Storytelling and sustainability (editorial reflections on business and rhetoric of change management)

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 5 July 2011



Magala, S. (2011), "Storytelling and sustainability (editorial reflections on business and rhetoric of change management)", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 24 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Storytelling and sustainability (editorial reflections on business and rhetoric of change management)

Article Type: Editorial From: Journal of Organizational Change Management, Volume 24, Issue 4

If a pattern could be recognized in the first year of the second decade of the twenty-first century, then the formula of a resuscitated and redesigned “sustainability” might compete for the top position. Sustainability not only in the sense of remaining in ecological balance with the natural environment and leaving smaller footprint for the next generations to condemn. Sustainability in the sense of legitimate, defensible, acceptable social desirability and fairness. As we follow developments after the 2008 crisis of world capital markets, we can see that management of inequalities becomes more difficult – old dictatorships crumble, old democracies have to wake up from their institutional paralysis. Societies reinvent themselves through political actions, which do not respect the grooves of institutionalized parties, cultures reinvent themselves through communicative actions, which do not respect the grooves of state secrecy. The appearance of Wikileaks is a case in point: it does not matter that the trash cans of the US embassies have only mildly embarrassed the department of state – what matters is that from now on secrecy will be less and less compatible with democratic politics and participative social communications (call them “dialogic” if you wish).

This is my educated guess. It seems to be supported by some of the authors included in the present issue. Let us begin with David M. Boje and Ken Baskin: they discuss three types of enchantment. In “Our organizations were never disenchanted; enchantment by design narratives vs enchantment by emergence” (do I hear echoes of Latour’s “we have never been modern” here?) they distinguish between the enchantment by design systematically managed by top managers (usually with a “lost paradise” and “radiant future”) and the really existing, spontaneous, bottom-up enchantment emerging out of individual relationships and communications. They suggest that we should look for storytelling activities in order to understand how disenchantment was successfully opposed both from above and from below – hence enriching future manager’s repertory of narrative instruments for organizing and sensemaking. The usual suspects – Bakhtin, Foucault and Derrida – are duly called to the witness stand, and even less usual suspects follow – for instance, Italo Calvino and Aristotle. Conclusions merit attention, not only in the organizational setting of hospitals they had done their empirical research in:

Organizations, such as hospitals we studied, were never disenchanted because enchantment resides in many living storied spaces.

Onno Bouwmeester and Ruben van Werven pay attention to “living storied spaces” of a particular kind. They study namely “Consultants as legitmizers” and add a subtitle – “exploring their rhetoric”. Their main point is that consultants often have to counter negative expectations of the employees, who see them as brutal hired guns, basically justifying the top management’s decisions under the mantle of supreme knowledge, subtle methodology and mysterious acquaintance with the most intimate secrets of the organization they had been hired by. They suggest that consultants behave and report in as transparent manner as possible in order to acquire an image and a reputation of “sufficiently impartial legitimizers” and to increase the quality of rhetorical practices used in justifying managerial decisions in work organizations (the authors quote two ESADE researchers, E. Bonet, who organizes bi-annual conferences on management narratives and rhetoric in Barcelona, and A. Saquet, who is the dean of the ESADE business school there).

Last not least, the storytelling and narrative part of the issue closes with Hans Hansen’s “Managing to beat death: the narrative construction process”, in which he reflects upon his three years long experience as a member of the first permanent death penalty defense team in the USA. Hansen claims that a narrative approach (reconstruction and analysis of storytelling in organizations) is the new qualitative method postulated by, for instance, van Maanen. It relies, according to Hansen (who quotes Pratt on this occasion) “on ethnographic elicitation of shared understandings and tacit meanings in order to produce an organizational narrative that members can go by in making sense of events”. Hansen quotes Boje quite frequently, thus reinforcing the impression that we are dealing with some narrative shift in qualitative methodologies. A sustainable novelty, one could say.

