Institutional Observation is a method conceived to understand the relational processes and the institutional cultures in their less visible aspects, as these are moslty unconscious, overlooked or simply hidden. It is a method that comes from the one originally created by the British psychoanalyst Esther Bick for the mother-infant observation, the so-called "infant observation" (Bick, 1964), adapted to the analysis of organisations by researchers working at the Tavistock Clinic (Obholzer) and at the Cassel Hospital (see Hinshelwood & Skogstad, "Observing the Organisations", 2000). In fact, the “Tavistock-Cassel” method of Institutional observation integrates the use of the psychodynamic lens and a systemic and/or ethnographic understanding of the context, placing at its core the evidence of individual behaviours that can be observed through the emotional resonances of the observer and interpreting the individual behaviours as "functions" of the group or the system and as derivatives of the implicit assumptions of the institution and its hidden culture.
Several years ago our Association developed, under Anton Obholzer and Robert Hinshelwood’s guidance, some study and training programmes on the method of Institutional observation and, in the last years we have started to use observational techniques as part of our training offers, as an organisational consultancy tool and in chief executive coaching. We have organized a Conference about Institutional Observation and some of its applications in Turin in 2012.
To observe the surrounding reality is an innate capacity as well as a need. We need it to orient ourselves in the world and to decipher the relationships and the emotions of the others. It also gives us valuable information about ourselves. We ceaselessly observe things and people, events and speech, the details and the larger picture, but we are rarely told that we can use what we have observed or how to use it, so much so that most observational data remain unconscious and unseen or are available just to regulate our automatic behaviours. Except some rare exceptions, such as in infant observation or the study of behaviour in school and the anthropological enquiries, this “natural” process is not considered as a tool that could be used by those who work in groups and organisations, as managers, staff members or consultants.
The supporters of the "digital" approach will object, with some good arguments, that a camera or a scanner see much better than the human eyes and that when you are looking for detailed, reliable and complete information an observer provides too few garantees, as he sees and does not see, distorts, forgets, tones down, interprets, shortly, his vision is too subjective. That does not occur – or it does to a much lesser extent – with objective observational systems, such as journals, photographs, scales, questionnaires, audio and video recording, etc.
However, to our ends – i.e. a deep understanding of relational dynamics and institutional cultures – the superiority of subjective observation lies in the very fact that it is not a “recording” but a non-saturated and incomplete process of understanding. What might look as a flaw – that is, too many missing elements, in terms of content and sometimes also in terms of context – often turns out to be advantageous, as it forces us to draw on more sensory, intuitive, empathic kinds of experience and mostly on self-observation, largely based on the emotions that are elicited in the observer by the observed field, which is what is called "countertransference" in psychoanalysis.
The goals of Institutional observation can be summed up as follows:
1. to observe without preconception and to formulate hypotheses on the functioning of an organisation;
2. to maintain the observer role, despite pressures to leave or change it;
3. to stay in contact with one’s own feelings and emotions and try to understand to what extent these are the observer’s (countertransference) responses to the institutional processes he/she has been exposed to.
The above three points, that are crucial in consultancy, are just as important for those who work in an organisation as professionals, managers, chief executives or trainers.
Using this kind of observation is very helpful, not only in the research projects but also in advanced forms of organisational diagnosis and consultancy or deep coaching and in the analysis of organisational roles, in counselling for structural or strategic issues, in negotiations, in conflict resolution and crisis management. Institutional observation can also be part of many training programmes, particularly in group work training, where it can be carried out individually (when a group works in the presence of an observer) or collectively (like in the fishbowl setting, where a group work re-enact a problem in the middle of a larger circle of observing participants), enhancing the degree of involvement and the capacity to learn from experience in the attendees.