Honouring the ordinary: advising practice as holding space for reflection and learning

Rachelle Andrews, Jana Filosof

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution



In this research we are responding to a recognised gap in the literature that explores a practice- and practitioner oriented perspective (Achtenhagen et al., 2010). We agree with the view that current organisational learning theories fail to adequately capture the understanding of learning as an emergent process (Higgins, 2009) and we are introducing an alternative approach to understanding the work of advising practitioners working with small businesses and entrepreneurs. In taking up the conference theme of ‘Research, policy and practice: Collaboration in a disparate world’ we recognise that business advising and support can be understood as a collaborative, co-created process. We argue here that work with business clients can be understood as advising practice that is a dynamic, negotiated conversational process offering small business owners and managers opportunities to reflect and learn from what is happening for them in their day to day work. Alvesson (Alvesson and Gabriel, 2016, Alvesson and Sveningsson, 2003) takes a critical approach that challenges the practitioner and academic discourse of organisation, where he identifies the tendency to discuss management activity as extraordinary, creating distance from the ordinary practice of everyday life. The idea of honouring of the ordinary is a response to the prevalence of management theory to promote a sense of grandiosity that ‘not only affects adversely critical reflection of organizations and management, but more importantly that it ‘undermines organizational performance and learning’ (Alvesson and Gabriel, 2016: 464).
Aims of the research

The aim of this research is to introduce alternative ways of understanding business advising as a social process, where in paying attention to reflective conversation there is a sense of opening space for exploring different perspectives. This situates advising as practice where learning and potentially transformational change can arise for adviser and client. Following the ideas of American pragmatist, Dewey, we argue that becoming knowledgeable occurs through experience, and that the separation of thinking and acting prevents learning taking place in an informed or intelligent way (Elkjaer, 2009). Siegel (2016) suggests the stories we tell are core mental processes revealing memories and meanings, and in situating advising practice as conversational, it offers a deeper understanding of how narratives and the stories we share arise from experience and lead to learning. In taking a critical approach, we are challenging the traditional models of business advising as an expert transferring knowledge to address a definable client problem. We highlight the risk of taking an abstracted and systems-based view of organisational behaviour where the ambiguity and messiness of emergent social interaction can be hidden or lost.

The methodology we are using draws on a reflexive narrative approach (Stacey and Griffin, 2005), paying attention to practitioner experience of working with small business owners and entrepreneurs from a number of contexts. Paying attention to experience of working with small business clients we take up the opportunity to engage with the question of what it means to be a practitioner which is often at risk of becoming obscured in other approaches (Higgins, 2017). In taking an approach that recognises the social context of all human activity, including advising, we are paying attention to the way in which ‘ordinary everyday conversations between people are perpetually creating the future, based on past experience, in the present, in the form of shifting patterns of communication and power relations’ (Stacey in MacIntosh et al., 2013:244). Taking an iterative approach, we explore advising as reflective conversation,
and recognise that in this process perceived problems and potential solutions, as well as identity of adviser and client, can evolve and transform for all participants. This area is largely overlooked in the literature where often the emphasis is on the roles of adviser and client as largely homogenous and static (Alvesson et al., 2009).
Contributions of the research

Here we offer an explanation of how experience shapes our actions in the present, and how perceptions of issues and understanding of change arise in our local interaction as communicating bodies (Shaw, 2002). In this way, the research contributes to both practice and theory. By paying attention to practice, the interrelatedness of work of advising practitioners and the work of researchers are both understood as forms of ‘enquiry’ (Dewey, 1938). This leads to a contribution to methodology by extending work that takes a reflective narrative approach, and to develop understanding of practice arising in complex responsive processes of relating (Stacey, 2001a).
Implications for practice

The nature of this approach is one that does not provide a blueprint or framework to apply to the work of others. However, as authors drawing on real-world experience our intention is that this work will resonate with experience of other practitioners. This can be seen as encouraging thinking about thinking that leads to deeper understanding of personal practice and patterns of advising practice more broadly. This is an example of reflexive practice which Finlay (2002b) suggests is the environment in which the researcher has the opportunity to review what they are doing. We are encouraged by the work of Gartner (2010) who suggests that this form of narrative practice can ‘ring true’, and has the potential to offer new insights calling out learning for those engaging with this form of research
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHonouring the ordinary: advising practice as holding space for reflection and learning
Number of pages17
Publication statusUnpublished - 16 Nov 2018


  • Reflexivity
  • complex responsive processes of relating
  • narrative
  • small business development
  • Entrepreneurship


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