The Hall recently welcomed Dr Michael Fascia as a Visiting Research Fellow. We’re happy to share with you here a conversation we had recently with Dr Fascia about his research and current project, which sits at the intersection of Ignatian spirituality and contemporary process analysis.
Our conversation was edited for length and content.
Campion Hall: Beyond your position as a Visiting Research Fellow at Campion Hall, what sort of work are you involved with in and beyond Oxford?
Dr Michael Fascia: Beyond the Hall I’m a visiting scholar at the Saïd Business School, and I teach business strategy and management at Edinburgh Napier University. I’m also an ex-Fellow in the School of Medicine at Edinburgh University. I’m in Oxford one week every month, with some activity at Saïd and some projects there, but primarily I’m engaged in developing my theory of figurational dynamics with my sponsoring professor.
Now we’re getting to the stage where publications are looming, so much of my time right now is spent reading and researching.
CH: Could you say more about your current work on figurational dynamics?
MF: It’s based on a sociologist from the 1930s named Norbert Elias. Some of his writings, though he wouldn’t have put it in these terms, carry some form of Ignatian involvement and detachment and ideas about human interaction. Elias himself was an atheist, but that just further suggests to me that these ideas are relevant. I noticed that and spoke to Professor Sue Dopson of the Saïd Business School and said there’s some interesting work here to which we could add another dimension. At the time I was working with the NHS as a manager, which is an intensely pressurised job, so I was looking for ways to try to make it more holistic. [Prof. Dopson] said, ‘That’s interesting, let’s see your ideas’ etc. etc. and I did and she couldn’t have been nicer. She’s a wonderful lady, and if there’s one person to thank for all this it’s Sue Dopson. She listened to what I had to say—I’m sure it was gibberish at the time!—and she refined it and honed it into something that looks like a proper project.
At the core of it is the idea that whilst there’s a plethora of statistical analysis to do with process efficiencies, our work adds a figurational dimension around all that. In other words, ‘how do our interactions affect a given process without the process knowing it, without us knowing it?’ So in the NHS, for example, how do groups of consultants or managers or services interact to develop efficient processes, and how do those interactions affect the processes that are further down the chain? To my mind, this isn’t so far from a spiritual dimension, inasmuch as you’re trying to trace the many subconscious influences and ideas that go into a making a given decision, though it’s desperately difficult to get a handle on that. What I’ve done is taken elements of quantum physics, probabilities, and current statistical analysis and brought together something that can help predict process development far more accurately than more contemporary things like Bayesian probability or the like.
So far I have written a theoretical paper, run pilot studies, and am working on a write-up after the pilot studies as well as probability studies and case studies. I’m also working for the Scottish government, who want to use my method to look at efficiencies in GP practices. It’s desperately difficult to get a handle on the techniques involved, but we’re at the stage where a lot is getting put on paper so that’s important.
CH: In your view, to what extent are these sort of holistic, interdisciplinary perspectives missing from the prevailing practices in the field of process analysis?
MF: Well, it’s not that it’s missing now since I’ve raised it. It doesn’t take much to realize it makes sense to consider these things holistically. But here’s the thing: There’s lots of papers written on lots of things, and one of the reasons I came to the Hall was because I didn’t really want to develop any more theoretical papers. A good deal of my past work has already done that. What I wanted to do was develop that and take it to the practical dimension. And whilst it started off focused on the NHS, it’s actually applicable to most things now. When I’ve been approached by pharmaceutical companies or sales companies, they’re looking to put this method to use in the field of predictive methodology, though it started out as an attempt to develop a sociological perspective.
When I approached the Master [of Campion Hall, Rev’d Dr James Hanvey], I explained how nobody’s really given me the opportunity to bring in a spiritual dimension to this method, and he was very supportive of the idea, thankfully. He thought it was a great idea and recognized the cultural gap that exists between what businesses do and how they think and that there’s this spiritual element which could help them without imposing on them.
The idea being, if, at the moment, I went to a senior manager at the NHS and said, ‘We’ve looked at your work culture here and we think we can improve it,’ and then a priest came in to tell them how, they’d run a mile! They wouldn’t listen. Even with the 500-year track record of the Spiritual Exercises, they wouldn’t listen. But if I can bring together my resources as a member of one of the best business schools in the world, my contacts and experience in the NHS over ten years, and then I’m underpinning my empirical study with this 500-year-old philosophy, then they can’t simply ignore that.
So now I have the space at Campion Hall to develop the critical-spiritual perspective in order to underpin the work I’m already doing. And it would be impossible to do this sort of work anywhere else as I wouldn’t be allowed the time and space needed to develop this method.
CH: What particular aspect of the Ignatian approach bears most on this work?
MF: If you look at the way Ignatius defines, for example, communication or information, you can see parallels and synergies with the way Norbert Elias talks about involvement and detachment. They’re entirely different contexts, of course. But if you’re sitting as a pragmatic neutral observer, in the middle, as it were, you might consider that perhaps the subconscious thoughts that this sociologist was having—his affects and his desires—influenced some of the things he wrote about, which would influence the field today. And this way of thinking about how information is talked about, influences most of the decisions we make in life, and therefore influences decision-making in any organization. There’s two ways for me to link these two perspectives. I can talk about it theoretically, which I suppose everyone could do. But the trick is figuring out how these decision-making processes work in practice, with the appropriate case studies and the rest.
I initially came to the Hall to work on this methodology, but now that I’ve been here and been involved with the community, it’ll be a long time before I leave. It’s gone from an academic journey to a spiritual journey, which has just been so much more meaningful for me than just working on another paper.
CH: Thanks for talking with us today, and good luck with everything.
MF: Thank you.