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Address

to the Finnish Organizational Development Society on their


25th Anniversary
By Frances Abraham, The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations

It is with great pleasure that I attend your celebrations here today of 25 years
of the Finnish Organizational Development Society on behalf of The Tavistock
Institute. Some of you will have undertaken education and training with the
Institute, perhaps alongside past and present members of the Tavistock
Institute. Others of you our cousins from the wider world of Organizational
Development here in Finland - will recognize many of the features of theory
and practice which I refer to as ones which have been adopted and naturalized
by generations of theorists and practitioners or grown up in dialogue with
them.
In this address I have been asked to present to you the way the Institutes
practice of organizational development has responded to theoretical
developments in the field over recent years, resulting in shifts in our practice.
The first part of my talk will review the traditions of The Tavistock Institute and
what continues in use before going on to discuss major theoretical innovation.
So, in terms of the theory and use of the traditions Im focussing my attention
on the ways in which our theory and practice have evolved since it was
presented in The Tavistock Anthologies of the 1990s- those by Eric Trist and
Hugh Murray and Fred Emery; and also the Anthologies of Eric Miller and Frank
Heller. So were talking here about consulting to organizational culture;
consulting especially to the unconscious life of organizations manifested in
their defences against anxiety; the practice of group relations; job and work
design in the tradition of sociotechnical systems design; and inter-
organizational development in the face of turbulent environments. (I am
aware that this rather leaves out the work of the Institute of Operations
Research located in the Institute during the late 60s and 70s and Strategic
Choice through problem restructuring methods using what we now term big
data but this has less relevance to the practice of organizational consultancy.
Similarly, evaluation research which has played an increasingly important role
at the Institute since 1980 onwards, does not much feature in this account.)

To make explicit my own perspective and position, I should first introduce


myself to those of you who do not know me. I first joined the Institute in 1976
to join a team of action researchers in a UK subsidiary of a Norwegian shipping
company, to develop community life on-board bulk carriers, working with staff,
unions and management. This followed an education in political theory and
some early exposure to political consultancy. After a number of years working
with organizations, I spent ten years or so in evaluation research and
associated activities through the late 1980s and 90s, undertaking a number of
development and review activities with organizations and groups of
organizations, as well as programme evaluation, which often suited me well
during the years of bringing up a young family. Since 2000 I have returned
increasingly to organizational consulting and professional development
activities; currently as co-Lead to the Practitioner Certificate in Consulting and
Change Programme; and increasingly I have undertaken group relations
assignments in the UK and abroad, and was a staff member at the Leicester
Conference in 2014.
In 2013 I published a Chapter on The Tavistock Group to Warner and Witzels
Oxford University Handbook of Management Theorists, which gave me the
opportunity during 2011 and 2012 to examine again more closely the thinking
of the original Tavistock Institute members involved in developing
organizational theory and application at the Institute and those most closely
associated with them like Eric Miller, with whom I myself worked in
consultancy assignments, and Fred Emery.
The traditions and intellectual capital of The Tavistock Institute of Human
Relations
During the first years of the Institutes life, a rich seam of theoretical and
practice applications was largely driven by multi-disciplinary team applying
Melanie Kleinis psychoanalytic thinking - we might especially note here
splitting, projecting, introjecting, and working with the transference of the
organization as well as projective identification - in relation to three areas:
organizational culture, first identified by Elliot Jacques in The Culture of
a Factory (Glacier Metal Works) in 1950 (though later repudiated by
him!);

