Some thoughts on the 2011 CMC conference

I wanted to write about some of the themes  at the CMC conference this year as an invitation to further discussion, and perhaps as a way of involving others. There were a number of things which happened during the weekend which I think made a strong case for the methods being developed by the Complexity Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire and the importance of paying attention to the experience of every day life.

So I was struck by a quite ordinary intervention by Iver Drabaek in the final plenary of the weekend. This was a session convened to explore what different conference participants were doing in their work and to ask whether insights drawn from the complexity sciences, or from complex responsive processes were proving helpful in what people found themselves trying to do. There had been a number of diverse observations about what was going on in the group: that the discussion didn’t seem to be leading anywhere, or that it wasn’t easy to speak into the big group, as we struggled to make sense of this particular way of meeting together. As Nick Sarra has pointed out, there often is a struggle in big group discussions, and sometimes this struggle is about avoiding the discomfort of recognising each other in this kind of context.  Iver pointed out that for him it was different. It wasn’t that he was holding back but that every time he went to speak into the group he found that he had changed his mind about what he wanted to say, depending on what the last person had said. This for me was a very good example of what we are trying to describe on the faculty at Hertfordshire when we are drawing attention to the transformative potential of everyday interaction. Iver was displaying a patient attention to everyday experience, his own experience of the group, which then raised ideas of recognition, mutual recognition, identity and ideology for me. In drawing attention to the way that he was responding, to what was going on for him in the moment and articulating it, he provoked me (without of course realising it) into recognising myself in what he was saying. I would expect that for others it called out an entirely different response, or perhaps no response at all, but in that moment I came to understand my own participation in what was going on, recognising myself in the other, differently.

What I began to notice was the way I had been responding to what people were saying, and making assumptions about what they had said. This had led me to leap to conclusions in my conversation with myself about what they might mean by what they said. I was entirely caught up in my own reflective responses to what was going on in the room. The reactions I was experiencing were an articulation and rearticulation of who I was in the group, and were an expression of my ideology. In trying to explore what I might mean by ideology I want to go back to two things Doug Griffin said during the conference. So one way of thinking about ideology would be as the way that I have stopped asking questions about my encounters with others and the world. To understand the world ideologically, which is not something we can choose to do or not do, implies a degree of certainty that the world is the way I think it is. And in taking the world to be the way I think it is, so I am leaping to an imagined whole, what Doug, calling on Adorno, referred to as an ‘untrue whole’ (das Ganze ist das Unwahre). In the group, I could not help myself extrapolating from what people were saying and countering it with my own understanding of the world. This was a dialectical process of negation, the negation of my self by what people were saying, and the negation of that negation, what Hegel referred to as Aufhebung. As I continued to engage in the group, and especially after this particular incident, I began noticing how sometimes the encounter with others, particularly the one I am describing above, continued to puncture this untrue whole, my negation of my negation: I noticed how what people were saying and the way that they said it, sometimes made more complex and inadequate my spontaneous ‘whole’ understanding of what was happening. One of things I was bumping up against was my ideological understanding of what was being said, and Iver’s remark had made the process more explicit to me. He provoked a moment of reflexivity, a more detached realisation of myself in relation to other selves.

Another way of exploring the same phenomenon, how we cannot help ourselves in our ideological responses to whom and what we come up against, was provided in the previous session led by Karen Norman, Henry Larsen, Chris Chipolina and Prebin Friis. Karen and colleagues showed video clips of sessions conducted in Gibraltar where staff from a health service and a group of actors had worked together to dramatise every day encounters between health professionals, patients and their families. These encounters provoked very strong reactions from the health professionals and led to rich, complex and sometimes difficult discussions about their assumptions about what was going on, and what was important to value. Equally, they stimulated some strong responses in the audience at the conference, even though they were separated in time and space from the workshop in Gibraltar. Dramatising every day encounters is a very good way of demonstrating how we are each likely to have strong reactions even when we have an experience in common, and that these reactions themselves become objects of discussion, provoking more reactions, and so on.

