— Cultural Sources of Newness

Advisory Boards and the New

My professional life has offered me many opportunities to participate in advisory board meetings: as an advisor, as an advisee, and as an observer. After another such meeting today at the beautiful Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Nantes, for a major research project about Competences for CSR undertaken jointly by Audencia Nantes and the Ecole Centrale Nantes,  I find it intriguing to look back and reflect on some of those experiences to consider the conditions that seem to favor the emergence of something new.


Simone Weil on science at Maison de la Science des Hommes Nantes

Simone Weil on science at Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Nantes

My most positive experience as an advisee was a few years ago when Professor Peter Katzenstein from Cornell University advised the Research Unit on Cultural Sources of Newness at the WZB to grab an opportunity to conduct an unplanned research project: the recent earthquake in Chile offered the possibility of studying how new decisions might be made about planning the reconstruction of the city. He pointed out that his own research had benefited from such opportunity-grabbing moments. His argument and his standing in the academic community gave the institution the encouragement needed to deviate from our already full and broad research program, and our colleague Ignacio Farías took on a new project, which turned out to be indeed really interesting and led to several publications (also in Spanish).

My most negative experience was in a similar position as advisee, sitting across the table from arrogant advisory board members who spent much of the time showing each other their computer screens while we presented our work. Then we had to listen calmly while they pronounced their judgement from on high. The experience generated much more discouragement and disgust than newness. (Although I wished I could launch a new training program for future advisory board members on how to listen, or at least how to behave politely. That would have been a new contribution to the academic community from which future generations would have benefited greatly, I am sure!)

My most embarrassing—but nevertheless generative–experience was as a member of an advisory board, many years ago. The man across the table from me had exchanged glances and smiles during the meeting and we shared a taxi to return to the airport. Having dealt with quite a few different kinds of sexual harassment as a young woman in such male-dominated contexts, I decided to signal very clearly that I was returning to my husband and children and told him I would shop for gifts for them and asked whether he was doing the same. He followed me into the airport shops, so I asked again: “what are you taking back to your family?” After a moment he answered: “I guess you do not know about me, do you?” Now what to say? He continued: “I am a Catholic priest.” I was so embarrassed that I figured I could not become more embarrassed and decided to ask everything I had wanted to know but had never dared to ask a priest, such as what does it feel like to make a commitment to the celibate life? What I learned was fascinating: he had become a priest at the age of 18 and now, in his 50s, was noticing that he could no longer whole-heartedly recommend the priesthood to young men who came to him for advice. And if he could not recommend it to others, could he stay in it himself? We talked about things we really cared about in life for a couple of hours until our flights took us to different countries. A couple of years later I met him again at a conference, and he told me that he had recently married and was starting a new life. From that experience I learned to have the courage to ask the questions I care about and listen, really listen.

View from the meeting room at La Maison de la Science des Hommes Nantes

View from the meeting room at La Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Nantes

The advisory board meeting I participated in today entailed a great deal of attentive listening, combined with drawing on years of research experience to offer ideas, suggestions and questions. I learned a great deal from the presentation Dr. Denis Coedel  gave on the research project about competences needed in SMEs to develop and implement CSR. The project team has two advisory boards: one with academics and one with practitioners, in order to keep testing its ideas and to avoid tipping too far into one world at the expense of the other.

Denis Coedel presents COMP-RSE project to the advisory board

Denis Coedel presents COMP-RSE project to the advisory board

Here is not the place to summarize the rich findings of the project so far. Instead what I can share is the value of designing a project that engages various stakeholders and uses a mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods. Within 18 months the project is covering a great deal of territory:

  • Interviews in 20 SMEs (directors or person responsible for CSR) and 10 stakeholder organizations (e.g., local authorities, unions, business organizations, WWF) to identify the core competences they consider significant for developing and implementing CSR policies
  • A Web-based survey sent to SMEs in the region to check on the findings in a broader sample and to identify learning needs;
  • A focus group to deepen the analysis and pilot the self-analysis instrument for SMEs that is emerging from the project
  • A collection and analysis of available training programs for CSR in the region (with the help of 5 university students);
  • Interviews with providers of training programs to deepen the understanding of their approaches and their experiences with participants seeking to learn about how to develop and implement CSR thinking and practices in their organizations.

In addition to making presentations at various academic and practitioner events during this period, the project team is organizing a conference in October, with the intention of publishing the five best papers in a special issue of the Revue de l’Organisation Responsable (ROR).

Unusually and fortunately, the academics around the table at the advisory board meeting today included a first year doctoral student from Uzbekistan. It offered her a learning opportunity that Lave and Wenger appropriately termed legitimate peripheral participation: she listened and observed how academics can generate newness together when collegial respect and curiosity and collegiality have center stage. Hopefully, by the time she is ready to present her work in a couple of years there will no longer be a need to send advisory board members to etiquette classes.

Fortunately, too, advisory boards meetings often include conversations over a meal. During this one we talked about next steps to undertake joint research projects between France and Germany. More new things to come!

Conversing over lunch at Felix

Conversing over lunch at Felix