The 12Th International Human Resource Development Conference: Sustaining

The 12Th International Human Resource Development Conference: Sustaining

Learning Pictures: A Critically Reflective Approach To Exploring The ‘Taken For Granted’ In Organisations

Working Paper

Venner, Katie; Langley, Dawn

Key Words:Participative, critical, multiple perspectives, taken for granted, critical reflection


This paper explores a number of issues related to critical organisational development practice, research and management. It begins by considering the relationship between critical management studies and practitioner informed empirical research within organisations. Having reviewed some of the issues raised a critically informed research view surfaces and a methodological approach is outlined which illustrates our research from this perspective.

Our findings from three participative action research inquiries illustrate the issues inherent within a critical research approach, and three research themes are identified. The paper concludes by exploring the challenges we faced and lessons learnt utilising a critically informed lens together with observations on some implications for HRD.


As consultants and researchers (both practitioners and academics) we are acutely aware of the power dynamics that exist both within the organisations we work with and also between our roles (as practitioners and researchers) and the participants we are working with. We recognise a kaleidoscope of roles that can serve to both illuminate and/or reinforce power positions and what is acceptable to be spoken out loud.

This paper begins by considering the relationship between critical managementstudies and practitioner informed empirical research within organisations. Havingreviewed some of the issues, a critically based perspective surfaces, a methodological approach is then outlined which illustrates our attempt to reconsider the relationships within such studies. Our findings from three participative action research inquiries are then located within a critical philosophy and the issues evoked, particularly around the notion of voice, are examined. In conclusion we explore the challenges we faced as both consultants and researchers, our lessons learnt and observations on some implications for HRD.

Critical Management Studies and Research

While critical management studies (CMS) has had growing recognition in recent years, exploring its implications in practice is not always easy, “those occupying positions of privilege in corporate hierarchies are often aware of the precariousness of their authority; it is hardly surprising that they may be deeply resistant to analyses that remind them of this precariousness.”(Adler, Forbes, & Willmott, 2007: 153-154) CMS is also criticised for writing that “… is too often pretentious, obscurantist and dull.” (Grey & Sinclair, 2006: 445) rendering it politically useless, with limited impact on practice.

This paper is located within a critical management philosophy because the research it covers shares a number of core propositions and has attempted to explore these within the contexts of the organisations featured. Critical management has also been considered because the three case studies are all drawn from the creative and cultural sector, which means that in themselves they do not fit within mainstream, for-profit organisational research. The organisations in this sector often exist to challenge cultural hegemonies and are driven by this mission rather than profits.

The research has explored how to take a critical management perspective on empirically based studies and has included:

  • Challenging the taken for granted, indeed finding mechanisms to openly surface and explore what is taken for granted in an organisation
  • Questioning organisational ethics and mechanisms for ‘doing business’
  • A strong focus on reflexivity as researchers, practitioners and organisational participants
  • Noticing and exploring issues of power and knowledge as they relate to these organisations

A Methodological Response: Participative Action Inquiry

Learning Pictures is an organisational development approach which is based in a participative paradigm (Heron & Reason, 1997) attempting to allow for engagement at all levels of a team. It challenges the notion of a single definitive organisational story which is often determined by senior management. This approach provides a means for re-presenting multiple perspectives; it does not privilege a single ‘authoritative’ voice – neither management nor consultant. Based on case studies of three arts organisations we illustrate how the approach surfaced new voices and challenged cultural silences.

Learning Pictures arose from our experiences of working on complex change projects initially utilising Learning Histories (Kleiner & Roth, 1997) and through our wider research and academic studies into organisational learning. We have found that by introducing visuals to the process, every time such images are generated they surface conversations which have otherwise not been held. Learning Pictures helps teams shed light on what might be ‘beneath the surface’ in their working together.

Somehow the contained nature of the image allows those involved to go beyond reflection into ‘critical reflection’, they give potential not just to explore personal feelings but to “make informed judgements based upon a recognition of the imbalances of knowledge, power and wealth that exist in society and organisations.” (Gray, 2007: 513)

Case Studies

Three case studies illustrate our work with “Learning Pictures”. In the first two the brief, set by management, was to support staff in critical reflection on a recent change initiative.

