The role of the organisation

It’s the last day of my five-day thematic writing exercise and it’s achieved a number of things. Firstly, it has got me writing again. I’ve had a break from writing since I finished my paper in late June.  Next week, as I go into the context chapter, it won’t feel so foreign to me. Though the style, and the references, will be very different. And I’m be back in Scrivener not here.

Additionally it has me thinking more about the structure of my thesis, and planning out the ideas in a more cohesive way.  So I’d highly recommend the activity.

The last theme I am thinking of exploring is that of the role of the organisation.  I have two distinct groups of participants in my study, and it will likely be an almost 50/50 split when I’m done (couldn’t have planned it better.)  The first have the more ‘traditional’ experience of working within an organisational structure.  And most of these have moved from organisation to organisation in their career.  They have bosses and colleagues, team days and training. Most are from the cultural sector, but I have one or two from outside who are influencers.  It’s the cultural sector ones I’m focussing on. The second are the freelancers, entrepreneurs and volunteers. These are those that run their own businesses, cobble together multiple jobs to stay afloat or are not yet employed in the sector they want to be (only one or two fall into this space.)  Of the freelancers they are either moving from job to job as their environment dictates, or building their own business models.

This latter group are the ones a lot of creative industries literature talks about.  Those with a (potentially) precarious nature of employment. While this is not my focus you can’t escape the comments from participants about the challenge of survival without a regular income.  For those in digital media there was sometimes a conscious choice to freelance (with contracts that were between one and three months in length) to build a ‘brand’ and get big names on the resume, but once they had established themselves, got a bit older, and needed to settle down because of family responsibilities, then the lure of an organisation become stronger.

For those outside the organisational dynamic there was little expectation of career or leadership development, when you were entering into an organisation for a one-month stint there is little time for an orientation. Here is where the cooperation model (from Tuesdays‘s post) kicks in, when everyone knows their roles there is no need to team development.

For those inside organisations, however, I am interested in what role they play in facilitating staff leadership development. And it is a bit of a mixed bag.  There are two or three sectors where the organisation plays an active role, theatre being the most obvious, but I’d also say design.  In some other cases, such as music, there was money being spent on staff development or at least time being given away from the workplace, but it was more to attend externally run courses, not an in house development approach.  Here is where there is a difference between leader and leadership development – sending a manager off to attend an external leadership course probably benefits them, and the flow on may benefit the organisation through better management, achievement of goals and staff retention.  But putting that money toward staff development in house, that focuses on leadership (not leaders) would benefit the whole organisation, and the flow on would be greater long term (IMHO.)  Interestingly I’ve heard that a lot of those who go through leadership programs end up leaving their organisation – which is the same in other sectors, so it can also become a disincentive to send high potential individuals out.  Maybe an organisation approach would have the reverse effect retention wise?  So maybe I am calling for more organisationally focussed training?

The second issue with regard to the organisation is an attitudinal one by the individuals within it.  While there are those who see development as essential for the sector, there are also those that see their leadership roles are having a staff development aspect to them.  But, unfortunately, not all.  I come from corporate companies where managers were sometimes assessed and rewarded by how well they did in developing staff, this is definitely not the case in the creative sector.  I think there are a few factors involved:

  • Lack of knowledge.  Those managing staff in small arts/cultural organisation have little experience or understanding of the importance of staff development.
  • Lack of care. In an industry where interns are junior staff are lining up for jobs there is the assumption that there will always be someone to take their place. And the idea of retaining staff and organisational knowledge is not really on the radar. I was told in the interview for my last job that my next step with out outside the organisation as they had no development or progression. And they were right, I lasted less time than I’d hoped to as their lack of care in this area made it an unpleasant place to be.
  • Lack of time/resources.  This is a week excuse, as it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time to meet with staff, develop a coaching plan, set goals and the rewards are great.

