Let’s be enthusiastic in our writing (and someone might read it)

HanifanDuring the course of my research on trust I came to read an academic paper on social capital that was nearing a hundred years old (Hanifan, 1916).  It was by the educationalist Lyra Hanifan who became interested in how people learn for the benefit of themselves and others.  It struck me how well written it was, albeit with a few terms we would now seem dated.  The quality of the paper was markedly different from many of today’s papers I have to trawl through.  What was different, here are a few thoughts:

  • It was written by someone who was interested in the subject and was eager to communicate his enthusiasm. I could imagine Hanifan thinking to himself that what he had to say would be of interest to many people and he wrote with those people in mind.
  • He probably did not feel as constrained as we are today to make a tightly formed argument that would address a focused academic point that had been rumbling on for years.
  • The life had not been mangled out by one re-work after another following reviewers’ comments.

I am not calling for a ‘return’ to a non-existent golden age, but we can be more thoughtful of the habits we have all fallen into.  By habits I do not just mean us authors, but the conventions we have all adopted in deciding what ‘good’ is and its usefulness.  Perhaps if we did we might become a little more relevant.  In other words to address some of the concerns that Michael Billig pointed to in his book How to Write Badly and Succeed in Social Sciences (Billig, 2013).

Billig M (2013) How to write badly: How to succeed in social sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hanifan L (1916) The Rural School Community Centre. American Academy of Political and Social Science, 67(May), 130–138.


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.


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.

Nature of Wholeness – a small tribute to Henri Bortoft

HB2I have just heard about the death of Henri Bortoft. For those unaware of his work he was a quantum physicist who worked under David Bohm. It was here that he became fascinated by the nature of ‘wholeness’ first in connection with quantum theory and later in relation to how we come to experience our world, particularly working with the ideas of Goethe.
His work resonated with me particularly in relation to the frustration I experienced regarding the target culture in the UK’s National Health Service. I penned the following paragraphs a few years ago before the General Election of 2010. As I read this now it seems that Bortoft’s way of thinking seems as relevant today as it always has been.  I hope this encourages to read some of his work.
There has been much talk in the UK press recently about spending cuts to curb public expenditure as a result of the recent economic downturn. Politicians talk of 5%, 10% 15% cuts – conveniently rounded numbers. What is absent is the detail of how this will or could play out. Whichever government comes to power after the General Election is likely to take these rough (but neatly rounded) percentage figures and turn them into targets, budgets, action plans and the like. It reminded me of a book by Michael Barber called Instruction to Deliver, retelling his account of how he led Tony Blair’s “Delivery Unit” after the 2001 General Election. A book comes with a new word “Deliverology” and a “Delivery Manual” at the end. I don’t intend to write a book review here, but I would simply like to point out how little the actual experience of the practitioner (the teacher, nurse, or even the manager) features. Take for example the then Health Secretary’s (Alan Milburn) mission: “He was very clear what his task was – to drive through the reforms, take on the vested interests, bring in private sector providers …and build on … choice … to ensure results were met” (Barber, 2007, p132). No mention of what was valued by nurses or doctors as practitioners whose job it was to make people better.
Much has been written about the necessity and/or the deficiency of targets and performance measures. I would like to highlight one area; that of the depleting effect that targets can have on the work of the practitioner. Although this is not new, I would like to take a different slant on this by drawing on the work of Henri Bortoft and his interpretation of the work of the German polymath Goethe.
In a description of the act of reading, Bortoft makes the point that in moving from a word to a paragraph, to a chapter of a book, a person loses awareness of an individual word or words (unless they make a particularly memorable quote). However, this is not to say that they have become nothing, as Bortoft says:

We do not take the meaning of a sentence to be a word. The meaning of a sentence is no-word. But evidently this is not the same as nothing, for if it were we would never read! The whole presence within parts, but from the standpoint of awareness that grasps the external parts, the whole is an absence. This absence, however, is not the same as nothing. Rather it is an active absence inasmuch as we do not try to be aware of the whole as if we could grasp it like a part, but instead let ourselves be open to be moved by the whole. (1998, p286)

Bortoft then goes on to provide a further example that relates to actors performing a play at a point of transformation between a group of separate performing players and the emergence of the wholeness of a play in performance:

The actors no longer impose themselves on the play as if it were an object to be mastered, but they listen to the play and allow themselves to be moved by it. In this way they enter into the parts in such a way that the play speaks through them. This is how, their awareness occupied with the lines to be spoken, they encounter the whole of the play (p286).

