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How healthy is Voice within your organization?

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My dissertation research included an investigation of how networks of stakeholders within the US Army Command & General Staff College could self-organize to improve professional curriculum using Participatory Action Research. In the course of examining over a hundred different change initiatives, our research team concluded that the concept of Voice was of central importance. It was part of every project, but proved to be difficult to pin down as concept, woth precision. That’s true of all top level vitues and qualities like Beauty, Truth and Duty as well, if you stop and think about it. We carefully circled around the concept of Voice to learn more about it as an emergent property of PAR, and  decided that by asking fundamental questions we might approach a deeper understanding of who we as members of a team and of our organization itself. We offer these ideas to the community of practice as a way of supporting the dialogue.


The highest level meta-theme: voice

This meta-theme, the importance of voice within the organization, incorporated insights and findings from all three research questions. While there are many studies that examine participation rates and satisfaction levels, the concept of voice took on real significance as we saw its implications engaged in every project we undertook in some manner. It found its way on to our values list near the top, even though we found it difficult to encapsulate it within a sterile word definition in the same way that we find it difficult to express our sense of Warriorship, Service and Duty in a few emotion-free words. We came to appreciate the power and importance of stakeholders and their insights to shape our thinking and recommendations, even when it was a single outlying voice speaking out against a consensus position. Voice came to represent a cluster of issues and concepts associated with the willingness of individuals to represent their views in public, but it was more than just the simple act of speaking. Viewing these acts of “speaking out” as acts of human courage, and a reflection of the trust individuals place in the organization, we evolved a series of open-ended questions to keep us mindful as we progressed through the PAR projects. These top 30 open-ended questions became critical friends to remind us of accountability and transparency. They are strongly supportive of the values of PAR

  1. How do we speak as people, teams and organizations?
  2. How do we treat those who speak, and how do we respond to their speaking?
  3.  Who has the power to speak? Why?
  4. Who is not entitled to speak? Why? What are the consequences?
  5. What do we miss by restricting speech? What is the cost? What is the risk?
  6. Who has the authority to speak and to regulate speech?
  7. What topics may be spoken on, and how do we decide?
  8. Who controls the resources that enable speaking and how are they apportioned?
  9. How do we choose to propagate the messages to a wider audience
  10. How we select which messages to favor?
  11.  Are there topics which may not be addressed? How do we communicate the boundaries of taboo?
  12. How do we respond when tacit and explicit rules are broken?
  13.  How do we view the rule-breakers?
  14.  How is authority established, enforced and applied?
  15. How are we accountable for our speech and its consequences? How do we attribute consequences to speech?
  16. When do we decide to shut down speech?
  17. Do we decide if enough has been said and by what criteria and to what end?
  18. Can we compel speech that we think must be heard?
  19. When do the needs of the profession outweigh the desire of the individual to be heard/remain silent?
  20. Do we have a duty to speak? Under what conditions?
  21. What oaths are compelling?
  22. How is our sense-making shaped by the mode, content and identity of the speechmaker?
  23. How much weight do we give to testimony?
  24. How much weight do we give to tradition and authority?
  25. How do we reconcile the tension between free speech and professional duty?
  26. What is/are the satisfying metaphor(s) for voice within this project: Are we making a symphony, a choir, a lecture hall, a manifesto, a quartet, a forum, an argument, a riot…?
  27. How do we make sense of silence? Can silence be explained or simply experienced?
  28. Is silence the opportunity for reflection and internal reconciliation granted by the speaker who doesn’t speak?
  29. How do we ensure everyone has the opportunity to be heard and to be considered within our sense-making?
  30. What is the intention of the speech? To what end is it directed? Or is it its own purpose?

There are no easy answers to these questions and depending on context there can be a range of legitimate responses. The discussions these questions prompt are timeless and they connect us to the philosophical, ethical, moral, religious, political and humanistic traditions that constitute the best of human discourse. It is fitting that these discussions are engaged by the profession of arms which values it service to the nation and the polity as its greatest duty, and that the profession’s inner workings are informed by these great traditions.

There is very clear evidence that as the curriculum process stakeholders engaged with these issues that students and faculty experienced more flexibility, initiative, self-determination and the responsibility to exercises these freedoms in the classroom and in the shaping of their educational program.

Prasad (2005) views these kinds of questions (and their answers) as environmental inquiries which constitute the preparation work required for developing dramaturgic understandings of an environment when approaching complexity from a socially constructed perspective.  Garfinkel’s ethnomethodological tradition would take these questions as the start point for developing the understanding of the organizations routine processes of making meaning and order and thereby creating the social context at a phenomenological level (Garfinkel, l967)


Garfinkel, H, (1967) Studies in ethnomethodology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd.

Prasad, P. (2005). Crafting qualitative research: Working in the post-positivist traditions. Armonk, New York, M. E. Sharpe.


Categories: Uncategorized
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  1. November 1, 2011 at 11:02 pm

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