The first two here are what I think the sector needs to change. How much of this is this creeping neo-liberalism though? Organisations do not see themselves as responsible fro provision of development as we live in an individualised economy where career success was all on you. The course I participated in, and later taught, at COFA was all about making better managers/leaders in the arts space and I hope that all the students who went through it at least had more knowledge and realised that it is an important area.  I am still staggered by the comment I got in one interview that a new staff member’s arrival was a chance for him to ‘sink or swim’, rather than a chance for the organisation to develop his capabilities to mutual benefit.

In this case there needs to be more sectoral support in a) basic management of staff, but also b) the understanding that participating in leadership development is not all about you. It’s about how you learn to develop others. Because without the ‘others’ you ain’t got nothing.

Geography and space

Day four of my thematic free writing and I’ve been so pleased with the way it’s been going. Now if I can just extend these 900 words posts to 5,000 word posts then the thesis will write itself!

Before I get started on today’s theme, how many big idea do I need? Is it really one big idea (communities of practice as leadership development tool) with a number of little ideas under it? At the moment I have the big idea (CoP) and five potential sub-ideas (collaboration v cooperation, individual v collective, failure & confidence, geography & space, luck & humility in career entrepreneurism) and maybe I can’t escape acknowledging gender. I’m sure this will change. After writing these five I am returning to write my context chapter (really) and a conference paper before I start real data analysis at later in the semester.  I’ve locked in another 5 interviews, which will bring me to about 43.  This is more than enough, but I really want to include film animation, because I have a very opinionated friend in the sector, but he’s currently living overseas and not sure when he will return.  May have to make a judgement call on this.  But I’m confident I’ll go into 2016 with a whole year with nothing to do but write. (Oh god.) Draft complete by end of the year, with submission early 2017. That’s the plan.

Back to geography and space.

I’m sort of combining two themes, that I haven’t completely thought out yet, into one section.  The first is the impact of geography.  My participants come from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart with the odd individual in rural NSW, Gold Coast and soon two international contributions (Australians based internationally.) The vast majority are in Sydney, which should be about 55% by the end of the study.

So my first question is how has geography impacted development of communities of practice and leadership capability? It probably isn’t surprising to suggest that the smaller cities, Adelaide and Hobart, were more open about being collectively developmental and supportive of their sector.  They saw their role as helping their industry to flourish and build audiences when the market was not as big.  This flowed on to the more prominent idea of a community of practice for my emerging leaders, which then lead to a willingness to be seen as a leader.  And potentially in both cases the primary subjects recognised that they were, or were becoming, a relatively ‘big fish in a little pond’. (In no way is this said in a derogatory or ego driven fashion.)

Compare this to Sydney and the common theme was one of movement, competition and, honestly, a bit of a ‘sink or swim’ attitude.  I’m probably reading my own experience a little into this, as I’ve always found Sydney workplaces to be more aggressive and less supportive than Melbourne ones.  There was a more obvious ambition and conscious career climbing demonstrated in Sydney, and less of a community of practice feeling.  Thinking back to some of my very early interviews there is a stronger sense of individualism and individual career responsibility.  But this is something I need to explore in more depth. What’s interesting is there was a lesser tendency to embrace leadership amongst my Sydney participants, and I wonder if that is based on the idea of seeming unworthy in a competitive market? More ability to compare yourself to lots of other self promoters?

The role of geography can lead back, theoretically, to the role of cultural geography and the idea of creative clusters. Creative industries economists, and cultural geographers like the often ridiculed Richard Florida, explore the sustainability of creative sectors and how they draw people to them. There appears to be a level required to be sustainable, and maybe only Sydney and Melbourne really achieve this on a large scale.

The second part of this theme is that of space.  And this is a very new idea I’m considering and I may only explore it if I can throw in a new interview specifically looking at this area.   If communities of practice cannot form due to shared participation driven through undertaking work projects together, can it develop in other ways, such as a shared use of space?

