I’ve spent much of my time lately reading the work of people doing masters and doctoral papers, as part of my role as faculty of various accredited organisational development (OD) and leadership programmes. This is both a challenge and a privilege. People pour their heart and soul into this work, often carrying it over a number of years. Whilst I fully accept that it is easier to be on my side of the fence, people rarely appreciate that the examiner also feels the anxiety. At least they should do. It is a burden I am delighted to carry, as at times I can find myself in a unique ringside seat in the arena of the organisational life-world.
There are many reasons why an academic piece of work does or doesn’t cut it. There is however one crucial quality that is usually the difference that makes a difference. It is what is called ‘critical thinking’. So what does this mean? The first thing to say is that it doesn’t mean ‘being critical’ or ‘criticising’ in the every day sense of the word. Far from it; I consider that to think critically about something, be it a situation, an idea, a theory or even a relationship, might be to honour it. It is to take something seriously, and really study it; to look through it rather than just at it, almost as if one had a jewel, and was holding it up to the light and turning it to see how the light shines through it. It is about looking behind things, rather than accepting them at face value.
At a more mundane level, to think critically is about asking some fundamental questions, perhaps using the ‘5 Ws’: Who, what, where, when and why? So how might that work? Let’s consider that we are thinking critically about a new management model we encounter:
Who? – Who came up with it, and what is their background and ‘angle’ on things?
What? – What are the basic assumptions this model makes about the world, and how can these be assessed and challenged?
Where? – Where does this set of ideas come from, and how does it fit with others, which might be complementary to it, and which ones might oppose or contradict it?
When? – What is the historical background to this model, its context, and therefore its associated worldview?
Why? – Why does it come about, what is its intent and purpose and what does that say about it, the place it comes from, how it might be useful, and its limitations?
This is not an exhaustive list. It is just meant to show how we might start to analyse and assess the value of ideas, to look behind them and hone our skills of evaluating and coalescing new knowledge.
A surprisingly proportion of the judgments I make about such work are to do with factors that are, quite literally prosaic. Does it make sense? Is it readable? Does it expect me to work harder than the person who wrote it? I often mention the ‘intelligent ten year old’ test to my own students – could a bright, literate child make sense of the basic arguments here? People often think that ‘academic writing’ should be written in a portentous tone, rather than just a matter of fact, ‘this is what sense I make of it all’, spirit of groundedness. The latter is much more likely to make an examiner your friend.
In organisational development, critical thinking is a vital skill both for theory and practice – when we enter an organisational system, we need to think critically about the world as it is presented to us by different stakeholders, parties and authorities in that system, in order to synthesise a story that will be useful to whole system, rather than just particular agents, such as those with the formal authority.
So to think critically is a skill for life as well as for scholarship – it is really to honour the world, to take it seriously, not to take things at face value but to look behind them and see what else might be revealed.