Category Archives: enquiry

The Fallen

The Fallen was on BBC2 on Saturday night and it was privilege to watch. A tribute to British soldiers who’ve been killed in Afghanistan. The makers were almost invisible and inaudible as the brothers, sisters, parents, brothers-in-arms, commanders, wives of the fallen told their stories. Stories of individuals were spliced together with silence chronological rollcall, pieces of documentary and news, collections of shared moments of terrible grief, of funerals, the shrines left behind, the moment the news broke and so on. The smallest echo of background music tied things together, and at the end the voices and music fell silent and all you heard (and saw, then only heard) was the chipping of the stonemasons carving a memorial and that sound cut through to the very grieving of the soul.

As tributes, rituals and acts of memorial go, this was an honest testimony that reached beyond any private grief and brought the incredible acts of bravery of these young men and women right into a place where you had not choice but to listen, and look and feel, and feel fully what it means to live in this amazing, muddled democracy of our, and how we trash that privilege daily. It also showed how much we need private and collective rituals of remembrance.

I was very much reminded of Tony Parker , an oral historian who died in 1966, who gave his work and life over to making room for the voices of the marginalised and invisible. I first came across his work when I read a review of ‘May the Lord in his mercy say a prayer for Belfast’ and then tracked down everything I could, about lifers, lighthouse keepers, people who lived in a towerblock in North London. He had a way of being present and invisible and of just lightly twisting the words and shape of the stories so that there were small and shocking moments of surprise and realisation. No manipulation here, but a marriage of the best of raw voice and the honing that a storyteller can bring to it to help it be heard.

I was also reminded me of an as yet unblogged experience I had when I went to see Black Watch (which I did blog). This was Steve Mcqueen’s Queen and Country

Steve McQueen's tribute postage stamps

Steve McQueen's tribute postage stamps

Steve McQueen, in collaboration with 136 families whose loved ones have lost their lives in Iraq, has created a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets, each one dedicated to a deceased soldier.

\The simple brilliance of the idea of stamps as a container for remembrance, used as political statement about how little we seem able to honour our dead is something I’ve been carrying with me.

There’s a French word, aider, which we don’t but should have in English, which means to be an accomplice in something simply by witnessing it. Aiding and abetting should have that meaning. It’s the job of the teller, the artist, the author, the actor, I think, to create spaces of witnessing from which we cannot step back. The privilege of access to an audience brings with it the responsibility to engage that audience in witnessing and becoming responsible both for themselves and for what they see over which they can have some useful influence.

This is something I feel strongly and have still, frustratingly, fully to bring to bear in my own daily practice. But I will never give up trying.

Advertisements

Bridges & ditches

I walked up the footpath at the back of our land yesterday, to see the weather from a different place. The water was roaring down the stone gullies that have been dug out through the land, and hurtling down the path too. It is unstoppable.

Gullies running in orange alert weather in the Ardeche

Gullies running in orange alert weather in the Ardeche

At dinner with the neighbours last night we talked of the bewilderment of the summer tourist, who can make no sense of these great dry stone beds, with absurdly high bridges constructed over them. You need to winter here to understand, and then this Orange alert is making for weather rare even for the vrai Ardechois, born and bred to it.

We spent a long time, too, foraging for the right translation for combler la fosse, which in French is to fill in a ditch, to close a gap. In it’s context I went for building bridges, so with a twist of reconciliation, but in the dictionary afterwards it seems more likely it’s to bridge a gap. I wonder if there’s anything in the French effort to actually fill the gap, while the English blithely construct a bridge over it and leave it there? How high a bridge then.

Fred, who runs a supermarket near Toulouse, was talking about how easy it was, right from the beginning of the year, to detect the change in buying habits, although the sharp swing away from brands came in about May. Danone yoghurts down 9%, where before it was 3 freezer shelves stacked with President butter to one own brand, now it’s 2 and 2. Own brands have been winning out over the grandes marques for quite a while. For Fred, that’s fine, so long as he’s tuned early to the changes and can change his buying.

I was thinking about this in respect of some work on future story exercises I’m working on with Anecdote just now. Shawn, delightfully, uses William Gibson (science fiction writer)

The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed

Fred can see the future in the changed distribution of butter in his freezers, one tiny image which pretty much conjures up a whole picture of crumbling economies. Of course, for organisational visioning you’d like the picture to be rosier, in one way. But it is rosy too. The own brand comes into it’s own.

