Sub-theme 29: Idea work: Creating and becoming in everyday organizational practice

Stewart Clegg
University of Technology, Sydney, Australia
Elena P. Antonacopoulou
University of Liverpool Management School, UK
Arne Carlsen
SINTEF Technology and Society, Oslo, Norway

Call for Papers

Using ideas as my maps
"We'll meet on edges, soon," said I
Bob Dylan, My Back Pages (1964)

A passion for creativity and innovation must necessarily mean a passion for ideas and how they are handled; especially at the edges of disciplinary formations, official knowledge, and formal practices. Ideas – whether innate, abstract or concrete – are images of perception and imagination, forms of expression and objects of experience and ambition. Across all sectors of the economy, capabilities for innovation depend upon work dominated by symbolic analytic problem solving where ideas are simultaneously the main input, the content and the key deliverable, often crossing boundaries, redefining edges, and re-charting maps of the possible. We call such work 'idea work'.

Idea work involves activities of conceiving, reinforcing, combining, rejecting, testing, and recombining ideas for use in products and services. The notion of idea work captures the power of ideas to make a difference and embraces the emerging nature of thought in everyday action (James, 1890/1950). All too often, our basic conceptions of what it means to be creative in organizations tend to lead our thoughts towards images of generalized techniques independent of the specificity of domains, towards deliberately staged bouts of innovative efforts, or towards the lone genius or maverick. By contrast, idea work forms the very core of everyday value creating activity where learning to live with the unknown and unknowable is a condition of working and becoming (Antonacopoulou, 2006). Idea work is much in evidence in many professional services, such as architectural and other design work, legal and consulting services or oil exploration. Indeed, there are good reasons to assume that idea work forms a growing part of all sectors of western economies. Yet, with some notable exceptions within the creativity literature (e.g. Hargadon and Sutton, 1997; Dunbar, 1995; Håkonsen, 2007), socio-technical studies (e.g. Knorr-Cetina, 2001), the power literature that addresses the production of managements disciplinary practices (e.g. Clegg et al, 2006), and actor network approaches (e.g. Czarniawska and Joerges, 1996), there exist few grounded studies of how idea work takes place in everyday work.

Our sub-theme sets out to explore and deepen the understanding of idea work in organizations. Three sets of literatures inform our invitation. First, while we assume that there are several sources of excellence in idea work, creativity must clearly be one of them. Inquiry into idea work thus aligns with a recently strengthened stream of research that deals with creativity as inherent in everyday work (Drazin, Glynn and Kazanjian, 1999; Hargadon and Bechky, 2006; Sawyer, 2006). Second, we take inspiration from research signifying a return to practice within organization studies (Schatzki, 2006; Gherardi, 2006; Antonacopoulou, 2007, Clegg et al, 2008). Idea work cannot be fully understood without understanding the idiosyncrasies of practice, the recurrent nature of practice as well as the multiplicities and potentialities of its development trajectories. What do people in organizations actually do when doing idea work?

The third set of literature that we work from deals with sources of energy, life and positive identity construction (Dutton, 2003a; 2003b; Carlsen, 2008; Carlsen and Pitsis, 2008; Dutton and Roberts, 2009) that enable and emanate from idea work. Creative work activities seem to be emotionally charged events where positive affect enables performance (Amabile et al., 2005). What are the motivational drivers of idea work? What energizes people doing idea work?

We encourage empirically grounded as well as foundational theoretical approaches to idea work and invite contributors to address issues such as:

  • The different types of idea work practices belonging to different production logics: are there types of idea work activity systems?
  • The zones of criticality in different strands of idea work, those edges where and in which acute things happen. What tensions traverse critical zones and frame the value potential of ideas?

  • The recurrent patterns of social interaction in idea work: sequences of work, habits of communication, high quality connections and coordination mechanisms;

  • The materiality of idea work: dominant tools in use, key language terms, methods and objects for representing and communicating ideas, the discourses engaged, the functional and affective aspects of space;

  • The key motivational drivers: sources of energy, positive identity construction and connections to larger social wholes;

  • The most fruitful philosophical and social theoretical orientations (beyond established ones such as Plato, Descartes, Kant, Steiner, Hume) from which to understand and study idea work and their consequences for inquiry and practice.

Let yourself be drawn by your ideas. Abandon yourself to the unknown. We will wait for you on 'edges soon' – the idea work stream – to embark on a journey where ideas are all that matter.


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Amabile, T.M., S.G. Barsade, J.S. Mueller and B.M. Staw (2005): "Affect and creativity at work." Administrative Science Quarterly, 50 (3), 367–403.

Antonacopoulou, E.P. (2006): "Working Life Learning: Learning-in-Practise." In: E.P. Antonacopoulou, P. Jarvis, V. Andersen, B. Elkjaer and S. Hoeyrup (eds), Learning, Working and Living: Mapping the Terrain of Working Life Learning. London: Palgrave, 234–254

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Carlsen, A. and T. Pitsis (2008): "Projects for life. Building narrative capital for positive organizational change." In: S.R. Clegg and C.L. Cooper (eds), Handbook of Macro Organization Behaviour. Sage: London.

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Stewart Clegg 
Elena P. Antonacopoulou 
Arne Carlsen