— Cultural Sources of Newness

Undertaking journeys into the unexpected at an EGOS conference

The theme for the 2018 Annual conference of the European Group for Organization Studies EGOS, “Surprise in and around organizations: Journeys to the unexpected”,  immediately intrigued me because it resonated with my current research on paths into and out of academia. And the location was tantalizing: Tallinn, Estonia. So I joined forces with two adventurous colleagues—André Sobczak (Audencia Business School, Nantes, France) and Anna Svirina (Kazan National Research Technical University, Russia)—to invite submissions for a subtheme entitled “Journeys into the unexpected: Paths and identities in academia” .

However, as convenors we faced a significant challenge because “unexpected journey—academic conference” is an oxymoron. Academic conferences are highly ritualized and structured events.

note: I would love to insert photographs, but the system is refusing to upload, apologies!

The unexpectedness started early in the planning process. Fortunately, we received many interesting short-paper submissions to choose from in January and we started envisaging the program we would create with them; unfortunately, the conference organizers suddenly asked us to merge with a different subtheme; fortunately, that other subtheme had a number of submissions that really enriched the set we had already chosen. So we were set to go to Tallinn with 25 original papers from academics throughout Europe, Canada and the United States.

As convenors of the subtheme, we then only had to follow instructions and assign the papers to the time slots on the conference website so that the participants would know exactly at what time on which day they would have a precise number of minutes to present their Powerpoint slides. Right? No!

Fortunately, from experience over previous years convening sessions on Arts, Design and Organizations (ADO) at EGOS, I knew that we could break the mold and undertake a journey into the unexpected. For example, in Gothenburg (2011) we had arranged to visit TILLT to learn about intermediaries between arts and organizations; in Montreal (2013) members of the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas led us through art-based exercises; in Athens (2015) an artist guided our eyes and hands at the National Archeological Museum to discover lines and shade in sculptures; in Naples (2016) a curator walked us to several different sites in which artists were addressing issues in the city. I had observed how each of those excursions had borne fruit: they gave us the opportunity to get to know each other a bit before delving into the papers; and we brought some ideas and metaphors from the shared experience back into the conference space. The quality of the discussions was enriched by the time invested before discussing the papers.

Unfortunately, the calculating academic immediately realizes that taking time for an excursion steals the already very scarce minutes away from paper presentations. How can this work? Fortunately, very simply: by doing the unexpected and excluding presentations from the program, by focusing the time during the conference sessions on conversations about the papers. Instead, the participants read the papers in advance, because they are uploaded onto the conference website. As a result, each paper receives much more attention than in the standard program, namely 35-45 minutes (instead of 10-20 minutes). This design also opens time and space for extensive conversations about issues and interests that cut across the papers.

So what did the unexpected journey look like in Tallinn? First, we needed to find meaningful destinations to relate to our conference theme. Fortunately, the city’s history is wonderfully suited to addressing “journeys into the unexpected”. With the help of the cultural affairs office of the city, we arranged visits to two very different museums. The Bastion Passages in Kiek in de Kök  and The Museum of Occupations and Freedom VABAMU. A visit of the Bastion reveals the threefold protective construction with 4-meter thick walls and shows how use of the tunnels by different kinds of people for diverse purposes reflects the town’s recent history, such as the homeless in the 1990s during the transition to capitalism, punks in the 1980s under the Soviet regime, and everyone’s bomb shelters during the Cold War. In the VABAMU two figures trying to maintain their balance on a see-saw illustrates that freedom requires constant attention, a lesson learned from the periods of occupation the city experienced in the 20th century. The VABAMU exhibition was still under construction during our conference, which was a poignant illustration of identity work as an ongoing project.

Not surprisingly, our participants were quite skeptical when they read our email indicating that at our opening session at the conference each paper would have 3 minutes for a “teaser” (without Powerpoint slides). Fortunately, they accepted the instruction, and to their surprise they quickly discovered that it worked: within an hour we had heard every voice in the room and gained a glimpse into the ideas in the paper, whetting curiosity for more. But that appetite would have to wait until after the excursions. We made our way to the museums during the morning coffee break. The museum hosts had told us that they could both only handle groups of 15-16 people, so we split our group in two, and each spent an hour in one museum, then an hour in the other. The twenty minute walk to the museums was already filled with conversations between the participants, following up on the teaser introductions we had started with in the first session.

In the afternoon we started the subgroup conversations on the papers. Before the conference we had clustered the submitted papers thematically in sets of 4 or 5, so that each participant would read at least the papers in his/her cluster. By the end of the second paper conversation session the next day (Friday morning), all the papers had been discussed in depth.

So our commitment to talking about the papers in depth had been completed! Could we all go home now, or maybe out to other museums? No! The unexpected journey would continue into new conversations. But how to decide on the focus? We had consciously chosen not to plan the content in advance: it had to emerge from the interests awakened during the previous sessions, including the excursions.

We had brought blank sheets of paper and now distributed them to the participants, inviting them all to write one idea per sheet, whether it be an issue, a method, a metaphor, a theory, or a concept that they would like to explore in greater depth with others in our subtheme. After 10 minutes, we stood in a circle and each person briefly explained the notion he or she had noted on a sheet, then placed the paper on the floor close to sheets that were somehow related to it. Within 30 minutes we had a potential agenda for people to choose from—we asked everyone to move to the cluster of sheets that interested them and find a corner to delve into conversation for 45 minutes. In the next session (Saturday morning) we spread the sheets out again, in slightly different clusters and invited the participants to make another choice of the theme they wanted to discuss for 45 minutes;  the last phase of the session was dedicated to sharing experiences about how to publish our work.

The closing session before lunch on Saturday was dedicated to moving from analysis to action. Once more we distributed blank sheets of paper, this time for people to write down something they wanted to actually work on, take forward from the conference, whether that be a research project, an institutional change, a new role…, again drawing on inspiration from the excursions, the papers, the discussions so far. The clustering of papers on the floor set out options for action-oriented conversations, and the space buzzed with ideas, for example about how to write without building boring protective bastions, what “punk academics” could do underground to transgress academic norms and flourish rather than perish, how to learn from a dean who had led institutional changes in his school, … and much, much more. It was an invigorating close to our journey together into the unexpected in academia. We had come together as strangers and within two and a half days had achieved a sense of community–as well as having gathered many useful insights for how to take our work forward.

Organizing a subtheme program along these lines requires a certain mix of ingredients. First of all, adventurous colleagues willing to step off the beaten path, and supportive conference administrators (e.g., who tolerate invisible programs in the website and who provide meeting space with flexible furniture so that we can work in different constellations throughout the program). It requires quite a lot of work in terms of finding the right excursion and clustering papers so that the conversations can be meaningful. It also requires quite a lot of communication in advance with the participants to prepare them for an unconventional process. For the participants it takes away the stress and strain of preparing a Powerpoint presentation, while adding the requirement to read the papers in the assigned subgroup thoroughly.

And, once these ingredients are in place, it requires trusting the process throughout the conference, so that energy is unleashed into curiosity-driven conversations among people who engage with each other not just as paper-driven academics but also as human beings from places that are still undergoing journeys into the unexpected that we need to make sense of and to which we can contribute something meaningful.