the institutional and organizational social defences against anxiety first


identified by Jacques in an article for Human Relations and brilliantly
applied by Isobel Menzies Lyth to the nursing profession; and
the application of Wilfred Bions work with groups (undertaken at The
Tavistock Clinic while The Institute was still part of it) to temporary
organizational or institutional settings in group relations conferences,
with which many of you will be familiar through Leicester and other
group relations conferences.
These linked practices especially prepare and support the consultant in being
able to observe the dynamics of the organization they are consulting to the
client system and observe the way they can be mobilised in support of those
dynamics. This is an almost essential requirement for an organizational
consultant without which they will find themselves unconsciously acting on
behalf of specific interest groups in and around organizations rather than on
consulting to the system as a whole in the service of its primary task. This is an
essential tenet of The Tavistock Institutes organizational practice (and why for
example we continued to term our coaching Role Consultation long after the
market was mainly recognizing the term Executive Coaching.
To turn to the work of the Institute in relation to job -and work- design in
particular the Institutes distinctive contribution of Socio-technical systems
design (STS). This was born partly out of a different set of drivers: the
influence of von Bertanffys systems theory published in 1950 for the first time,
highlighted the issues of boundaries as they were being encountered by TI staff
in organizational settings; the commitment to action and post-war
reconstruction of the time; the influence of Kurt Lewin and his practice of
action research; and a typical Institute, ad hoc but action-inspired initiative, to
invite Industrial Fellows from industry and to collaborate with them in the
industrial sectors from which they came. I say partly, because its important
to be clear that for Eric Trist and others such as Ken Rice and Eric Miller, STS
was a natural extension of the work on the psycho-social or unconscious life of
organizations: a practical way of addressing the psycho-social needs of (mostly)
men in their working lives (and, in his Introduction to The Social Engagement
of Social Science Anthologies Trist refers explicitly to the difference having
autonomy in their working lives made psychologically to working men,

reminiscent of Karl Marxs 1844 Manuscripts in relation to the alienation of


working people).
The practice of socio-technical systems design in terms of mapping the
processes of the company and redesigning them to accommodate boundary
management between different but related subsystems fell mostly out of use
at The Tavistock Institute, with a few exceptions, following the collapse of
manufacturing in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s and loss of this market
for this work. The Tavistock Institute is an independent, not-for-profit
organization which cannot afford to support streams of work which do not pay
their way for very long. Those most interested in this way of working moved to
places where the market or academic life supported their interest for longer.
And STS continued to make a contribution in other countries but was mostly
superseded by application of Jay Galbraiths STAR model of design, the
appearance of BPR and subsequently Lean Methods methodologies. The
market for this kind of work has undoubtedly continued elsewhere and the STS
Round Table continues to meet annually. However, while the practice of
mapping processes from the bottom up has more or less been left behind by
the Institute, Institute staff still find the STS ten principles are useful when, in
consulting to culture change, Tavistock Institute staff find their clients
encountering organizational design challenges or in work which more
specifically addresses organizational design.
Trist and Emery went on to discuss the organization in its environment in a
seminal work which identified the development of referent organizations,
inter-organizational forms which hedged against what they termed turbulent
environments, elaborated in their book Towards a Social Ecology. Associated
with this in practice, the Emerys developed the practice of search
conferences which has had great utility beyond the boundaries of the Institute
and still has relevance today.
Not all subsequent theoretical developments have had a major impact on the
work of the Institute. While the sociologist Anthony Giddens was formulating
his theory of structuration bringing structure and agency together in Sociology,

published in 1976, at the Institute of my experience we were already grappling


with the understanding that we needed to work both with the structures of
the system teams on board ships, departmental structures running the ships,
company policy to work with the system of booking sailors (the pool as it was
known) - and also with the agency of the company and the individual, the
culture. Emery in referring to the ecological or the turbulent environment
frequently also refers to the emergent, so important in the work of Henry
Mintzberg in relation to strategy and, much later, also to the Complexity
School. There is a sense that all the mental models which have derived from
The Tavistock Institute through action research and hypothesizing are
emergent and provisional. The Institutes practice has often been found to be
compatible, with a few adjustments, to other and subsequent ways of
theorizing about organizations.
I would argue that the heart of Institute practice lies not in the mental models
which emerged out of these early years, and which are sometimes constructed
as The Tavistock model, but come out of a practice of:
surfacing and explicating data paying attention to the whole, seeing
the figure in its ground, what Lewin would have called the Field (and
Fred Emery the social field). But also owning and noting the data of
our own feelings and associations and those of our clients and
collaborators which can shed so much light on the hidden, sometimes
unconscious, as a fractal of the whole (as we have come to construct it
in the age of complexity theory); still captured by all Tavistock Institute
staff in the 1970s senior or junior - in Field Notes recording our

observations, interactions and our feelings in and around organizations


we were working with
the capability of hypothesizing about the data which we and others are
noticing but which may be unconscious behaviours in those exhibiting
them; such hypotheses would be presented to client systems through
the practice of developing Working Notes, so that our clients could join
us in interpreting, sense making and choosing where to focus our
attention next;
drawing on theory as a way of helping us and our clients make sense of
the world differently through hypothesizing so that change can occur;
a commitment to change, often through action research which remains,
as Lewin told it, the best way of understanding a system by trying to
change it; trial and error, against which new data, new theories and new
ways of responding emerge to offer new challenges;
a capacity to work across organizational and disciplinary boundaries,
which foregrounds some data and makes different kinds of sense of
them than we might do alone.