Take visual artists. The group of participants I have from visual arts seemed to be the most individualistic and least developmental of all my participants.  Even though some shared organisations.  But, I had an off-hand conversation with a different, very successful, visual artist at the Surry Hills market one morning, as you do, who told me he’d recently moved into a shared studio space, with a group of (also very successful and well-known) visual artists and how it had changed his practice and outlook. All of these were individual practitioners, but he said that it was a much better working experience sharing space with others.  I’ve literally just reached out to him this morning with the idea of conducting a short interview exploring this.  That and I want to buy one of his paintings before I leave Sydney 🙂

There’s a lot of consulting work going on in the social learning space that looks at the role of online in facilitating peer learning. This is not an area I want to go into, though my meeting with the Australia Council last week we did explore the under utilised online space which is not enthusiastically embraced by the arts community. Maybe next project.  But I think there may be opportunity to link leadership – learning  – space – urban creative clusters from cultural policy perspective. (Or maybe this is too big and is a secondary research idea too.)

Now I’m going to look at space and geography from a new perspective – trying to find rental properties in Melbourne.

Individual versus collective

I mentioned in yesterday’s thematic post that the idea of the individual versus the collective may be a big, politically charged theme that I don’t want to get into.

I’m not sure how I can avoid it though.

When I started this research I came at it from a positivist approach, as that was pretty much my default way of thinking when I hadn’t been exposed to research methodologies, epistemologies or any other ‘ologies.  My focus was on the individual emerging leader and what they did, learnt or experienced that helped them build leadership capability.

This started to change (surprise!) when I spent more time reading.  The first change was understanding that leadership related to more than just the leader – it includes the followers. A basic and fairly obvious thing to realise, but one that is an early on ‘aha’ moment, which I wrote about here. I watch my students go through this shift in thinking now as I teach.

The second, and more important to me, change is the one between leader and leadership. Which I’ve written about previously, but I can’t find the post.  Rost (1993) wrote about how most leadership development was actually leader development, focussing on the individual when it should be leadership development focussing on the all parties involved. This probably helped me progress to the methodological approach to include people around my emerging leader, not just talk to the leader themselves, but also pushed the notion of the collective.

Then,of course, I have the emergence of communities of practice as a central component of my research. By definition this is a collective or social learning process, which again shifts thinking away from the individual.

Linked to all this, however, is not only leadership development being individually focussed (which is actually less important for these participants are most have not attended leadership development programs) but career development and educational messages also being individually driven.

When delving into the worlds of career models, when thinking about my journal article that became something else, I read a lot about protean and boundaryless careers and how they are linked to the cultural and creative industries, particularly through writers such as Ruth Bridgstock.  The rhetoric here is one of the individual being in control of their own career, and decisions being made based on values as much as economic or status. Internal motivation as much as external.  I can see my own contribution to this dialogue in my teaching and discussions with creative industries students – you will likely be an entrepreneur, you will change jobs, you need to learn requisite skills, you likely wont be trained by your employers.

So there is this individual push toward learning, self-awareness, self-control of career, that contradicts with the notion that we still learn collectively outside the educational environment and a focus on individual learning responsibility may mean we miss the potential opportunity to facilitate social learning and communities of practice that are so valuable.

While leads to the inescapable notion of neo-liberalism and its pervasive influence in the educational and economic systems.   To paraphrase Angela McRobbie (2002), a scholar I’m very fond of:

Creative work increasingly follows a neo-liberal model, governed by the values of entrepreneurism, individualisation and reliance on commercial sponsorship. One consequence for the relatively youthful workforce is the decline of workplace democracy and its replacement by network sociality.

She claims that the notion of the auteur, traditionally associated with film, writing and fashion, has been extended across the creative sector in what is now a highly individuated workforce, and that is not just about the individual per se, but less permanent social relations that are characterised by a perception of freedom and choice. Universities and educational institutions, and teachers like me, support this through the promotion of entrepreneurial skills in courses.

