Reflection in learning organizations: Neosocratic Dialogue(Artur Massana, Vander Lemes)                                   ...
But what might be the added value of a Neosocratic Dialogue? According to ourexperience as facilitators in organizations t...
assuring that all participants research towards the same direction.The question: What is customer orientation?The only sui...
They listened to me, took some time for deliberation and made up their minds. Finallythey decided not to board. Then I gav...
that the client’s and the company’s interests have been satisfied? ¿Why does theexample giver think so? Which are her reas...
o Strategic dialogue: Dialogue about the best strategy for the group to follow in     order to reach consensus. (Kessels, ...
technical skills and attitudinal abilities related to empathy, real commitment andresponsibility.Our professional experien...
Arnaiz, G. (2004), “La práctica Filosófica en las Organizaciones: una aproximación”, ElBúho, Revista electronica de la Aso...
Kopfwerk Berlin, (2004), “The Methodology of Socratic Dialogue”, in Shipley, P.Mason, H. (eds), Ethics and Socratic Dialog...
Shipley, P., Leal. F. (2005), “The Perils of Practice: A Critical View of The PracticalTurn in Contemporary Philosophy”, i...
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Neosocratic dialogues reflection in learning organizations

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Paper presented at the 4th International Conference on Rhetorics and Narratives in Management Research, by Artur Massana and Vander Lemes.
24th-26th of March
ESADE Business School, Universitat Ramón LLull, Barcelona, Spain.

With Special Issue of Journal of Organizational Change Management

Coorganised by:
Rotterdam School of Management

http://itemsweb.esade.edu/research/rnmr2011/programme.pdf
The literature about the learning organizations has pointed up the importance of the dialogue as an instrument for improving the capacity of analysis in organizations. This article presents a dialectic model – neosocratic dialogue - aimed at analyzing the cognitive, normative and emotional dimensions related to a concept by means of the intensive inquiry of an example given by one of the participants.
The methodological aspects of the dialectic model are illustrated with a real neosocratic dialogue facilitated by one of the authors around the question: “what is customer orientation?”
The profits of this methodology are: training of key competencies for leaders support the organizational learning; institutionalization of the business ethics; generation of shared visions; critical review of tacit mental models.
It defends the value of the dialectic itself in organizations.

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Neosocratic dialogues reflection in learning organizations

  1. 1. Reflection in learning organizations: Neosocratic Dialogue(Artur Massana, Vander Lemes) AbstractPurpose The literature about the learning organizations has pointed up the importance of the dialogue as an instrument for improving the capacity of analysis in organizations. This article presents a dialectic model – neosocratic dialogue - aimed at analyzing the cognitive, normative and emotional dimensions related to a concept by means of the intensive inquiry of an example given by one of the participants.Design/ The methodological aspects of the dialectic model are illustratedmethodology/ with a real neosocratic dialogue facilitated by one of the authorsapproach around the question: “what is customer orientation?”Findings The profits of this methodology are: training of key competencies for leaders support the organizational learning; institutionalization of the business ethics; generation of shared visions; critical review of tacit mental models.Orinality / It defends the value of the dialectic itself in organizationsValueKey words Neosocratic Dialogue, learning organization, business ethicsCategory Case study 1. Introduction  The first sentence of Aristotle’s Rhetoric is: “Rhetoric is the counterpoint of dialectic”.In this communication we will present a dialectical model that can be used withinorganizations to provide the necessary counterpoint to the ethos of constructive debateand rhetoric.Managers are well trained to solve problems, to search for optimal solutions and carrythem out. This instrumental performance aimed at achieving predetermined results isthe basis of efficiency in organizational action.However, the exclusiveness of this instrumental behavior is precisely the point that mustbe questioned (Kessels et al., 2004). Organizations need to build spaces for reflectionwhere a substantial rationality can take place in order to allow a collective inquiry onthe several spheres that generate meaningful actions in the organization, such as: vision,values and mental models.The necessity of such spaces has been pointed up not only by the practical Philosophy(Arnaiz, 2004). The literature on learning organizations (Nonaka, 1991; Senge, 1992;Senge et al., 1994) has sufficiently stressed the necessity of improving the capacity ofanalysis and the quality of collective thinking in organizations indicating Dialectic as asuitable tool to achieve this. Inspired by the David Bohm’s pioneer work (Bohm, 2004)a dialectical method has been developed in the latest years that focuses on thegeneration of conversational spaces that allow the art of thinking together inorganizations (William, 1999).
