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.

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.

Action Research and Strategic Analysis: Learning From Each Other

I have a foot in both camps: business strategic analysis/organisational development and academic organisational research.  I’m always interested when one can add something to the other – and this is the purpose of this posting.

Action Research is a field of organisational research that aims to be rigorous source of academic knowledge in the ‘tricky’ area of people in organisations.  By ‘tricky’ I mean that people are unpredictable – they have their own minds.  Therefore research does not lend itself to the ‘certainty’ that can be found in maths, physics and other hard sciences.  However, a rigorous approach to researching people in organisations can provide valuable insights that can be of benefit to organisations themselves and academia.

In order to achieve this research must be rigorously set up, conducted and assessed.  This is vital in order to follow the inevitable twists and turns that occur in researching people and organisations.  In my experience the world of strategic analysis has much to learn from academia, even the big management consulting firms could pick up more than a few tips.

Several years ago the NHS Research Health Technology Assessment team came up with a number questions that help to assess the quality of research, analysis and projects in Action Research.  To me these are relevant today as they were then.  Here are a few:

  • Is there a clear statement of the aims and objectives
  • Is the approach to be used (in this case Action Research) the most appropriate method
  • Will the research be project managed in an appropriate way (proportionate to size and complexity)
  • What are the ethical issues that are envisaged and how might they be handled
  • Is there sufficient funding and time
  • Will the actual data and insights that might be gained along the way address the question
  • How will the rigour of the findings be tested and checked along the way
  • If and when things change or take a different turn will the approach be able to cope – is there sufficient flexibility
  • If the project is split into phases are the objectives of these clear and will the envisaged approach address these
  • Is there a clear link between the proposal and an existing body of knowledge (for example within an organisation) in order to give it context
  • At each step along the way will there be an opportunity to reflect on progress to date and how this addresses the original objective.  It might well be that the objective needs to change in light of one’s research
  • Is it clear how the research will be read and judged

I am not suggesting that these questions should be set, answered at the beginning of a project and fixed; but they do offer a useful agenda for both the client and the consultant to develop a shared understanding and to hold each other to account.

Source: Waterman, H, Tillen, D, Dickson, R and de Koning, K (2001) Action research: a systematic review and guidance for assessment, Health Technology Assessment, Vol 5, No 23, p48-51