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Exploring the hypothetical as an intervention tool for organisation communication, using the case study of Centrelink as the basis for the exploration

By Michael James Berry


This study is an exploration of a change management intervention tool described here as the Hypothetical'. This tool is not described in organisation literature, but many of its functions and features can be found in theories relating to, for example, organisational communication, change management, leadership and team dynamics. The Hypothetical does, however, appear as a discussion forum in the popular media. In the 1980s and 1990s, the high profile television program, Hypotheticals, hosted by Geoffrey Robertson QC, dramatised decision making processes, and teased out some of the moral dilemmas inherent in social and political problems, utilising high profile panelists from the social, political and business elites. In the 1990s, the Hypothetical made a transition from the television screen to the management meeting room and the executive suite. The researcher of this study has similarly used the Hypothetical in his capacity as a communications consultant for a number of public and private client organisations. With this background, this study was undertaken to explore the Hypothetical and to identify those functions and features that define its appropriateness as an intervention for organisational communication and change. The findings from this study are founded on two aspects a review of relevant organisation literature, and data from the presentation of a specific Hypothetical intervention to the public organisation Centrelink Queensland. The Hypothetical tool, as identified in this study, is a one-off, 90 minute performance involving a facilitator, audience, and members of a panel who represent the organisation in which semi-fictitious storylines are meant to symbolise elements in the cultural life of the organisation. The study also identifies a Hypothetical process in which research methods that are applied, before and after the intervention performance, help to identify the functions and features of the intervention. The features of the Hypothetical, as an intervention are viewed through the lens of Goffman's 1959) classic theoretical framework of symbolic interactionism, where the organisation is conceptualised as 'theatre', and the motivations and actions of its members are interpreted through the symbolism of theatrical performance and interaction. The study also draws on symbolic convergence theory to explain what happens inside an organisation through the language, conflicts and shared cultural experiences of its members. The Centrelink Hypothetical in this study reflects aspects of the shared organisational culture, and presents its fictitious storylines in the context of dialogues between its panelists. The panelists are representatives of their organisation and are heard reflecting the values of that organisation's culture. Consequently, the analysis of text through the Hypothetical transcript the deciphering of shared narratives, mindsets, motivations and visions of the future, and so forth forms a significant aspect of the study for conceptualising Centrelink organisational culture, and for identifying how problems of communication and change have become embedded in that culture. More specifically, it is through the Centrelink Hypothetical that this study seeks to identify the functions of the Hypothetical and to determine how they may contribute solutions to Centrelink's management problems. The literature consulted for this study reveals that the Hypothetical is closely allied, as an intervention process, with the relatively new management practice of scenario planning. It scenario planning that attempts to build a generative learning capability within organisations a continuously looping process of deep learning that takes place within each organisation's unique strategic conversation. This study draws on scenario planing to identify similar performance features within the Hypothetical process stimulating the organisation to be responsive to, and to embrace, change; finding appropriate methods of communication; identifying and modifying mental models. This study also highlights a significant difference between the scenario planning process and the Hypothetical. Emerging literature in management psychology asserts the importance of the emotionally intelligent team, which demonstrates its social skills and empathy. However, the driving force behind scenario planning is 'the business idea', or the organisation's mental model and what drives it, and there is little or no attention paid to the importance of emotional capabilities in the scenario planning literature. Findings from the Centrelink case demonstrate that a significant dimension of the Hypothetical experience is the impact of symbolically convergent scripted roles and the related capacity to utilise emotional intelligence. Consequently, this study recommends that suitable emotional frameworks be employed throughout the Hypothetical process to help discern appropriate members' behaviours and suggest how the combination of such behaviours may be used to enhance the organisation's future generative learning process

Topics: hypothetical, intervention tool, organisation, communication, Centrelink, case study, management, organisational communication, change management, leadership, team dynamics, public, symbolic interactionism, conflict, shared cultural experiences, scenario planning
Publisher: Queensland University of Technology
Year: 2003
OAI identifier:

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