Tag Archives: leadership

Narrative and compassion in management practice

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For many years now I have been reminding myself of the reasons why my studies in English Literature have been so important to my own professional development. Through this self-reassurance I have constantly re-affirmed the concept that if one can understand the way a story or narrative in constructed, then one can understand better how the world itself is created. In this sense, it is interesting that Peter Brophy draws upon theories of narrative and story to inform ‘Evidence Based Library and Information Practice’ (ELIB). However, I do feel as though there is one key characteristic that is missing from his theory and that is of primary importance to storytelling. This year, I have read a lot of information and management theory relating to managing, teamwork, collaboration and leadership among others, but nowhere in that material have I encountered reflections on the importance of ‘compassion’ in both management and teamwork. It is only through compassion that a narrator can effectively create characters in stories, and, in organisations, having compassion is the only way one can understand and work with people’s own subjective and personal circumstances that they bring to work with them everyday, as well as understanding and accepting employees’ and customers’ limitations, while finding a way to work within them to achieve goals.

Brophy, drawing from Eldredge, outlines that evidence based learning and practice is both quantitative and qualitative but that there remains an imbalance in which emphasis is placed more on objective quantitative measures. However, he argues that this positivist approach does not apply well to librarianship because it involves a social system with variables that cannot be controlled within human interactions. Brophy shows an awareness of the prevalence of poststructuralism in contemporary social, cultural and linguistic theory: “To add to the complexity, all we have to describe the world is language, which itself introduces ambiguity, bias and difference.” Poststructuralism dictates that signs are not word-images but are experiences which are directed towards other signs based on the context of the receiver. To then try and take quantitative measures and apply them objectivity is an impossible task. Even one can take objective measures, these still have to be related to other people who are free to interpret the findings based on their own observations, meaning there is never a complete consensus agreed about the evidence collected and how it is to be used.

This leads Brophy on to consider post-positivism and social constructivism as qualitative approaches the may inform EBLIB by affirming the prevalence of narrative in human interactions. He argues that “These approaches suggest that rather than emphasising the transmission of “facts” (accepted knowledge about the world), modern societies need to encourage learning which encompasses both openness to differing world views and the ability to relate new ideas to existing knowledge in meaningful ways, so that each of us is continually constructing, sharing, and reconstructing our understanding of the world in all its complexity.” Such an approach emphasises the value of narrative in developing a more complete understanding of contexts and that can lead to greater decision-making for managers. This is because narrative allows one to look at evidence in context through structures: Culture, Holism, In-depth Studies, Chronology.

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One practical way that this can be applied to a library’s ability to understand user services could be in the use of surveys. Surveys are, of course, a quantitative method of research. However, it is also possible to hold interviews with users about the survey itself in order to add a layer of understand to the results in which users have the ability to express their ideas in more subjective, less structured ways. This kind of evidence feeds into Brophy’s narrative approach. Of course, what it creates is a sequence of narratives which will still need to be gathered together into a coherent structure so that it can be applied to improving a service. In order to truly understand a user-group, one not only needs to create quantitative analysis of their habits and needs, but also to understand why they behave as they do, their motivations and their needs or desires. In order to successfully achieve this, managers need not only to know how to read graphs and charts, but also need to be able to read and understand people. And for this compassion is a quality that all good readers and subsequent narrators retain because it allows them to more fully understand the qualitative aspects to social interactions and systems.

IT = Innovative Management System or Panoptic Hegemonic Control

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Fatat Bouraad, in ‘The Emerging Operations Manager’, puts forward the thesis that the increasing reliance on IT services and IT skills based staff needs a framework in order to develop new methods of management. This is because as IT becomes more prevalent, new methods of observing, evaluating and managing staff also emerges, allowing for shifts in management styles. However, I think it is important to ask whether we are managing staff through IT, or whether IT is becoming a mechanism for a more totalitarian style of management in which the machine allows for an even more strict top down management style?

