Thursday, December 23, 2010

The experience of studying representational artifacts (like a film)

When I was a freshman at university taking my first Introduction to Film class, the professor said "up until now you've just let movies wash over you. After this class you'll never experience a film that way again."

He was partially right. In that class, we drilled deeply into editing, color, lens length, mise-en-scene, and the hundred other techniques that make up a film, looking at how (for example) the use of sound techniques in one stairway scene in Citizen Kane contained clues that encapsulated the whole complexity of the film's characters and meaning.

Even today I can still pick out such details -- when I remember to focus on them and make a special effort. Otherwise, movies just wash over me like they did before being a film student.

As a film student in those days (late 70s/early 80s), you watched movies in a cinema or on a projector in a classroom. If you were lucky, you saw a film you had to write a paper on twice. Usually it was once, with no ability to rewind, pause, or anything like that. So studying a film as it unfolded was usually a matter of scribbling frantically in a notebook in the dark, and hoping you could make sense of your notes later to reconstruct (for example) the sequence of edits in one scene of a Bergman film.

Capturing "practice" in this way was a challenge, especially making sure you got enough appreciation of both the nuances of technique as well as the sense of the film as a whole, so you could relate the two.

I am hoping that the techniques I've been developing in my research will eventually help participatory representational practitioners to 'read' and reflect on their own practice, the way a film student can (with effort) read a film, and to be able to prise apart the individual techniques, moves, themes etc. and make sense of them in the context of the larger meaning of the situation they're engaged in (the context of their practice).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

And another terrific one covering the same terrain

Coda—Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organizations: Implications for Organizational Learning
Frank J. Barrett
Vol. 9, No. 5, September-October 1998, pp. 605-622

This widely cited article (276 according to Google Scholar) is full of evocative quotes from and stories about jazz musicians (Coltrane, Miles, Sonny Rollins, many others), with parallel organizational learning examples. It's almost too rich in ingredients that match my main interests: improvisation, aesthetics, sensemaking, narrative (many discussions of how jazz musicians both link to the "stories" of the jazz canon and create and rewrite new ones on the fly), ethics (in the ways the musicians relate to one another and make choices that affect each other's performances), and many examples where instant, unplanned move-by-move choices and actions make a huge difference.

A couple of examples from the paper, the full text of which appears to be online as a pdf.

Provocative disruptions as a leadership technique (connections to sensemaking in the unexpected challenge given to the performers), practitioner ethics (the choice Davis made to present the material to the musicians this way, violating their expectations with an expectation they would rise to the occasion), narrative (breaches of canonicity), aesthetics, as well as improvisation:
Miles Davis not only practiced this provocative competence in live concerts, he also extended this to the recording studio. This is illustrated in a famous 1959 session. When the musicians arrived in the recording studio, they were presented with sketches of songs that were written in unconventional modal forms using scales that were very foreign to western jazz musicians at that time. One song, contained 10 bars instead of the more familiar 8 or 12 bar forms that characterize most standards. Never having seen this music before and largely unfamiliar with the forms, there was no rehearsal. The very first time they performed this music, the tape recorder was running. The result was the album Kind of Blue, widely regarded as a landmark jazz recording. When we listen to this album, we are witnessing the musicians approaching these pieces for the first time, themselves discovering new music at the same time that they were inventing it. (p. 609)
Move-by-move, sensemaking, aesthetics, improvisation, and narrative all in one:
Jazz players are often able to turn these unexpected problems into musical opportunities. Errors become accommodated as part of the musical landscape, seeds for activating and arousing the imagination. Drummer Max Roach sees the value in errors, "if two players make a mistake and end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, they may be able to break out of it and get into something else they might not have discovered otherwise." Herbie Hancock recalls playing an obviously wrong chord during a concert performance. Hearing the unexpected combination of notes, Miles Davis used them as a prompt, and rather than ignore the mistakes, played with the notes, embellishing them, using them as a creative departure for a different melody. Any event or sound, including an error, becomes a possible springboard to prime the musical imagination, an opportunity to re-define the context so that what might have appeared an error becomes integrated into a new pattern of activity. Looking backward, the "wrong" notes appear intentional.(p. 610)
There's a lot more, way too much to include here. It's an embarassment of riches. Check it out.