The extent to which we can voice our reactions to what we are experiencing, and an explicit theme of the conference, was the power relationships of which we are part. So some participants narrated incidents at work where power relationships constrained what they felt capable of saying, and others drew attention to the same dynamic in the conference. This was addressed directly by both Ian Burkitt and Ralph Stacey in their key note talks, when they discussed the ways in which power, and in Foucault’s terms, disciplinary power, constrains and enables what it is possible to know and say. Power relationships, in Elias’ terms figurations, both produce knowledge and define what is acceptable as truth. In Ian’s keynote he drew attention to the ways in which his own institution had attempted to promote diversity, which had led to both expected and unexpected outcomes. Celebrating diversity and opposing inequality, which the institution had formulated as strapline, had proved difficult to functionalise, as people within groups, and between groups struggled over who they thought they were, and who they were becoming in the discussion.

Equally, one of the things we were working with in the conference was the negotiation over what is and what is not discussable as we tried to develop richer and more fluid ways of communicating together. In the conference, and in organisations, there is sometimes a tendency to suggest that everything should be made ‘transparent’, that hidden transcripts in James C Scott’s terms, should always be made public. In my view this is another idealisation, which if realised, might threaten our ability to communicate at all. In the conference we were noticing and negotiating the movement of the hidden towards the public, and it is in this movement that identity is potentially transformed.

So is it possible that somehow we might get on top of these processes of reflexivity, so that we could develop techniques for ensuring that we had a radical encounter with others and with ourselves? Can we ensure transformative ways of working? I do not think it is possible to do so, although I would say that some of the ways that we choose to work in the large group, in smaller groups, starting with, and taking seriously every day experience, perhaps have more likelihood of encouraging the possibility than other ways of meeting. Many meetings in organisations, which are convened around a strong anxiety about generating ‘outcomes’, or being ‘effectively’ run, seem to me set up to bring about precisely what John Dewey was pointing to when he said: Zeal for doing, lust for action, leaves many a person, especially in this hurried and impatient environment in which we live, with experience of an almost incredible paucity, all on the surface. No one experience has a chance to complete itself because something else is entered upon so speedily. What is called experience becomes so dispersed and miscellaneous as hardly to deserve the name. Resistance is treated as an obstruction to be beaten down, not as an invitation to reflection. So in the weekend conference, and in the large group, we gave ourselves permission to meet with no particular end in view, and in Dewey’s terms as an invitation to reflection and reflexivity, to take the time to pay attention to, and find ways to talk about, what was going on for us in our places of work, and at the conference.

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One Reply to “Some thoughts on the 2011 CMC conference”

  1. Chris, picking up on your invitation for further discussion, I would like to share some of my thoughts from the week-end session, in particular the final plenary to which you refer (as you know, I was attending the week-end event to get a feel for the DMan programme).
    I did not feel uncomfortable about the group size, although I felt hesitant to open any lines of conversation or reply to conversations which were in flow. I had a similar dilemma to Iver Drabaek in that I was tempted (and resisted) to act in response to the conversations; as discussions developed, I found that I had different thoughts evolving, by which time the discussions had moved on.

    I was listening to Hank Sohota share his experience as a Consultant and my thoughts were considering his approach and his reflection, when I think it was either Michael Steffensen or Rob Warwick who asked Hank what he was thinking when he was sharing his experience with the group.

    This threw my thinking. I had moved from thinking about Hank’s story about his experience to now be thinking, why had one member of the group asked Hank what he was thinking.
    I then became more conscious that I was thinking more about how I was thinking and reflecting on this, where usually I would be trying to constructively respond to Hank’s story.
    As the group became a bit quiet after this scene, the next think I can recall is Mick Rogers telling us about some of the challenges he has at work and some of the complexities of project management. Once again I found myself (intuitively) about to respond to Mick and offer some advice based on my project experience (a somewhat altruist habit I have developed and I am trying to control) when I found yet again that my desire to join the conversation was muted by my desire to reflect on what Mick was saying and what it may mean to him. I am still reflecting on this.

    I recall Ben Lewis opening a discussion and before I knew it, I found that I had lost track of what he had said as I listened to Patricia Shaw responding to Ben. She seemed to be taking control of the conversation, by acknowledging back to Ben what he had said and then explained (again back to Ben) the effect and influence that his question had on her identity.
    On reflecting, I had found that decades of a bias of action oriented response was now being substituted by a more introspective and considered approach to communication.
    I was surprised how quickly the influences of the week-end had impacted my thinking process which had developed over many decades. As I was going through this adaptation, I found reluctance to add to conversations as I felt that I was going through a process which was unfamiliar to me and this in its self needed some time for reflection before I would feel comfortable participating with the group.

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