New theories from social science and beyond


It would be impossible to cover here all the different influences on The
Tavistock Institutes practice over the last twenty or thirty years or even the
wide range of theoretical readings from organizational theory presented in our
professional development offers such as AOC and the current P3C. There are
well known names, many of whom have served on the Editorial Board of
Human Relations, and others writing on consultancy practice, such as Edgar
Schein and Karl Weick, and many writers of stimulating articles. From its
inception Institute members have been drawn from different disciplinary
backgrounds and have been free to roam intellectually, interacting with
different scholars and practitioners from a range of different countries.
Many of those most associated with the original Tavistock Group of my chapter
referenced above and Eric Trists generation, had left for posts in academic life,
often overseas, returning in the case of Fred Emery and his associates to
Australia. Their projects often grew more freely in other countries: for
example STS design which was enthusiastically taken up in Sweden, Norway
and to some extent the Netherlands and, in the Quality of Working Life

movement in the US found many active collaborators such as Russ Ackoff and
Lou Davies. The group relations tradition has thrived in other countries and
continents, notably the USA and in India, although the group relation
communitys longest running and lengthiest group relations conference
remains The Tavistock Institutes annual Leicester Conference, last year joined
by 70 members from 30 nations. However, shifts since the 1970s are clear to
even someone like me who is perhaps too close to note all the transitions.
The profile of the Institute staff group has shifted over the course of the past
twenty five years markedly, in response to changes in the environment, most
notably the technological developments which have transformed our lives
through the Internet and its applications. This is despite the Institute
continuing to offer through the 1980s and 1990s organizational consultancy
and consultancy education building more specifically on the traditions of The
Institute. Through this period contributions to developing organizational
theory and practice through the consultancy and scholarship of Jean Neumann
and the action research in construction supply chains of Richard Holti and their
associates in OCTI (Organizational Change and Technological Innovation)
continued at The Institute. The AOC Programme which they delivered with Eric
Miller for its first ten years reflected past and continuing traditions as well as
contemporaneous theoretical stances.
Evaluation programme research had begun from 1980 onwards, consolidated
by the start-up of the Evaluation, Development and Review Unit in 1990, led by
Elliot Stern and from this base he brought a stream of social scientists from
other social science traditions. Particularly influential among them were Carlos
Frade with particular interests in learning theory and Joe Cullen, a Sociologist,
who brought new theorists to the attention of staff, including most especially
those of critical theorists, and especially Jurgen Habermas and his Theory of
Communicative Action and development of social constructionism, which
contributed so much to the Organizational Learning stream of thinking. The
way we construct our world through social interaction is outlined in
organizational settings in Etienne Wengers book Communities of Practice and
is one example which is in use in The Institutes practice in organizational
settings today. These developments also highlighted organizations as places
not just of time, task and territory, but of narrative and story telling. Yiannis

