Category Archives: practice

Complexity and Management Conference 3-5th June 2022 – the theory of practice and the practice of theory

Practitioners often have an ambivalent relationship with theory, and much academic writing may not help. Academic articles can often seem obscure and are usually aimed at other academics rather than managers and consultants working in every day organisational life. Scholars in business schools have long been aware of the problem and have written about the crisis of relevance of organisational scholarship. Equally, there may also be a tendency among consultants to climb aboard the latest bandwagon, to try too quickly to squeeze complex ideas into grids and frameworks, and to instrumentalise. Consultants are paid to know and perhaps to simplify.

How, then to navigate between the potential collapse of important ideas into instrumental two by two girds and frameworks, on the one hand, and the kind of knowledge that is valued in the Academy? What kind of knowledge do we need from practice for practice?

During next year’s Complexity and Management Conference, June 3-5th 2022, we are delighted to welcome Prof Davide Nicolini to help stimulate our thinking about practice and knowledge.  Davide is Professor of Organization Studies at Warwick Business School where he co-directs the IKON Research Centre and co-ordinates the Practice, Process and Institution Research Programme. His current research focuses on the development of the practice-based approach and the refinement and promotion of processual, relational and materialist research methods. 

As usual the currency of the conference is discussion, and the weekend will comprise lots of opportunities to talk about the experience of trying to get things done together. The conference will begin 7pm Friday 3rd June and end at lunchtime on the Sunday. The booking website will go up in the New Year.

Complexity and Management Online Symposium 9.30-5.00pm Sat Nov 20th, 2021. Booking soon!

One of the great promises of an accelerated and globalised world, is that it would increase autonomy, freedom and choice. But that’s not how it has turned out, according to German sociologist Hartmut Rosa . Instead social acceleration has led to greater disorientation and fragmentation and a deficiency of resonance. We find ourselves in frenetic standstill. Nothing remains the same, but nothing essentially changes. The more rapidly changing circumstances oblige us to plan to keep up, the more we realise the plans we do make and our methods of planning are inadequate for the new situations we find ourselves in. Acceleration produces its own disruptions, traffic jams, outages and lacunae.

We are also remade in our relationship with ourselves and with the world. In rapidly changing times greater social advantage is gained by those who have fewer commitments, are more flexible in their sense of self and their convictions. The idea that we might have enduring principals, values if you like, to which we cleave, appears slightly old fashioned. Why would we stand firm for anything in a society which appears to value endless adaptability and flexibility? At the same time we encounter an increase in life events, but a hollowing out of experience, which can lead to depression  and ennui, and an attenuation of resonant relationships. This makes it harder to gain determinacy, to recognise ourselves and others in a shifting world.

Are there advantages to be gained, then by waiting, by dwelling with events to transform them into experience? Is this an argument for staying put, for standing firm, for not rushing on to an idealised future, or at least not yet, but to reflect on what’s going on and to take the time to do so.

The online Complexity and Management Symposium is a good place to do this. The working title is: The Complexity of Waiting. It’s an online event for anyone who enjoys reflecting in large groups and small on the experience of being in relation in the early 21st C.

Enjoy the sense of irony that we have been kept waiting by the university for the booking site to go up. But , it may only be a week before you can collapse the excitement of waiting into the purchase of a ticket for the event. In the meantime, if you would like to offer a workshop in the afternoon related to the theme of the Symposium, please contact me on c.mowles@herts.ac.uk .

I hope to see you there.

Complexity and Management Conference 4-6th June 2021 – booking now.

The Complexity and Management Conference 4-6th June 2021 – The Complexity of Practice, is open for booking now. Here is the booking page.

This year we are delighted to have Professor Hari Tsoukas, who is well known to many of you,  as our key note speaker. Hari is Columbia Ship Management Professor of Strategic Management at the University of Cyprus and Distinguished Research Environment Professor of Organization Studies at Warwick Business School. He is best known for his contributions to understanding organizations as knowledge and learning systems, for re-viewing organizational phenomena through the lens of process philosophy, for exploring practical reason in organizational contexts as well as the epistemology of reflective practice in management, and for bringing insights from Aristotelian, Wittgensteinian and Heideggerian philosophy to organization and management studies.

The staging of this year’s conference is no less an uncertain undertaking than last year’s. So we are organising for a face to face event, but at the same time preparing to go online. This means that the booking page requires you to make two payments. The first is a deposit (£100), and the second (£700) is to top up the payment to the full conference fee amount (£800). Should the face to face event be cancelled and we move online, we will refund you the top-up amount (£700) and keep the deposit as payment for the online event. This is the way the university best copes with refunds and it will save you going through the whole process again.

The event will, as usual, be highly participative and deliberative. If face to face, the conference begins on the evening of Friday 4th June with complementary drinks and gala dinner, and ends after lunch on Sunday 6th June. The conference fee covers all board and lodging for the event at Roffey Park Institute, Horsham UK. If we move online the conference will be just Saturday 5th June from 9am till 5.30pm.