  2. 2. But what might be the added value of a Neosocratic Dialogue? According to ourexperience as facilitators in organizations the added value might be found in twodifferent levels: conceptual and development of competencies.At the conceptual level we should consider an organization as a group of people arounda great idea. But sometimes, the words that translate these ideas get worn out. A gooddialogue around one of the organization’s ideas might create a new motivatingconsensus on an essential aspect of the business or the organizational mission.At the level of development of competencies, the experience of participating in aNeosocratic dialogue invites us to put in practice new behaviors: active listening,stimulation and comprehension of different viewpoints, ability to review critically ourown prejudices and assumptions, and tools for building consensus in teams.This paper illustrates the method of Neosocratic dialogue through the analysis of aconcrete case. 2. Socratic  and  Neosocratic  Dialogue  The dialectical model to be presented has its roots in the neokantian tradition. It wasfirst developed by Leonard Nelson (1882-1927) and updated by Gustav Heckmann(1898-1996) as a tool to teach philosophy in a Socratic spirit to graduate students. Thisdialectical model has been successfully applied in organizational settings in order tocreate space for reflection around central complex issues such as visions, values andmental models (Kessels, 2001).Neosocratic dialogues have the same features that differentiate them from the SocraticDialogues as recorded in the platonic tradition, namely: Neosocratic conversations are agroup dynamic not a one-to-one conversation; the role of the facilitator is just helpingthe group to reach a consensus (Socrates in the Platonic dialogues has often a leadingrole); the usage of auxiliary dialogues to discuss strategic issues or the emotionalaspects of the content dialogue, the intensive use of public writing to focus and clarifycontinuously the conversation. Nevertheless, Neosocratic dialogues are profoundlySocratic in their mayeutic spirit and in their refusal to consider other authorities than theuse of the collective reason. (for a detailed discussion see: Leal, 2001). 3. Neosocratic  Dialogue    The Neosocratic dialogue that we present at this section was facilitated by one of theauthors. It took place in two meetings of 3,5 hours each with an interval of one week.The group consisted of four participants of different organizations: an entrepreneur, apublic organization’s manager, a head of customer services in a private organization anda sociological researcher in a public organization.A Neosocratic dialogue follows a methodology that is usually illustrated with anhourglass diagram (Kessels, 2001). The dialogue begins with a question that mustaddress an issue of central importance for the organization. The question directs the collective inquiry for conceptual clarification and provides a concrete goal: reaching an answer that must be consensual. The question is formulated together with the managers in the organization previously to the dialogue (Kessels et al. 2004). The question is the lens that focuses the inquiry The Hourglass diagram illustrates the method of a Neosocratic dialogue
  3. 3. assuring that all participants research towards the same direction.The question: What is customer orientation?The only suitable questions to start a Neosocratic dialogue are those that can beanswered by means of the collective use of reason – without any empirical,psychological or historical researches (Gronke, 2005b).The question assumes a certain precomprehension about the subject of inquiry and thisallows the group to find concrete examples related to the topic. The dialogical processtries to clarify this knowledge collectively and to verify whether the participant’sassumptions are shared with the team (Kopfwerk Berlin, 2005).The question must be always a second order question (Kessels, 2001). The first orderquestions are addressed to solve a problem and to activate our instrumental rationality.The second order questions point at the mental tools that we use to solve concreteproblems and can lead to a substantial use of reason.The example: Cruising in MiamiThe second step consists in finding an example that will help the team to build theirconsensus. A Neosocratic dialogue never tries to answer a question directly, butapproaches it by means of an example that embodies the topic of inquiry. The exampleis a significant story for the organization and it is voluntarily provided by one of theparticipants who must have experienced it herself and lived through it. This requirementensures the emotional and logical depth of the inquiry. Without an example – that’s theKantian and Socratic foundations (Heckmann, 1974) - the reflection runs the risk oflosing itself into blind abstractions.The participants in this Neosocratic dialogue chose an example of customer orientationextracted from the experience of one of the participants. The first challenge for the teamwas to pick up an example that they considered the most suitable to illustrate theconcept they are trying to clarify. After evaluating different reasons the group arrived tothe first consensus that the best example was: Cruising in Miami.Cruising in Miami“I used to work as help desk personnel for an airline company in Basel airport,Switzerland. Once in a Summer day, I was alone at the help desk when an elderlycouple came to check in and showed me their flight reservation.I checked their reservation and all their flight connections before arriving in Miami fortheir Caribbean cruise.Then I realized that they wouldnt arrive in time in Miami to reach their cruise.I decided to tell them the truth:”Listen, if you board this flight from Basel to Madrid now, you wont be able to take thenext flight connection to Miami, because its overbooked".In fact, according to the companys standards, we were not allowed to give anyinformation about overbooking. But I did it because they were elderly people.I warned them that they would be more than a week in Miami waiting for the nextcruiser. They got very upset.... But I kept calm, self-controlled and professional. I didntspeak ill of the company neither reacted at the clients’ anger.Then I told them step by step all the consequences they should expect if they decided totake the flight.