The best paper relating jazz improvisation to organization theory I've read

Exploring the Empty Spaces of Organizing: How Improvisational Jazz Helps Redescribe Organizational Structure
Mary Jo Hatch
Organization Studies, January 1999 vol. 20 no. 1 pp. 75-100

The paper uses improvisation as a "redescription" metaphor (Rorty) of organizational structure. It has strong ties to writing on experience, sensemaking and aesthetics. It's full of theory relating the art and performance of jazz improvisation to thinking about organizational structure, but even more has understanding for the jazz nuances, evidenced by her writing about groove, feel, etc. One of many examples: "Groove and feel in jazz terms involve making structural aspects of performance (e.g. tempo and rhythm) implicit, which jazz musicians accomplish by rendering them subjects of their emotions and physical bodies (i.e., by literally feeling tempo and rhythm in an emotional and physical sense)." (p. 89)

The paper way extends what I was trying to talk about in this post. The writing is exceptionally clear and evocative for an academic paper, without losing authority (funny how that can be).

A few excerpts below.

A very nice description of tacit communication and intuitive "moves" in improvisation, especially soloing:

Soloists encourage the exchange of ideas by leaving space in their playing for other musicians to make suggestions, for instance they may leave gaps between their melodic phrases, or play their chords ambiguously by leaving out certain notes that would distinguish one chord from one or two others. Of course, they do not explicitly think, 'Okay, now I will leave a space for someone else to fill.' Space-making and filling are more spontaneous than this. Jazz musicians listen to the playing of the other musicians and, in listening, spaces are created and filled by a logic that emerges as part of the interaction of the musicians. This simultaneous listening and playing produces the characteristic give and take of live jazz improvisation and also provides the conditions for conflict that can introduce the unexpected that inspires performance excellence, but also risks disaster. (p. 79)

Ethical choices in listening in improvisation:
Ideally, each musician listens to all the other players all the time they are performing a tune. Nevertheless, many musicians freely admit that they reach this ideal only once in a while, primarily when they achieve peak moments of jazz performance. At other times, the musicians will concentrate on listening to one or two of the other players intensely, often shifting their focus from one player to another as the tune develops. (p. 80)

The experiential component of communication:
The jazz metaphor suggests that whenever we interact, communication rests as heavily upon emotional and physical feeling as it does on the intellectual content of the messages involved. (p. 89)

The way we can (sometimes) spontaneously and instantly connect and "groove" with co-workers on projects, even if new to each other, if the situation and communication are right:
Just as jazz musicians assign tempo and rhythm to the emotional realm and communicate on this basis to one another as they improvise (even when they have never played together before). workers may equally depend upon their ability to emotionally communicate as they coordinate their efforts for organizational achievement in the context of temporary teams or fluid networks. ... communication does not necessarily depend upon self-disclosure, but rather is an intimacy based in shared action. That is, we are as capable of using our emotions to form working relationships as we are of using them to form friendship or familial relationships, and this capacity can extend to those with whom we have no relationship at all apart from the opportunity to act together at a particular moment in time.... Rhythm, harmony, groove and feel have emotional and aesthetic dimensions, and when these aspects of work processes are engaged we may likewise find the experience of flow that Csikszentmihalyi claims constitutes peak performance. (pp. 89-90)

I see Hatch has other intriguing articles -- e.g. Hatch, M.J. and Jones, M.O. (1997) Photocopylore at work: Aesthetics, collective creativity and the social construction of organizations. Studies in Cultures, Organizations and Society , 3(2):263-287. [ISSN 1024-5286]; Hatch, M.J. (1996) The role of the researcher: An analysis of narrative position in organization theory. Journal of Management Inquiry , 5(4):359-374. [ISSN 1056-4926] -- but these will have to come AT (after thesis).

