Cultivating Culture: Professor Clare Morgan on the Limitations of “Must-Do Monday”
June 13, 2018 | Maredith Sheridan
Last week, we explored the purpose of poetry and examined three essential questions spurred by Megan Gillespie’s poem “Cheers.” Today, we’re thrilled to feature an interview with author, academic and literary critic Clare Morgan. Clare is the founder and director of Oxford University’s creative writing program and the author of several books of fiction. Her book What Poetry Brings to Business examines the “deep but unexpected connections between business and poetry.” She recently facilitated a Books@Work session with HR leaders in the UK.
Clare, tell me a little bit about yourself. What is your background, and what do you do at Oxford?
I’m the founder and director of Oxford Univeristy’s creative writing program, and I’m a member of the English faculty. I’ve also always been a writer of fiction and a literary critic. We opened the doors to the creative writing program in 2005, and I’m glad to say it’s been going from strength to strength. At the same time, from about 2001 to 2010, I was working with The Boston Consulting Group on a project exploring what poetry brings to business. I conducted workshops and discussions with managers, consultants and others globally. We published a book coming out of that research with University of Michigan Press called What Poetry Brings to Business.
How did your Books@Work experience dovetail with that research? Did facilitating with a short story – as opposed to a poem – lead to any new revelations?
[The John O’Hara story we read, “The Hardware Man”] was very recognizable, in a good way. There were familiar relations and motivations. It hit the nail on the head, without being reductionist, about certain things you’d encounter in an organizational environment.
There was less of this fear of “oh a poem, oh my God, it rhymes and scans, what am I supposed to do with it?” I think that the accessibility and texture of the story gave us plenty to work with. I should add that working with poetry in business has gone fantastically well also. But I very much relished the chance to branch out and explore with the group how they responded to a story and what we could make of it together.
You discussed “The Hardware Man” with a global group of HR leaders. In the story, a young man takes ownership of a hardware store through questionable means – eventually driving the other local hardware store out of business in a very competitive way. What sort of topics did the group explore?
Well, the discussion opened with a fundamental question in the story – very much up front. Does one have to be ruthless to be a successful business person? Where does morality lie? Do you have to be cutthroat? With the group being composed of HR people, there were different parameters of “hire and fire,” even around the table, between the UK, the US, Europe and other countries. There were some interesting cultural differences – business culture, legal culture, protocols. Those came up, as well as the broader sense of human responsibility and morality.
But something else very interesting came up around tradition – and the value it brings – as opposed to the value in new ways of doing things. And how that related to an organization in which different age groups and levels of experience and backgrounds have to be held together to work in a focused and productive way. That rang a lot of bells and provoked a strong discussion about traditionalists versus innovators and the challenges in maintaining a cohesive sense of direction within an organization.
What did you find to be most challenging about facilitating with Books@Work?
I think if you go in as an English professor first and foremost, that’s going to be tricky. You have to go in as a human being who has read this story and is really keen to explore it with other human beings, you know? You have to have real empathy with the written word, and I think you have to be a keen reader yourself. Otherwise it’s possible to miss a lot of important nuance [in the text]. Some things are very clear, but it’s the undercurrents of a story that generate the complexity of its dilemmas. Teasing out those complexities is key.
I was very fortunate in having a positive and actively contributing group. I was also very fortunate in having most helpful discussions with [Books@Work Curriculum Director Jessica Isaac]. And I was jolly glad that I had the quite extensive experience in poetry and business working globally in these environments.
Let’s talk about that unique background, particularly the research project that led to the publication of What Poetry Brings to Business. How do you think companies benefit from discussing literature together? What do employees gain from it?
I think they gain a space for exchange in a more neutral environment than they would usually have access to. When I say neutral, I mean it’s not focused on a business thing, but it allows or encourages important discussions about things that are very relevant to an organization. Reading a story or looking at poems together can reveal similarities and differences in organizational culture. You have a mechanism for understanding one another. Certain issues that aren’t direct “must-do Monday” business issues are often hugely important in what makes an organization tick.
In a wider sense, the opportunity for people to be heard and share their views is empowering. An organization which enables or facilitates that is a really forward-looking organization. It’s one that thinks not only about its employees, but about the issues which affect its employees and their relationships. I think this is a wonderful way of enabling a group dynamic. If things were always focused on the “must-do Monday,” the cohesiveness, the understanding, the feeling of being on the same page wouldn’t be there.
Image: Giorgio Vasari, Six Tuscan Poets, 1544, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons