Archive for the ‘My PhD and related things’ Category

There’s something intriguing about a word you almost (but not quite) understand but that  which, if you did fully understand it, you suspect would do more than simply add to one’s vocabulary. Without a vocabulary we are  figuratively, and literally, dumb. It is through our use of a varied language, as the case of Christopher Hitchens shows, that we win arguments, make points and, in fact, elaborate the world around us.

Right now, I’m contemplating the word “isomorphic”. It’s quite an elegant concept, used to describe a mapping of similar forms or relations.

The world is not wholly made of parts, but of systems of relations – and to understand how the world is ‘put together’ is to study the formal relations between parts, not the parts themselves. The study of parts cannot explain anything of the whole. To talk of “possession” therefore becomes a meaningless way of looking at the world.

Management must always involve the matter of relations between two people. More than involving, management must actually be defined as the relations between two or more people, or between people and things. The idea of someone being a manager in isolation from other people or from any other context is, more or less, absurd.

So what is management isomorphic to? Well, this is what I’m contemplating.

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In one of the Personal Development workshops I run we spend some time discussing a quotation from Henry Mintzberg’s 2004 book “Managers, not MBAs”, in which a criticism of business schools is raised. The quote is:

“Conventional MBA classrooms over-emphasise the science of management, while ignoring its art and denigrating its craft.”

I use this quotation to foster a discussion in the room on the “science”, “craft” and “art”, what they are and – importantly – in what ways are they different from each other. Of the three, the most interesting and, to my mind, most important is the art of management.  The science and the craft of management seem to have a logic that most managers can get to grips with, but what is the logic of the art of management? Does it have one? Does it matter?

It matters, I think, because it’s only the art of management that can connect to the purpose of business. The purpose of business is not such a simple question as, unless you subscribe to the empty notion that the purpose of business is only the production of profit or – worse – the circular notion that the purpose of business is the continuation of business, it tends to touch on systems of values (moral ones, not financial ones). The purpose of business must address the “why”, not the “how” or the “what”. The why is a matter of values. Values do not translate too well in the literal logic of science, but can find expression in the logic of metaphor. By the logic of metaphor I mean understanding how the following syllogism makes sense:

Men  die/grass dies/Men are grass.

This is Gregory Bateson’s syllogism in grass, and although it appears to make no logical sense it actually demonstrates how we think much of the time, and certainly how we communicate one thing by referring to another. By linking the object “dies”, and not the subject(s) we reveal a truth which is not part of the “logic of logic” but which is nevertheless extremely profound since it reveals something about the nature of the way that the world is relational.  It might help to think of this example:

The Coca-Cola corporation has individual rights under law/Citizens have individual rights under law/The Coca Cola corporation is a citizen.

This is not a simile (it doesn’t say that the Coca-Cola Corp is like a citizen), it is working at another level, one that says something about our concept of the idea of Coke and the idea of the citizen, and this could explain much about why that organisation does the things it does.

The confusion this can cause is the source of meaning in art, in drama, in poetry, in play/games, and in humour.  For example, the premise behind the film “Being There”, starring Peter Sellers, also relies on the logic of metaphor for its power as a piece of drama.

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Just found a really useful 2004 article on Action Research by Peter Hawkins which links the ideas of Gregory Bateson to organisational development and, in particular, the study of cultures in organisations. It’s rare to find someone writing about management and business who also employs a Batesonian perspective – and since this is precisely what I want to do with regard to Reflection and Personal Development, it’s a great find.

Already there is an interesting quote, which I want to share here:

“To assist the evolution of organizational culture, one first has to start by attending to these deeper organizing principles, which are not accessible from questionnaires or individual interviews, but can be glimpsed in the oft repeated stories and shared metaphors; the collective ways of tackling issues; the recursive patterns of behaviour, the shared unwritten rules and the collective emotional patterns that rarely can be articulated but which are communicated to the outsider through ‘empathic resonance’.”

There is much to consider in this paper. There is a re-appreciation of Bateson’s seminal idea of logical levels of learning, and how this impacts how we see reflection, as well as a naming of those practitioners and researchers who have, since the publication of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, been influenced by that systemic, recursive and complex vision. The themes which this vision deals in are immense – and they include the mind/body split, the ecological and intellectual crises brought about by the industrial revolution.

Our approach to this is key. Hawkins also says:

“We firstly start focusing on relationships, flows and patterns; and secondly realize that we are part of any field we are studying and to understand the field we must also reflect on ourselves as part of that world. ”


Hawkins, P (2004)’ A centennial tribute to Gregory Bateson 1904–1980 and his influence on the fields of organizational development and action research, Action Research, volume 2(4): 409–423

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Sitting now in a session being run by Dr Caroline Gatrell here in Lancaster, on “Managing PhD study & other work”.

It’s a very useful exercise every now and then to get back in touch with the process of what you are doing when you return to a longer piece of

The big thing – always be reflecting on “what am I doing?” This changes as you go, but you need to know what claim you are making and where you will contribute to the debate (and what debate that is). Need to remember, also, that the examiners will be looking for ‘evidence of the ability to construct and present a coherent, logical argument’. This is not the thesis, but the context of the thesis.