From here I can’t help but leap back to some of the statics around the creative industries, in particular the precarious nature of employment.  One one had there are those like Hesmondhalgh who critique the creative world’s structure of short-term contracts, lack of unions and individual employment focus, while many from the creative industries camp, like those at QUT, say precarity is less of a problem and that as a sector the creative industries earns higher than average and has better psychological conditions.

It’s hard not to see the latter’s approach as one that supports this neo-liberal approach which places all career success, or failure, on the individual who has none of the traditional workplace support that may have existed in other sectors.

Which makes my communities of practice idea even more important. Many have spoken of how their community provides psychosocial support (echoed by Higgins 2010) in dealing with the tempestuous employment conditions they face.  Particularly women, who tend to, early in their career, internalise rejection as being their fault, not a result of the institutional arrangements they face. (Hey, sounds familiar!)

So by taking an individual learning approach we are neglecting the benefits of the collective in not only development of capability but in filling the void in workplace support that used to come from organisations, professional association and unions. That said, McRobbie and scholars of her ilk argue that networking, or network sociality, has become required for career success and that this may be a challenge for many.  The way I’m thinking, however, is there is still a distinction between legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice and networking for employment purposes, in the same way collaboration and cooperation are different, networking and social learning are different.

So a conclusion may be that we need to increase understanding of social learning and communities of practice within the educational curriculum of creative practitioners to help facilitate post-University learning.


(Word press is being a nightmare regarding spacing, I apologise if this is a bit of a mess.)

The first session delved into the idea of cooperation across the Mediterranean region and included 6 speakers from both universities and practitioners from the region. The first, but not only learning, was the translation earphones that were provided, as it was conducted in French, are really uncomfortable. (And they shorted out during the second last speaker, the artistic director of the Aix festival, who was the most engaging.)

The second is, despite this being the very first session, and the urging by organisers that we must stick to time, that no one tells people of this calibre/status to stop telling their stories (and it should be noted the panel was all male, facilitated by a woman, a fact pointed out by Dr Kate MacNeill from Melbourne University, who has earned her badge of honour already.) The supposed round table was actually six speakers presenting their own story one after the other, with almost no time for audience interaction or even interaction with each other. I have to say it’s my pet hate when we don’t manage panels effectively to achieve the dialogue component. But that is just me.

The issue of terrorism and political instability, particularly given the events in Lyon this past week, clearly hung over the proceedings, particularly when the engagement of Arab world is such a crucial area both regionally and globally. Monday night was to be a trip to the opera as part of Aix Festival. It was a Mozart opera, nearly four hours long, and as it was starting at 9:30 I had mixed feelings about attendance. The director of the Festival, however, informed us that we were to attend the final dress rehearsal, but in the light of the recent terrorist attacks, particularly in Tunisia, some of the performance needed to be rewritten as to be sensitive to the situation and the audience was no longer welcome. It was an interesting insight into the reality of artistic directorship in the modern environment.

There’s plenty of social time across the conference, and I’m very glad to have spent 2 days in the doctoral workshop as entering the melee of the conference proper without a few friends would be daunting. I’m happy to see a few Australians presents, Ruth who ran the doctoral workshop, and two of the senior figures in Melbourne University’s Cultural management program. No one from Sydney has been spotted as yet, suggesting our move south might mean I’m more connected into Australian arts management networks than I had been previously.
Lunch was held in the luxurious, but hot, grounds of Pavillion Vendome and featured pastis and local rosè. Yeah it was tough. All the Australians, or I should say Melburnians, congregated together and had a chat with the very charming head of MUCEM, the museum in Marseille we visit on Wednesday.

The afternoon kicked off the main paper tracks, at each time there are up to seven parallel sessions ranging from strategic management to consumer marketing. I’m likely to camp out predominantly in the organisational behavior and HR track as it’s my main research area, though I plan to also see some of the ‘big names’ and the people I’ve met along the way.

