Reflections on the “Process and practice perspectives on organisation studies” workshop at the University of Queensland Business School

By Dr Ella Hafermalz

“Process and practice perspectives” are piquing the interest of a range of organisational scholars. The group that gathered at the University of Queensland Business School workshop last week represented the diversity of scholars interested in these approaches. Faculties of Management, Information Systems, Advertising and more were represented, as were Phds, Professors, ECRs; those who publish from a process and practice perspective, and those more familiar with positivist approaches – all attended with an open mind. This kind of diversity of scholarly backgrounds is rare at a themed workshop, and as you would expect, it added to the quality of interactions and liveliness of discussions over the two days.

As keynote Professor Hari Tsoukas reminded us, process and practice perspectives have more similarities than differences. They both allow us to investigate how organising happens and how the processes involved in organising are experienced by practitioners. Practice theories in particular emphasise everyday life – what activities are practitioners involved in, and how is meaning exercised through these routines and collectivities? Process philosophy offers a related perspective, with a greater emphasis on how temporality frames and arises from our experiences of everyday life. While some of the workshop was dedicated to discussing the difference between process and practice perspectives, the closing statements concluded that they are “two sides of the same coin”. Trying to distinguish them is perhaps less useful than figuring out how to put them to work in organisational research.

This practical concern was a central theme of the workshop. How can we do process and practice research, and, not insignificantly, how can we publish it? Keynote speaker Professor Paula Jarzabkowski offered several important insights here. Illuminating her points with examples from her large-scale ethnographic research on the reinsurance industry, Professor Jarzabkowski explained how she and her co-authors keep track of what “surprises” them in the field. These surprises often inform the basis of a project’s theoretical contribution. The trick is to note down what shows up as unusual during the process of doing research – by the end of a longitudinal ethnography it’s easy to get so immersed that the surprises melt away in retrospect. Emails between co-authors were one practical way in which these important surprising moments were recorded.

I have heard some scholars assert that longitudinal ethnography is the only way to study process. It was great to hear Professor Jarzabkowski challenge this assumption. Sure, if you are studying what is known as ‘weak’ process (e.g. a, leads to b, leads to c), it might be necessary to capture ‘events’ over time. However, ‘strong’ process refers to an understanding of temporality as central to all phenomena – life isn’t static, it is always on the move: every moment has come from somewhere and is going somewhere. From this perspective, every moment can be studied with a sensitivity to process, in terms of temporality. We can, Professor Jarzabkowski explained, study “process in the moment”. This is possible if we pay attention, for example, to how a phenomenon, in a moment of apparent stability, has come to be stabilized (e.g. a British institution appears stable, but an enormous amount of work has gone into making it appear that way). Professor Jarzabkowski argued convincingly for this way of looking at instances of a phenomenon in terms of process.

In relation to the important issue of publishing, both Professor Tsoukas and Professor Jarzabkowski stressed that as organisational scholars, our research is not contributing to social theory. We can productively use social theory to frame and inform our research, but at the end of the day we need to contribute to our own fields (e.g. organisational theory, advertising, Information Systems, etc.). Studying the works of practice theorists and process philosophers can be wonderfully enriching, but we need to keep an eye on our audience and the kinds of contributions that will resonate with them. This focus means being prepared to make compromises in the review process. It is worth triaging to an extent - what is your main message, and where are you willing to concede? We heard that we will likely be asked to remove traces of the research process, including accounts of how social theory has informed our work, as we progress through reviews. Though pragmatic, this sounded somewhat painful. For those like myself who are new to publishing process and practice research, forewarned is forearmed.

The panelists Professor Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic and Professor Kai Riemer, along with conveners Dr Paul Spee and Professor Jorgen Sandberg (a former TAOP guest), also shared their experiences and reflections on conducting research from a process and practice perspective. Professor Riemer recollected that a practice perspective, informed by philosopher Martin Heidegger, helped him and his co-author Professor Robert Johnston see how technologies were taken for granted by practitioners who used them, to the point where practitioners could not easily communicate the significance of their technologies to the researchers. Practice theory offered a way of accounting for and theorising this observation. Professor Cecez-Kecmanovic shared how a process philosophy perspective has added insight to her study (co-authored with A/Prof Olivera Marjonovic) on the way in which an Australian educational website, which collates and compares the national performance of schools on standardized tests, enacts unintended consequences for how students, teachers, and teaching practice are understood and performed as “good” or “bad”. This example prompted discussion on how process and practice perspectives can serve to highlight ethical issues, such as the effects of categorization and marginalization.

On top of the informative keynotes and panels, the workshop also featured interactive discussions, feedback on work-in-progress, roundtables, and conversation over dinner on the stunning Brisbane river. The two days allowed those who were new to process and practice perspectives to voice questions, concerns, and puzzlements, for example, Professor Andrew Burton-Jones expressed an interest in knowing more about the role of “representation” in process and practice theories. For those already adopting these perspectives in their research, questions focused around publishing, and how we can push the conceptual agenda further. Personally, I felt that performativity emerged as a theme of significance for understanding the intersection between process and practice perspectives. Some who attended this excellent workshop will see each other again at the 9th Annual Process Philosophy Symposium in Greece (PROS). There was also mention of the UQ Process and Practice Perspectives workshop becoming an annual event – let us hope that this imagining becomes a reality!

 

Workshop information:

The University of Queensland Business School Workshop Process and practice perspectives on organisation studies: Similarities and distinctiveness

Conveners and organisers: Professor Jorgen Sandberg and Dr Paul Spee, the University of Queensland,

Dr Anna Stephens, the University of Queensland 

Keynote Speakers: Professor Hari Tsoukas, University of Cyprus and Warwick Business School, & Professor Paula Jarzabkowski, CASS Business School and the University of 

Panel members: Professor Kai Riemer, the University of Sydney, Professor Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic, University of New South Wales 

Sponsors: UQ Business School and the University of Queensland 

Location: UQ Business School, 2-3 February 2017