To gain insights into the way a successful author of a journal article may think, we conducted an interview with Professor Robert Chia. We focused on why he wrote the article and how he developed his overall argument in the early parts of his text. He had originally written his theoretical paper on a ‘rhizomic’ model of organizational change for presentation at the annual conference of the British Academy of Management (BAM). He had been invited to submit it as an article for the British Journal of Management. During the review process he received more feedback from two anonymous reviewers, which he acknowledged had helped him to improve the strength of his argument. The revised article had been accepted for publication in the journal.
As you read through this extract from the interview, think about what you can learn for you own work for assessment. Whether it is an assignment, dissertation, thesis or a paper for presentation or publication, your audience will expect you to produce your argument about what you have read or found out for them to evaluate. The interview explores Robert’s reasons behind writing the paper, the influences of other authors on him, and how he developed his overall argument – especially setting out the core elements of it in the introduction.
After you have finished reading, reflect for a few moments on the way Robert thought through how to structure the early parts of his article to set out his argument and make it convincing to his projected audience. What are the implications for your own approach in your work?
The interview starts with Robert’s motivation for writing this paper…
Int: Why did you write the paper?
Robert: I have always had an interest in organizational change and the paper came about from an annoying obsession that other people talked about process but process was described in state-like terms. That’s not process, they’ve got it wrong! So there was a frustration and conviction that I have it right and they have it wrong. If they had read what I had read they would have been more open. If I have made a contribution to management it is to make philosophy important in management and raise questions.
Int: In your article you use words like exploring true process, which seems very challenging.
Robert: It is to make a statement, and also I do believe that they have got it wrong. My academic life has been controversial.
Int: What was your aim in writing the paper?
Robert: The aim of the paper was to explain what the true processualist view is by drawing on philosophers such as Whitehead, and make the processualist view relevant to practice and management theory.
Int: Who were the main authors that influenced your work?
Robert: The main people that influenced my thinking were Whitehead and Bergson. I read Whitehead in the late 1980s and Bergson in the early 1990s. Both were examining process and gave a vocabulary to talk about change, for example ‘clock time’ versus ‘live time’. Derrida said that for the idea of process to be understood, the language must be made to ‘groan’ in order to capture something different. If you look at Dawon and Pettrigrew’s work they don’t have the vocabulary.
Int: What was your rationale for selecting the particular ‘evidence’? You cite authors from disciplines other than management, so how did you come across them?
Robert: The cross-disciplinary aspect of my work came from my MSc supervisor, Bob Cooper, and also others in the department - Gareth Morgan and Gibson Burrell - in the mid 1980s. They encouraged me to read widely and I spent as much time in the philosophy section as I did in the management section of the library. So I read people like Sartre, which I really struggled with at first. Imagine an engineer reading Sartre! I also attended reading groups where we read chapters of philosophy books, such as ‘Process and Reality’ by Whitehead, and discussed it each week. It had nothing to do with the course yet at the same time it had everything to do with it. Searching is the most interesting thing, feeling around for answers. I didn’t come from a traditional university so academic disciplines didn’t mean anything to me. I was just trying to look at human behaviour.
Int: Were you clear about the audience you were writing for when you started the article?
Robert: I specifically targeted the British Journal of Management. And the article was submitted as part of a special issue on organizational change, which came from a British Academy of Management conference track. There was an overspill of papers and I was asked whether I would mind the paper going into a subsequent issue of the journal. It didn’t matter to me.
Int: It sounds as though you were introducing a new way of thinking about organizational change. How did you go about constructing an argument that would convince others in the field?
Robert: The basis of my argument is that I read deeply and a lot more than other people. The weight of my argument is based on reading and my own practical experience and because of this I am difficult to dismiss. I also now have a following. There was nothing like this in management theory, it was not addressed. Trying to take it forward was quite painful at times. I had reviewers that thought that I was on another planet! If it hadn’t been for one person’s open mind it may never have seen the light of day. You need someone who is not so sure about their own work and not sure they have the ‘right’ answer and are therefore open to new ways of tackling the topic.
Creating an argument is a lot like doing market research. You have to look at what your competitors are offering, their strengths and weaknesses and you need to think what is wrong with it. My product was about process and change. You have to know their arguments better than they do, read in detail what they claim and what lies behind the claim - and what do they not say? What they don’t say can often be a basis of attack as their assumptions can be questionable. Sometimes they don’t say something because they don’t know the philosophical base. All knowledge claims come from philosophy. You need to dig at the foundations and expose the shakiness of the foundations and argument.
Int: How do you go about writing your articles?
Robert: I have a very iterative process and will have gone through the paper 20 times before it’s submitted. I start with a title, I need a title! Then on day one I write one page. I write for 3-4 hours first thing in the morning. Day two I review what I have written the day before and write another page and so on. The rest of the day I read and think. To me a first draft is when I have gone over the paper 7-8 times. I will then go back over it 4-5 times and make modifications and perhaps rework the introduction.
Int: What do you see as the role of the introduction in an article?
Robert: You basically need to make a case and position yourself clearly in the introduction. The introduction is so important, as in the first 2-3 pages the reader must know what the paper is about and what you are about.
Int: How did you construct the introduction in this article?
Robert: I have a clear structure for my introductions. I firstly set-out the context or the domain you are contributing to, in my case organizational change. Secondly, you need to know who are the key figures in the field, for me individuals like Andrew Pettigrew. What do they say about the issue? What is wrong about what they say? Why are they missing the point? What are their weaknesses? You can then set out your contribution to filling the gap and so position yourself as to where you are coming from. It is pointless writing if you don’t have a position: either you agree with others and so are developing it further, or you are disagreeing and seeking to clarify something. All this should be set out in the introductory section.
(In the next activity we give further extracts from this last part of the interview, where we asked Robert Chia in detail about his thinking behind the title, abstract and introduction of his article.)