  4. 4. They listened to me, took some time for deliberation and made up their minds. Finallythey decided not to board. Then I gave them a document certifying that they had notbeen accepted in the flight and I wrote an internal note to the their travel agent throughthe reservation system. They went back home.Three days later they brought me a bottle of wine. Everything was settled up. They cameto show their gratitude for the arrangements I had made and for the companys service.The judgmentsOnce the example is given and well-understood by all participants, the example giverelaborates her judgment, a core statement of the form: “I think this is a case of….because…” that summarizes her point of view on the issue.The example giver’s judgmentI think this example is a case of customer orientation because:• I analyzed the concrete case and realized that it was about elderly people and they had a travel pack with different companies;• I went further than my strict obligations and I had time to check it out;• I took the customers’ global context into consideration;• I gave priority to the customers’ and the company’s interests before the standardsThe collective inquiry will proceed focusing on this core statement, and it will try todiscover and critically validate –or not- the tacit assumptions that are behind thejudgment provided by the example giver. A Neosocratic dialogue follows the principlesof critical Philosophy that states that the best road to a conceptual inquiry alwaysresides in the transcendental analysis of experiential judgments, then “they are a muchbetter starting point than abstract principles. They are in a better position just becausethey are full of experience and related to situations extracted from real life. For thisreason they are much more human and reasonable” (Leal, 1988b).Nelson (1922) named this process of reconstructing the tacit assumptions that groundour usage of important concepts: regressive abstraction. The process of regressiveabstraction can be illustrated by a “regressive syllogism”: the conclusion of thesyllogism is the judgment provided by the example giver. The minor premise isconstituted by the data from the example that grounds the judgment. Finally, the majorpremise is the tacit norm and assumption that warranted the judgment in the first place.For instance: o Conclusion: This story is a case of costumer orientation (Example giver’s judgment) o Minor Premise: In the story I correctly overlooked a company standards in order to satisfy the real interest of the clients and the company (Data provided by the example) o Major Premise: If a company standards is overlooked in order to satisfy the client’s and the company’s interests then we have a case of customer orientation (Tacit norm that the example giver used in order to ground his judgment)The clarification of the judgment provided by the example giver by means of regressivesyllogisms make explicit to the example giver her implicit preknowledge about theconcept, opening new ways for reflection. Now the dialectical inquiry can focus eitheron the minor premise and challenge the data from the example, for instance: Is it true
  5. 5. that the client’s and the company’s interests have been satisfied? ¿Why does theexample giver think so? Which are her reasons to support her statement?Another possible way is to focus on the major premise and challenge the understandingof the concept of “customer orientation” that was tacit in the example giver’s judgment:Is it true that if one gives priority to the customers’ and the company’s interests beforethe standards, then we can talk about customer orientation? Aren’t there standardsprecisely to guarantee the customer orientation? Is an employer allowed to ignore thestandards for the sake of customer orientation?The facilitator has to be aware of these two different levels to clarify continuously theSocratic dialogue (Kessels et al., 2004), although her main responsibility is to push thereflection forward to an explicit consensus on the issue addressed by the question: Whatis customer orientation in this company?Another possibility to rebuild the intellectual scaffolding behind the judgment andcheck its validity using the Toulmin’s model (Kofwerk Berlin, 2005. Gronke, 2005b.Toulmin, 1958).The dialectical phaseA Neosocratic dialogue aspires to go beyond the simple verification of the examplegiver’s judgment. In fact it struggles for constructing a principle, this means, finding acommon assumption, a shared value upon which a consensus can be reached (Leal,2000).The facilitator in this phase can use different methods to go with the group toward theconstruction of a consensus – or the detailed map of the dissension – (Kopfwerk Berlin,2004). The facilitator can proceed with a phenomenological approach, i.e. identifyingphenomena in the example that show or throw light upon the characteristics of theinquired concept.Alternatively, the dialogue can focus on the critical analysis of the judgment formulatedby the example giver, which leads to a more essentialist approach. Finally, the processcan be continued recollecting subsidiary questions, in other words, those questions thatmight be first answered in order to help answering the initial question.The most common approach is the essentialist, this means, to ask other participants toelaborate their own judgments on the example and use this material to reach theconsensus. In this case, the facilitator presented the possibilities to the group and theychose the essentialist approach.After all participants gave their own judgment about the case, the dialectical phasestarted. As mentioned in the literature on Neosocratic Dialogue, the group soon reachedthe state of aporesis (Kessels et al., 2004). Several ways for inquiry came up and thethinking process got accelerated, the mutual understanding and the communicationbecame more difficult as each one tried to answer different questions: a participantasked himself where the customer orientation started in this case; another inquired thedifference between customer orientation and customer attention.In this phase of the conversation a critical factor for the success is to distinguishcorrectly among different levels of dialogue: o Content dialogue: is the main conversation addressed to answer the main question o Metadialogue: Dialogue around group dynamics, Socratic Dialogue methodology or interpersonal relationship between participants.
