Storytelling in Managerial Research

By David Collins, Suffolk Business School

In my previous blog I suggested that my knowledge of the world and my educational aspirations had been boosted by watching television throughout my childhood. In addition I acknowledged that – thanks in part to my viewing habits – I have throughout my adult life pursued a research interest in managerial storytelling. Since at least one of these sentences is potentially controversial it is, I think, worth taking a few moments to offer some clarification.

When I suggest that watching television during the 1970s altered my educational aspiration and in so doing shaped my adult life I do not mean to imply that television programming during the 1970s was in any sense good. Much of it in fact was awful. Indeed a significant proportion was it was racist and sexist. But some of it was brilliant.

I used to think that it was a couple of documentaries prepared by BBC Scotland on the decline of shipbuilding and the restructuring of coal-mining which had sparked my interest in social organization and in management more generally. Until I saw these programmes I had been planning to become a metallurgist like my big brother before me. I now realise, however, that it was a combination of my school’s organic chemistry curriculum combined with a rather special television series which had convinced me that I might like to research the organizational world.

The remarkable series of programmes which I now realise shaped my understanding of the world and my future plans – even before I was fully aware of its impact upon me is: The World at War.

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The World at War (C) BBC

What was it about this series that influenced me so deeply? Well I suppose it’s a combination of things. Partly it’s the archive film footage. Partly it’s the quality of the interviewees. Partly I suppose it’s because the ordinary men and women who were interviewed, often sitting together in pubs, looked just like my parents and had shared their experiences.

But a big part of the credit must go to the writer of the scripts, Mark Arnold-Foster, and to the narrator, Sir Laurence Olivier who, together managed to weave archive footage and contemporary interviews in a fashion that, to this day, captures the horror and the nobility; the terror and the humour of this conflict.

One episode in particular struck me as being especially powerful (I shy away from using the word ‘good’ for reasons that will soon become clear). This episode is entitled ‘Remember’ and has many striking scenes. In one particularly significant passage Olivier talks over film footage of Russian villagers being herded away by German soldiers. He is doing this to remind just how horribly Russians suffered during the war. After a few moments he falls quiet so that we may take in the film footage.

As their village burns behind them the women in the film are separated from the men. Soon the men will be killed in cold blood. As the soldiers began to enforce the separation and intervene roughly to push the women away from their men, Olivier begins to speak again. But he is no longer talking over the scene, he has become part of it even has he remains off camera. My blood runs cold as he says in a quiet yet urbane tone, ‘Hurry things along corporal’.

Are you still wondering why I find storytelling to be such a powerful medium for managerial research?

Some further reading:

Collins, D (2011) ‘Women roar: ‘The women’s thing’ in the storywork of Tom Peters’ Organization 19(4) pp 405-424

Collins, D (2012) ‘In search of popular management: Sensemaking, sensegiving and
storytelling in the excellence project’ Culture and Organization pp 1-20

Collins, D & K Rainwater (2005) ‘Managing change at Sears: a sideways look at a tale of corporate transformation’ Journal of Organizational Change Management 18(1) pp 16 – 30

To discuss these works, or managerial storytelling, please email talkbusiness@uos.ac.uk

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