Practice as Role Enactment: Managing Purposive Sophisticated Cooperation
This doctoral dissertation proposes a fuller, more inclusive account of practice than that which dominates current discourse on organizations, which typically turns upon occupations, professions and jobs as manifestations of publicly recognized roles or functions within organized activity, established as a function of prescribed divisions of labour and the application of skills and techniques, and assumes that people interact in the ways that their assigned roles and functions are planned to work as interrelated parts of a shared task. The approach here is a reflexive process akin to what Lévi-Strauss characterizes as ‘bricolage’, using ready-to-hand materials linking narrative, literature and argument, adding pieces iteratively in an open-ended building process over the course of the dissertation. The reflexive process entails (a) the act of writing narratives (derived from the author’s own management experiences in the private, public and voluntary sectors) so as to produce insights and themes of interest in relation to the broader theme of practice; and (b) readings of certain key works of the literature on organizations and organized activity (including Sarbin and Allen, Denzin, Wiley, Collins, Elias, Mead, Habermas, Stacey and Mintzberg) so as to expose practice-related themes relevant to the construction of an alternative account which proposes the following: (1) Practice in organizations is communicative in nature and entails the enactment of roles. Conventionally, enactment is taken to mean that the role-incumbent meets expectations set by decision-makers and premised on conformity to preset structures within a metaphorical organizational space. In an alternative account of practice, however, enactment can be more accurately framed as a dialectical process of co-emergence of role and organization by virtue of the local social interaction of the persons involved. (2) In active life the mutually-exclusive emergent process and the spatial organizational metaphor necessarily co-exist. Reframing role enactment opens a path to new understanding, such that role enactment and practice thus become problematized in that practitioners can be seen as holding a paradoxical position of some considerable relevance to practice. Today’s predominantly objectivist management thinking primarily stresses accountability for the communicative interaction of others within the organizational space. The reflexive processual approach contests the adequacy and exclusivity of this position, because managing as an emergent practice is more comprehensively communicative and open-ended. (3) The co-presence of both the objectivist and emergent accounts thus requires the manager paradoxically to hold both these views of role and organization at the same time in his or her experiences of managing. As paradox cannot be resolved, it is instead taken up by the manager-practitioner by virtue of the reflexivity central to all processes of communicative interaction. (4) It follows that acknowledging processes of enactment and the centrality of reflexivity in the practice of managing and bringing that to the attention of managers and management educators will enhance how managing sophisticated cooperation is understood and carried out.