Gabriel served as a member of The Tavistock Institutes Council of


Management in the late Noughties and this way of understanding
organizational life resonated strongly with the Institutes practices, especially
ethnography in organizations. These influences had particular influence on the
consultancy work of myself and Camilla Child, who were both drawn back into
organizational work from research, in developing ideas of how change can be
brought about in organizations through participating in its discursive life.
However, the most explicit challenge to the Institutes understanding of
organizational change came from Ralph Stacey and the Complexity School.
Stacey, based at the University of Hertfordshire, worked with Eric Miller on
group work and Eric began to introduce his work to colleagues at the Institute
during the 1990s. Staceys book Strategic Management and Organizational
Dynamics: The Challenge of Complexity, first published in 1993, attacked the
idea of organizations as systems, with interrelationships which could be
predicted in planning organizational change. In particular, the way in which
entities are able to self-organize on the edge of chaos was introduced into
organizational theory as a way of understanding how change occurs in
unplanned and unpredictable ways. Although nowadays Stacey has withdrawn
from the notion of self-organizing groups, terming this phenomenon local
interaction, the ideas about how organizations can be helped to change have
been elaborated both by Stacey and by his colleague at Hertfordshire, Patricia
Shaw, author of a highly compelling book, Changing the Conversations in
Organizations (2002), which we use both in our own consultancy and in our
Professional Development offers. (Eliat Arams lecture on Complexity Theory
in the Lunch Time Talk section can be seen on our website at:
www.tavinstitute.org). In terms of how this has changed our practice, it might
be noted that Habermas term communicative practice is widely used through
Shaws book, (though without in text citation which singles out Complexity
Theory) and is in many ways very consistent with working with discursive
practices in organizations. And, of course, Stacey was not the first person to
assert that learning in organizations was non-linear (see also eg Maturana and
Varela 1980) but his analysis was rigorous and persuasive.
One important way in which complexity theory has influenced TI practice is
around its focus on emergence and the role of paradox and ambiguity and

what can be achieved in organizational change even if the most senior


management team has not been formally involved in contracting for it. In the
early years, organizational change programmes were almost always
championed at the highest levels, even when they involved working from the
bottom up, as in my first project in a shipping company. In a sense complexity
theory has expanded the ways in which we model change as possible and the
ways in which we can help make it realisable, even while it has rendered it
more uncertain. The impact of this critique of systems and their boundaries is
considerable, notwithstanding revisions in systems thinking, (notably that of
Peter Checkland who had introduced the notion of thickness and thinness
in organizational boundaries ). Staceys work is compelling in providing a more
satisfying account of the way organizational change unfolds than previous
attempts. Taken with Habermas, this body of work has created something of a
paradigm shift, using the definition of providing a distinct concept and a
philosophical and theoretical framework, from offering the certainty of
planned change to becoming more comfortable with the idea of uncertainty.
In terms of group relations practice, a former Tavistock Institute member,
Gordon Lawrence, has had considerable influence in applying complexity
theory to that practice (Tongued with Fire) and this and Lawrences practice of
the Social Dreaming Matrix have been taken up by the Head of the Group
Relations Programme at The Institute, Mannie Sher, who joined the Institute in
1994. The influence of complexity theory at The Institute was strengthened by
the arrival of Eliat Aram in 2005, an important influence on Stacey around the
dynamics of groups while undertaking her own PhD and subsequently
providing supervision in the Doctoral Programme in the School of Complexity
at Hertfordshire University. Eliat, who has since become only the second
Director/CEO in the Institutes history, is, as most of you will know, also an
experienced group relations staff member and Director. Group relations
practice has continued to innovate and evolve, reflecting the influence of
complexity. For example, at the 2014 Leicester Conference, the Design Event
was run for the fourth time, in which staff actively collaborated with members,
considerably flexing the traditional role boundaries of these events. The main
purpose of this event is to explore notions of emergence and self-organizing,
and co-production. Although, despite the influence of complexity theory, in
my observation of the conference as a whole, the system in the systems

dynamics was clearly on view for staff and members at different points over
the two weeks.
The big anniversaries 50 and 60 - of The Tavistock Institute, which was
established in 1947, have also been occasions prompting us to reconnect with
earlier ways of engaging with organizations. For those with an interest in the
continuing influence of Kurt Lewin, Jean Neumanns pieces on our website
indicate how his ideas continue to provide touch-stones for our practice, such
as Field Theory and Contemporaneity. Gestalt theories and practice, which
through Kurt Lewin had affected the way in which the early theorists thought
and worked, and which has continued its own parallel developments since,
continue to influence. Many of you will know of Eliat Arams continuing work
and associations with this community both in the UK and beyond. Other
Tavistock Institute consultants draw on the work of gestalt practitioners such
as Bill Critchley in understanding cycles of organizational rhythms and when
and how to intervene. A new generation of consultants at the Institute are
enriching its practice with their own influences and meanings, as well as
drawing on our traditions.
Concluding Remarks
A wide range of theorists continues to interest Tavistock Institute consultants
and consultancy education offers. These include both later Twentieth Century
and contemporary thinkers and writers and those who influenced earlier
generations. In general we might say that some provide an elaboration of
existing ways of thinking about the world, and these are perhaps most easily
understood and digested or which fit our biases more closely. Others provide
more of a challenge to the way we adopt them in our practice.
We might think of a continuum of influence on our thinking and practice in
which some theory gives us one off stimulation to a particular situation to the
other extreme where some prompt a radical rethink of how we view
organizations and more profound changes to our practice. In a sense all these
ideas provide mental models of how the world works which is provisional and
can only approximate the glory of the specific detailed settings in which we
consult. Not all of the models we use will be entirely consistent with one
another and in some instances we may need to make use of what Weick refers