Other lessons to bear in mind include need to be researching something that has a strong interest for you personally, and keep checking in on these.

I recently used, not for the first time, the Ben Zander talk recorded for TED in 2008, where he brilliantly engages his audience in the idea that classical music is for everyone. For the first time I saw a parallel with my PhD subject of reflection. In his talk, Zander analyses a short piece of music by Chopin to illustrate something much bigger. His phrase “now let’s see what’s really going on here” changes the tone, and moves from our unreflective attitude to music to a much more reflective place. He gives the sense that by unlocking the skill of the composer and the way that they wanted to make us feel in order to create the same thought in your mind that they had in theirs (surely this is a good definition of communication) we are then able to understand how to appreciate other pieces of music in the same way.

My data is like the one Chopin piece. It’s enough to examine one group’s interaction over a fairly short period of time in order then to go and see “what’s going on here”.

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I think  everyone should watch this presentation, all the way to the poetic ending. It’s beautifully crafted, and craftily beautiful.

“It’s very hard to know, by the way, what it is you take for granted. And the reason is that you take it for granted.”

According to Robinson, what we take for granted in education is linearity and conformity. Linearity in terms of the determinism of reaching, one-step-at-a-time, a pinnacle of academic achievement. People need time to play with and discover their talents, and not everyone should go to university (or not right away). Conformity in education is compared to the fast-food industry, which seeks to standardise every aspect of delivery, and where the only difference between institutions (and MBAs?) is the badging.  Education is not industrial, he says, it is organic.

Here is WB Yeats’ poem, which Robinson quotes:

Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

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Problems. Managers just love problems.  They grow very attached to them, and to the idea that development is all about becoming a better problem-solver. I would challenge this idea.

There’s no doubt in my mind, from experience observing over the years, that the majority of people who enrol on an MBA programme are highly efficient problem-solving machines. By necessity, though, they have become that and no more. And the demands of more senior levels in management (and, let’s face it, of later adulthood) mean that a highly analytical approach ends up doing more harm than good. In short, at some point the game changes from problem solving to problem setting. Or, as Paolo Freire called it, problem posing. It follows that the education of people as managers should prepare them not for a way to find answers to ever more complex problems, but to master the art of framing the context within which those problems may be said to exist. And to do this they need to change their way of thinking about problems.

The accepted way to do this in Management Education is through a rationalised process of reflective problem solving, often described in terms of learning or knowledge acquisition. There are few models of learning which are mainstream that do not stick like glue to a model of  understanding the world in a step-by-step, empirically testable and verifiable way.  Variables need to be identified and isolated, experiments conducted, and conclusions (embedded with myriad implicit assumptions) drawn. And this tends to be the case whether our research methods involve describing things or counting things.

The ‘problem’, so to speak, is that our world appears problematic only via that lens.  In my view the social world is not as neat as the classic scientific method would demand it be. It’s far messier, far more jagged, and far more beautiful. So perhaps instead of seeking to contain, to solve and secure “the” right answer to all the messiness, we should make the posing of the problem the problematic part. By this I mean taking a critical approach to the formation of our questions. Rather than being systematic, start being systemic.

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You don’t? Don’t worry, nor do I! So why post about this concept, which is a topic in linguistics?

Well, I was in my favourite bookshop again today (Blackwells, in Oxford) and for various reasons I was browsing the linguistics shelves. My attention was caught by the length of the single-word title (20 letters). “What could that be?” I thought. “I know, I’ll take a look at the blurb on the back cover. The back cover blurb usually gives one an idea…”

But the blurb on the back cover said this:


Grammaticalization is a well-attested process of linguistic change in which a lexical item becomes a function word, which may be further reduced to a clitic or affix. Proponents of the universality of grammaticalization have usually argued that it is unidirectional and have thus found it a useful tool in linguistic reconstruction. In this book Professor Norde shows that change is reversible on all levels: semantic, morphological, syntactic, and phonological. As a consequence, the alleged unidirectionality of grammaticalization is not a reliable reconstructional tool, even if degrammaticalzation is a rare phenomenon.”

Well, clearly this concept is not one about to give up its secrets to the non-technical reader without a fight. And actually shouldn’t linguistics be the last subject to allow itself to give in to the temptation to pile on the syllables in the study of itself?  I shouldn’t carp – the same is often true, of course, in Management Education, where the legacy of ‘Management Science’ which dominates the highest starred Academic Journals has tight grip, and where the scourge of the “professionalisation” (19 letters) of academia with the consequent publish-or-die mentality that many, of not most, people in universities secretly hanker after can also be detected.

