An Audible Longing for Theory Part 2
This post is a much-belated follow-up to this one published back in January. The first post discussed my experiences with communicating abstract concepts to the emergency management and wildland fire management communities. In the post, I shared my finding from giving a number of lectures that there is a longing for readily applicable theory within both communities that should be spoken to. This longing should be responded to not only by empirical researchers but by theorists as well. There is not enough time to pursue all the issues facing emergency and wildfire management at present with purely empirical methods. Theorizing, and philosophizing for that matter, provide additional avenues into progressing practice in emergency and wildfire management.
Testing a Theory About Theory
I wrote part one a few weeks before I was going to give my talk "Who we are and who we want to be: A look at organizational change" at the Colorado Emergency Management Conference in February. Since the call for abstracts, I had endeavored to write and deliver a talk founded on theory that was at the same time my most practical lecture yet. Over the months between the acceptance email and the lecture date, I pulled together tools I had used in presentations to the software community and one I developed for Save the Children. I separated the presentation into three main talking points each associated with a tool for operationalizing a point drawn from theory. In many ways "Who we are and who we want to be: A look at organizational change" became an experiment about the delivery of theory. Was this presentation practical enough? Would the introduction of tools help to drive the theory's implications home? Would the audience's reactions indicate that they could see themselves in the content of the talk?
The day of
The talk went well. Not quite as well as in rehearsal in front of my computer, but I hit all the main points and saved time for questions. The first question was a bit of a shock. I cannot remember it word for word, but I believe it went something like: "What does any of this have to do with me? How is this practical"? For a moment I did not know what to say. I had spent six months developing my most practical talk so far and this was its immediate reception. Did I really get it that wrong? For that moment it seemed the experiment had failed. I asked a few questions in response and found this individual worked in a larger organization where they felt they were unable to make organizational change. I asked if they had agency. Meaning, could they take some action on their own within the space afforded to them by their position. They replied they did, and I recommended they make small changes that were within their control that intended towards the larger ones I had discussed in my presentation. They could take portions of the theory that seemed applicable to their context while still keeping them tethered to the larger ideas.
It is apparent to me now that in the case of this attendee, the theory and its tools were too big. They were intended to operate on a scale beyond what the individual who raised the question had access to. It had not yet been minimized to fit beneath the upper levels of the organizational hierarchy. They could not see themselves in the presentation and I believe that is where the disconnect between the theory and their reaction is found. The question does raise interesting points, however, about presenting the implications of theory at various organizational scales so they may be readily applicable to a wider range of listeners.
After the first question, the attention of the audience turned to my use of Humberto Maturana's Domains of Structural Determinism as a tool to discuss disruptions and organizational responses to them. This part of the talk was a lot of fun and allowed me to really dig into some exciting theory while discussing it with others. Gradually, I felt like the experiment had not failed. Not only were some members of the audience engaged in the material but I had also learned about the need to contextualize theory up and down organizational hierarchies.
Many Days After
Writing this post so many days after the presentation was delivered has been challenging in that I have surely forgotten some elements of the experience but also more interesting than it would be otherwise as I have had the time to think about it. The first question following the talk continues to stand out to me and now appears as a learning experience. While some of us in both communities present grand theories intended to shift paradigms within an organization, it cannot be forgotten that changemakers may be found other places than the top of the organizational chart and that they too are seeking theory that can be applied within the constraints of their position. Individuals seeking the tools and materials to make change may also not be looking to reinvent the organization but instead make improvements or solve a specific problem. In this case, broad sweeping changes may be seen as unnecessary.
Theories may need to be condensed or prepared for context to be practical in each position along the hierarchy. Elements relevant to particular positions may be pulled out for different departments and teams to assist in making the use of the theory clear. While I enjoy writing about big theories with grand changes, their applicability may be limited to those in leadership positions who can execute them. A "something for everyone" approach to the communication of theory may be most appropriate to answer the call of an audible longing for theory found throughout the emergency management and wildfire communities.