Reflexive Inquiry: A Framework for Consultancy Practice

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The impetus for this book came from an appreciation that reflexivity, for both consultant and client, is the core ingredient for facilitating the "changing organization". Central to this belief, Reflexive Inquiry draws on the spirit of five overlapping theoretical traditions - systemic, social constructionist, critical, appreciative and complexity. These principles each offer a contribution to the management of reflexive consciousness and are used to shape consultancy practice. Part of the Systemic Thinking and Practice Series.

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1: Reflexive inquiry principles for consultancy practice

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In this chapter the five RI principles that can be employed in specific, local, situated moments and episodes of organizational practice are defined and illustrated. I hope to show the liberating power of an RI orientation in enabling the development of purpose, choice, and agency in the organizational patterns that, with others, we create. In this, the development of consciousness, appreciation, and critique of relational dynamics and their effects will be encouraged, not as an end in itself but as an essential component of what could be called organizational intelligence.

RI rests on the assumption that consciousness about the patterns of feeling, meaning and action that we, and others, are experiencing in a relational system is central to effective organizational development. This critical consciousness is predicated on an appreciation that identities, relationships, and cultural practices are interconnected to our and others’ actions. When we practise reflexivity we make choices about how we will think and act. We become responsible and accountable for our choices, our actions, and our contributions to a relational system.

 

2: Reflexive inquiry tools for coordinating conversation

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An RI orientation treats communication as the site of interest and as the place for change to happen. Thus, conversation is seen as holding power to make or break effective organizational action. For consultants in and with organizations, commissioned to facilitate development and change, the frames articulated in Chapter One facilitate sense-making in the work. They also stimulate the production of concrete tools for helping us to coordinate our thinking and action in conversation with others. RI draws on and develops systemic, constructionist, critical, appreciative, and complexity discourses to open up possibilities for new patterns. These tools are presented in this chapter, in the abstract, as forms of inquiry and reflection. There are many potential ways to develop inquiry and reflection and the precise details will need to be made with reference to the purposes and possibilities of specific situations. Part II shows how this might be done through use of RI tools with specific case studies.

 

3: The monks’ tale: a community learning to co-exist

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Chapter Three articulates the development of RI interventions over time, in a context of hurt and conflict in a community. It highlights in detail three structured exercises, variations of the tools identified in Chapter Two, from consultancy work with a male religious order. It will attempt to show how these structures express an RI orientation through connection back to the RI principles laid out in Chapter One.

Over the past few years a colleague1 and I have been working with a male religious community. I was invited to work with them when they heard about my work with AI. The community presented their concerns in a language of conflict, demoralization, and breakdown in communication. Most members of the community experienced severe distress; loss of membership became a potential threat. At the beginning of the work people talked in the following terms:

It’s hard to experience hope.

There is envy and competition but we don’t talk about it.

There is a lack of charity in our talk about others.

 

4: Reflexive inquiry for organizational development

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Chapter Four explores the relationship between content, structure, and process in the management of dialogue, at different levels of intervention and hierarchy, and with different sizes of group. This is explored through a description of organizational development work with a Christian mission organization (we will call it CMO) in London.1 First, I connect an RI approach to working with groups with the wider literature of large group work, in particular that of future conferencing, a hybrid of future search and search conferencing (Ryan, 2004). Then I distil the principles of RI into some guidelines for designing structures for group dialogue. I go on to describe the aims, designs, and processes of four group events within the mission agency, one in greater detail than the others, to show the workings of RI in facilitating dialogue for organizational development with both large and small groups.

Future conferencing and RI

Future conferencing originated in the 1960s as a methodology for facilitating leadership decision-making and effectiveness, particularly in relation to strategic planning (Emery & Purser, 1993). The methodology has developed and is used internationally to facilitate the creation of effective proposals and plans for action in a variety of contexts. A future conference is “a method for enabling diverse groups of people to create a set of proposals or a plan based around their common future” (Emery & Purser, 1993, p. 2). It organizes small and large group discussions around a specific task and output. RI fits with this definition, in that it facilitates the development of plans for action through a process of collective meaning-making. However, its relationship to time will usually be more complex. The task will always be defined in the language of learning, for the purpose of facilitating future functioning, but may require a reflexive focus on the workings of the past in order to achieve that, whereas future conferencing, like AI, privileges a future focus. An RI focus will not necessarily be related to future corporate strategy but may be connected to a particular cultural theme, e.g., the development of leadership or team; the development of systems; or the management of relational boundaries.

 

5: Constructing a research lens for reflexive inquiry

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This chapter proposes that the ability to define a phase of consultancy as research will enable a different culture of investigation with concomitant differences in the entitlements and obligations that follow from this framing of purpose. Framing a phase of the work as research allows the task to be explicitly defined as making meaning and constructing learning. This can be of significant value, particularly when the consultant is working in an organizational culture driven by instrumental reasoning (Habermas, 1970).

I set a context for research as a tool in a consultancy process through locating the principles of RI within the language game of qualitative research and, in particular, a critical research tradition (Alvesson, 2003; Alvesson & Deetz, 2000; Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2000; Habermas, 1970). A research process will then be described that uses the principles to make sense of organizational patterns in a way that facilitates new action for a leadership group. The definition of the research task that best reflects the spirit of RI comes from the critical research tradition expressed by Alvesson and Deetz (2000). They define the research task as a complex interplay between the development of insight (interpretation of the local), critique (investigating the local through connecting micro practices and macro discourses), and transformation (connecting insight to social action). As will be seen in previous chapters, an incorporation of the critical tradition within RI renders some dimensions of the critical voice more visible, others more hidden, while yet others are transformed, for instance in the development of the notion of second- and third order critique.

 

6: The peace builders’ story: a problem of strategic coherence

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Iwas charged as a consultant with facilitating leadership development in a non-governmental organization (NGO) working I with violent conflict in neglected war areas. In talking to the senior management team I discovered that the organization itself had become a neglected war area. Staff had written to senior management complaining about lack of management support and pleading that they be managed. People felt demoralized and incompetent at all levels, although there was a lot of energy out in the field for working with conflict. My task was defined as developing management skill at the level of the individual manager and development of management culture for the organization.

My input was structured in the following way:

• research a needs assessment of management practice by interviewing the fourteen managers;

• present the findings to the management group as a basis for a management development dialogue over two days;

• conduct a management learning day with all staff, sharing the outcome of previous work and create a research inquiry into experiences and future possibilities for management practice;

 

7: Reflexive strategies for critical consciousness

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The work thus far has offered a theoretical frame for consultancy, constructing broad principles out of different but T connected theoretical traditions, brought alive in various ways through case illustrations. The model is intended to provide both sufficient structure and flexibility, that the form of its practices be coherent, but the detail, always situationally specific, requiring creative attunement to the contextual considerations at hand. I hope the model provides the possibility of holding the complexity of consultancy life, while encouraging the making of reflexive choices and priorities in action. The positioning of reflexivity as the context giving core meaning to consultancy action inevitably creates discursive closure of some possibilities while inviting others. For instance, the argument as it is developed here connects poor reflexivity to strategies of polarization and fragmentation and discourages such strategies where there is insufficient consideration of their systemic effects. Such strategies may or may not be within our consciousness. The argument is thus made for the development of critical consciousness about patterns of feeling, meaning, and action so that our communication does not do ecological damage. In this spirit, I have become preoccupied with the form our fragmented and polarized products of communication can take and with reflexive strategies for their development.

 

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