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Enterprise Autobiography: writing the past to ensure a future
Luca Magni – Chief Knowledge Officer ISTUD
Values and languages are, at the same time, the expression and the "key constituents" of a culture. This applies to national as well as organizational cultures.
Through values and languages individuals express their belonging to social reference groups. Introjections of group values and languages influence individual perceptive and judgemental capabilities on reality.
Since the beginning of the past century, psychologists and sociologists have studied the above phenomenon that influences and limits dangerously the adaptability of individuals and of organizations to external changes.
This remains a fascinating issue that despite its importance maintain a marginal position in the monitoring activities carried out by managers and practitioners within organizations. The origin of this can be found in the absence of a practical methodology, capable to highlight and to address efficaciously the above mentioned cultural filters.
In the eighties, Pasquale Gagliardi focused his attentions on this theme and brilliantly wrote on the relationship between organizational culture and change: "When methods that have traditionally been used to manage problems of external adaptation and internal integration are seen to be ineffective, a search for alternative action is begun within the organization." The author, for many years Director and President of ISTUD, continues thereafter: "When the alternatives offered by a culture's potential for action have been explored and nave been found unsuitable for solving problems, the virtuous circle becomes a vicious circle. The obsolescence of the organization's distinctive competence is denied and lack of success is blamed on uncontrollable external causes or the behaviour of certain individuals or groups in the organization. These individuals and groups are then attacked and criticized. The organization's energies are employed more and more in the search for excuses and scapegoats and in the obsessive repetition of types of behaviour which once suited the problems at hand but are no longer adequate for managing them properly. Tensions in the group increase, while self-confidence, cohesion and efficiency decrease.
In such cases, difficulty in discovering and developing appropriate alternatives stems from the fact that the culture's potential for action in those specific
circumstances has been exhausted: the organization must therefore change its cultural identity in order to survive. However, the experience of failure does not in itself lead the organization to explore routes which are different from those sanctioned by the group's basic values and point of view, just as the failure to catch fish in the Mediterranean would never in itself have induced the sailors of olden times to go beyond the Pillars of Hercules in search of fish. For these reasons, many organizations will die rather than change, and in this sense we may say that organizations do not learn from negative experiences. In claiming this I am making a point rather different from the one made by Hedberg and Jonsson (1977) in their model of the interplay between myth, strategies, and reality. A ruling myth - they say - is a theory that generates strategies and actions; strategies are hypotheses, and actions test these hypotheses, verifying or falsifying the theory; a ruling myth can be then undermined as strategies and actions fail to produce desired results. In fact, a ruling myth is also, and not only, a theory or action. It incorporates the values and the 'ethos' of the organization and eludes the rules which govern the development or knowledge.
When there is a real problem of cultural change [...] it can probably be diagnosed with sufficient clarity only by people who are not deeply involved in the existing culture (Beer 1972), such as people from deviant subcultures (Martin and Siehl 1983) or 'new comers', the new owner who takes aver a firm in difficulty, the consultants and managers called in from outside to sort out crises. In any case, the first condition of cultural change is the existence of a leadership - exercised by either a person or an élite - which can bring the organization into unexplored territory where its competence can be reconstructed and its identity redefined."
Surely a bright analysis that stresses how unlikely it is for organizations to succeed in reorienting their culture, without the aid and the support from external parties. The evolution of a culture is possible, according to Gagliardi, but it requires an incipit or a process somehow stimulated from the outside.
In this perspective the issue is to understand how to reorient an organization towards new values, while maintaining the highest possible level of compatibility with its original culture and avoiding the risk to read as sincere acceptance of the new set of values what might be just superficial/political compliance.
Recent studies and researches, on the use of narratives and autobiographies in different contests, have opened a very fruitful stream of speculations on the potential of stories in the emancipation of individuals and groups from deep cultural constraints. Leading in this field, the ISTUD Foundation has produced a systematic, multi-disciplinary approach, the Enterprise Autobiography – a route for organizational development which guides organizations through a series of cultural self-awareness exercises and support them in the development of new value systems capable to sustain them in the definition and the attainment of both their present and future goals.
A large number of studies have focused on the possibility to extract from different forms of literature the instruments to comprehend and to describe organizations.