There are limited places, so book early to avoid disappointment. I will send out an agenda early May once it is clear what kind of event we will be staging.

Whether face to face or online, the afternoon of Saturday 5th will comprise seminars presented by conference delegates emerging from some aspect of their work related to the conference theme on which they would like to convene a discussion. If you would like to convene such a seminar, please contact me.

On Friday 4th June, whether face to face or online, there is an introductory workshop to the ideas which inform the Doctor of Management (DMan) programme, a perspective we term complex responsive processes of relating. The workshop too will be very participative and discussive, drawing on delegates’ every day experience at work.

Looking forward to seeing you there, one way or another.

Complexity and Management Conference and workshops 5/6th June 2020

Complexity and Collaboration – implications for leadership and practice

The booking sites for the workshops on Friday 5th June and the Complexity and Management Conference on Saturday 6th June are now open to the public.

The workshop Improvising in the complexity of collaboration and conflict on Friday 5th June 9-5pm will explore the enabling constraints of ‘working live’ whilst remaining socially distant from colleagues. The workshop is likely to be most beneficial to delegates who have previously attended one of our programmes or conference, or are familiar with our way of working. Access to Zoom and a desk based PC plus a phone or a tablet is required.

The workshop  is convened Prof Karen Norman, Prof Henry Larsen and colleagues from the Universities of Southern Denmark and Hertfordshire and is open to 20 participants (with a wait list if oversubscribed).

The booking site is here.

The workshop An Introduction to Complex Responsive Processes on Friday 5th June 9-5pm is on the main principles of the perspective of complex responsive processes, which we offer every year. It is a highly participative introduction to complexity and its organisational implications drawing on delegates’ workplace experience, and is offered by Prof Chris Mowles. Maximum 30.

The booking site is here

This year’s conference entitled Complexity and Collaboration – implications for leadership and practice is on Saturday 6th June 9.005 pm and we are delighted to have Prof Barbara Simpson as our keynote speaker from first thing in the morning. The rest of the day will be highly participative and discussive, involving break out groups to discuss the keynote. In the afternoon workshops will be offered by conference delegates on aspects of their work related to the theme. Members of faculty will sum up some of the key themes of the day in a final plenary which will be as participative as the size of the conference will allow online. Maximum 60 people.

The booking site is here.

Looking forward to seeing you there. Apologies if you have already received this information elsewhere.

 

Complexity and Management Conference on Collaboration 5-7th June 2020. Booking open now.

Complexity and Collaboration – implications for leadership and practice

Being part of a group engaged in a joint enterprise provokes all kinds of mixed feelings and responses in people: it can be uplifting and satisfying, while at the same time triggering frustrations and petty rivalries. Without other people it’s hard to get work done, while at the same time work would be easy if it weren’t for other people. Collaboration pitches us into the uncertainty of exploring our interdependencies with others. It has also become a buzz-word in contemporary organisational life and has been linked to idealisations of innovation, trust and highskydiving-functioning teams. But is collaboration more like happiness – we will know after we have collaborated successfully that we have done so, but the moment we set it up as a goal to be achieved instrumentally it will continue to evade our grasp? When are we collaborating and when are we colluding?

This year’s Complexity and Management Conference 5-7th June at Roffey Park near Horsham UK , will take the experience of collaboration seriously and explore the implications for management, leadership and practice more generally. To support us with the task Prof Barbara Simpson has kindly agreed to be our key note speaker on Saturday 6th June. In the afternoon of the Saturday there will be workshops led by conference delegates linked to the conference theme. If you would like to put your name forward to convene such a workshop, please let me know.

On Friday 5th June there are two one day workshops. One is an introduction to the perspective of complex responsive processes, which informs the professional doctorate, the DMan, offered by the University of Hertfordshire. This workshop is suitable for people who would like a basic introduction to the ideas and is convened by Prof Chris Mowles. The second workshop, Improvising in the complexity of collaboration and conflict, introduces techniques of improvised theatre through ‘working live’ with professional actors on participants’ stories from their workplace. The workshop is convened by Prod Henry Larsen and Prof Karen Norman.

The conference booking page is now open and can be accessed here. Workshops and conference can be booked separately and together. The conference fee comprises all board and lodging.

 

So what shall we do?

After a series of workshops in Australia a colleague observed to me that the perspective of complex responsive processes is very good at taking apart the dominant discourse on management. It does so systematically and methodically, and although making no claims to be the only school of thought which takes a critical stance towards instrumental management theory, it appears to offer nothing in its place. As my Australian colleague observed, ‘so what do you leave people with. What should they do?’ Continue reading

Learning to talk to one another – politics and practical judgement

I went to hear Prof Colin Crouch promote his new book The Knowledge Corrupters: Hidden Consequences of the Financial Takeover of Public Life at the Institute for Government.

