Meeting to achieve measurable outcomes

In the last post I discussed the ways in which people regulate themselves and each other in everyday life. I made the argument that without this self- and group discipline there would be no order in social life. As we have pointed out many times on this blog, après Bourdieu, Elias and Foucault,  and by drawing on analogies from the complexity sciences, power relations both enable and constrain what it is possible to do. There is, however, a general tendency in more popular management literature to suggest that somehow we can do away with or ‘transform’ power relations by being nice to each other, or by being appreciative, or by being open and transparent, or authentic. These perspectives convey the implicit idea that power is somehow unpleasant or illicit. But this is to cover over or even to miss the productive nature of power. Power produces a regimen of resistance and compliance, the exact patterning of which will always be unpredictable, but is likely to give rise to both routine as well as a degree of novelty. But to ask the question about how disciplinary power operates in social life is not simply to enquire into how ‘they’ are doing something to ‘us’ but also to probe into how we are doing things to ourselves. How we try to influence each other to organise our joint undertakings can say a lot about the kinds of pressures we are under and how we aspire to being professional.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was participating with a group of people discussing the extent to which we could justify the expense of staff from different geographical regions meeting together to share their experience of their work. In general my colleagues thought it wasn’t a good idea just to let them do this without regulating it in some way. There had to be some measurable indicators of usefulness, such as changes in behaviour or changes in thinking which we could claim were directly related to people meeting together. We might even be able to specify this in advance of meeting so that everyone could assess the effectiveness of the meeting in making the required changes. That way they could have ‘smart’ meeting and so could justify the expense whenever someone in a higher authority, or with their hands on the purse strings, obliged us to do so. We could get there first by demonstrating how reliable we were in specifying the outcome of every pound we were spending.

It is interesting, then, to notice how we co-opted each other into this process of beginning to set targets for ourselves, to shape and regiment our meetings without yet being obliged to do so, and to discipline ourselves in anticipation of being disciplined. All of this was undertaken with a degree of self-congratulation that we were ahead of the game and ‘transparent’ in our intentions to do and be good. There was a reassuring concreteness about the decisions we felt we were making: concrete, clear, measurable and wrong. It is part of a general contemporary trend in favour of instrumental reason, where everything can be countable and measurable, and thus commensurable in highly abstract ways. Our disciplinary measures were not just ways of recording what we were doing, but actively shaping it in advance. The potential danger, then, is of organising a meeting which only produces measurable outcomes.

What is it that gets lost if we think of human conduct entirely from this perspective?

According to Olav Eikeland[1], Aristotle considered the highest form of knowledge to be insight, or what he terms theoria, which is deeper understanding about who we are and what we think we are doing together. This can only be achieved by groups of people meeting together to enter into dialogue and to practice discussing what they think is important to the common undertaking, and why they think it is so. In contradistinction to theoresis, knowledge about something, there is no way of accessing insight from the outside – it is produced ‘internally’ as a result of the discussion itself. It is an improvisational activity aimed at developing more helpful understanding from within the experience of having the discussion. One of the conditions which aids the production of insight is that there be no immediate action requirement. There is no rush to claim that the discussion will have tangible results. Deliberation together is the end in itself – groups of people do not meet together to prove something, or necessarily to produce anything pre-planned, except to understand each other better. This may or may not lead to concrete outcomes, depending on what is meant by ‘concrete’.

Rather than working with the specific, theoria may be informed by questions which are vaguely formed, and which only become sharper in the asking. Part of the dialogic process is to remind ourselves as a group what we already know, and to help each other to articulate what is important to us; to work together towards more common understandings, but only by exploring similarities and differences. The process is likely to create both cognitive and emotional transformations in participants as they experience both affirmation and negation. Dialogic conversation is critical in nature, and turns on exploring ambiguities, nuances and inconsistencies in what is being said. This requires the participants to be drawing skilfully on experience, but in doing so they will also be creating experience since dialogue and experience are mutually constitutive.

Dialogic meetings are aimed at producing a different kind of knowledge, which may or may not have any immediate and measurable outcomes, and it may or may not be immediately obvious why or how they are useful. It produces meetings with no ends in view except to increase understandings of ourselves, what we are doing, and why we are doing it. It explicitly encourages reflection and reflexivity as well as meaning-making.

These aims are very different from those predicated on rushing around ‘delivering’ things. One interesting question is why it is so hard to talk about the importance of asking each other what we think we are doing and why there is such a prohibition on thinking.


[1] Eikeland, O. (2008) The Ways of Aristotle: Aristotelian Phronesis, Aristotelian Philosophy of Dialogue, and Action Research (Studies in Vocational and Continuing Education), Bern: Verlag Peter Lang.

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