Through the eyes of Imogen and Jas: what the future says about today

DL9LaBcWsAEjD-MTo be frank it was a mix of intrigue and scepticism that struck me when James first suggested science fiction. James Traeger and I have just finished the first cut of our book on organisation development.  It is aimed at the curious organisation development (OD) practitioner who asks themselves ‘is it me, or has the world gone insane’, particularly in their everyday work with people and organisations. It is a hopeful book, but not one with false promises. We give voice to the skillful muddling through that is much of our work, and in doing so we mostly achieve some positive effect but perhaps not exactly the one that we had envisaged. It is a response to a rhetoric of ‘we can get there only if we had the right model’ driven by what I see as OD’s science envy.

Back to science fiction. Last week we held the first event to talk about the book with fifty of us gathered in a large room overlooking London’s Hatton Garden. We set the scene in 2048 introducing two characters, Jas Porter, an aged OD practitioner who could remember the turn of the millennium, and a younger Imogen Sharp a person who was ‘more than human’. Despite widely recognised success both of them were curious and unsettled about their place in society, in organisations and indeed who they had become. And how these questions affected their practice and ideas of OD.

With flip charts dotted around the room displaying chapter headings of the book such as ‘how change happens’, ‘ethics and politics’, ‘the craft of OD’ conversations began. From quiet huddles to lively hubbubs discussions quickly gathered pace. Free from explaining the ‘realities’ of the here and now the future enabled our imagination to roam. And then having ventured far and wide to ask those questions: what will our world of work be like; how will be go about organising; what will it be like for us as individuals? A colleague of mine reminded me of Fredric Jameson’s (Jameson, 2005) observation that science fiction is always about the present, pointing out that: ‘… even our wildest imaginings are the collages of experience, constructs made up of bits and pieces of the here and now’ (pxiii). Having worked on the book with James and experienced the energy in the room I’m now convinced, science fiction is a great enabler of imagination both in our own minds whilst quietly reading a book but also in working with groups to get a collective sense of new possibilities.

Jameson, F. (2005). Archaeologies of the future : the desire called utopia and other science fictions. London and New York: Verso.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Using complexity analogies as a way of exploring knowledge and practice

cropped-picture-of-dunes-22.pngI have been asked to give a presentation to a group of doctoral students in the Netherlands on how we might use complexity as a way of understanding what we are doing in organisations. I was asked to prepare an abstract which I will share:

Traditional management theories have a tendency to focus on general terms that might include ‘culture’, ‘leadership’, and ‘strategy’ etc and use these to create models and frameworks to explain the present and predict the future. In doing so there is a reification, namely the way of relating to these terms as if they were fixed entities. We can trace this back in Western thought to the work of Kant.  Here the emphasis of understanding includes a dualism between people and organisations, the collapse of contradictory but ever present tensions that people deal with and a formative process of causality that implies an understanding of the future based upon the unfolding of pre-set factors.

Considering the work of Stacey and others (Stacey et al., 2000) we can challenge this approach and their assumptions. Stacey is a management theorist who uses the sciences of complexity as an analogy to explore everyday interactions between people and how these come to develop into organising themes (for which the US pragmatist philosopher GH Mead (Mead, 1934) developed the theory of ‘the generalised other’). Here we can pay attention to the dynamics between: the interaction of people as they interpret the themes they notice and experience; and, how these themes themselves come to be developed from everyday interactions of people. From the interweaving of novel and established patterns transformation is possible in a process that is emergent. Empirically the approach draws on people’s routine work collected in a series of narratives often spanning several years and critically engaged within a learning set alongside organisational literature (Warwick and Board, 2013).  This has been the approach of the Complexity Management Centre based at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, in their long running doctoral programme.  This way of studying organisations and our presence as part of them enables a richer understanding of the dynamics of reified terms, for example what we might call ‘culture’.

They have termed this approach complex responsive processes of relating (Stacey et al., 2000) as a way to draw attention to the temporal nature of the processes of which we are all participant and from which no one is separate. Rather than Kant, it is influenced by Hegel’s (and those who draw on his work) notion of process and how, in our ‘rubbing along’ with each other, novelty emerges. Issues of power and paradox are explored. Power in the sense of an interconnected mesh or figurations (Elias, 1978) of which we are all part of in known and unknown ways. And paradox to give voice to ever present contradictions faced in organisations for which reconciliation is not possible. These are factors that people face daily as they go about making decisions, trying to sense plausible next steps in conditions of increased uncertainty.

For the doctoral student or academic this forms a contribution to knowledge and practice. With respect to knowledge first-hand accounts that address issues of power and how people reflexively respond are rare particularly amongst senior groups  (Warwick and Board, 2012). When it comes to practice, the individual becomes more reflexive (Cunliffe, 2009) understanding their own place in the mêlée in which they are a part. Of particular note are the power relations within ones habitus (Bourdieu, 1990) that become available for noticing thus enabling more thoughtful choices to be made as part of the paradoxes that are present in everyday decision making.

The literature I have drawn on:

Bourdieu P (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Cunliffe AL (2009) The Philosopher Leader: On Relationalism, Ethics and Reflexivity–A Critical Perspective to Teaching Leadership. Management Learning, 40(1), 87–101,

Elias N (1978) What is Sociology? New York: Columbia University Press.

Mead GH (1934) Mind, Self, & Society. Chicago: Chicago University University.

Stacey R, Griffin D and Shaw P (2000) Complexity and Management – Fad or Radical Challenge to Systems Thinking? Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Warwick R and Board D (2012) Reflexivity as methodology : an approach to the necessarily political work of senior groups. Educational Action Research, 20(1), 37–41.

Warwick R and Board D (2013) The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge: A Reflexive Inquiry Into Research and Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.