  6. 6. o Strategic dialogue: Dialogue about the best strategy for the group to follow in order to reach consensus. (Kessels, 2001)The group formulated then some subsidiary questions:Q1: When did the customer orientation start in this example?Q2: Is customer orientation the same as customer attention?Q3: Where can we find the skills, attitudes and environmental conditions of possibilityrelated to the customer orientation in this example?The group considered that the third question would be the best subsidiary question toanswer the initial question. However, they decided to explore first the second questionduring 15 minutes. As we will see, they didn’t have time to return to the first question.The next step consisted then in exploring the second question reviewing the example.They should determine where in the example they could identify customer orientationand where they could find customer attention. As we can see the constant reference tothe case makes the dialogue much easier, since it keeps the conceptual analysisanchored to a concrete reality. The participants in a Neosocratic dialogue are very oftensurprised by the ability to reach a consensus in an easier way. This might be explainedby the fact that they can share concrete experiences with others and not only abstractideas (Boele, 1997).The analysis of the case generated two different feelings in the group. Some membersconsidered that “customer attention” and “customer orientation” were two sides of thesame coin. Others considered that the relationship between “customer attention” and“customer orientation” should be defined as a part-whole relationship. According to thisfeeling, “customer attention” refers to certain behaviors, on the other hand, “customerorientation” is a more holistic and attitudinal concept (it requires a global vision,empathy and anticipation).The group focused on clarifying these two concepts, trying to determine the meaning ofcustomer orientation related to the boundaries with the concept of customer attention.This process brought a lot of information to the group. This information was recollectedin several “mind maps” where the facilitator wrote down all the intuitions of the group.Finally, the time for content dialogue ended and the facilitator invited each participantto give a definition of “customer orientation” considering the several elements that hadjust been discussed during the dialogue. The results were expressed in the followingway:Definitions of client orientationParticipant 1: customer orientation is what leads us from the correction to theexcellence (authentic attitude, real commitment, proactivity) in a good customerattention.Participant 2: Customer orientation is the organization’s predefined concept based onthe experience of what the customer should receive not only through the direct personalrelationship, but also through the indirect relationship while using the services offeredby the organization.Participant 3: Customer orientation is an authentic commitment with the customer’sdeepest needs. This commitment is to be carried out in a professional and responsibleway.Participant 4: Customer orientation is the general relational framework in which theprocess aimed at satisfying the customer’s deepest needs take place by means of a set of
  7. 7. technical skills and attitudinal abilities related to empathy, real commitment andresponsibility.Our professional experience as facilitators of Socratic Dialogues tells us that ifsufficient time is provided the team will end up reaching a consensus or alternatively itwill end up with a converging set of points of view on the issue. In certain cases, theSocratic dialogue has ungrounded deep divergences in opinion that now can beexplicitly handled by the organization.Final MetadialogueThe dialogue ended with a metadialogue in which the facilitator asked all participants tosummarize in one word how they had lived the experience. The recollected words were:amplitude, potentiality, connection, deconstruction and surprise. For instance, one of theparticipants (expert in training on customer orientation) commented: “when you take atraining on customer attention in the organizations you are told how you have to guideyourself. In fact there are both this relationship with the customer and this plus. Thisplus is the leeway between the standards and the customer. You have the standards, youknow that the standards are there, but there are always exceptions. This exceptionmakes this plus. This is what brings you nearer to the excellence and the customerorientation is this plus”. Another participant commented that “maybe what a handbookdefinition lacks and doesn’t usually consider is the question: to which extent arecustomers asked what their deep needs are in order to understand them?” 4. Conclusion:  the  uses  of  Neosocratic  dialogues  within   organizations  Finally, we can ask ourselves what value dialectics has as a discipline to be practicedwithin organizations, or alternatively: what is the source of its necessity as a“counterpoint of Rhetoric” in Aristotle’s words?From our point of view dialectics as a discipline helps leaders to develop competenciesrequired for the building of learning organizations. Bolten (2001) reports that managersthat participate in Neosocratic dialogues mimic some facilitator’s techniques later withtheir teams, such as active listening and the use of probing questions. Furthermore, theyintroduce new practices in their team meetings in order to stimulate divergent thinking,a higher level of collective intelligence and the careful exploration of hiddenassumptions.Neosocratic dialogues might also be used to reach consensus around important issues(values, competencies, visions) and it can help critically assessing tacit mental models.Finally it can be an instrument to institutionalize the business ethics of a company whenthe question addressed by the Socratic dialogue has an ethical component (e.g. What isprofessional integrity?).Bibliography  Argyris, C. (1991), “Teaching Smart People How to Learn”, Harvard Business Review,Maig – Juny, 1991, pp. 99-109.Aristòtil (1995), Ètica Nicomaquea, Fundació Bernat Metge, Barcelona.
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