There is other excellent writing relating jazz improvisation to organizational and similar issues -- Sawyer and Schön come to mind -- but this paper is my current fave.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

And one of the most useful on mediation

Complementing this post, here is another excellent paper that looks at dispute mediation from a reflective practice point of view.

It's titled "Mediating Ethically: The Limits of Codes of Conduct and the Potential of a Reflective Practice Model" by Julie Macfarlane (Osgoode Hall Law Journal 49, 2002), and lives up to its title.

The article criticizes reliance on codes of conduct to guide professional practices such as mediation where ethical considerations are paramount. Codes of conduct are too abstract, and it's not possible to actually separate them outside of the "context and circumstance" (p. 60) of professional action:
Codes reduce ethical choices to a set of generic principles, fastening on relatively uncontentious virtues for the mediation process, which appear in a virtually identical form across numerous codes of conduct. Ethical issues are identified as discrete topics such as mediator impartiality, conflicts of interest, and self-determination; ethical dilemmas are those that threaten the integrity of these principles. Codes of conduct for mediators also assume that it is possible to describe and regulate the process of dialogue and the content of dialogue quite separately. Principles for process management dominate codes of conduct for mediators and often precede the commencement of dialogue (p. 60)

Even apparently "functional" choices can have ethical consequences. The article provides good examples of ethical choices on the move-by-move level:
Even the most mundane and mechanical decisions have a habit of turning into issues of principle in the volatile climate of conflict. For example, the plaintiff’s refusal to meet during the daytime is characterized by the defendants as “typical of their uncooperative stance.” Thus the question of scheduling, and how the mediator deals with it, is transformed into an ethical dilemma. The mediator must decide whose preference shall prevail and what values are implicated. Deciding whether or not and how to quiet Party A thirty minutes into his or her monologue raises fundamental questions about the role of parties and mediators in a facilitated dialogue. (p. 57-58)

Practitioner choice-making is constant:
The reality of mediation is that ethical judgment making occurs constantly, intuitively, and often unconsciously. (p. 59)

The article argues against thinking only in terms of outcomes, and promotes the need for understanding such micro-choices on the move-by-move level:
Mediation is as much a process, replete with ongoing negotiated understandings, as it is a result. The “snapshots” represented by beginnings and endings which dominate standard-setting in codes of conduct for mediators are but a fragment of this process. Instead, the expanded definition of what amounts to ethical choices suggested in this article shifts the focus from an evaluation of end result, or proper procedure in mediation set-up, to the choices made in the course of micro-managing the dialogue between the parties. (p. 67)

The article provides two lengthy case studies from the author's own experience as a mediator, analyzing them from a reflective practice viewpoint. Macfarlane stresses the importance of taking such an approach for 'young' fields like mediation:
The reflective-practice model seems especially appropriate to a field such as mediation that is at an early stage of professional and self-conscious development, and to a form of intervention that is so diversified, unregulated, and context-dependent. As an examination of “practitioner cogitation,” it focuses on teasing out the values and assumptions behind the choices often made intuitively by mediation practitioners when they face ethical dilemmas in the course of their practice and the values they imply. These values can then be debated, critiqued, and diversified across different frames of action. (p. 73)

and lays out what this will require from practitioners:
putting the principles of reflective practice into practice requires the conscious nurturing of a collaborative professional environment in which personal experiences and choices are shared in a continuous, self-critical, non-defensive, and open dialogue. It needs practitioners—new and old, experienced and less experienced—to talk and write analytically and self-critically about their approaches to ethical dilemmas. (pp. 85-86)

Following such an approach for practitioner education and development could result, among other things, in making practitioner choice-making, and its ethical and sensemaking characteristics, "first class objects" in both the research and professional practice communities.