to as ontological oscillation. All of us who are engaged in the business of


helping those in the world outside of our field make sense of their dilemmas
and conundrums will find it helpful to draw on a wide range of different, even
conflicting understandings of the world of organizations.
I would like to finish by referring again to the model of practice which is still
used at The Tavistock Institute, has been used through generations of
consultants there and, through education, by others including yourselves, set
out above, which is open to all of you, whoever your most cherished theorists
and look forward to further collaboration with you and your members:
surfacing and explicating data paying attention to the whole, seeing
the figure in its ground, what Lewin would have called the Field (and
Fred Emery the social field). But also owning and noting the data of
our own feelings and associations and those of our clients and
collaborators which can shed so much light on the hidden, sometimes
unconscious, as a fractal of the whole (as we have come to construct it
in the age of complexity theory);
the capability of hypothesizing about the data which we and others are
noticing but which may be unconscious behaviours in those exhibiting
them; such hypotheses would be presented to client systems through
the practice of developing Working Notes, so that our clients could join
us in interpreting, sense making and choosing where to focus our
attention next;
drawing on theory as a way of helping us and our clients make sense of
the world differently so that change can occur;
a commitment to change, often through action research which remains,
as Lewin told it, the best way of understanding a system by trying to
change it; trial and error, against which new data, new theories and new
ways of responding emerge to offer new challenges
the capacity to work across organizational and disciplinary boundaries,
which foregrounds some data and makes different kinds of sense of
them than we might do alone to support change.

References
Frances Abraham (2013) The Tavistock Group in Warner and Witzel (eds) The Oxford
Handbook of Management Theorists. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Wilfred Bion (1961) Experiences in Groups London: Tavistock
Fred Emery and Eric Trist (1973) Towards a Social Ecology. London: Plenum
Yiannis Gabriel (2000) Storytelling in Organizations: Facts, Fictions and Fantasies. Oxford:
OUP
Jay Galbraith and Kazanian, R.K. (1986) Strategy Implementation: Structure, Systems,
Processes. Paul, MN: West
Juergen Habermas (1981) Theory of Communicative Action Vol 1.
Elliot Jacques (1950) The Culture of a Factory. London: Tavistock
Gordon Lawrence (2000 Tongued with Fire: Groups in Experience. London: Karnac
Henry Mintzberg (1978) Patterns in Strategy Formation in Management Science.
Patricia Shaw (2002) Changing Conversations in Organizations: A Complexity Approach to
Change. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge
Ralph Stacey (1993) Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics: The Challenge of
Complexity. Harlow: Prentice Hall
Eric Trist and Hugh Murray (eds) The Social Engagement of Social Science: The Tavistock
Anthology: The Socio-Psychological Perspective.
Eric Trist and Hugh Murray (eds) The Social Engagement of Social Science: The Tavistock Anthology:
Socio-Technical Systems Perspective.
Eric Trist and Hugh Murray (eds) The Social Engagement of Social Science: The Tavistock Anthology:
The Socio-Ecological Perspective
Karl Weick (1995) Sensemaking in Organizations. London: SAGE
Etienne Wenger. (1998) Communities of Practice. London: SAGE
The Tavistock Anthologies edited by Eric Trist and Hugh Murray can be found at
www.moderntimesworkplace.com/archives/
Eliat Arams talk on Complexity and Jean Neumanns thought pieces on Kurt Lewin can both be
found on this website: www.tavinstitute.org