Crouch’s thesis is that the financialisation of public institutions reduces the meaning of what they do to a limited number of numerical targets and performance indicators often of a financial kind. This has the effect of also reducing the spectrum of knowledge we need fully to be employees, citizens and customers and constrains expert judgement. It has the effect of trumping all other valuations of particular organizational or social problems with one supposed truth, that of the bottom line or a financial target.

One example he gives of the consequences of financialization from the UK is the monetary incentive offered to GPs to refer more patients with suspected Alzheimer’s disease for further medical tests. The incentive is problematic on a number of fronts: although it is offered on the basis of encouraging behaviour which politicians deem to beneficial to the public as a whole, it nonetheless implies that GPs would not refer patients without such a financial reward. It enacts a theory of motivation at odds with the medical profession’s own values: the overwhelming majority of doctors would not consider it either necessary or desirable to be offered money to refer someone for tests who needs them. Additionally, in Crouch’s terms it has the potential for corrupting expert knowledge as well as creating perverse incentives. Crouch is not implying that professionals need no scrutiny or don’t need managing, but he does argue that financial targets, and numerical targets more generally, are a crude measure of what is really important in specific situations when the work is complex. It is a very crude, mistrustful intervention to bring about a greater focus on potential Alzheimer’s sufferers. Continue reading

Working with the paradox of theory and practice

In this post I will discuss some of the similarities and differences between scientific method in the natural and social sciences and question what it might mean to be scientific about the social. I will focus particularly on the nexus of theory and practice. This is important in the field of management where theories proliferate but where much less work is done to understand how these theories play out and evolve in organisational life, no matter what the strength of the prior claim that they have been empirically tested.

I doubt that anyone would want to make the case that what we are lacking in management is enough theories. Just to take the domain of leadership as an example, we are assailed with contradictory and competing theories, such as trait theories, behavioural theories, theories of transformational leadership, servant leadership, distributed leadership, and more latterly agile and sustainable leadership. An enormous amount of work goes into elaborating theories which are supposed to be ‘applied’ to organisations, accepting implicitly the dualism between theory, assumed to be the most important work, and practice, a lesser activity which has to be brought into line with theory. This distinction reaches back to the dispute between Plato and Aristotle, who disagreed as to the relative importance of each, with Aristotle arguing that in the field of human action, theories are necessary but insufficient:

[phronesis]is not concerned with universals only; it must also take cognizance of particulars, because it is concerned with conduct, and conduct has its sphere in particular circumstances. That is why some people who do not possess theoretical knowledge are more effective in action (especially if they are experienced) than others who do possess it.[1]

For Aristotle phronesis, or practical judgement, will always involve the interplay of the particular and the general, a broad idea about what one is engaged in tempered by the particular circumstances of the forum in which one is acting.

In the Academy, however, the majority side with Plato about the importance of universals, and much greater esteem is accorded to theorising about management. Doctoral researchers in organisational studies who embark on traditional PhDs are expected to make a contribution to knowledge, which can be narrowly understood as the development and testing of a new theory. This is considered to be a close parallel to the methods used in the natural sciences – anything else would be ‘unscientific’. However, scientific method and insights are not monolithic and there are specific differences between the natural and social worlds. In the next section I will rehearse how the analogies from the complexity sciences, which have informed the perspective of complex responsive processes, come to problematize the idea of theory-generation about the social. Continue reading

On feeling safe – paradoxes of group life

A frequent complaint to be heard in many group situations is the remark ‘it doesn’t feel safe here’.

So common is this utterance that I wanted to give some time to exploring its implications for the dilemmas we face in working with groups of all types.

The remark is most likely to be heard openly voiced in the experiential setting of training and psychotherapy groups . However I suggest that it is a common phenomenon in the politics of all groups, often expressed more covertly as an internal dialogue or within a subgroup, which configures before and after meetings.

The questions raised through this complaint are therefore also relevant to the politics of the workplace as well as to the challenges of experiential group work. The remark concerning safety in the group setting is often spoken with a tone of admonition as if responsibility for feelings of safety lay elsewhere and outside of the participation of the speaker and often, although not exclusively, with some figure of authority such as a course leader, therapist, chairperson or parental imago.

The implication is that if only the ‘feeling of safety’ prevailed that full and uninhibited participation in the group’s activities would ensue. Continue reading

On Being Managed. Ethics as conflictual process.

In going about my work doing organisational consultancy for the healthcare community,I have recently been struck by increasing references to managing as some kind of self evident right as if the term itself was incontestable and represented a quasi divine ordering of things reminiscent of the feudal .

Last week I was asked by managers to engage with three separate 
situations in which this right was apparent at the outset of the conversation.

In the first I was told,

‘nobody in this day and age can say that they don’t need to be managed’.

In the second and third situations I was offered the explanation that team difficulties were caused by,

‘not being used to being managed’

and that

‘they have got away with doing their own thing for far too long’.

Continue reading