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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Beyond BART (boundaries, authority, role and task): Knowledge work and the Developmental Project

A post-industrial society and economy depends deeply on the effectiveness of knowledge work, particularly in research and development, and the quality of organizations that sustain it. One question we face as students of the Tavistock method is whether or not our inherited framework, often specified by the acronym BART, (Boundaries, Authority Role and Task), is adequate for our understanding this kind of knowledge work. This paper argues that it is not, and suggests that instead we need a new conception of what I am calling 'developmental projects' (DPs). These projects create a novel and distinctive rhythm of work and pose a new kind of risk, which I call existential risk. In turn, this risk shapes a different constellation of anxieties and social defenses. We need to develop a working theory of the psychodynamics of knowledge work. This article is divided into six sections. In the first I briefly review the BART framework, in the second I define what I mean by a development project (DP), and in the third I discuss three published case studies of DPs. In the fourth, I posit the five essential components of a DP and then describe a case study of an interdisciplinary research project in a university, involving both computer scientists and social scientists, to which I am a consultant and participant observer. My explicit role is to track how the research team is developing a sense of community and to provide, when appropriate, advice and counsel to the project manager. In the fifth section I apply a psychodynamic lens to explore the anxieties associated with the DP and the social defenses these anxieties stimulate. In the sixth and last section I summarize my argument.