By Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas
At the beginning of September 2016, I travelled with three other members of BCU staff: Dr Geof Hill, Tracey Cutler and Dr Martin Eley, to the IEDC-Bled School of Management in Slovenia, to attend the 8th Art of Management and Organisation conference. The conference describes itself as a vibrant global community of praxis – including both scholars and practitioners and the 2016 conference theme “Empowering the intangible” required delegates to seek out novel ways of exploring, feeling and expressing aspects of management, leadership and daily organisational life through the arts. Dr Geof Hill (HELS) was co-convenor with Dr Cathryn Lloyd of one of seven conference streams (Making the Intangible Tangible, focusing on stories as a process of organisational and management enquiry.
This is my story of AoMO … (with contributions from Geof, Tracey and Martin).
A full day of travel, from Sheffield to Bled (via a three hour wait in Vienna) gives me plenty of time to anticipate what’s ahead. I’m an educational/social geography researcher, a stranger to the academic disciplines of business and management. I’m also a poet, but I have little experience of using arts-based methodologies in academic research. So I’m intrigued by the prospect of being among those whose identities as artists are inextricably bound up in their academic enquiry. I’m looking forward to a rare opportunity to talk to other practitioners of dérive, a ‘walking methodology’ that I adapted and used in my own doctoral research.
A day for acclimatising: – to late summer temperatures in the unexpectedly high twenties; to a conference venue with a view – IEDC looks out to the stunning Lake Bled and surrounding mountains; to the culture of AoMO – international, multi-disciplinary, creative. AoMO 2016 is a conference, but not as I know it! There is an AoMO artist in residence – Emmanuel Guy, a French Canadian management academic – and woodworker. Emmanuel will create a chair from locally sourced wood (ash) during the conference. Instead of conference packs, packets of coloured plasticine are placed on every chair and delegates encouraged to create something with it while listening to the opening keynotes. On Thursday afternoon Geof and Tracey participate in a Dance and Leadership workshop– sadly no photos are available! Geof is getting ready for running his conference stream tomorrow. He tells me: ‘This is a big stream, it’s been a struggle to put it all together. The thing about conferences is that people are usually there for themselves, not really caring about others, but if a stream is strong enough, you can win them over to “the conversation” and they’ll see the value of being part of something more communal.’
On Thursday evening, the 140 delegates are driven to Radovljica, a Slovenian town with a medieval core, six km from Bled. Our seats are interspersed with the orchestra’s to experience Beethoven’s Violin Concerto Op 61 through virtuoso violinist Miha Pognačik’s technique of ‘performance disruption’. A thunderstorm rumbles overhead and it briefly pours with rain. We emerge, hungry, into the town square two hours later!
The Story stream starts promptly at 9am – Geof proves to be a demon timekeeper! I present mid-morning, on Organisational Cartographies, based on my doctoral research. The air of creativity and experimentation with method must be starting to rub off on me – I experiment with moving around the room as I tell my research story and I’m more aware of the visual and tactile nature of my research materials. I’m pleased with how it goes and the questions afterwards. Later sessions in the stream tackle body maps, different kinds of narratives, blues and jazz …! It’s a full day – I catch a brief glimpse of the lake through the trees during a coffee break! It’s refreshing that participants in all the sessions I attend are fully engaged. No one has a laptop or phone on their desk, no one is tweeting, Googling or checking their mail, which tends to happen at most of the conferences I attend.
My own adventure with practice continues in the evening when I drag myself away from a pleasant supper with my BCU colleagues to brave the AoMO 2016 Poetry Slam where I perform a couple of my poems. It’s an initially terrifying but ultimately rewarding experience won by an astonishing performance poet from the US. Somehow I come a distant second and am delighted (even more so when I learn I’ve won a T-shirt!).
Tracey and Martin’s turn to present today. Tracey presents her early doctoral research on stories within CPD using the PechaKucha method – the art of concise presentation. She shows twenty images, each for twenty seconds, talking along to the images as they advance automatically. ‘It was a brain rush! I’d use it again as a presentation method, but I’d do it differently,’ she says afterwards, pleased with how her work was received. ‘People are really into the stream, willing to share experiences and ideas.’ Martin’s conducts live research on whether and how stories catalyse changes in management practice. Afterwards he is delighted. ‘Brilliant! People wanted to get involved.’ I ask him how he’s finding the conference. ‘It’s different! I’m from a traditional management background, a scientific approach to management. To have that intermixed with the art of management is … really dynamic.’ His favourite moment of the conference so far has been the blues and jazz session. ‘It is meaningful in an organisational context, it made me think again, it jolted my mindset.’
By the end of Saturday, Geof is delighted with how the stream has gone. ‘We’ve had seven strong streams at the conference, but the Story stream seems to have drawn people in. It’s gone even better than I imagined. And coming as a group with BCU colleagues has been a new step for me. I feel a sense of pride because we’re delivering in a way that says: this is BCU, we’re creative, we’re out there … I think we’re excellent ambassadors for BCU here. Then there are the personal relationships with colleagues – so I feel both a professional and personal pride. I celebrate what each of you – my colleagues – are doing, so that’s exciting!’
The last day of the conference. Workshops continue through the morning and I participate in a lively discussion of dérive as a methodology and assessment tool and share ideas and references with academics from Iceland, France and Australia. At the final plenary Emmanuel Guy’s ‘chair’ is unveiled – unfinished but clearly a chair! The conference host, IEDC Director Danica Purg, thanks the organisers, the administrators, the caterers as well as the delegates. We are treated to the Bled speciality cream cake (kremsnita) and Slovenian wine before all we go our separate ways.
I repeat the long journey across Europe in reverse, travelling from Ljubliana’s tiny airport with its flights to Moscow and Warsaw, via the vast transportation hub of Frankfurt airport, to Heathrow. Again, I have plenty of time to think. I reflect that there are real benefits in following one conference stream throughout, becoming involved in ‘the conversation’. And I’ve really enjoyed attending AoMO with BCU colleagues from across the university, getting to know people outside of our usual environment and providing mutual support. Most of all, conferences provide thinking time, too rare in our daily routines but always enriching for our work at BCU.