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Collaborative enquiry as social construction

Page history last edited by jo 14 years, 6 months ago


The title of the page is the title of a paper I gave at the conference which  I have attached SURREYPAPER21JUNE07.doc .
I found the conference very stimulating.  My area is work-based learning [part of my work at Middlesex University is CETL funded] but I find the theme of 'Learning through enquiry' is equally central to exploring work-based learning. My particular interest – which I want to develop – is how can workbased learning within an organisation and particularly the stories that flow from it, be fed back to it in such a way that it [the organisation] can enquire into its own practice ; in particular I am interested in the concept of an organisation’s ‘Living Theory’ that might ‘emerge’ from enquiring into its own practice


In the paper  I discuss the role that 'action research as living theory' has played at Middlesex University Business School  in placing the learner at the centre of their inquiry into their own practice. A good introduction to the concept as well as a wealth of case studies using living theorycan be found in Jack Jack Whitehead's own website


Jack together with Jean Mcniff  have been the key proponents of this approach [ see Whitehead J & Mcniff J (2006) Action Research as Living Theory  London Sage]  which has principally been the mode of inquiry of teachers.  My interest is to promote this approach to business and in the paper I  share our experience of working with a group of managers from a National Financial Institution. They used this methodology as part of an MA in Leadership and Management Practice which is based on work-based learning and close collaboration in action learning sets.


But my interest goes beyond the academic award - which I'm pleased to say all 14  managers have now attained - to following up how their 'collaborative inquiry' in their separate groups can be harnessed and fed back to the organisation so that it too might reflect on the 'living theory' emerging. Having read all 14 dissertations I have fed back to the organisation my story of the themes I saw emerging using quotes from every manager's dissertation in support of the 'claims' to knowledge I was making on their behalf.  This is the story so far. What will be interesting is how/if the organisation chooses to follow this up.


A lot depends, I think, on whether the organisation can take a 'social construction' view of itself which means seeing itself' in as many different ways as there are individual members in the organisation to see through. I found it interesting  that William Isaacs [  1999 Dialogue -and the art of thinking together Currency/Doubleday] , in promoting the need for participants in dialogue to be aware of the ‘theory’ underpinning their practice so that practice is sustainable draws attention to the ancient root of 'theory' which is the same  as ‘theatre’ =’to see’.   ‘A theory is a  way of seeing’ .


Another perspective to help them 'see' differently is an approach,which for me has been very persuasive for a number of yeras now,  that of complexity theory. A book that has influenced me a lot is Patricicia  Shaw's Changing Conversations in Organizations - A Complexity Approach [2002 Routledge]  For me this is an excellent introduction to the ideas of Ralph Stacey and work of the Centre for Complexity Management at University of Hertfordshire; but it is her use of 'conversation' that I find intriguing and insightful


‘I won’t be writing about conversations that take place “in” an organization, but about conversing as organizing. I will be describing and illustrating conversation as a process of communicative interaction which has the intrinsic capacity to pattern itself. No single individual or group has control over the forms that emerge, yet between us we are continuously shaping and being shaped by those forms from within the flow of our responsive relating’ (Shaw 2002: 11) 


In the Appendix  to the paper attached is a model I constructed some years back to try and make sense of how change takes place in organisations if we take a complexity and social constructionist view of the world. I tried to depict an organization as subject to change in two dimensions – top/ down and bottom/up ; outside/in and Inside/out. The right hand side of the model could be described as mainly in what Stacey calls ‘the legitimate zone’ responding to outside forces to shape its strategy and creating norms and procedures to ensure that top-down decisions are delivered from the bottom/up. The left hand side is more in what Stacey describes as the ‘shadow’ zone (See Appendix). In contrast to the ‘strategic view’ of organisations as shaped by ‘outside/in’ forces in this zone the organisation becomes the ‘formative’ creation of people from bottom/up – what I call the inside/out view of organizations. It is in this zone where I suggest the kind of research described above can be carried out which in turn can have an impact to ‘transform’ the ‘legitimate’ zone of the organisation.
I feel my 'wiki' time on this sunny August morning should come to an end.  I've really enjoyed sharing these thoughts. The angst moment for me now is whether at the click of a button I'm going to lose all the above into cyberspace or whether I can successfully share these thoughts with you.  I really would appreciate feedback.  My interest now is finding other companies within which to enable staff to engage in collaborative inquiry, share their stories , and show how an organisation's 'living theory' can be informed and influenced. If you know of any that might be interested please get in touch.  I also recognise the impact e-technology can have in codifying and sharing stories within organisations.  We are exploring a particular e-portfolio for this purpose.  Again I would welcome news of systems you have used that could share and process stories.
Finally, I am attaching another paper which I wrote more or less at the same time as the paper i delivered at Surrey but it was addressed to representatives of Universities at a conference Middlesex hosted last month on work based learning. It focuses on the role of a University Business School as a kind of interchange between theory and practice and draws on some of ideas of Ronald Barnett on the role of the University in an age of 'Supercomplexity' which I see is another theme featured on the wiki. Feedback on ideas in this paper would also be appreciate.





Thanks to Norman for getting me, I hope (!) started and look forward to further conversations



Comments (2)

Anonymous said

at 11:15 am on Aug 7, 2007

I'm really taken with the ideas in your paper, particularly the idea of 'living theory'. Many of us are looking for a way to bring practice and theory together and to generate useful learning from the processes of integrating our work with our thinking. I very much admire the way you have taken on, or at least raised the challenge of 'organisational learning' as the next step.

Anonymous said

at 11:21 am on Aug 7, 2007

Wow, that was quick, Jo ! I was still wondering whether I'd pressed the right button to get this across. Thanks Jo, it would be good to meet with Norman to talk further. At moment life is remarkably free but not sure how long will last

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