I wonder whether there’s something too in the ditch versus bridge difference. We’ve been imagining future stories as a way to build a bridge from the future to the present, using present anecdotes (Gibsons we’re calling them) about future signs as part of the construction materials. Perhaps we need to be thinking about filling in ditches, combler la fosse, rather than bridging a gap. Or perhaps we need to build very high bridges indeed, knowing that the winter rains will wash away lower ones.

Brothels in Bangladesh – a direct consequence of climate change

As I come to the shift of gear, the dreamy limbo of writing up the museums work we’ve been doing for the past few months and starting to clear a space to think about the work on horizon scanning and futures which hoves into few and will take up most of my thinking and unthinking space from February to July, I’m quite alert to tiny fragments which pack a punch. I’m finding a surprising amount in our mla database which seems to connect directly to the hsf thinking in ways that are almost frightening. For example I wrote recently about poetry as a kind of horizon scanner – the poetry library gets a surprising frontline view of what matters to people.Then in the Guardian this week I was startled by an article on the rise in prostitution in Bangladesh:

“The brothel opened 20 years ago, making it the newest and largest of the 14 recognised brothels in the country. It is set on the meeting point of two vast rivers, the Jamuna and the Ganges (known locally as the Padma), which makes this a very busy place to catch a ferry. Trucks carrying rice, jute, sugar cane and fish from the west and south-west of the country queue here for two or three days at a time to cross the river for the drive to the capital, Dhaka. In Bangladesh on a BBC World Service boat to look at the impact of climate change, I was surprised to find that an unexpected consequence of rising water levels is the growth in demand for prostitution. River erosion has meant the closure of some ferry berths, so men wait even longer to cross the river. And, while they wait, many of them pass the time in the company of Daulatdia’s women.”

We spent some time this week at a workshop imagining scenarios for mla relationship with business (banish mla as concept, replace it with a sense of extended learning places and resources essential to the rounded worker, then ‘backcast’ from that to the present day to see how one would achieve that symbiosis over, say, 20 years).

Anyway, my question for a couple of days has been, take a scenario (not good or bad, hopeful or unhopeful, just a confluence of circumstance) and imagine backwards from that circumstance how would would have forseen it in some way.So I’m interested in the idea of taking brothels (one can deconstruct brothel of course in quite a feminist way – poor endentured women with no prospects, men with too much time on their hands and not much inclination to do cultured things) in Bangladesh (low-lying land, under-resourced in flood management, having to react rather than act, most likely to be one of the frontiers where we witness the consequences of climate change, etc).But working back from brothels, Bangladesh, flooding, too few ferries, downtime. How might one, 10 years ago have forseen this thing? What kinds of horizon scanning might one have done in, say 1997? What kinds of different policies for prostitution and flood transportation might a reasonably accurate prognosis have led to?I think it might be interesting for our hsf governance work to come at it sideways, and find some unlikely events, from history and the present, and consider what a well-scanned intelligence process might have thrown up by way of a different policy path.What’s so interesting here is how little we prize the insights that people can bring from their daily witnessing. I’m witnessing a great deal of unlikely stuff because of where I sit. But I’m not a scanner or a futurist, and there’s no-one whose sleeve I can tug about most of it. I do it because it interests me and puts a bit of pep into my daily work. Think of all those scanners out there. If, instead of simply using people’s excess computing power to calculate space things,we used their witnessing power to help us see further, think of the changes that could bring about.

It happens a bit of course. Say the RSPB and birdwatching. There’s a model of participatory scanning that it’s worth looking more closely at, and I know Natural England so some interesting scanning using Cognitive Edge techniques. And it’s all trendy to talk about the wisdom of crowds. But I’m not talking about exactly any of that here. I think I’m talking about something a bit different that I’m trying to find and describe better.I’m off to read the Guardian and let it settle for a bit while I think about what it is I want to say next.

But before I do, a tiny, gorgeous little thing from my second visit to Louise Bougeois, accompanied by sketches of skyscapers as people – perhaps three of them standing together:

“One man was telling a story, it was a very good story, and it made him happy, but he told it so fast that nobody understood it.

Yup, that happens a lot.

Drumming to the rhythm of James Joyce

I’ve a friend, Mark, who once coined the term ‘synthalpy’ for the next big movement which would wash knowledge management away into the past of tired, failed, organisational managements of once kind or another.  Synthalpy is the positive energy which flows when two worlds, hitherto unknown to each other, collide.    