Donnalyn Pompper from Temple University takes us towards the glass ceilings, but approaches them in a new way. “Fifty years later: mid-career women of color against the glass ceiling in communications organizations” (36 individual cases studies of middle-aged, middle-class woman of color “ – African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic – working in upper management of ‘mediated message industries’”). The not-too-subtle interplay of both gender and race discrimination and hidden injuries of the past inequalities provide fascinating empirical material and justify the consclusions that:

Outcomes of social movements began five decades ago have not yet played out at the highest management levels of communications organizations represented here. Caucasian men perpetually invite those who look like them and hold experiences in common to fill CEO and boards of directors seats. Throughout interviews, women of color consistently pleaded for new ways to consider diversity at all organizational levels by factoring in difference dimensions that benefit entire organizations and communities rather than following a default homogeneous, Caucasian-male-centric model. As expressed by an African-American consultant: “You can only hit your head so many times before you really start getting a headache and want to see a change”.

Perhaps some consolation can be found in the next paper, namely the one by Gregory D. Hammond (and his co-authors: Eric B. Gresch and Dean C. Vitale), entitled “Homegrown process improvement: employing a change message model”, which is about communication and participation and a transformation of cynics into change agents. Two of the authors were or are military pilots and their study concerns “a public sector organization within the US Department of Defense”. They point out two crucial decisions made by the change initiators; first, not to invite external consultants but to rely on internal resources, and, second, to select opinion leaders from among employees at large – and not from formal managers of respective branch locations really leading individuals. Winning them over turned the tide. Cynics became champions. Case study, but not without a potential for generalizations.

With the last two papers we enter the international and cross-cultural arena. First, Bas Koene investigates (together with Shahzad (Shaz) Ansari), “Institutional change and the multinational change agent: a study of the temporary staffing industry of Spain”. Koene and Ansari have been active for some time in the neo-institutional research area, and this paper is no exception – they ask simple questions – are multinational corporations, as free agents floating above state national institutions and regulations – quicker and more efficient in bringing about changes in labor markets? Not quite, is their well-documented answer. While less bound by norms, values and logics of any particular institutional development (e.g. the emergence of temp agencies industry in Spain) – they still have to watch out abroad as they are more vulnerable than they know:

Our findings indicate the need to control and limit early experimentation, the need for careful and proactive concerted efforts to control professional industry identity formation and sufficient space and support for local engagement and experimentation to avoid regressive redefinition of the novel practice in contested markets.

Second, Terence Jackson turns to the forthcoming encounter with “African renaissance” in his paper “From cultural values to cross-cultural interfaces: hofstede goes to Africa”. His doubts about applicability of the Hofstedian model of culture’s dimensions and consequences to about 80 percent of the globe result from the closeness of the great Dutchman’s intellectual categories to a neo-positivist “view from nowhere” (according to Nagel’s famous formula), which conveniently overlooks global dependencies and their not so hidden injuries on local perceptions of these inequalities. Why, for instance, do the African statesmen often claim that the Chinese investment comes without a paternalist and humiliating sermon of WB or IMF or another white Western superior creature’s reduction of Africans to the status of children who have to grow up to the EU or USA age and ripeness? Jackson calls for a move away:

[…] from the universals of analytical rationality towards practical value-rationality that considers culture from a context-dependent viewpoint, provides a synthesis for cultural-institutional approaches, and engages researchers beyond merely looking at differences in cultures and the consequences, and towards what should be done about issues that arise.

Jackson, who is an experienced Researcher in cross-cultural HRM and African management, and the editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Cross-Cultural Management, closes his paper with the following conclusion about studies such as Hofstede’s:

[…] they are not asking the appropriate questions in a post-colonial world where 80% of the globe are mostly marginalized through power relations that keep them at a distance in material and ideological terms, and keep them rather like a quaint addition to mainstream cross-cultural management studies.

This call for increased sustainability of cross-cultural research rhymes well with the more complex, subtle and profound understanding of the concept of fairness-flavored sustainability which might, as implied at the beginning of the present editorial, be the pattern of future trends we are beginning to recognize.

Slawek Magala

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