I recently read an article by Mike Sosteric called ‘Endowing Mediocrity’ in which the author posits that IT in all forms comes from an increasingly prevalent surveillance culture within business, education and social media forms of expression. This surveillance is of course facilitated more easily through the use of IT, but rather than creating a more flat structure, it tends more towards a deceitful panopticism. Sosteric (1999) argues that “Panoptic systems thus function as systems of behavioural and ideational (hegemonic) manipulation and control.” So Bouraad may argue that IT allows for greater efficiency and a tendency towards a flat system, but he also argues for a framework through which this flat system should operate which is somewhat contradictory. There needs to be an understanding that as we move more into the realms of IT based systems, that all of our actions are constantly under surveillance by the hierarchy that we work within.

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Furthermore, modern communication systems were actually designed to create greater control over human targets. I use this language deliberately. Norbert Weiner is the father of modern IT based communication systems. He developed these as a way of controlling military missiles during flight so that they could become more accurate. The endgame was always to gain greater control over the end user/ target. The same system is now used in modern computing. In the ‘know how to be’ stage of regulating new operations management theory, Bouraad argues that employees must remain up to date in order to developed a continued propensity towards innovation. However, innovation rarely comes about within an environment of surveillance. Most companies are either trying to control employees or they are attempting to control the consumer habits of targeted customers. Information industries have been contributing to this manipulation of end user increasingly through the spread of Big Data and internet monitoring. These issues do have serious implications for libraries also as they move more towards digital and online forms of dissemination. We should of course embrace the many benefits that IT give us, but we should never lose sight of where this IT has come from and the negative impact it can have on the personal liberty of our information professionals and the public they serve.

Leadership and Organizations with an Anarchist ‘Soul’

Mathew R. Fairholm in his article ‘Leadership and Organizational Strategy’ makes a clear distinction between ‘strategic planning’ and ‘strategic thinking’, the latter being more concerned with a downward focus on ensuring that employees throughout the company understand the values and purpose of the company as a whole, thereby leaving them with a greater sense of connection to the company or institute. In this sense, strategic thinking leans more towards leadership than traditional management. Fairholm’s theory is particularly interesting in that he emphasises the leader’s abilities to ‘see and feel’ important issues within a company. It is a theory that promotes a great deal of trust between employees and the company. In a more practical sense, the best experiences I have had in my 10 year teaching career have taken place in schools/ companies that I have had a trusting relationship with. This is because this trust allowed me to connect more to the companies’ ethos.

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Given my interest in postmodern discourses, I am particularly impressed with the ‘Why-What-How Approach’ to strategic thinking. Postmodernism is inherently concerned with the dispersal of homogenous discourses and the ‘Why-What-How Approach’ sees the world as non-linear allowing organizations to focus on its relationship with the whole. Leadership in this sense gives an organization more ‘soul’ in that the dispersion of homogeneity allows, in a self-consciously contradictory postmodern sense, for the organization to have greater identity from top to bottom. I recently listened to a lecture by Simon Sinek in which he repeated the mantra which he believes allows some companies to succeed when equally strong competitors fail: ‘it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it’. Sinek argues that a company’s belief in itself is its greatest marketing tool. In this regard, strategic thinking that allows all employees to feed into the belief system of the organization only adds to the organization’s purpose. Employees then, add to the ‘values’ of the company/ institute rather than only to its objectives, thus allowing them to become more connected and involved.

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In many ways, Fairholm’s reference to the unleashing of information over the controlling of it, along with his principle of working with ‘unmeasurables’ reminds me of ‘Anarcho-syndicalism’. I don’t want to turn readers away with the mentioning of Anarchism (I wish they had named it something less aggressive!), a term which does carry a lot of negative reactionary connotations. Anarcho-sydicalism supports the idea that workers should be self-managing and that they should be empowered to make decisions within an organization independently of hierarchy. This is because all decisions that they make for the organization directly affects themselves. Allowing workers to have this kind of empowerment is perhaps the most effective way of allowing them to add ‘values’ to the organization as a whole, to connect to it, believe in it, and to essentially give it ‘soul’.

Sources

Fairholm, Mathew R., ‘Leadership and Organization Planning’, The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal, Volume 14(1), 2009, article 3.

Sinek, Simon, ‘How Great Leaders Inspire Action’, http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en