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The decline of reflective practice?

Mayvin Director James Traeger asks if an overload of OD tools and techniques is endangering reflective learning and practice
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Mayvin Director James Traeger asks if an overload of OD tools and techniques is endangering reflective learning and practice.

I received links to two documents on the same day, from completely different sources, that connected to each other. Coincidence or synchronicity? One was an articulate article by Judi Marshall and Paul Tosey, lamenting ‘The demise of inquiry-based HRD programmes in the UK’.

These well-regarded, inquiry based practitioner programmes have offered a reflexive pedagogy, as an alternative way of learning about people and organisations to the classroom. The idea behind them is that group that comes together to learn about people and organisations is itself the laboratory for that reflection.

Marshall and Tosey cite the recent closure of the 35 year old Masters in Management Learning (MAMLL) at Lancaster University as an example, as part of a wider trend that has diminished the vigour and reach of the once highly regarded tribe of human and organisation development behind this and other landmark programmes. Among other factors, they blame the obsessive tick-box audit culture that currently permeates institutions that once supported this type of learning.

Then almost at the same moment, another email popped into my inbox, which offered me 'the Art of Change Making’.

The authors, called the Leadership Centre, seemingly a mostly public sector consortium, had collected together one of the most comprehensive guide to change tools and theories I have ever seen. Across its 300 or so pages, they had gathered together just about every tool of human personal, group and systemic change on earth. All human life is there, from MBTI to Kubler-Ross to Edgar Schein to Future Search.

It is a hugely impressive undertaking, but it left me disquieted, particularly in its coincidence with the first paper. Perhaps I am guilty of ‘system 1 thinking’ here (after Daniel Kahnemann - whose work is inevitably explained at depth in this tome - see p112)? Am I making a short-cut in my thinking in order to perhaps to put two and two together to make five? But it seems to me that these two documents landing in my virtual lap at exactly same time is more than coincidence.

The expression ‘all the gear but no idea’ came to mind; a phrase aimed rather uncharitably at some of the well equipped yet less skillful tradesman I used to work alongside years ago in a boatyard. Could this coincidence be a signal of the dangers of our age: we can offer a great deal of know-how about ’tools and techniques’ yet wither the craftsman or woman?

A huge amount of instrumental knowledge is available to the change practitioner, yet what about the ‘metis’ knowledge the ancient Greeks referred to, the wisdom and wiles of Odysseus, applied in a local, timely and craft-y way by the practitioner who may apply a few tools in a very varied, sensitive and context specific way?

I studied at The University of Surrey 1991-93 under the tutelage of Denis Postle, Jill Anderson and John Heron, on a programme called ‘The Facilitator Styles’, which later reincarnated as the ‘Change Agency Skills and Strategies (CASS)’ Masters Programme, elegantly steered by Paul Tosey along with the redoubtable Josie Gregory. It was a fantastic and slightly bonkers experience; at times a stew of self absorption redolent of Dante’s inferno, but mostly a fantastic grounding in the practice of working with individuals, groups and organisations.

I still maintain it was one of the most powerful learning experiences I have ever encountered. I don’t remember much about the tools we talked about; I am sure they were there, but they were secondary to the relentless inquiry and persistent push towards reflexivity. That’s the way it should be. Is my inbox coincidence just noise, or the signal of something worth challenging?

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