When I look around, he gets righter and righter.  Except it’s not just two worlds I don’t think.  In Saturday’s Guardian was an article about the artist Anri Sala, whose take a drumless recording of a new Franz Ferdinand song, a gallery in London, and fragments from the text of Ulysses by James Joyce.  Visitors are asked to record the drum beat.  Their instructions  are extracts from Ulysses – ‘ bootless’ ‘lickitup’ ‘window-sash’ ‘boo-entity’ with some placing in context of the music.  The instruction, in essence, is that the rhythm of the word is the drum beat rhythm which is sought. The artist, Sala, ends the instructions with Joyce ‘With care repeated, with greater difficulty remembered, forgot with ease, with misgiving remembered, repeated with error.’ J

ohn Cage would be proud.I wonder too, what happens in the brain where the rhythm of a word is the instruction to produce a series of beats in a sequence.  

I’ve been reading, too, a marvellous book called ‘The Actor and the Target’ by Declan Donnellan, who founded Cheek by Jowl, the theatre company in 1981.  Essential reading for anyone interested in work and performance in any settings.I need to read it again, but have been most struck, in my vague meanderings through time and its meaning in organisational settings by his characterisation of Fear (capitalised) in particular. Fear, he says,  splits real time into two fake times to avoid you being present.  He splits time into the past, riddled with Guilt and the future, infused with Anxiety.  The guilty past and the anxious future do not exist, only the present exists.

I notice some move in me, with this and with the time in two modes (mackerel, memory) a lurching away from interest in the future and to being present, ever present.Donnellan also says that acting  (but life I think) is about the pursuit of seeing rather than of being seen.  Seeing, in the sense of using the faculties to be present and to see fully what is happening.I’ve an embryonic thesis that we mistake, hugely the value of planning and the value of reordering the past with offical, and officious, programmes of evaluation, lessons learnt, business planning, visioning, mission statements – the dross of illusory structure which deludes we are, somehow, captains of the organisational ship and have a choice where we can see it.  I’m thinking now that the richness of organisational life unfolds in an acute awareness of the present, an ability to look around and see what is, and, by seeing and describing it well, to open it up lines of sight which are otherwise blocked.  I think metaphor is permissable too, with all its dangers, to allow the heightened language to describe complex depths and darknesses which are not otherwise safely explored, or even explored at all. For some things, only the language of metaphor allows access.

This is social constructionism gone mad of course, but not gone bad I don’t think.  It does call into question the happier clappier parts of appreciative enquiry, the dreamy bits, imagining Chicago, imagining this, imagining that. But I think that might be necessary.  Untrammelled imaginings are whimsical in some way.  And I don’t think that’s where the valuable moments happen in the expression of dreams. I could be terribly wrong to do that.  But it does not diminish the value of the act of enquiry itself, which appreciative enquiry values so much, and rightly too. I think dreaming belongs in bed at night, and in taut forms, vehicles of expression like theatre, poetry, where the dangerousness or newness or impossibility of the imagining is contained, bounded and made safe for exploration by the traditional forms in which these things are contained.  

I think the double unboundedness of sprawling imagining, has less power to make change that either the imaginings bounded in literary or musical forms and compositions which give them density and punch, or by the permission to describe things and be listened to. The presentation of the unthinkable and unsayable in forms which have familiarity and create a certain sense of safety in the listener or viewer to engage seems important.

In the work we’re doing for museums at present, there’s a drumbeat recurring theme about the loss of touch, feeling and rawness in today’s worklife. Museums and archives are used, but in a tidied up, refined way, by interpreters of, say, brand, to package them for accessibility and purvey them to organisations who want things tidy. That’s one trend. Against mess, against the rolling up of sleeves and plunging yourself into the unknown (which is certainly where Fear splits time into two, with great glee). But there’s another trend too, towards treasuring the archive. And for more than just presentation purposes I think. In this world of ephemera and transience where people float in and out of work and work relationships and commitments, some lineage seems more then ever essential. Levi, John Lewis, organisations which are brand-smart, but also thoughtful, are finding that the archives must be made visible and feelable. Not just to plunder them for clever ideas and a kind of pseudo-heritage which might make things feel more solid and permanent. But in a genuine move to treasure and share the inspirational moments from the past so that they come forward and provide inspiration, context and meaning for those who relate to them in the present, which will, in some way change their future.

One person we interviewed said that all work is changing, becoming less linear, more reliant on simultaneity, in the present of a rich resource, in a place of character. These insights prompt me more than ever to the conviction that knowledge is not to be buttoned down, but only exists in the presence of others and in the presence of rich resources. It can only flow and cross gaps. In turn this leads me ever more to the conviction that knowledge is about not-knowledge. I’m taking a look at the negatives of things, the other sides, the shadows, the dark, the blocks, the gaps, the un-things, the not-knowing to see where this leads me.

