Tag Archives: story

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.

Environment, Hierarchy and Cultural Stagnation

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Chapter two of Management Basics for Information Professionals by Evans and Alire (2013) examines the ways in which an organization’s environment influences behavior. I noticed a pervading trend within the chapter’s discussion of libraries as organization, and that trend is that all environments are retained within a hierarchal structure based around the external and parent environments. I can certainly see how a public or educational library could be considered as ‘placid-clustered’ in terms of it adopting long term goals with some short term objectives that are determined by environmental factors. However, I can also see how this kind of structure may well be limiting within a library also. Long term goals tend to be quite rigid and strict and I think there is a danger of suppressing innovation in so far as the manager is rigidly focused on the pre-established long term goals. In times of a funding lull, this may well mean that a long term project may need to be paused. An example of the negative impact that this strategy can have was given by Katherine McSharry of National Library when she spoke to our class about pausing the digitization project of photographs in Ireland. There is always the danger in an ever-diversifying information age, that long term goals blind organizations to more innovative opportunities.

I say this in agreement with Childs and the anti-environmental argument. It seems to me that a major flaw in many organizations is that they see themselves as subordinate to the ‘whole’, or parent/ external organization. However, there is scope within any organization to influence and shape the whole to the demands and innovations of the organization itself. I think the concept of relevance is important here. The parent organization would like to find ways of operating that are more efficient and effective. Libraries should not wait for the parent company to set the parameters of policy, but should look to find ways to influence the external environment. Companies have often been revolutionized by innovation that has taken place within just one small department.

I think the fact that culture is mentioned in this chapter is interesting. In many ways, there is a defeatist mentality involved in many discussions of culture in which culture is seen as something unchangeable. All too often we throw our hands up in the air and say ‘that’s just the culture!’. There is a sense in this chapter that playing with cultural norms is too dangerous for managers to contemplate, as though all culture is inherently good. I have worked in organizations that have been destroyed by an adherence to negative cultural norms. As someone who has taught English Literature at third level, I am always amazed at the collections of English Literature in university libraries. There are usually hundreds, if not thousands of books gathering dust on the shelves of academic libraries. Many of these books are wasted. Examine the curriculum of UCD’s Department of English in relation to the library’s collection of literary texts. I think 80% of those books will never be read by any students or staff at UCD. But there is a culture within libraries to hang on to and accumulate objects. Maybe many books were donated by a sponsor and the library feels obligated to retain the books on the shelves even if they are not useful? It is useful to ask how much waste exists in our libraries as a result of culture. How could that space be used in ways that are more useful? Could the opening of that space lead to more innovative use of it that might alter the environment (internal & external) for the good of the library and the parent organization? Culture, if seen as a homogenous unwavering influence can be highly destructive to an organization’s development. However, I believe that if it is seen as a heterogenous malleable condition that we can move away from its limiting influence on our learning environments.

Information as ‘story’

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It is interesting that the past continues to steam roll into the present when you least expect it. I was sitting in a lecture on Information Theory when the literary theory of my past lit a fire in my mind once again. I had thought studying the MA in Library and Information Studies was a new departure into a different future, until I heard Dr. Lai ask “What is ‘information?'”. Of course, there was no response. We had just spent the last week reading theorists who had been studying the subject for decades and who had failed to come to a definite answer on the question. Dr. Lai answered the question for us: ‘Everything!’. That naturally did not really narrow it down all that much!

I have to admit I was frustrated by the readings that week. It seemed to me as a first impression that information theorists are stuck back in a time before post-structuralism, still theorising circles around each other in the pursuit of a definitive definition of the word ‘information’. And all for what? So that more regulation can be introduced. So that the word, the idea can be further controlled. There was a sense in all of the readings that each theorist believed they were being objective. I remember thinking, the more they try to narrow it down the more out of control and expansive the word becomes. That is because every attempt to define the word resulted in more being added to it. For me, the heterogeneity of the word is where its strength lies. Lets not try to tie it down. Why not let the word grow organically? Let’s explore its possibilities so as to create more space for innovation to emerge. Let’s finally learn that narrow definitions that lead to stricter rules and regulations actually destroy creativity.

And then, with those thoughts, came rushing back a new answer out of the past. Dr. Lai was right, information is everything. But, what is everything? The answer……’story’, or narrative. The key terms that define ‘information’ revolve around data, process, knowing and communicating. There emerged the idea in the lectures and readings that information is essentially manipulated data, that is, data used in specific contexts by people with a specific agenda. Poststructuralist linguistic theory determines that the same word spoken by two different people results in two different words. Why? Because words are not just lines on a page, or sounds vibrating through the air. Words are experiences with context and subjectivity build into them and that ‘experience’ of word changes in mid air and is transformed the moment it leaves the speakers lips. What it transforms into is another, different experience that depends on who is hearing it. It might sound strange, but no one word is the same. So in this sense, or more accurately, in my own sense, information is narrative, a never ending game of Chinese Whispers spiralling out of control because no two people in the game speak the same language…….