A more vivid, but more simplistic, example is when I see my son, building a complex model out of Lego. The blocks are physically there but his mind is tuned to what the model is becoming. In this sense the building blocks are receding to “no-thing-ness”.
To return to the issue of targets and performance measures. Regarding health, targets related to how long a patient waited in Accident and Emergency (4 hours), how long for an operation (18 weeks), bacterial infections such as MRSA and so on. In education the work of teachers was often assessed on the quality of lesson plans or marking. There are many other examples I could cite. In a discussion on the nature of the “expert” Stuart and Hugh Dreyfus (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986, p30) describe him or her as someone who acts intuitively and becomes immersed and at one with what they need to do. Targets however rarely relate to the higher wholeness by which practitioners and experts work. What tends to be the focus are those atomised building blocks, the active absence; the Lego blocks, the words that makes the sentence, the lines within the script of a play. Although vital, they do not constitute the wholeness and expertise of practitioners, from different disciplines, working together, to improve people’s health and education. This is possibly one reason why the practitioners I meet, from different walks of life, feel disconnected from what they value and what they have been asked to achieve.

More detail can be found in:

Bortoft, H (1996) The Wholeness of nature – Goethe’s Way of Science, Floris Books

Bortoft, H (1998) Counterfeit and Authentic Wholes – Finding a Means for Dwelling in Nature, in Seamon D & Zajonc, A (1998) Goethe’s Way of Science, State University of New York Press

Barber, M (2007) Instruction to Deliver – Fighting to Transform Britain’s Public Services, Methuen

Dreyfus, H & Dreyfus, S (1986) Mind Over Machine, Free Press

Coping with the end of reductionalist leadership in a complex world – insights from complexity and social movement

The King’s fund in the UK is an important think tank commenting on UK health policy.  Last week it published its thoughts on leadership and engagement.  As part of this the King’s Fund commissioned a report from the Centre for Health Enterprise at Cass Business School in London of which I am part.

Following a comprehensive literature review, heavily influenced by complexity sciences, we came up with seven essential criteria that are important to consider in an increasingly complex world, these were:

  • Go out of your way to make new connections.
  • Adopt an open, enquiring mind-set, refusing to be constrained by current horizons.
  • Embrace uncertainty and be positive about change – adopt an entrepreneurial attitude.
  • Draw on as many different perspectives as possible; diversity is non-optional.
  • Ensure leadership and decision-making are distributed throughout all levels and functions.
  • Establish a compelling vision which is shared by all partners in the whole system.
  • Promote the importance of values – invest as much energy into relationships and behaviours as into delivering tasks.

So what has changed over the last few years to make this more important?  There are a number of reasons, but here I would like to look at one – social movements, which has been the subject of a previous post.  Here we stated:

The past five years has redefined the place of social movements, earning them a new place in papers like this, simply because the world of social media technologies has emerged so rapidly and with such powerful effect that social movements have almost unfettered and certainly uncontrollable power. The timeline for social movements has been rewritten. Mobilisation is now achieved in a shorter time than that required for differences and conflicts to emerge. The social movement exceeds critical mass long before fragmentation begins. In a world of instant, viral communication to a staggering proportion of the target population, the spontaneity of action and the lack of structures have reversed the power balance, so that social movements can form, mobilise, gain headlines and have powerful impact before organised systems are even aware of any opportunities or threat. (p14).

Not only have the rules of the game have changed, the boundaries of the ‘pitch’ have gone.  Whereas leaders used to think about a defined remit of their activity (for example boundaries of a single department or organisation) they now need to be far more aware of the entire ‘ecosystem(s)’ of which they are part.  In this case I’m thinking of the general public, patients, staff, the other organisations that come to affect the ecosystem, education, social care and many more.  In other words, there is the end to the illusion of certainly.  However, this is not to say that randomness takes its place.  There is a form of order, but not in the sense of comforting reductionalist predictability.  By reductionalist I mean that a problem can be separated and understood from its component parts allowing wider conclusions to be drawn on the whole.   However, useful insights can be made in considering the entire dynamic entity as it continually emerges and develops.  And it is here that the above bullet points are important.  This is why I have used a photograph of eroding sandstone as a metaphor for this post.  Although it is random in the sense of each grain of sand and the exact formation of the pattern there are predictable themes that do emerge, from which further thought (and in our actual case) action can be taken.

This brings me onto my final point –how should these seven bullets points be used?  Firstly, not as a point by point list, or like some instruction manual akin to assembling a piece of flat pack furniture.  That reductionalist approach would run counter to my argument.  Instead, I would suggest that they prompt conversation between people as to how they are jointly making sense of the developing and emerging world that they are a part of.   To have these conversations regularly and to share stories and experiences that makes sense to them and those that don’t.  Also, it enables people to explore their ability to become more intuitive of the emerging dynamic.  In this way the above bullet points become a prompt to conversation and joint understadning and not a constraint.

