Making OR practice visible: Using ethnomethodology to analyse facilitated modelling workshops

Empirical studies attempting to open the ‘black box’ of the practice of operational research (OR) are beginning to appear in the literature, particularly within the area known as behavioural OR. Many scholars within this community share a commitment to both empirically investigate what OR practitioners and users actually do when engaged in OR-supported processes, and evaluate what the effect of these ‘doings’ is. Despite these developments, we still know very little about the complexities and situated specifics of OR practice as it happens on the ground. This is mostly due to the methodological challenges involved in treating real-time OR practice as an analytical problem, which requires making OR practice ‘visible’ by bringing to the fore its material and interactional features for close examination. In this paper we adopt ethnomethodology as one way to address this challenge. Using an empirical vignette drawn from a facilitated modelling workshop in which causal mapping was used with a top management team, we illustrate how an ethnomethodologically-informed perspective can reveal the ways in which OR-supported activity is practically accomplished by those involved, moment by moment, and with what effects. We conclude the paper by summarising the contribution that these kinds of fine-grained studies of OR practice make to the behavioural OR agenda, and outline some potentially useful avenues for future research.