by giving lists of attributes – behaviours, processes, statements of principles etc.

These ideas are very, very useful. But they also have limitations.

Our BHAG is to create more conscious businesses. That means change. Such analytical and diagnostic methods can help bring about change in organisations. But there are other ways to assist change – and to increase consciousness in a business.

For example, in our consulting practice, we often encourage our clients to create what we call ‘totems’. Another contributor to this site, Rob Warwick, has written about this topic too, but from a slightly different angle.

A totem is an object to which a society or group attaches a particular significance or meaning. It…

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The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge – the publication of our book

ShowJacket SDLK biggerSome of you will know that over the last year or so Douglas Board and I have been writing a book on the interconnected social worlds of leadership and knowledge. Well, this month it comes out, as a first time author this is exciting stuff. This is how we describe the book:

Leadership and knowledge should be developed together: developed as two intimately linked ideas, and developed with other people.

We make this argument through extensive, theoretically-disciplined use of narratives from our managerial and doctoral experience. This volume is an inspiring resource for students and providers of practice-based research degrees, while offering practitioners, tired of broken promises from neat frameworks and models, unexpected opportunities to develop leadership impact and academic insight.

Ranging from complexity to sociology, and from leadership to ontology and epistemology, the central theory of this work draws on Bourdieu’s logic of practice and Stacey’s complex responsive processes of relating. It yields new ideas about reflexivity and essentially contested concepts. Since theory is not split from practice, nor emotions and politics from thought, full-time doctoral students will find an enlivening perspective on method as well as courage and support for the journey they are making.

We hope that this will strike a chord with those of you with an interest in at least one of more of the following:

  • Leadership, particularly for those who seek to consider their own practical experience seriously, in contrast (or at least in addition to) those with models, frameworks, competencies and explanations as to how we ‘should’ lead.
  • Those with an interest in the power of narratives as a way of exploring our interconnected social worlds. Instead of stories that close down the imagination with neat explanations we are interested in the openings they offer to enable the reader to imagine themselves in the writer’s situation and how this might help their practice.
  • How knowledge is created amongst people and the leadership that enables this to happen.
  • The importance of being reflexive in the noticing of what we are doing with others, how this comes to affect our practice and to impact on our knowledge and leadership.
  • How we can develop our practice of becoming ethically and consciously aware of how we act and think and the impact it has.

Instead of writing about leadership, reflexivity and knowledge as abstract concepts the book is the account of a reflexive journey that both Douglas and I took. And we use this as a way of engaging with wider literature to produce a grounded engagement with these subjects.

These are the views of those that have read the book so far:

In inquiring into knowledge and leadership, and the connections between the two, these authors pull off an amazing feat; they not only demystify the fundamentals of reflexive research but do so in a vivid, informative and engaging way. Any researcher, especially any practitioner seeking to make better sense of their lived experience, will benefit from reading this book and should make it their first port of call.  Linda Holbeche, Co-Director of the Holbeche Partnership and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Progressive Leadership at City of London University

As a successful leader are you curious that the books on leadership often bear little resemblance to your daily practice? To explore this question seriously you may consider a PhD or other post-graduate qualification. The authors offer an insight into their personal reflexive search for academic knowledge that has in turn enabled them to better understand their own practice. Reading this book may help you to become more effective as a leader, or can be seen as an invitation to start your own doctoral research. Professor Nol Groot, Management and Complexity, PhD School, Open University in the Netherlands and former Member of the Executive Board of the Dutch National Railways

The authors present viable and much needed research approaches to explore complex relationships within organizational cultures and the lived experiences of leaders and organizational participants. Using examples from their own research, they provide a strong balance between theory and practice, and engage the reader through use of metaphor, narrative storytelling and case study methodologies. This book will be an extremely valuable resource for any research practitioner in the fields of organizational studies, educational leadership, higher education and management as well as those who seek to understand the social, emotional, and political layers and entanglements of organizational life.  Sheri Klein, PhD, MFA, artist/educator/researcher and Professor (ret.) of Art Education, University of Wisconsin-Stout, USA.

The book is available to order from Palgrave, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other book stores.   Ideas of course do not come to an end on finishing a book. In fact we see this as a start. We would love to hear comments and views and most importantly how people are practically working with the ideas we discuss in order for us to make our next steps.