Reference: Welbourn, D, Warwick, R, Carnell, C and Fathers, D (2012) Leadership of Whole Systems, King’s Fund: http://www.kingsfund.org.uk/publications/leadership_review_12.html (Accessed: 29.05.2012)

How the practice of research challenges both research and practice

12llA couple of days I ran a workshop at Cass Business School with a friend on how clinical research comes to affect practice.  As a case study we used the experience of Macmillan Cancer Support, an organisation that enables people to live with of cancer.  The particular aspect of Macmillan’s work that we discussed had a simple aim: it centred on the question of how different professionals and researchers across different organisations can overcome traditional boundaries and work together for the benefit of the patient.

Traditionally in research the objectives are stated,methodology agreed, actions implemented, results obtained, conclusions drawn and findings published: a key feature being a separation between the funding organisation, the researchers and the researched.  However, in the community we talked about (a group of researchers most of whom had clinical backgrounds) the practice of research was interwoven with the activity of practitioners.

This approach draws all the players on the ‘pitch’, in this case the commissioners, researchers, practitioners and patients; they became actively involved as the work developed and as insights became apparent and different courses of action decided upon.  This is a real opportunity.  It forces the questions; ‘is the work that were doing together useful, does it deliver the outcomes that both the researchers and the practitioners need and what do we need to do next?’

So, in undertaking research along with practice it enables the development of a collective memory that enables further discussions to be taken with sound evidence from research.  It also provided evidence to discuss with commissioners and others of the value (or not) of various practices and working relationships.

In this approach there are links with Action Research particularly: a focus on getting to grips with practical organisational problems; an emergent approach to how research was conducted;and using insights as they become apparent to initiate beneficial change.  However, there were differences, for instance there was no mention of cycles of research and activity, or indeed of ‘steppingback’ and considering the activity from a neutral space as is commonly spoken about.

The way of working pioneered by Macmillan has not only delivered practical benefits for the organisation, the researchers and the patient, but also provided a real challenge on how we carry out research.

Reference:  Donaldson, A., Lank, E., & Maher, J. (2011). Communities of Influence – Improving Healthcare Through Conversations and Connections. London and New York: Radcliffe Publishing.

Sitting Around the ‘Totem Pole’ of Documents

Last week I attended a meeting having received a bundle of papers, about ½ inch thick, the week before.

By way of background, I had been asked by the head of a small college that runs masters courses to be an external advisor. I was to be one of two external voices at an important validation meeting with the university that accredited them. For the college (that does some fantastic work in sustainability, ecology and the way we interact with the world) this was a very important meeting. I had arrived the day before, had dinner with the faculty and met with some of the students very informally, they shared some of their work with me and how they went about things. In short, I got a real feeling for the ethos of the place and what they were seeking to achieve.

So, back to the meeting. There were about twelve of us sat around a large boardroom table with a chairman who called the meeting to order. Each of us had our own ½ inch bundle of paper in front of us that would come to form the focus for much individual shuffling and attention.

What I noticed were the number of times various important topics and phrases would crop up that would have very common meaning but were being used in quite different ways. Even the subject of assessment caused a disconnect between those in the room; some had a very traditional view, others saw it being integrated throughout the entire experience of learning. But there were others such as transferable skills and how resources were managed. From my visit I had seen at first-hand how thoroughly (but less conventionally) these issues were being effectively dealt with.

It seemed to me that we were all sitting around a Totem Pole, in this case staring at the piles of identical paper in front of us. Each of us had our own view informed by our personal experiences. Many of us thought we were looking at the same Totem, but in fact those different angles and perspectives became the sources of division and tension. In many cases this can be good, and forms the basis of a creative engagement. I did not feel that was the case here.
So, what could be done? One response might be to ask for more detail to be put into the paper work, and that is what was requested during the course of the meeting. However, to me there seems to be something absent. Wouldn’t it be better to just stand up and walk around the Totem, to actually see and feel other people’s perspectives? The day I had with the students and staff was invaluable, I could sense the work they were doing, and how they went about it and the importance of their overall project they were embarked on. What brought this home to me was a comment by one of the university staff afterwards: ‘… of course, we used to go out and speak with the students, we just don’t have the time anymore’. Paperwork is important, but it can never replace lived experience.

Just as a post script, I’m pleased to say that the meeting was actually a success and that the course has been validated.