Francesco Varanini summarizes very effectively the absolute and intuitive validity of these efforts and here is what he writes, on this regard: "Narratives are important for people. They are important for the compatriots of García Márquez, for the inhabitants of whichever village and whichever metropolis, for the workers of whichever company. Since for us, who live in organizations or however strain to understand how and why they function, the necessity of narratives is particularly obvious." Francesco Varanini continues his insightful reflection on the topic and writes: "But in the end it is enough to highlight here that we are speaking about how, in front of the complexity of organizations, in front of a reality that cannot be described in “digital” or “discreet” terms, in exact and exhaustive language, the only available path the story. The "unknown world" can be only described for what it appears: we can see only feeble tracks, weak marks. The plot is in the anecdotes, in the jokes, in the small daily facts. An event, apparently insignificant is the vortex towards which convergent causes lead. That cannot be described otherwise, it can only be narrated. There is an art that poets, novelists, musicians and also employees who gather at the coffee machines during breaks share: they all know how to see which thread to pull to untie the intricate hank of wool. They know where to pick the emergent plot and how to construct a narration around it. They know how to give sense to their daily lives." Organizations therefore like narrations and as places in which "stories” are not only produced, but where these constitute, if not the only, sure the most immediate and effective reading keys. In this perspective, narratives become metaphors, instruments to interpret and to describe the organizational reality; the history of the Enterprise and the stories concerning the Enterprise find therefore a new reason of being in the opportunity they offer to analyze, to reflect and to spur action. This being equally true and meaningful, for the people who work within the organization and for external stakeholders. The narrative description becomes the solution to the problem, not only from the epistemological point of view, but also from a pragmatic one.
What most recently published and experimented in the literary field, particularly with respect to autobiographies, has focused the attention of ISTUD researchers on the developmental/transformational potential of narratives in organizational contexts.
In the past, both individual and organizational autobiographies had mainly a celebrative function. This end has drastically changed in the past century with the advent and the evolution of this narrative form into what presently indicated as the New Autobiography and described as a distinct category in literature. ISTUD has conceptualized and translated into the Enterprise Autobiography approach, the specificity and the transformational vocation of the New Autobiography.
To illustrate the difference between the approach pursued by ISTUD with the Enterprise Autobiographies and the celebrative form that existed before, a good starting point is represented by what Barbara Czarniawska has written on the subject. "The expression organizational autobiographies, writes Czarniawska, could suggest something definitive and closed, perhaps the history of a company, written approximately once every fifty years. Such official autobiographies are no doubt important, but they appear more like epitaphs rather than autobiographies that should represent lives under construction." In the same book, the author with Polish origins invites the reader to concentrate on a particular area: "the attention is here on what Bruss calls autobiographic acts and that Bruner describes as the report of what someone thinks s/he has done, in given scenarios in certain ways for some felt reasons; a remarkable phrase since it contains all the five elements of Burke's model (agent, action, scene, modality to act and scope). The above can be rephrased as the report of what someone thinks an organization has done, when someone is the narrator and the organization is the character or the author. Such organizational autobiographic acts constantly reoccur in the life of an organization, but perhaps with particular frequency and premeditation during periods of challenge and turbulence." Czarniawska highlights already the importance of the organizational autobiographies, but only with the New Autobiography, these can become and be proposed as instrumental to a process of participative transformation of organizational cultures. The Autobiography of Enterprise - as it has been developed by ISTUD - responds exactly to what Tristine Rainer illustrates as the latest stages in the evolution of autobiographic literature and that she names, in fact, New Autobiography.
"The New Autobiography," she writes "is a vibrantly democratic and deeply personal type of narrative writing that, while little understood, is becoming popular in our culture. It is new because it is being written by new voices, not only those who represent the official and dominant view from the top. It is new because it is written as self-discovery rather than self-promotion." She continues then on the same subject: " It is new because it beholds the individual's life, not through Puritan mandates of moral edification, nor nineteenth-century credos of materialistic success, nor twentieth-century formulas of reductionist psychology, but through the cohesion of literature and myth. Stylistically it is new because it employs storytelling' devices, such as scenes and dialog, that are borrowed from fiction [...]. Its value may be measured not in how many people it reaches or good reviews it receives, but in the experience creating it gives the writer."