Sustaining Reflective Conversation: A Narrative Exploration of Advising and Learning with Small-Business Entrepreneurs
Andrews, Rachelle Madeleine Mary
This research examines my practice as a business adviser working with small firms under the government-funded ‘Business Link’ contract, and with other clients looking to develop their business activities. In exploring the mainstream literature on advising, which draws on systems-based, economic and management theory, the social and relational nature of advising is largely overlooked. In addressing this gap, I take a pragmatic approach, drawing on theory that regards advising as social and situated in the present. My experience corresponds closely with concepts such as the ‘conversation of gestures’ from Mead’s (1932, 1934) behavioural psychology, and relational concepts of power in Elias’s (1956, Elias and Scotson, 1994) process sociology, both of which acknowledge that we are caught up in interdependent webs of interaction. Burkitt (1991, 2002) takes up these ideas in exploring ideas of social ‘selves’ as does Stacey (2001) in exploring ‘complex responsive processes of relating’. Taking complexity sciences as a source domain has added a further body of literature that reflects the dynamic relationship between local interaction and emergent social patterning of organisation. Other work recognises the contribution to this view of experience, learning and knowledge as constructed relationally in the present, and further to this viewpoint I explore Siegel’s (2008, 2012, 2016) interpersonal neurobiology. In particular, I reference Siegel’s exploration of ‘mind’, in which, in a similar way to Mead, he sees mind as emerging both in and between individuals. The traditional view regards advising as a role in which the adviser is acting as a facilitator, transferring knowledge to the client. This view of advising follows a linear timeline, where the adviser is left unchanged in the process. My experience was of advising as a reflective, conversational process, where themes arose in the communicative participation of the client–adviser relationship. Advising was a messy and negotiated process from which novel and often surprising themes emerged unexpectedly in the midst of conversation. With clients, increased understanding of past experience and possibilities for the future are co-constructed in the present in ongoing complex responsive processes of relating (Griffin and Stacey, 2005). Taking a reflexive narrative research methodology is consistent with an understanding of learning and knowledge emerging from a dynamic social process of enquiry. This methodology explores the conversational nature of advising, recognising the temporal nature of research. I am drawing on experience of many years of working with the owners and managers of small firms. This process has continued in conversation with my supervisors, colleagues and other researchers, and my thinking and assumptions about practice has evolved. In this reflexive process, new perspectives have arisen, such as how meaning is co-created in tensions of resistance and recognition. In the narrative process, I also recognise the influence of policy, contractual responsibilities and other enabling and constraining factors on my work with clients. These influences are paradoxically forming and being formed by local interaction in the context of the here and now. This idea resonates strongly with the idea of experience evolving in the dynamic activities of everyday life understood as phronesis or practical wisdom (Flyvbjerg, 2005, Thomas, 2010). This research makes a number of contributions. In arguing for practice as complex, a process in which shifting power relations are arising in ongoing conversation taking place in the living present, I am addressing a gap in the literature. I argue that this social process, which evolves in and between client and adviser, has been largely overlooked in the literature on business advice. I am also paying attention to the use of artefacts in sustaining exploratory conversation Additionally, I am making a contribution to the methodology of qualitative research by using reflexive narrative methods in the exploration of personal practice. These narratives increase understanding of how such an approach can elicit deeper meaning from the advising process, adding to studies that challenge the ‘expert’ view of advising activity by paying attention to its social nature. I also contribute to the practice of business advising from a policy perspective, recognising that this research has implications for how advising services might be refocused and developed to meet the needs of small-business managers. Finally, in this reflexive process I have been making sense of my experience by drawing on theory that explores how ‘mind’, and a sense of ‘self’ emerge in our relationships with others. I hope that a further contribution is that other practitioners will recognise familiar patterns from which they might reflect and learn.