Sunday, March 29, 2009

Putting theories into practice for organizational renewal

Years ago, I taught a first year introduction to psychology that was being offered to provide students with some information that would help them be more effective in their studies. To that end, I was introducing them to some concepts in learning and memory as modeled in cognitive psychology. The idea was that if they knew how memory worked, they could understand why certain methods of study were more effective than others, and apply that knowledge to their own advantage.

I was totally taken aback one day when I asked a class to do an exercise that involved drawing a conceptual map, or “mind map” of the structures of memory. One of the students asked,

“When you ask us to draw a mind map of memory, do you mean real memory or the stuff we’ve been learning in class?”


How could such a question occur? I heard myself answering that scientific theorists are people doing their best to explain realities such as how real memory works.

When you introduce people to a new theory or model, you are really asking them for a change in perspective, a new way of selecting and organizing information. In fact, a theory is a way of selecting and organizing the information that comes through experience. A good theory is a more systemic way of integrating information. (And as we all know, there are bad theories.) But people are resistant to change, and new theories just bounce off them as theoretical. A change in theoretical paradigms, or institutional perspectives, has a huge impact on how people see themselves and their world, and it takes more than a few reasonable sounding presentations to bring people in.

We select and organize information all of the time, and usually through a combination of two largely complementary dimensions of culture:
  1. The residue of theories and beliefs that we have inherited as members of a linguistic community
  2. Ideas and conversations that support the economic structure (and by economic structure, I mean the actual concrete social interactions and hierarchies in which we participate collectively to produce our livelihood ).
When new theories start to emerge, new ways of looking at things, there are three strands of activity.

  1. Conservation: The conservators of tradition (usually the majority) dig in their heels. It’s as if there is a collective antibody to a revision of thought. (e.g., Reductionist backlashes against complex systems theory, patriarchal backlashes against understanding the reality of misogyny.)
  2. Naïve Adoption: The radicals react to the conservators and, in their haste to get on a change bandwagon, don’t bother to do in-depth research and reporting, and divest the new theories of any credibility and do them a disservice by reducing the ideas to appealing but fanciful metaphors. (New-agers, for instance, on complexity theory, or radical feminists and some of their more questionable generalizations about men.) Genuine researchers get tarred with some kind of pejorative brush, and may even turn away from these research areas given that they have become ideologically tainted.
  3. Realization: Then there’s the ineluctable (barring any “dark age” forces) but gradual adoption of the new paradigm (such as the adoption of complex systems by certain researchers in environmental science, biology and geology, or the acceptance of the equality of men and women.)
Organizational changes, such as the Government of Canada’s PS Renewal initiative need to be seen to be seen as realizable, not just an "academic exercise" by those who have the responsibility to move it forward.

In order to change the culture, these new ideas need to become ingrained in the discourse but also in the "economics" i.e., systems and practices, of the public service. But before that will happen, it is important to recognize that there will be both a conservative backlash and possibly a rush to a naïve adoption that will serve the interests of the conservators.

Sound leadership, an enabling infrastructure, and a strong focus on the public good will allow the better forces to move the organization forward.

No comments:

Post a Comment