Organisations, OD networks and Metaphors
Over breakfast recently I heard Kate Raworth on Radio 4’s Today programme critiquing the government’s now abandoned growth-based economic policy. It reminded me how much I enjoyed reading her book Doughnut Economics which exhorts politicians – and the rest of us – to ditch the tired old economic theories that simply don’t reflect reality anymore (if they ever did).
These models have endured because they are based on powerful images such as water flowing around plumbed pipes to depict the movement of money around an economic system. She argued that UK government thinking was blighted by images that didn’t match reality (trickle-down economics anyone?) and requoted her assertion that ‘today we have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive: what we need are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow’ (Raworth, 2017, p. 30). I wondered what seismic changes would need to take place to make that happen at the level of an organisation. Conventional images and metaphors of work and organisations have a nasty habit of confining thinking, sometimes without us realising it, and Raworth wants us to notice the pictures of the models and frameworks we use to make sense of the world. In other words, she wants us to do something OD practitioners are very adept at, she wants us to be reflexive and aware of how we are thinking.
Thinking about Kate’s ideas set me reflecting on the past month at Roffey Park Institute – my new place of work as a Programme Director for Roffey Park Academy, the bit of Roffey Park that delivers academic programmes such as master’s and graduate certificates. Since making the switch from working in a university business school, I’ve been trying to get into the world of Organisational Development (OD) – for example, by attending the Organisational Development Network Europe (ODNE) conference up in Chester. I am beginning to become assimilated into the OD profession, and in doing so I am noticing the stories OD people tell about themselves, the myths, symbols, rituals and practices, the particular terminology and of course the imagery that underpin the frameworks OD people deploy in their work.
An OD outsider’s objective view
One image kept recurring: that of the OD practitioner as the outsider, working at the boundaries of organisations. The OD practitioner works alongside an organisation’s production process rather than as part of it. Jenny Rogers summarises this sort of OD role well: ‘…neutral but not neutered, unattached not detached, friendly but not a friend’ (Rogers, 2021, p. 2). This is deliberate because there are benefits to an outsider’s objective vantage point, but I wonder if it may also be a slightly distorted image – because the reality may be a much closer, involved role for the OD practitioner than the disinterested onlooker. Or maybe it’s just hard to achieve the caring-but-objective way of working in practice, especially when there are multiple individuals and groups with whom the OD practitioner works.
As I found out in a seminar run by Alistair Wylie at the ODNE conference, the OD practitioner needs to work ethically and effectively with a range of people, some with conflicting priorities: the client in the room, their manager, the client organisation, and the commissioning client organisation. The image of the outsider has a slightly maverick, rebellious quality but it may also be a lonely and separated role, and I realised that one purpose of the ODNE conference was to support the development of a community, to make the work of OD practitioners, working at the boundaries of organisations, less lonely.
Roffey Park’s MSc People and Organisational Development provides a similar sense of community because space for student interaction and conversation is built into its design. A key feature is the use of dialogic learning groups (DLGs), groups of students working together to support each other’s learning. In DLGs students provide feedback on drafts of each other’s individual assignments, and produce some assessed work together. The process of learning takes place as conversations unfold. Tutors, particularly at the beginning, are involved in some DLGs but as members of a DLG gain confidence in their ability to work together, they work more independently in their own way. Alongside more conventional lectures and workshops, the DLGs are a unique and powerful opportunity to deepen reflexive learning – noticing the images embedded in our thinking – as well as helping OD practitioners develop their own supportive network.
Tools for decision-makers
A critique of many master’s programmes in the broad area of management is that they are not very impactful on the actual practice of management. For example, back in the 1980s, Astley wondered why management theory was so poor at developing useful tools for corporate decision-makers (Astley, 1984). His dark view was that academia is about an argument for argument’s sake (sophistry in his terms) so provides little by way of practical applications. However, it does help managers by providing multiple images and symbolic discourses with which to persuade others of the need for their preferred course of action. The fact that academics can’t agree and so offer contradictory and contested images, ideas and visions is of benefit to the Machiavellian manager or practitioner seeking to deploy any image or idea that fits their purpose.
Brennan and Turnbill took a less malign view of the interplay between academic research and management practice and wondered if the problem was one of information/technology transfer (Brennan and Turnbull, 2002). After all, academics and managers have different vocabularies and different motives and exist in different cultures so perhaps the reason managers don’t use good ideas from academia is that they don’t know about them. The conversational approach embedded in Roffey Park’s programmes not only develops a community of inquiry for OD practitioners but also serves to bridge the gap between practitioner processes and academic theorising. It facilitates the transfer of ideas across the theory-practice divide and puts theory into practice.
The Roffey Park approach to OD
Roffey Park’s MSc People and Organisational Development is also distinctive because we require students to be reflexive and action-oriented to be informed and useful. It reflects Roffey Park’s origins in supporting people struggling at work at the end of World War Two through a holistic approach which combined medical treatment with diet, exercise and therapy, all tailored to the individual’s needs. The critical, ethical, reflexive approach we adopt at Roffey Park Institute develops individuals capable of moving beyond the narrow self-interest managerialist stance that Astley depicts, capable of noticing how they think and consciously re-considering the images that underpin the theories they use. The purpose of our master’s is not to give the OD practitioner tools that persuade others of the need to change their way. Instead, it develops networked, knowledgeable, OD practitioners capable of working effectively and ethically with organisations involved in creating and participating in economies that, in Raworth’s words, make us thrive whether or not they grow.
Astley, W.G. (1984) ‘SUBJECTIVITY, SOPHISTRY AND SYMBOLISM IN MANAGEMENT SCIENCE.’, Journal of Management Studies (Wiley-Blackwell), 21(3), pp. 259–272. Available at: https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib,uid&db=plh&AN=4555036&authtype=shib&site=ehost-live&scope=site&custid=s8603604.
Brennan, R. and Turnbull, P.W. (2002) ‘Sophistry, relevance and technology transfer in management research: an IMP perspective.’, Journal of Business Research, 55(7), pp. 595–602. Available at: https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib,uid&db=plh&AN=12134413&site=ehost-live&scope=site&custid=s8603604.
Raworth, K. (2017) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. London: Random House.
Rogers, J. (2021) Are You Listening?: Stories from a Coaching Life. London: Penguin Business.