Kurt Lewin and the Origins of OD: WEO Research Seminar Series with Professor Bernard Burnes and Dr Jane Cullingworth

Event Date: 14 December 2022

Speakers: Professor Bernard Burnes (University of Stirling) and Dr Jane Cullingworth (University of Strathclyde)

Time: 1.30-3.30pm GMT

Location: Hybrid - see booking details below

Professor Bernard Burnes visits Strathclyde University to discuss 'Kurt Lewin and the Origins of OD'

Strathclyde Business School's Department of Work, Employment and Organisation is delighted to host Professor Bernard Burnes for a seminar on 'Kurt Lewin and the Origins of OD'. 

"The recognition of the huge power of situation, context, priming, and construal is common ground. We are all Lewinians now, and in the context of policy behavioural economists are Lewinian as well."  (Kahneman, 2013) 

The above quote from the Nobel Prize-winning Economist Daniel Kahneman shows the enduring and widespread influence of Kurt Lewin.  

It is generally agreed that Lewin’s planned approach to change, usually referred to as his 3-Step Model of Change, formed the platform on which OD was built, and that it still lies at the centre of OD practice. However, there are those who argue that at the time of his death in 1947, planned change was a tentative suggestion rather than a tried and tested change methodology. Others maintain that 1946 and the New Britain Workshops are where planned change came of age. Some, though, support 1939 as the key year for planned change; this was when Lewin moved his work from the laboratory to the real world – from studying change to bringing it about.    

In this presentation, it will be argued that field theory, which is at the core of planned change, originated in the period 1910 to 1914 when Lewin undertook his doctoral studies. By examining Lewin’s background and education, it will be shown that by 1914 Lewin was already drawing on field theory in physics, the holistic approach of Gestalt psychology and Cassirer’s philosophy of science to offer his own field theory-based approach to understanding and changing human behaviour. It was an approach that broke with the established associationist theories and the emerging behaviourist ones.  It was also an approach that lies at the core of his planned approach to change.  

Therefore, rather than seeing planned change as something that emerged at the end of Lewin’s life, we can see that it was developed over more than 30 years, and at the time of his death, it was fully formed. 

In addition, Dr Jane Cullingworth will deliver a talk on 'Democratic governance through intermediary bodies: A case study of third sector interfaces in Scotland'

Over the past 20-30 years it has become commonplace for third sector organisations to work in close partnership with government and statutory bodies in collective planning and decision making. Democratic governance, involving citizens and civil society organisations in decision making with the state, complements traditional forms of governance. It is widely held that society’s ‘wicked problems’, like poverty, can be better addressed when all relevant stakeholders work together (Cornwall, 2004; Speer, 2012).  

This presentation shares the findings of my PhD research, Democratic governance through intermediary bodies: a case study of third sector interfaces in Scotland, which explored the relationship between the third sector and the state. Intermediary bodies (such as third sector interfaces across Scotland’s 32 local authorities) occupy a difficult space, requiring them to expertly navigate relationships between the third sector and the state. Jane's PhD research considered if there was an impact on the independence of the intermediary body and what the involvement meant for its relationships with the third sector.  

Jane's findings suggested that its independence was compromised by its close involvement with state actors and, further, that its legitimacy with the broader third sector was undermined. This highlighted a fundamental challenge: how do civil society actors participate in democratic governance while maintaining both autonomy from the state and legitimacy with civil society? Recommendations from the research are that (1) intermediary bodies actively assert their independence, maintain ongoing engagement with constituents and define their role as advocating for the sector rather than mediating between the sector and the state; and (2) the state design participative structures collaboratively with civil society and other state actors and that the state supports organic third sector approaches rather than intervening in civil society infrastructure. 

To register for this event, please email sbs-weo@strath.ac.uk indicating if you would like to attend online or in person.

Published: 30 November 2022

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