Introduction to the narrative turn

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 23 May 2008


(2008), "Introduction to the narrative turn", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 21 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Introduction to the narrative turn

Article Type: Editorial From: Journal of Organizational Change Management, Volume 21, Issue 3

The academic business of producing knowledge has already been streamlined in order to remind the producers of knowledge that they (we) should take care making our way through the world and sacrificing our critical self-reflections on the altar of professional mobility. We need a catchy selling point and a fashion now and then: for instance, a linguistic turn both to justify the neoneopositivist orthodoxy and to fuel interest in Bachtin, Bourdieu, and Benjamin. A dialogical turn to maintain the neoliberal consensus but also to defend critical theoreticians' dreams of “coercion-free dialogue”. A narrative turn to understand Gabriel's Organizing Words (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) and to go on with storytelling, down to the level of microstorias (Boje), but also to understand why narratives can become ideological masks covering up organizational dirty pretty things.

The present issue opens with Chung-An Chen's attempt to link knowledge creation process (certainly a crucial process in increasingly knowledge-intensive and knowledge-dependent interactions) to a macro-view of organization-environment change. His conclusions – that feedback matters and failure to have its levels up can be costly (knowledge, which might have been gained will have been “lost”, would not have emerged). Leijon Svanke and Arne Soderbom narrow down their interests and focus on the longitudinal study of strategic narratives in a large industry covering 25 years distinguishing two types of narrators reconstructed from these narratives, namely “Builders and Cleaners.” The former have a story to tell, but the latter are forced to tell a story of what they had to do when they had something to do in order to “clean,” “prune,” “trim,” and “get into shape.” Jane Andrews, Helen Cameron and Margaret Harris followed managers, who had taken formal courses in organizational change (usually during their MBA studies) and then dealt with organizational change in real life. In “All change? Managers' experience of organizational change in theory and practice” they find – not surprisingly in view of the growing criticism of MBA model of managerial education (Mintzberg complained about it in Honolulu at the AoM annual event, Cambell Jones and Damian O'Doherty published the non-profit manifesto for the business schools of tomorrow) – that what mattered was an ability to make sense in totally new, specific, unpredictable and distinctive organizational and contextual environments. They point out that in spite of a growth of research attention, we are still unable to “monitor and evaluate changes so that theory can be built on experience in practice” and that “further research is now needed into barriers to change evaluation.” Those are not catchy phrases, but the conclusions about the need for embedding managerial education in specific contexts, for contextualizing it instead of offering “one MBA” in a size that “fits all”, merit attention.

As does the hero of David Collins's critical analysis of a guru narrative. In “Has Tom Peters lost his plot? A timely review of a celebrated management guru,” Collins celebrates 25th anniversary of the publication of In Search of Excellence. Meanwhile, excellence became a standard word in the corporate jargon, but a critical analysis of the changes in stories Peter narrated in his successive publications tells us a different story, so to speak. Collins comes to the conclusion that stories become less interesting, plots thin down and businessmen and businesswomen who were the principal characters in Peters' narratives give way to a new superhero emerging from these plots – namely to Peter Himself:

[...] examining the tone and content of these tales, which give Peters a star billing, our analysis questions Peters' future as a commentator [...] a man with an obvious gift for storytelling has, in seeking to cast himself as hero, written himself into a corner and out of the corridors of power.

While Peters may be old news, the ICT progress had not stopped after the burst of the e-bubble, quite to the contrary, as the “Google” wars and the “Microsoft” clashes with anti-monopolist watchdogs amply illustrate. Anthony Hussenot tries to understand what happens when teachers try to appropriate new pedagogical software (as we all do from time to time going over from IBM to Olivetti to Dell and from wordstar to word to wordperfect to word for windows). “Between structuration and translation: an approach to ICT appropriation” deals with the actors who are classified as “essential,” “educated,” “assiduous,” or “indifferent” and closes with a plea for “interpretative flexibility” and a homage to Wanda Orlikowski who had influenced the author when he was presenting an earlier version of the paper at the EGOS Colloquium in Norway in 2006. Chris McVittie, Andy McKinlay and Sue Widdicombe are interested in “diversity.” They analyze “Organizational knowledge and discourse of diversity in employment,” but focus not on job seekers with disabilities but with an age disadvantage (they are namely perceived as too old). Their conclusions merit attention; after duly quoting Bachtin and Gramsci, they conclude that discourse on diversity is basically an ideological window-dressing which covers discriminatory hiring practices:

[...] diversity can more usefully be understood as a linguistic resource, available for use as and when required in descriptions of organizational practices. As such, for organizations it provides an opportunity to reclaim practices and accountability for those practices back within organizations themselves and away from public challenge, while doing so under the guise of equity and tolerance of differences within the workplace.

Cheng-Fei Tsai and Yu-Fang Yen explore the mysterious connection, which seems to exist between downsizing and performance in “A model to explore the mystery between organizations' downsizing strategies and firm performance: integrating the perspectives of organizational change, strategy and strategic human resource management” (certainly one of the longest titles in JOCM's history). The present issue closes with Yu Tai Wai's and To Wai Ming's “Effects of control mechanisms on positive organizational change,” who analyze relationships between bureaucratic control systems, task programmability and organizational capacities for improvement. Their respondents were recruited from hotels in Macao.

We have come full circle. Two titles of the cyberpunk novels by William Gibson illustrate the trajectory of the narrative turn we are making when reading the present issue. “Pattern Recognition” (when knowledge management becomes a new fad and foible) and “Spook Country” (when it becomes clear that knowledge management is already an area of clandestine struggles for the tastes and flavors of thinking in future, and that language can also generate ideological ghosts in corporate machines).

Slawek Magala