Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Artistic Interventions in Organizations

Prof. Dr. Ariane Berthoin Antal


The speed and scope of changes and their interrelated social and economic consequences are requiring organizations not only to improve their existing processes, products and services, but also to develop completely new ones. Problems such as cross-cultural conflicts and environmental sustainability are leading to demands that organizations rethink their traditional mandates and work together in new ways. Theories of organizational learning help researchers to analyse the processes and factors involved in meeting these challenges. Researchers in the field distinguish between “single loop” and “double loop” learning”, for example, or “exploitation and exploration”. The two kinds of organizational learning entail different processes and competences. Although the ability to learn by exploiting an established knowledge base and well-developed practices in an organization is generally an asset, such single loop learning can also impede the exploration of very different ways of thinking and doing things by making it difficult for established concepts and practices to be questioned and “unlearned”. Boundary-spanners and boundary-spanning activities are potential instruments for triggering both single- and double-loop learning by bringing knowledge and perspectives from one organizational context into another to refine or challenge engrained mindsets and routines.

Organisations in the private and the public sector have therefore tried out numerous methods to initiate and sustain both kinds of organizational learning. In recent years, the range of approaches has been expanded to a particular form of boundary-spanning, namely artistic interventions. The underlying assumption is that bringing people, processes and products from the “art world” or “inspired world” into the workplace helps to stimulate organizational learning in a variety of ways. Interventions with many artistic forms (theatre, music, sculpture, dance, film and photography) are used in diverse formats (e.g., half-day workshops for trainees, 3-day events for managers world-wide, 3-6 month residencies of artists in organizations) to develop creativity and new leadership skills, offer critical perspectives on accepted concepts and routines, and provide playful means of addressing barriers to change that are embedded in the organizational culture, to mention but a few examples. An additional assumption that drives such projects in organizations is that artistic “ways of knowing” encompass aesthetic and emotional aspects that are generally overlooked at the workplace, and attending to them is expected to help open people to develop new ways of seeing and doing things.

Research has not kept pace with these developments in practice. Many projects are conducted with high expectations of a multitude of positive outcomes for organizational learning. But there is no solid evidence to support (or refute) these claims. Very few empirical studies have been conducted on the experiments in organizations. Instead, the literature on artistic interventions in organizations is dominated by reports from practitioners (artists, consultants, managers), who generally tend to emphasize the positive experience employees have with such interventions. Exceptions, such as studies on corporate theatre, a particularly popular form of artistic intervention, underscore the need for serious empirical analysis of the processes and consequences of artistic interventions.

In a series of case studies in Germany, France, Sweden and Spain I am examining such questions as:

  • Timing and sustainability:
    At which phases of learning and innovation processes are which kinds of artistic interventions “most effective”? According to whom? Which kinds of artistic interventions have more sustainable effects in organizations? And how do they compare with other kinds of interventions (e.g., ‘survival training’)?

  • The artist as medium:
    What is the impact of the artist as personified medium in an intervention? How do they compare with (artistic) interventions led by other people?
    Intentionality and judgments:
    How do the various participants define expectations and assess the value of artistic interventions? How do the different sources of judgment (art world, business world) play themselves out/interact/suspend? What is the relationship between expectation of effect and actual effect?

  • Power relations:
    What are the impacts of artistic interventions on power differences? And how do asymmetrical power relations affect artistic interventions?

  • The “dark sides” of artistic interventions:
    E.g., what ethical issues arise when employees engage “body and soul”? How do the participants deal with the risk that artistic interventions may degrade the arts and instrumentalize the artists? What about when artistic interventions support learning “bad” things?