ArkArtsCentre is a regional centre for the performing arts that has undergone a major refurbishment involving closure, redundancy, re-branding and re-opening. The CEO and senior team were interested in the impact of the change programme on staff; we asked, “What has your experience been of becoming ArkArtsCentre?”

CultureConsortium is a group of six cultural organisations, based in an English city, exploring opportunities for collaboration on initiatives to develop audiences and markets for their products and services. CultureConsortium was awarded an Arts Council England[1] grant for this project and our work formed part of the evaluation of the impact of the collaboration on Consortium members.

The brief for the third was to work directly with a team on improving its performance.

ArtsCois a charitable theatre company and education project, which works with socially disadvantaged women. We were asked to work with the admin team on a team-building day.

Using a Learning History

Our work with ArkArtsCentre and CultureConsortium took the form of a Learning History (Kleiner & Roth, 1997). The learning history approach unearths all the stories of change – not just one ‘acceptable’ story. It demands that people reflect on what they have experienced and learned. Led by consultant learning historians (the authors), a small team of staff volunteer as internal learning historians to interview colleagues about their experiences of the change. Supported by the consultant they review the data collected, and discuss and agree the key themes arising.

The consultant writes the learning history document based on these discussions. The final stage is the learning historians feeding back the learning history to all staff and discussing the issues it raises and things that could be done differently in the future.

The learning history has a characteristic three-column format, which allows for a factual commentary of the change events and timeline, a column of direct quotes from those interviewed and a third column of analysis by the consultants based on the learning historians’ collective sense making.

Learning Pictures

As consultants with a visual education and background our own bias is to incorporate a visual element in our work whenever possible. On briefing ArkArtCentre’s learning historians we invited them to take their mobile phones and digital cameras around the building and record places that had a special meaning to them in the change process. The potent stories these images triggered prompted several of the learning historians to use cameras with their subsequent interviewees. The learning history editorial group reviewed in excess of 50 interviews, and around 30 images each with a memorable story fragment attached.

Reviewing the images the editorial group identified key questions about responsibility for the overall look and feel of the building. These questions surfaced previously unexamined assumptions about job roles. When presented back to the wider staff group the images prompted discussion of collective and individual responsibility, which led to feelings being shared and action being taken.

The cacti told the story of the transition from one CEO to another; bought for the re-opening by a well-regarded CEO nobody wanted to throw them out and they were gathering dust on a ledge. Talking about the cacti helped staff move on. A few days later the cacti disappeared.

To present the learning history back to staff the learning historians compiled a power-point presentation of key images with their associated story fragments. Given the size of the data collected it was striking how quickly and confidently the learning historians identified and took ownership of the important images and story lines. When reviewing the whole learning history process with CEO, SMT and learning historians, it was the growth in confidence of the largely middle management learning historians as agents of change within the organisation that was recognised and appreciated by everyone.

“My feeling is people had become reserved about saying what they think – we gave them the confidence to say (what they think). When they discovered that we wanted to help everybody they became more trusting.” Internal learning historian

The learning historians recruited for the work with CultureConsortium identified images as part of their sense making once the interviews were complete. Theserevealed that the Consortium’s collaborative project had been more challenging than had been appreciated. Issues of competition and professional rivalry between the organisations’ CEOs were surfaced, as were issues of power and control in the relationship with the grant making body financing the project and between the lead partner and other consortia members, ‘we didn’t want to be the Gatekeeper.’ (Internal learning historian) The images reflected key themes, giving a starting point for some difficult conversations between partners.

Having surfaced and discussed the tensions between the organisations the learning historians agreed to put history behind them and work together as middle managers to make the final stage of the project a success. They recognised they did not need ‘permission’ to do this. In our view sharing the images contributed to the learning historians’ ability to analyse a complex project and identify specific actions within their remit. As with ArkArtsCentre, the CEOs in their review of the learning history project remarked on the new confidence and energy for the project demonstrated by the learning historians. It also prompted discussion of the power relations within the Consortium.

As consultants we were sensitive to how the power relationship changed between us and the organisational players in the different stages of initiating the learning history, then responding to the data and finally handing the process over to the internal learning historians when they fed back to their colleagues. We were aware of the creative tension of sharing our external observations but not privileging this consultant view over the insights generated by the internal learning historians. We managed this tension by checking back with each other on our assumptions. It was more important to us that the learning historians owned the issues raised (and were therefore resourced to take action) than the learning history gave a comprehensive critique of the organisations’ dynamics.

