Ideas for my research project

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(T847, Block One, Activity 1)

The quest for this activity is to identify particular ideas, concepts, theories, arguments, propositions, techniques, tools, case studies – in fact any material – that I have found particularly interesting in my studies to date.  An odd question because if I did not find all of it interesting I would not have got here.  Nonetheless, what is particularly engaging my interest right now?

Probably worth saying something at the outset about the area of practice and situation I want to apply my research to.

I am involved in coordinating partnership working for purpose of improving wellbeing and health (and reducing health inequalities) at UK local authority level.  I have a growing discomfort with the appropriateness of dominant conceptual models of ‘partnerships’, ‘partnership working’ and ‘how we work together to improve wellbeing and health’ – and my two recent end of module projects on TU811 and TU812 allowed me to explore this a little.  I have a ‘narrative of hope’ that Systems concepts and approaches will become more valued as ways of working – and my last blog post, showed how this may be on the brink of happening.

So I have an interest in whether this ‘shift’ is actually happening in the thinking and practice of people involved in the everyday life of partnerships at a local authority level – is it happening naturally anyway? how can I act to promote and enable that shift (create the conditions for it)?

And this interest all pivots around how language gives insights into people’s conceptualisations…..

Using ‘images’ and ‘metaphors’ to enable multiple perspectives and depth of understanding (building on a social constructionist paradigm).

There are three particular works that are grabbing my attention here.

Gareth Morgan’s “Images of Organisation” which introduces the idea that having one ‘image’ of an organisation reduces your ability to make sense of organisational life and act to improve it.  Morgan draws on literature to describe 8 different metaphors of organisations and actively encourages his readers to use multiple metaphors rather than relying on the dominant metaphor of organisations as machines.  The book was first published in 1986, I have the 2006 updated edition which shows the ongoing value of these insights.

In 2009, Mark Winter and Tony Szczepanek wrote a book called “Images of Projects”.  They directly drew on Morgan’s ideas to identify a number of useful images of projects, which move beyond the dominant positivist mainstream image of projects.  Their working definition of a project as ‘temporary purposeful activity’ rings really true with Systems.  Given that Mark Winter co-authored papers with Checkland this is hardly surprising.

The third work is a 1998 book by Mintzberg, Ahlstrand and Lampel called “Strategy safari” (mentioned in TU811 introductory materials).  Although they are not as explicit in framing their book as a set of images and metaphors, they do explore a number of different ‘schools’ of strategy – again each offering different strengths and limitations in understanding the ‘beast’.

So I’ve been thinking of these ideas in my line of work – partnerships are a form of organisation; partnership life is made up of a myriad of different projects (aka temporary collective purposeful activity); and it is through partnerships that strategy/policy is made and realised.  So, is there any value in purposefully generating and using metaphors of partnerships/partnership working?

(As an aside I have had a long interest in the distinction (or otherwise) between strategy and policy.  The former traditionally associated with business and then hurled into the public sector in days of New Public Management.  The latter traditionally associated with the public sector but lost its identity.  In general, I tend to think of strategy using definition of “activities taken by an organisation in pursuit of its long-term objectives” (which I think I remember from the days of studying B820) and policy using definition as “activities taken by organisations in the name of external public good” (which I think I remember from studying TU870).  If an organisation is in the public sector then its purpose is associated with external public good – such as health – which is why it all gets a little blurry but it still will need its own objectives (such as financial survival).  Anyway enough of that – in principle some of the descriptive and prescriptive theories of strategy and policy seem interchangeable – with caution of course.)

Metaphor and language

I am also interested in the more ‘hidden’ metaphors and how they are identified through the use of language.  Here I am thinking in particular of the work of Lakoff, which we touched on in the TU811 people stream – in particular his paper on the state as person metaphor.

What language do people use when talking about partnerships/partnership working and what does that reveal about the underlying metaphors they draw on?

Being and becoming ontologies

Linehan and Kavanagh (2006) writing on ‘projects’ draw on the work of Chia (1995) who wrote on ‘organisations’.