Exploring experience – staying true to its emergent qualities in the re-telling

Exploring experience – staying true to its emergent qualities in the re-telling.

John Mackey Walks the Talk of a Conscious Leader

Originally posted on :

JohnMackeyI was privileged enough to be sitting at dinner on Friday night with John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, co-founder of Conscious Capitalism and author of Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business.  We were a small group – about 10 CEOs and other UK business leaders, and a handful of the instrumental consultants in the UK who are fanning the fires of the conscious business networks and connecting like-minded business leaders.

It was an informal gathering.  John Mackey gave the briefest of overviews of the four tenets of conscious capitalism and there was a convivial air as we enjoyed talking to one another about business and the possibilities it holds for transforming not just the UK but society at large.

As the conversation and the questions developed, it became clear that John not only cares deeply about conscious leadership, but sees the consciousness of…

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Pedagogy of the Oppressed – a lesson of policymakers, politicians and strategists alike

I have just come across this great little book – Pedagogy of the Oppressed by PO the OPaulo Freire. It is one of those books that I feel instantly connected with but at the same time rather daft that it has taken me all these years to find it. Freire was a South American educationalist who was heavily influenced by Marx. He wrote this book in the late 1960s, translated into English a few years later. His point is that education must lead to some positive social change, in other words it is more than just filling people’s heads with knowledge – it has to achieve something.

To do this he explains that education must be about us in the context in which we find ourselves and the problems we face on a day to day basis. It is always unfinished, requires dialogue between educators and those being educated (in fact he is sceptical of this distinction) and there are no fixed answers. To be effective we need to be aware of what is around us and to react into these changing situations. This combination of dealing with real life practical issues, being more aware of how we are with people and the situations we find ourselves and this overriding drive for social good are to me vital cornerstones of becoming more conscious and to effect positive ethical change.

However, there is a dilemma for those who set policy and strategy. For there to be effective change those who set policy and strategy need to recognise that there power is limited. It is not about ‘doing to people’ it is about providing them with the freedom, resources and support for them to tackle their own problems. This very much chimed with my research on policymaking and how this comes to affect frontline healthcare practice. However, it seems all too common (at least here in the UK) those politicians will seek to make clear promises for which ‘quantified outcomes’ are set. Politicians, strategists and policy makers have a lot to learn from this little book. And in doing so they might find some uncomfortable truths.

Book Review: Why Reforming the NHS Doesn’t Work – The importance of understanding how good people offer bad care

A few weeks ago I was asked to write a brief book review. The book was by Valerie Isles and takes an intelligent and nuanced view of changVI Scane management in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Many books forget how change management affects the patient, this book doesn’t. With this in mind I thought it might be useful to share my review here on my blog.
The author, Valerie Iles, identifies a vicious circle of factors that affect both frontline practitioners and policymakers alike; these include the power of the information age, audit and inspection, the volatility of politics, ‘reason’ and managerialism and the impact of anxiety. So pervasive are these that they are rarely noticed or discussed. In this context it is hard to imagine how anything happens at all – but of course it does, but not in the cause and effect way that many policymakers might expect.
So what do we do that makes a difference to those that we care for? Moving beyond the ‘check list’ paradigm the book offers powerful ideas that will affect practice and thought in how we as a community of caring activists make sense and improve what we do. The author provides an additional perspective to the trends towards the randomised control trial where variables are known and manipulated, the expert consensus, evidence based medicine etc where knowledge appears clear cut and unproblematic. This knowledge is important, but it is not the whole story. This use of this scientific knowledge sits within a complex mesh of the unique person, of history, practice, families and society requiring the application of practical wisdom.
The book concludes with two insightful scenarios that reach beyond the push/pull assumptions of linearity that lies beneath much of public policy. The first, running with the tide is pessimistic. The second, fighting against the prevailing forces offers a more positive outcome. This is not a book without hope, far from it, it should be seen as liberating to those who want to make a positive difference but recognise that this requires collaboration and meaningful attention to what we do on a daily basis at and between all levels.
In short this is a tonic to those tired of the broken promises of mainstream healthcare policy and change. The language is not passive – it is clearly written by someone who cares; perhaps that is the overriding message – we should all care and show that we care.