Taking learning pictures further

ArtsCo came to us asking for a team-building day for an admin team struggling to deliver against agreed performance targets. The brief also included coaching for the team leader. The team met with one of the authors for a day designed to help them look at how they could “Become the best admin team for ArtsCo”.

They were invited to capture images of the building and their work environment that meant something to them and to interview each other and colleagues about their experiences of working as part of or with the admin team. The team reviewed the data they collected and discussed emergent themes and points of difference. We observed that presenting the images they had taken to each other enabled people to recount feelings of pride, isolation, confusion and frustration about their roles in a non-judgemental way.

The stories the images encapsulated were funny and poignant. The team selected the images that best reflected their collective sense of themselves and the views of their colleagues and made them into a power point presentation, which they fed back to their senior colleagues at the end of the day. The images created a ‘short cut’ to talk about some previously un-discussables, like how they cover for each other and how they deal with the pressure of colleagues wanting instant admin support, as well as the aspects of their jobs they most enjoy and the personal value they put on the work they do.

Amanda works part-time and her in-tray substitutes as a desk. Everyone assumes she doesn’t mind not having a desk but she wouldn’t mind being asked if it was OK.

The admin team answer the phones and take messages. When its busy there’s no time to get on with other important tasks so people get frustrated when their jobs aren’t done.

ArtsCo runs education programmes for ex-offenders. We’re proud we help to make it a safe place for them.

Underneath the surface issues of wider significance for ArtsCo were recognised: the implications of their employment of ex-offenders and issues for managers looking for consistency in performance levels across a diverse team. Subsequently the CEO reported ‘vastly improved’ team performance and, as importantly, she had identified key employment policy issues for discussion with her board.

A number of themes emerged from our research into these participative inquiries, all of which are concerned with the positioning of ‘voice’ within organisational studies and a critical approach to practitioner-led research:

Research Theme 1: Multiple Voices

These change interventions and the subsequent research were a deliberate attempt at a methodology to surface the many voices involved within these organisations and in particular to allow those who are not normally heard to have airspace. It was also intended to surface differences of perspectives and illustrate where challenges to the status quo may have been discouraged.

This acknowledges the ‘spirals of silence’ (Noelle-Neumann, 1974) whereby majority opinions are strengthened and become dominant over time and subsequently minority opinions are side-lined and weakened.

This is based on the view that as social beings within an organisation we are fearful of isolation and embarrassment and as such social pressure to conform is extremely powerful.

“The spiral-of-silence theory deals with emotions, fears and reflex actions. In many instances, for example, it is neither sensible nor advantageous for people to conceal their opinion. On the contrary, they might even benefit more from voicing their opinion courageously and loudly. Yet most people act differently in the face of pressure from the climate of opinion.” (Noelle-Neumann, 2004: 354)

Research Theme 2: Multiple Relationships

The case studies involved a complex set of relationships; as well as being participant led the projects were also practitioner led in that participants were supported by external consultants. Initially, in all cases access was initiated or negotiated with senior management who had an outline brief for what they wanted the work to achieve. In two of the cases the funding provided to run the project was provided by a third party, a public sector funder, which introduced an additional layer of power relationships. Some might argue that to engage with management at all carries the risk of undermining a critical stance. (Burrell, 1996: 650)

Our experience of learning histories and learning pictures is that in these three cases even though access was initially negotiated with management, they soon stepped back from the project and the internal learning historians were then drawn from a broad cross section of the team, in one case even including volunteers.

We were clear that this was an emergent process and there were no guarantees about what might surface. On this basis, like Roan et al (2005) we were pragmatic in our initial approach to management and trusted that the process would allow the “expression of previously unvoiced emotions, opinions and perceptions.” (Roan et al., 2005: 7)

Research Theme 3: Relevance Gap

As practitioners we have heard discussions about how far theory is removed from practice. As independent academic researchers we have often heard expressed at conferences a frustration about the lack of take up of theory by practitioners.

As we operate at the boundaries of both areas we have been concerned with challenging these perspectives, a sometimes uncomfortable position meeting with suspicion from both sides of the debate, ‘to ask practitioners to play a major role in setting the research agenda is to risk condemning business-school research to a permanent triviality.’ (Kilduff & Kelemen, 2001: 558)