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Manifesting the power of talk in organisational research

3 MAY 2018 - OLUMIDE - RESEARCH

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Written by Professor David Collins

I really do not enjoy Saturday evening television.

And, yes, thank-you I do understand that this is not generally, how blog posts concerned with research begin. I will get to the meat of all the research stuff in a few minutes – I promise. However, before I get to this I have some important prefacing remarks, which will, I do assure you, serve us as we pursue our mutual interest in all things research.

Therefore, you will permit me to repeat that I really do not enjoy Saturday evening’s programming. In fact, I will go further. I actively dislike the (so-called) entertainment that the broadcasters would pipe into my lounge on Saturday evenings. Indeed, I regard these programmes as a punishment for having children and, consequently, no friends. I do, however, understand how Saturday’s television works. It should be confessional. And it must have ‘a journey’.

Despite my reservations regarding Saturday’s television I will, as I offer reflections upon my research, take my cue from Cowell, Walliams and for those 'denizens' of weekend broadcasting Ant and Dec. I will begin therefore with a confession and in offering this act of contrition I will share a little of my research journey.

My current research – or at least one strand of the research, which presently pre-occupies me (and mercifully offers an outlet for my energies on Saturday evenings) is concerned with organisational storytelling. Over the last decade-and-a-bit (no prizes for guessing that I don’t generally undertake quantitative research), I have written two books and, perhaps half a dozen scholarly articles on storytelling. However, I was not always so enamoured with those approaches, which would locate organising processes and managerial work within an account of storytelling. Indeed I was, in my professional life at least, fairly hostile to this form of reasoning. I had, you see, previously researched ‘management fads and buzzwords’ and I was of the view that ‘storytelling’ might be just another one of those buzzwords that would promise strategic change and deliver disappointment. In addition, I should probably concede that through years of tuition I had been led to believe that stories were – as Yiannis Gabriel puts it so well – ‘quaint subordinates to fact’.

 

So how did I overcome my prejudice?

Yiannis Gabriel and his sensitive pioneering work on stories and storytelling was obviously central to this process. But in all truthfulness much of the credit surely belongs to a young Israeli scholar who, having chosen to make ‘organisational storytelling’ the subject of her Masters dissertation obliged her supervisor (me!) to read up on the area.

In hindsight, my hostility to the idea that the social world might be explored in and through stories was a strange position to adopt. You see I am part of a rather large family. I am in fact last in the line of a long string of children and in my early childhood I was, thanks to my parents, my uncles, my aunts and my cousins steeped in a culture of stories.

My older siblings tell me that they know only half of the family tales, which I now hold so dear. Why is this? There are I think two main reasons. Firstly, I chose to listen and I choose, now, to remember. Secondly, I quickly developed the skills that allowed me to maintain a place in the adult company, which had lived what would become my family tales.

In addition, what are these skills? They are simple really. Place and carry yourself like a Hobbit and no one will notice your presence. Or more plainly: Be quiet. Don’t eat too many of the biscuits laid out for the guests. And don’t laugh too loudly at the more risqué parts of the tale.

Nowadays, my research practice is based on an understanding that organised life is a story world and, in my latest book*, I offer practical guidance on the problems, processes and dilemmas that confront those who would use organisational storytelling to shape and to direct the thoughts and actions of others. In addition, yes I do appreciate that many others make (apparently) similar observations. Nevertheless, my work is, I protest, rather different. Where others assume or assert that stories provide a reliable means of securing top-down control over thinking and action I argue that stories well-up from the bottom of organizations and offer a means of securing control and commitment as well as sources of parody and dissent.

Will I talk about this text at the up-coming conference on organisational storytelling which has been organised by my colleagues Jessica Clark, Sarah Richards and Tom Vine and which will be hosted by the University of Suffolk on July 10 and 11 2018? No, I have a different tale to tell.

This one involves gurus, stories (of course), stand-up comedy, a journey and perhaps another confession…you see as I write this it strikes me that my latest work sounds more than a little bit like the Saturday evening television, which I claim to deplore. Oh well. So it goes… 

 

*Stories for Management Success:  The Power of Talk in Organizations" by David Collins has recently published and is available to borrow at the University of Suffolk library and for purchase

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