The dominant ontology of organisational analysis is a ‘being’ ontology – where primacy is given to things – nouns, entities, states.  It privileges the static.  This ontology also treats the organisation as a rational-being – that has goals, and knowledge, and can make decisions (a bit like Lakoff’s state as person metaphor).

In contrast a ‘becoming’ ontology emphasises processes – verbs and activity.  It focusses more on the dynamic nature of organisations.  Here structure (i.e. order) is an emergent outcome of processes.

Again, I think of the applicability in my world of partnerships – or alternatively partnership working. For a while I have distinguished partnership (as structure) from partnership working (as process).  But what about other people?  How does discourse emphasise the different ontologies – I have a sense from everyday interactions that there is much more partnership as ‘being’ language in use.  But is there any presence of the ‘becoming’ ontology?  And, is there a difference between stakeholders?

Discourse and change.

I have come across some literature in the organisational development domain about relationships between organisational change and discourse – the idea of changing the conversation creating the change. (e.g. Grant and Marshak, 2011)

Lakoff (2010) also uses the idea of framing and language in connection with societal change (in this case environment).  Ison (2002) also talks about changing conversations as part of change.

Does change of language (coining of new words) mean change in thinking?

As mentioned earlier, the context I am working in creates a ‘demand’ for a shift in the way we conceive of and do partnerships (as outlined in my last blog).

At times I hear people use terms like ‘wicked problem’ or ‘complexity’ or ‘systems thinking’ – but I have a nagging doubt that they ‘don’t get’ the fact that these are are more than just new trendy jargon – they are concepts that have implications for the way they think and do.

Ison (2010, and also personal correspondence) distinguishes between a ‘linguistic shift’ – the use of a new word – and actually internalising the underlying conceptions.  Internalising the underlying conceptions requires accepting an ‘explanation’ which involves emotions and the embodiment of those new understandings as much as ‘intellect’.  It is feasible then that people hear new language and start to use it in an unthinking way.  How do I research beyond this ‘parroting’ to see if there are changes in people’s thinking?

And how does power play out in all this?

The shift in the way we conceive of and do partnerships requires a shift in power patterns (as well as being a product of a shift in power patterns).    I am reminded of Ralph Stacey’s comment about the ‘threat to identity’ this creates when I heard him talk (see this post).  Are those with more power in current arrangements more likely to hang onto the dominant models?

In comes critical theory – the notion of hegemony – and so on.  Vague memories of this from when I studied Discourse Analysis.


So a lot to start out with – but at least there is a common thread running through it.


Chia, R., From modern to postmodern  organizational analysis: an introduction. Organization Studies, 16(4), pp.579-604.

Grant, D. & Marshak, R.J., 2011. Toward a Discourse-Centered Understanding of Organizational Change. Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 47(2), pp.204-235.

Ison, R., 2002. Systems practice and the design of learning systems: orchestrating an ecological conversation. In Proc. An Interdisciplinary Dialogue: Agricultural Production and Integrated Ecosystem Management of Soil and Water. Ballina, NSW, Australia.

Ison, R., 2010. Systems Practice: how to act in a climate-change world, Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Sage Publications.

Lakoff, G., 1991. Metaphor and war: the metaphor system used to justify war in the gulf, [online], (in two parts) [accessed 12 Nov 2011].  Used as part of Open University TU811 on-line materials

Lakoff, G., 2010. Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment. Environmental Communication: A journal of nature and culture, 4(1), pp.70 – 81.

Lineham, C. & Kavanagh, D., 2006. From projects ontologies to communities of virtue. In Hodgson, D. & Cicmil, S. Making projects critical. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 51-67.

Mintzberg, H., Ahlstrand, B. & Lampel, J., 1998. Strategy Safari: the complete guide through the wilds of strategic management, Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Morgan, G., 2006. Images of Organization Updated Edition., London: Sage Publications.

Winter, M. & Szczepanek, T., 2009. Images of Projects, Farnham: Gower Publishing Ltd.

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