Of course, I know it’s unfair to pick out (and pick on) Muriel Norde’s book. After all, not only is it surely read by others in that field (albeit probably a  narrow one), the fault here could quite easily be mine.  Perhaps the blurb above really does make sense. Perhaps, too, it’s really not supposed to unless you are already in the know (and “being in the know” is a way of establishing a group identity). I guess the point is that it’s only when you take yourself out of your everyday lexical comfort zone that you realise that you, too, could just as easily be guilty of making sure that no-one who doesn’t already understand you can understand you. Academics, and academic writing, should have some kind of safety release-valve, a “deflate” button which the listener or the reader may push to let out the hot air when the levels of pomposity and verbosity get dangerously high. Oversimplifying complex ideas (as happens a lot, for example, in Harvard Business Review) produces dangerous results when readers read it at face value as though it hadn’t had the thinking kicked out of it in the editing process (amazing how the revered word “Harvard” can turn leaden ideas into gold). Equally, overcomplicating complex ideas (either by esoterically hiding one’s own ideas behind an endlessly referenced edifice of everyone else’s, or by joyfully inserting language that you know others will not) can deprive the rest of us of any benefit of that thinking.

We are always in danger of taking ourselves too seriously, I think. Words are important; language is, after all, our principal way of conveying a lot without needing to be  endlessly literal. The possibilities of language to move, to make clear, to offer insight are almost limitless. On the other hand, so is its potential to leave unchanged, to obscure and thus leave one none the wiser.

Writing by academics doesn’t have to be hard work.  I’m currently reading, and very much enjoying, Chris Grey’s “A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap book about Studying Organizations”, part of a refreshing series of titles with a tint of Critical Management Studies in their ideas. It shows that one can be accessible and serious.

I’ll admit my own reading has broadened in the last few years to include a lot of things which before I would never have had the interest, patience or (if I’m honest) wherewithal to have tackled. Good reading begets more good reading – and there truly are some difficult texts that reward one for the effort. I’m still trying to crack Paul Ricoeur, mind!

In addition, I like writing (though I also find it laborious) and I do enjoy the challenge of writing about complex ideas. I know, too, that I still constantly fall well short of those heights and those parts reached by the authors I most admire.

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Had one of those brief “so, how’s your PhD going?” conversations at Henley at the end of a PD workshop today and, wanting to express my interest in the topic of time, began to try to explain George Mead’s ideas on time and narrative, and how it’s not the past that constructs the present, but the other way round.

For me, it’s this: the future consists of contingencies in the present, and so does the past.  In other words, the past can and does change depending on our sense of coherence about the connections between the present and the future. This is quite a different view than what most people would think it “so”. Time is not a thing separate from us, it is created by us through our narratives.

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I just love this sequence of “then and now” photos on the web-site by Irina Werning.

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Coming back to a part-time PhD project after taking time away from it is not easy. The whole project cools down and you just can’t remember what the thread was, where you left off, what you have said, and whether or not the whole thing has any merit. In fact, you can easily convince yourself that it doesn’t.

The trick must be breaking the seal on your own inertia and just pile into to it, by writing. At least, I hope so because that’s going to be my therapy.

I have also started to read one or two texts that I know I have been avoiding. Paul Ricoeur, for one. I thought Gregory Bateson was a tough read, but pick up any book by Ricoeur and one almost immediately finds oneself in an intellectual undergrowth so dense that a predator could be on your shoulder about to devour you and you wouldn’t know. To illustrate, here is the sentence I stopped at yesterday, in the chapter “The Self and Narrative Identity” (in the book “Oneself as Another”), “In what sense, then, is it legitimate to see in the theory of the plot and of character a meaningful transition between the ascription of action to an agent who has the capacity to act and its imputation to an agent who has the obligation to act?”

I’m sure it makes sense. Or will when I work it out. A lot of Ricoeur’s ideas are of great importance to my research (for which, dear reader, I now have a new and very catchy title – “When Stories Meet: using Educational Biographies to explore a model of Reflection for Personal Development in post-experience Management Education.”). As I see it, Ricoeur says the following interesting things:

1. Any idea we have that time “exists” as a separate and knowable entity is mistaken.  Time exists only to the extent that it is experienced. The present is a “between-place”, the middle that separates the beginning that is recollected and the end that is expected.

2. Time does not create Narrative, it is the other way round. We conjure time through the process (emplotment) of the arrangement of facts and events into sequence.  The past and the future are brought into being by the ever-moving “knife’s edge” of the present.

3. Characters do not create a plot, it is the other way round. First, there is the plot, through which characters (and character) emerge. The process of emplotment seems to be at the heart of our sense of time and of personality.

I know this is probably grossly simplified, but it is helpful in framing the idea of reaching into personal development via narratives.

A few additional thoughts about narrative:

1.  A single event, even if temporally experienced, is not a narrative. A narrative must consist of a set or series of events, which brings in Bateson’s idea of logical typing.

2. A narrative, moreover, requires as a concept a narrator and an audience. It is not just a series of events that just happen or are temporally experienced. Narrative is brought into being only in certain circumstances where there is the self and there is another.

3. A beginning, middle and end, is a form of narrative. So, intrinsically and not post-hoc, are “departure and arrival, departure and return, means and end, suspension and resolution, problem and solution” (Carr, 1986) (p 49).

Carr, D (1986) Time, Narrative and History, Indiana books

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