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.

Collaboration versus cooperation

Theme two in my exploration of the big ideas underpinning my research is probably the mother of them all….maybe. I’m toying with the idea of the individual versus the collective, which I’ll write about tomorrow, but this leads me into all sort of political areas that I know I’m interested in, but I’m not knowledgable enough on.

Collaboration became one of my most though about ideas after I visited Adelaide in March. I was so energised and excited about the interviews I conducted there.  Here was a group that were under-resourced, yet banded together to produce great work (I can only assume as I didn’t get time to see it) and, most importantly, valued the role of learning in their community.

From interview one I was intrigued by the idea that working collectively (and I use the different word on purpose) could be a critical factor in the development of leadership capability, and importantly for me, the willingness to embrace leadership identity.  Participants seemed to consciously draw together to achieve shared goals, which is obviously necessary to produce an art form that takes many people, but also recognised the learning they received from each other.

Institutionally, organisationally and academically this learning also seemed to be recognised and mechanisms were put in place to facilitate networks and shared practice. Coming after the final interviews in the visual arts arena, which were highly individualistic in nature, this was a massive difference.

This propelled me down the communities of practice path, an area of learning I had never come across before. To the point that I’m now writing a conference paper on it and in the recent FASS 3MT competition I proposed that this is a primary finding.

But then, in May, I went to Hobart to talk the film community there.  They have many similarities with Adelaide, in that they are a smaller city that requires a supportive community to survive (the role of geography and space is another theme I’m considering too. More on that later.)

The film work experience came up slightly in my Adelaide research, with participants suggesting it was very different and their experiences in the different sector were not positive.  I wanted to test this theory, both disciplines are collective in nature are they not? Surely the same learning would apply?

No.

My primary participant in film told a fascinating story about their university experience, which contrasted incredibly with that of theatre.  (In a strange twist I actually knew this group at the Melbourne University they studied at way back in the 90s as I was a volunteer on some of their projects.)  There was no evidence, early on in this subject’s history, of the shared learning and confidence that developed through communities of practice and participation.  In fact almost the opposite occurred, early career development was stifled by a negative experience of collective learning.

A memory floated into my consciousness. Late last year I met a very successful cinematographer at a party (as you do, though it was probably the only party I went to last year.)  We got talking and he told me that film sets were an exercise in role understanding. Everyone knows their job and they can walk in on day one and produce because of the clear demarcation lines.

One Hobart subject (who predominantly works in film) explained to me took a role in a theatre production where they spent two weeks in a room brainstorming ideas and visiting the Botanic Gardens.  He thought “I’m getting paid for this?” The perceived ‘luxury’ of spending time together jointly producing the work was not something he experienced in his other jobs.

So we see that even though both of these art forms are collective, they are not necessarily collaborative.  Film is a sector I would describe as cooperative, not collaborative.  In the ‘award winning’ paper delivered at AIMAC 2015 Jyrämä and  Äyväri write:

“In order to create joint practice, or activity, for the intersection of communities of practice, it is noteworthy to make a distinction between cooperation and collaboration. Cooperation refers to tasks divided separately with defined responsibilities. Cooperation might occur at the intersection of communities of practice without any changes in respective values and norms. On the other hand collaboration refers to joint problem solving, building interaction, and understanding the others’ values and norms, in other words, creation of a sub- community, team or new joint practice. (Nissen et al., 2014.)”

This explains to me why I saw evidence of leadership capability building and learning early on in the career of my theatre practitioners, but it was less evident at the same stage in film.  However, later on in the film subject’s career she actively created her own community, and credited it as being critical in her development.  It just wasn’t facilitated necessarily through University, institutional or organisational networks as it was in Adelaide and it was driven through activity on a film set, or even film production, it was a writing group.

So here I can use my interviews to illustrate that communities of practice can work in the creative sector to enhance learning, but only when they are collaborative in nature, not cooperative.  While there are authors who say such communities must develop organically, and cannot be facilitated by organisations, it is still beneficial to understand how they are more likely to emerge.

In my idealised career path I really wanted to explore the difference between film ways of working and theatre, as I think it could make a great project.  In the real world of my thesis, however, I can see this forming a key claim.