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.

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.

Trust in Organisational Life – Call for papers

Capture1Trust is an essential lubricant of working relationships.  Over the last year I have become increasingly interested in this, which led me to carry out a research project with Alison Donaldson, funded by Roffey Park.

I have now been invited to act as guest editor of the Winter 2016 edition of e-Organisations and People (e-O&P), the journal of AMED, on trust.

Here are some examples of the kind of articles that I am interested in:

  • Accounts of how trust can be affected (for good or/and ill) by either planned or accidental actions. By planned, I mean, for example, an organisational development initiative that has been deliberately designed and implemented to improve how a group is working together. By accidental, I mean the unintended consequences of a misjudgement, an external shock and/or some cunning or political action.
  • You might have developed a way of conceptualising trust, or perhaps a framework for generating trust. If so, how has this has been taken up and used in the workplace? What has this enabled?  And what other important issues might it be distracting us from?
  • Something from left field that takes a refreshing and insightful view of trust that might challenge some of our basic assumptions about the nature and manifestations of trust.

These are just a few suggestions. You may well have others.  If this strikes a chord with you, please send me a brief initial proposal of 200-300 words by 15 July. If you’d like to discuss your ideas beforehand, please get in touch too.

My e-mail address:

Our publication timetable is:

  • 15th July 2016: Expressions of interest to guest editor.
  • 15th September: First drafts to guest editor (earlier if possible).
  • 30 November: Winter 2016 e-O&P is published online.

About e-Organisations & People

e-O&P is AMED’s quarterly online journal, published in pdf format. For 25 years, e-O&P has been connecting the worlds of work, theory, ideas, innovation and practice by making new knowledge and original thinking available to developers, facilitators and their clients through persuasive writing.

Our readers and authors are both practitioners and academics who are curious about life in organisations and about how we might affect that life and each other for the better.

Articles are normally between 1,500 – 3,000 words, written in an engaging and lively style that will be of interest to academics and alike.  We encourage the use of headings, images, diagrams and live hyperlinks.  Following receipt of your expression of interest, we will send you a copy of e-O&P’s Guide to Contributors.

Editions of e-O&P are often associated with a lively pre- or post-publication gatherings. As far as it can, e-O&P aims to support its authors according to principles of critical friendship.

I look forward to receiving your initial expression of interest (a simple paragraph or set of notes outlining your provisional ideas) by 15 July.

Decembers’ Postscript:

We had a great response to our call from all over the world. Over the last few months we have been working closely with several authors who had similarly pondered the nature of trust. The journal editorial can be found by clicking on the following link.

The flip side of provocation (of bridges and walls)

ScanccyyySometimes a word catches me and unravels. And that is what happened with ‘provocation’. A little of the detail. I met with Julian Stodd and colleagues from Sea Salt Learning the other day. Julian handed me a copy of =Q@L[equal], a magazine with the tagline ‘provocative writing for a more equal world’ – see picture. Julian writes:

=Q@L[eqaul] is a collection of ideas: a provocation and call to arms. It’ a space to reflect, to challenge.

To me there are two sides of the coin, one good the other bad:

  1. The bridge: We say or write something that jars, perhaps it is at the edge or beyond accepted wisdom. This leads to a shift in thought, there might be a striking moment as the person reconciles an experience they have had with that new perspective. Even the provocateur can be moved as they see their idea taken up in new ways; together both parties see the world differently, even slightly. And from this transformation and novelty emerges.
  2. The wall: The other side is problematic. Here we provoke others and in doing so we build walls (quite literally if we are to believe what we hear from the US Presidential Elections). Words of provocation are said and opinions become entrenched, it prevents ideas developing, it fails to build bridges of understanding. We cannot see or imagine the world differently beyond our own self interest.

The wall creates ‘otherness’, a separation between people from which identity grows often at the expense the marginalised that have little power or voice. This is a powerful dynamic that once started can be hard to stop.

The bridge on the other hand is fragile. It requires nurturing and an attention to the dynamics between people. We need to test and understand our own movement of thought and those around us as our ideas emerge. We need to accept that there will be misunderstanding and friction, but this is an opportunity for further conversation and deeper understanding. In other words, to strengthen the bridge.

It seems to me that people are becoming all too keen on building walls without looking to history to see the consequences. By the time we realise it might be too late to stop. Building bridges is hard, we need to be challenging of ourselves and other around us.

Details of =Q@L[equal] can he found here.

The ‘bus test’ for our academic work


Source: Wikimedia – Arriva436

Several weeks ago I was asked to review an academic paper that was to be presented at a leading management conference. I read the title and it made no sense to me whatsoever. It was only half way through the abstract that I got an inkling. Towards the end of the introduction I had got it, just. And once I had waded through the paper and read it again it said something that was interesting and relevant. The authors were playing a tightly woven game with a small group of fellow researchers interested in a focused area of organisational life using a particular methodology.  Now I appreciate we all have our shorthand, jargon and people we want to impress. That said we must be mindful of the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts –people who are struggling to make sense of their organisational lives.

In my review I made the following comment: ‘If your paper was left on a bus and picked up by a busy manager what would they make of it?’ In other words, how might it shine a light on their practice, which may at times may seem unfathomable to them.

So I propose a test, which I will call ‘the bus test’. Before we send of our papers and books off for review we should hand our efforts to someone facing the areas of research we are interested in. They should at least be able to understand the title and abstract. Better still that they can relate to what has been said. That is not to say that they should agree, but at least they should be able to form an opinion from which a conversation could occur. Only then can the authors dive into their focused arguments, literature and methods.

As an aside, much has been has been said about Open Access in academia where citizens have the right to have access to research material. To my mind this is a part of a similar debate particularly in the field of leadership and management.