This goes right back to Declan Donnellan. Acting, he says, is not about the actor, its about the target. The target is not a goal, or objective, or intention, or mission of any kind. Its something that exists outside the actor which fuels the actor. Like dancing with a bamboo stick. You’ll find, if you dance with a stick, that the more you allow the stick to lead, the more graceful, ambitious and dynamic the dance is. Surrender to the stick.

Matisse, and I’ve shared this before, had no idea what he was doing or why when he spent four years carving backs. He did it because it needed to be done. I’m not Matisse, I’m not Declan Donnellan, I’m not an artist of any kind. I’m unlikely to be a writer. I’m most likely to provide some kind of invisible mending and some spaces of invitation and conversation in different settings. But I do recognise the growing need to do something because it somehow needs to be done, rather than need to know why. And what needs to be done by me now is to understand the importance of absenting the future from organisational planning, reconnecting with rawness, and shining a light on the negative, hidden and lurking places which are where knowledge really lies.

I’m not quite sure where this rambling gets me but it feels like something important is flickering at the edges of my vision. I hope David Cooperrider writes in to tell me how wrong I am and persuade me otherwise.  Or anyone else for that matter.     

‘You don’t look at what you did before, you do the same shit all over’

The Wire.Everyone who has not yet watched The Wire should immediately go out and buy every series they can lay their hands on, then lay back and watch very slowly and patiently.  I’d probably find listening to something in French easier to follow but this is a perfect treasure of complex and extraordinary storytelling at every level.This quote comes from the third series, where McNulty (our gorgeous wild, naughty, good-hearted flawed hero) is looking back through closed murder files and is asked why. ‘You don’t look at what you did before, you do the same shit all over.’ Exactly.  When I get round to writing the book, which is, I can tell you, looming closer, that’ll be the quote on the inside cover.  I’ve much else to blog – Tony Harrison’s V, an extraordinary poem, an astonishing piece of storytelling and social commentary and an exemplar of how a poem can achieve things that no amount of Demos reports on social exclusion can come close to (and I speak as one who funded an early Demos report on social exclusion);  metaphor again – a riff starting with an Angela Carter quote and then travelling through Frances Yates’s ‘Art of Memory’ and Louise Bourgeois’s current exhibition; a salutory warning on what goes wrong when future storytelling goes bad and people mistake scenarios for predictions. But all that will have to wait for calmer moments. For now, I’ve a thing I want to note somewhere in a public arena, just to have expressed them.I have a plan for Sparknext and it’s a very good one.  I’ve been floundering without a plan, and the plan still allows for me to be mostly in mackerel time and memory time (see the last blog) – that is to say, be very present rather than constantly leaning forward breathlessly into an unlived future.Sparknow will be reconfigured to be jointly owned, and in partnership, we’ll pay attention to doing three things.  Doing, and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible through, narrative enquiries worldwide, of the kind we’re currently doing at mla.sparknow.net; Being thought leaders and practitioners in understanding knowledge work and the implications for knowledge workers, their relationship with work, with organisations and with themselves in their career journeys;Consolidating into a lean, elegant methodology, what we know about how to retain business processes when people leave or any kind of upheaval or move takes place.We know exactly where we are with the first.  We just need to do more of it in new and familiar settings.  With the second and the third, I’m very excited because I think we can bring together some old and new insights which will transfer the conversation and action spaces in these areas.  Good. Phew.   It’s only taken 10 years.   I don’t know why I’m writing so breathlessly with no pauses but there it is.  I feel more Molly Bloom than Pinter but I don’t know how to change the formatting.

 

  

‘Culture is the one thing we cannot deliberately aim at’

I see I’ve fallen silent for rather a long time. Holidays, laziness, avoidance. But most of all I’ve had in mind a blog on culture cooking and I’ve been looking for my copy of TS Eliot’s ‘Notes towards a definition of culture’ which he wrote in about 1940. I can’t find it, but googling gives me a bit of what I’m trying to look up as a starting point at least:

“For if any definite conclusions emerge from this study, one of them is surely this, that culture is the one thing we cannot deliberately aim at.”