Paper one was an investigation into arts management and millennials, and I was surprised to find that no work had been done in this space before. This sort of generational analysis is standard in non-academic HR as it’s so crucial from a hiring and retention perspective.

Apparently this group of prospective employees, as determined by this particular study, see training and career development as being “somewhat unimportant” which is interesting from my perspective, writing on on this space. But my theory, one I shared with the speaker, is that we have conditioned people to be in control of their own career, thus do not expect organisations to provide training or career development therefore it isn’t seen as important.  I was happy to find this opinion was agreed with by others.

I was watching the presentations with two purposes, one to learn what research was out there, but the other to understand the structure and mechanics of presenting at conferences. I’ve decided to submit a paper to a conference in Adelaide in December, which would be my first foray into actual conference papers. The generally tough feedback given in the PhD symposium was not found so much in the general conference, a fact I learned was a conscious decision. And the presentation content and style was pretty general, nothing that revolutionary, but I’ve learned my lesson that this is not always welcome in academic circles.

I’m probably displaying my academic naïveté in some of the sessions as I get excited when people are researching areas that overlap mine. I probably wear my glee too obviously. Not cool. But it’s exciting to hear about communities of practice research in Estonia or how visual artists learn career skills in Birmingham.

At the end of day one we went off to see some art and culture, but I’ll cover that in my other blog.

Where’s the leadership?

Two weeks ago, thereabouts, Platform Papers published their 40th Issue. Entitled TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER: The dilemma of cultural leadership it was a call out by Wesley Enoch, artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company, to the supposed leaders of the Australian cultural industries.  “What the f..k are we doing? Where are our leaders?” it began.

The fact a paper such as this was written and published was unsurprising and needed. The fact there has been little to no response by the supposed cultural leaders? Disappointing. Where’s the rebuttal? Where’s the defence? Where’s the evidence that there is a thriving cultural leadership in our arts sector?

*hears crickets chirping*

When I started my PhD I went to a meeting of sessional teachers at the institution where I work.  “What are you writing on?” asked one colleague, a highly experienced and well regarded figure in the visual arts world. When I replied that I am researching on the development of cultural leaders she said “Oh there are any?”

Recently the program within which I teach has been renamed “Masters of Curating and Cultural Leadership.” Over the past semester there has been much discussion with staff and students. Most, including those current undertaking my course that is largely on cultural leadership, hate the name change.  It’s corporate speak, jargon, meaningless they say.

Wesley Enoch spoke to ABC Radio National just prior to the Platform Papers publication.  Presenter Michael Cathcart started the conversation by complaining about the title of the piece.  Cultural leadership, “it’s not an appealing term”  he says. As Enoch suggests in the interview, the term cultural leadership is associated with management. When googled it displays a plethora of articles about corporate culture.

But the problem with leadership in our creative context is broader than just one of vague nomenclature.

In my view there will not be a robust discussion ,or display, of leadership in our cultural industries until those within it start to embrace the term. Leadership is not the enemy of the arts.  And those working and studying within the industry need to start recognising the leadership role they are, and can, play.

Here’s a list of things leadership isn’t:

  1. Leadership isn’t hierarchical
  2. Leadership isn’t related to job title
  3. Leadership isn’t all about making money
  4. Leadership isn’t the domain of corporate consultants (or wankers)
  5. Leadership isn’t about characteristics or traits 

Leadership, to me, is about creating a place to which people want to belong. By establishing a potential future and encouraging others to work towards it.  Isn’t that sort of what artists do too?

This reluctance to embrace the role of leader has consequences. Not just the lack of debate or current stands on social issues that Enoch calls out, but it impacts of the development of those in the industry itself.

Leadership is about identity. Embracing the concept of leadership helps shape an individual’s identity through the stories they tell, to followers and potential followers, while also helping to shape self awareness and self efficacy. What happens when those who have the potential to be the great visionaries reject the concept of leadership? Well I guess we’re seeing that right now.