Tarja Kantola

Transcending “the Impossible”: From Dead End to Expansive Learning

by Tarja Kantola
University of Helsinki, Institute of Behavioural Sciences, Studies in Educational Sciences 232
Published at Helsinki University E-thesis site: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-10-5963-6 . 


This dissertation investigates changes in bank work and the experience of impossibility attached to these by workers at the local level from the viewpoint of work-related well-being and collective learning. A special challenge in my work is to conceptualize the experience of impossibility as related to change, and as a starting point and tool for development work.

The subject of the dissertation, solving the impossible as a collective learning process, came up as a central theme in an earlier project: Work Units between the Old and the New (1997–1999). Its aim was to investigate how change is constructed as a long-term process, starting from the planning of the change until its final realization in everyday banking work. I studied changes taking place in the former Postipankki (Postal Bank), later called Leonia. The three-year study involved the Branch Office of Martinlaakso, and was conducted from the perspective of well-being in a change process.

The sense of impossibility involved in changes turned out to be one of the most crucial factors impairing the sense of well-being. The work community that was the target of my study did not have the available tools to construct the change locally, or to deal with the change-related impossibility by solving it through a mutual process among themselves.

During the last year of the project, I carried out an intervention for development in the Branch Office, as collaboration between the researchers and the workers. The purpose of the intervention was to resolve such perceived change-related impossibility as experienced repeatedly and considered by the work community as relevant to work-related well-being. The documentation of the intervention – audio records from development sessions, written assignments by workers and assessment or evaluation interviews – constitute the essential data for my dissertation.

The earlier data, collected and analyzed during the first two years, provides a historical perspective on the process, all the way from construction of the impossibility towards resolving and transcending it.

The aim of my dissertation is to understand the progress of developmental intervention as a shared learning process within a work community and thus to provide tools for perceiving and constructing local change. I chose the change related impossibility as a starting point for development work in the work community and as a target of conceptualization. This, I feel, is the most important contribution of my dissertation. While the intervention was in progress, the concept of impossibility started emerging as a stimulating tool for development work. An understanding of such a process can be applied to development work outside banking work as well. According to my results, it is pivotal that a concept stimulating development is strongly connected with everyday experiences of and speech about changes in work activity, as well as with the theoretical framework of work development.

During this process, development work on a local level became of utmost interest as a case study for managing change. Theoretically, this was conceptualized as so-called second-order work and this concept accompanies us all the way through the research process. Learning second-order work and constructing tools based on this work have proved crucial for promoting well-being in the change circumstances in a local work unit. The lack of second-order work has led to non-wellbeing and inability to transcend the change-related sense of impossibility in the work community. Solving the impossibility, either individually or situationally, did not orient the workers towards solving problems of impossibility together as a work community.

Because the experience of the impossibility and coming to terms with transcending it are the starting point and the target of conceptualization in this dissertation, the research provides a fresh viewpoint on the theoretical framework of change and developmental work. My dissertation can facilitate construction of local changes necessitated by the recent financial crisis, and thus promote fluency and well-being in work units. It can also support change-related well-being in other areas of working life.