This week I have been a part of a series of meetings, gatherings and workshops around the release of a new book on Dialogic Organizational Development. I contributed a chapter to the book on hosting containers.
Yesterday, the lead authors hosted a day long conference on the themes contained in the book and we delivered some workshops and hosted some dialogue on the emergence of this term and the implications for the field. Today we are at the Academy of Management conference being held in Vancouver where the lead authors, and some of the rest of us, are delivering a professional development workshop.
Over the past few days I’ve been reflecting on relationships between practitioners and academics, especially as it pertains to the development of learning and innovation in this field. Traditionally, academics are suspicious of practitioners who fly by the seat of their pants, who don’t ground their experience in theory and who tell stories that validate their biases. Practitioners are traditionally suspicious of academics being stuffy, jargony and inaccessible, too much in the mind and engaged in indulgent personal research projects. Secretly I think, each has been jealous of the other a bit: academics coveting the freedom of practice and practitioners wanting the legitimacy of academics.
One of the things I like about this new book is that Gervase Bushe and Bob Marshak brought together people from both fields to write the book. Gervase is really clear that the role of researchers in this work is to help practitioners understand why things work. This is a really welcome invitation as I have been working for a year or more led by Dave Snowden’s exhortation to us in the practitioner field to “understand why things work before you repeat them.” For practitioners it is important to engage with theory. If you don’t, you miss out on a tremendous amount of generative material that will make you a better designer and a better practitioner.
I am now interested in bleeding these distinctions between academics and practitioners and I think we both need to do this. I think we are discovering that these days, practice is the fastest way to advance the field. In fact we find researchers now trailing along behind practitioners sifting through the mess we leave when we do projects willy nilly, whether well planned or delivered based on a gut instinct. Our practice evolves quickly because we only need work to be “good enough” in order to use it as a platform for further development. We publish stories and learning instantaneously on our blogs and face book pages and listervs and twitter feeds. Once academics get their hands on the data and take the time to analyze it and publish it, the practice field has moved quickly and may have evolved in ways that the academic conversation has been unable to anticipate.
For practitioners though it’s worth pausing from time to to time and working with the people that are trying to tell you what you are doing. There is a tremendoous body of theory in philosophy, neurology, cognitive science, anthropology, and the natural sciences that is directly applicable to our field. I find that many practitioners have one or two blind spots or reactions to theory: they dismiss it as too dense to get, they borrow it badly (usually as a metaphor, such as quantum physics being misused to talk about intention and influence) or they dive it. I have been guilty of these in the past, and these days I’m trying to embrace theory much more deeply and work with researchers who are studying our field including folks like Jerry Nagel, Ginny Belden-Charles, Elizabeth Hunt and Trevor Maber, just to name a few recent ones. I invite you to do the same.