This was brought to mind by a glorious description in Hari Kunzru’s book ‘The Impressionist’ (which starts very well and then gets a bit artsy and clever, but I’ll read his others) of a railway station in India earlyish last century:

‘The crowd on the platform at Fort Station throbs like a single body. Dirty-collared clerks, hawkers of tea and sweets, beggars, newspaper-sellers, pickpockets, raucous British Tommies all prickly heat and dirty songs, neatly dressed babus, clipped subalterns soon to be kicking the babus out of their reserved seats, displeased memsahibs leading lines of porters with trunks balanced on tehir rag-padded heads, peasant families sleeping three generations in a row using baggage for pillows,….and dining rooms – first second third and purdah, veg. and non-veg., Hindu Muslim and English all spin together….’

The scene this evokes conveys more surely than any abstract noun a kind of jostling vibrant culture. And reading it reminded me of the bit in ‘Notes towards a definition of culture’ where T S Eliot describes Englishness as cricket and strawberries, beetroot for tea and other things which now escape me.

I want to find a piece of work where the grandiose amibition of mission statement and value falls away and we work with the organisation through object, and observation and descriptions of how it is to make visible the raw fabric of the cultures (never just one) and weave together, through small stories and images, and properly condensed pithy and living description of how people want to live breathe play and work in that organisation.

People do it unofficially: they can describe with sharp and pointed insight the day to day reality of how the organisation gets work done (and often avoids getting work done), and the normally severe reality gap between those values the organisation purports to espouse and how it acts in practice. But that’s a kind of negative culture statement. The same acute witnessing could perfectly well be put to an appreciative exploration of what the organisation stands for and the cultural self-descriptions evolved from here collectively rather than imposed by the communications committee sub-committee on values.

We must stand up and fight for real words, stories and actions, imbued with the deep meaning of shared experience not the distressingly shrivelled, trivialising meaningless summary of the organisational mission statement, normally accompanied by the excruciatingly patronising values scrapbooks, tied to the threatening control of the appraisal system and to workshops through which the culture programme is ‘rolled out’ (and over people) which are either second rate and derivative or candyfloss entertainment whose impact lasts, in the coinage of Ratner, about as long as the shelf-life of a Marks and Spencer prawn sandwich. (Here surely is the pithiest and most honest culture statement ever to have changed the fortunes of a man and a company.)

We must make descriptions of what organisations are and aspire which vault over the prosaic thudding half-baked controlling ambitions of mission and mission control.

We must use poetry to engage the heart, not thump on about ‘heart values’.

It’s very important to be constantly restless in wriggling free of the strait-jacket assumptions that the designers and deliverers of culture and change programmes shove us into (and that includes me as a purveyor of such so-called products and experiences).

There must be a ceaseless toiling towards the vibrance of a lived reality.

This is not going to be easy.

I said in Sparknow’s founding essay (or at least I say about it) that we want to change the fabric of society.

I still mean it.

I must go away and gird my loins for the next battle.

In Algeria over the past 10 years or so they’ve gone from 2 – 15 newspapers.

All well read too and only lightly censored.

No blogs for days and then two come along at once. Typical of the information highway I say. But this has been on my list to post for a week or two and I’m thinking hard about our new assignment – a Knowledge Enquiry into the knowledge transfer and knowledge economy impact of the cultural assets (experts, collections, spaces) of London (museums, archives, libraries). So what is knowledge transfer? What’s a knowledge economy? What is evidence? How do you find it out? How do you verify?

This is something I found out (but have not checked on) in conversation with the Algerian man who runs a stall in the farmers market. An excellent stall with bourek and Algerian flatbreads and pastries and mint tea, all of which he makes himself. We always chat, about this and that.

How did I find it out? Not by asking about newspapers, but by talking to him about how safe I’d be travelling as a Western woman alone in Algeria.

Now to me, it’s interesting for 2 reasons which we might want to think about in our narrative enquiries and building of evidence bases:

1. an interesting shred of evidence. Only a shred. But he’s an educated man, been here for 17 years, very attached to his home land, observant. In his view, with which I happen to concur, the increase in range of press is an indicator of a society which is opening up to challenge and so more robust. It’s a little nugget to hold on to, a bit of a surprise, something which leaves a knotted handkerchief in the mind as a reminder to build other shreds around it – Algerian shreds, things to do with how the published press, censorship and so on can be indicators of the openness of a society.

2. I found it out in passing while asking about something else. So it was offered to me tangentially by way of evidence that I would be treated with openness not hostility. I wasn’t looking for it. I was looking for something else altogether.

Which leads me to wonder the extent to which we need to ask direct questions or to ask indirect questions which lead us to shreds and snippets we can built into patterns.

Which leads me in turn to wonder about horizon scanning methodologies and inferential research and whether we should boning up on these in any way.