ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

March 1998


Teaching An Organization To Learn

Scenario Planning

The Sinking Of The Titanic

Through Rain, Sleet And New Quality Initiatives

Striving To Deliver Excellence

Not Your Typical Oil Change


Reality: What A Concept
by Peter Block

Reflections On The Baldrige Winners
by Cathy Kramer


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


Teaching An Organization To Learn

NFC: Why are you interested in community?
I have a particular interest in learning communities. Communities which are advancing knowledge and building fundamental new knowledge around profound institutional change -
how institutions could really work in fundamentally different ways. The Society for Organizational Learning (SOL) was formed with the idea of what we were as a learning community as a starting point. We thought a lot about the nature of communities that build knowledge and came to the conclusion that there are three fundamental dimensions of knowledge creation which can only be done in communities. This is true of scientific communities and of organizational communities.

First, research is a critical activity, discovering and testing new theories and new methods. It's going to be in more and more organizations in the future.

Capacity building is another dimension of knowledge. This has to do with people developing capabilities they didn't have before. Tools and methods are the fundamental way in which people develop new capacities. Probably the most significant consequence of new tools is they reshape the tool users. Any technology's most significant impact over the long-term is its effect on the user.

And the third dimension of any learning community is practical know-how. So ultimately you've learned something when you can actually produce a higher level of result. That is practical know-how. Traditionally people have called this tacit knowledge. However, what we have now are very fragmented communities. We have scientific communities that focus exclusively on theories and methods and do very little in terms of developing their own fundamental capabilities. On the other hand we have many people in organizations trying to improve things and develop practical know-how and theory's a bad word. They think theory; "oh that's a bunch of intellectualizing."
I think there's a mistaken notion that there's a great kind of food chain. High up the food chain are the academics that've found these brilliant new ideas. That's really misleading. The most brilliant ideas come from in-depth partnerships between researchers and practitioners. It's been my experience that most academics are very conservative. They look at small incremental additions on well-established bodies of knowledge-not bold new ideas.

NFC: They look at things that interest them rather than what advance, whatever institution they're in.
There's really not a strong empirical orientation in the social sciences. Everybody says they're empirical, but John Dewey wrote 70 years ago "really great theory should always be embedded in practice. It should focus on the most challenging difficulties that people are encountering in practical settings. And it has to be tested by the extent to which it actually offers people's effectiveness in those
practical settings." That is the essence of real learning communities. These kind of learning communities are very rare.

The best example of real learning communities occurs in the arts. There tends to be a much closer coupling of theory and practice. Everyone involved in visual arts, musical arts, or theater are always in an intense personal learning process, developing their own capacities. People think that art is only about producing results, but they've never read music theory. Music theory is every bit as complex as mathematics. People who write the most important musical theory contributions are often the most accomplished composers. That connection simply doesn't exist in most of the sciences. It certainly doesn't exist in the educational process.

NFC: It reminds me of a Montessori classroom. That method attempts to marry the theory and practical know-how in a unique way. Children learn by working with their hands as well as hearing it.
It's kind of interesting to consider why that hasn't had a broader impact. It may have a lot to do with why the ideas would have difficulty penetrating the business world as well.

NFC: What are those reasons?
I think we're challenging some very deep cultural myths. In other words, you have to look for things that would be common to education and business. I think in the West for example, we think of learning as something that goes on in the head. I always remember that Michelangelo couldn't eat a meal with his patrons. And the reason was that Michelangelo worked with his hands. People who worked with their hands could not share a meal with the nobility.
That's a deeply embedded idea in western culture - the important people work with their head. In fact, it was only a few generations ago that it was very common in many industries to call the employees "hands." People at the top think that people in the organization work with their hands.

There really is this deep fragmentation in the western culture between the physical body and working with the hands. All learning at some level has to be anchored in our body. How can we say that you can do anything if it isn't ultimately a capacity anchored in our body? But that's a strange set of notions in the West.

NFC: Thinking about the three characteristics that build knowledge, is there some way that you have tried to incorporate that idea of the mind and body connection?
Look at any of our educational programs. I'm not a big fan of training courses, per se, I don't think learning occurs in five days. I think it occurs over a much longer period of time, but we use this program to introduce people to the basic ideas and tools. In every one of those courses we take about an hour every day to do what we call embodiment practices. And those are our version of Aikido exercises that have been developed over time by different people. Some people love them; some people hate them, as you would expect. We say, this is to activate something that's really lacking in our culture which is the appreciation that learning needs to be anchored physically.

I remember one guy, a Ph.D. from MIT, he was very cerebral. I saw him after he attended the course. I said, "So, what have you noticed since then?" He said, "I think the single, most powerful thing that I learned in those five days, is that now I understand what happens in my belly in a tough meeting."

He was starting to be aware of cues that our bodies are giving us all the time, which we are trained to ignore and pretend like 'oh this is a headache, it's just in my way,' as opposed to seeing our bodies as instruments that are continually helping us-mediating our experience and our environment.

I believe it is the communities of organizations that learn. At some level we might say what is an organization? Is Ford Motor Company a building? The only sensible definition of an organization is the people that are its members.

I also think that it's absolutely appropriate to think of organizations as webs of community.

They've always been that and it's just our blindness that's kept us from seeing it. The people who've studied communities of practice don't think they've invented anything. They think they've just simply discovered the way knowledge has always diffused in organizations through the informal networks. Everyone knows that no work ever gets done by following rules. It gets done through the informal networks. The communities of practice idea kind of takes that notion of informal networks and makes it a little more rigorous and something you can study.

NFC: How do you see this in our current global society?
I haven't seen anything in the last seven years that's made me question the fundamental premise that organizations just can't sustain deep change by themselves. Look at all of the schools that have in fact, incorporated radical new ideas for a period of time. But five years, ten years later, a new principal comes in, a new superintendent's been elected, three or four teachers who really were critical leaders internally have left and it's all back the way it was. No change lasts. And the same thing happens with organizations all the time. You get an enlightened CEO and a lot is able to change. Then a tyrant comes in and it's all back to business as usual. So that's the reason for focusing on these larger communities. I really believe that it's the only way to sustain significant change. The total quality revolution in Japan, I think, went forward for one basic reason. It wasn't just the tools and stuff. It was the fact that Japanese naturally organize in communities that crossed organizational boundaries. The vehicle for this was the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers, JUSE. They were sort of an extra organizational entity that could get people together from all different organizations-sharing new tools, fostering networks. I think that we have to find ways to do the same kind of thing in our western culture. The Japanese never had particularly strong monarchies. They were organized for hundreds of years as a society in clans. It's very natural for them to band together for the benefit of society.

Now, the purpose of SOL is to advance knowledge for the benefit of all management everywhere. And we make it very clear, if a company wants to be a member just to improve itself - it shouldn't join.

Everything we learn we're going to share as widely as we can. It's not saying we're trying to improve the United States competitiveness as the Japanese might have. But I think that is what always holds a community together. I believe the first principle is that there has to be a transcendent purpose beyond the self-interest of the members.

I remember years ago learning from someone who was a very experienced community organizer. She said, "you know very, very few people understand the fundamental difference in the logic of community versus the logic of a marketplace." The logic of a marketplace is that I have to get more than I give. Whatever something costs me, I better receive benefits at least equal to or greater than that. She said, "The fundamental logic of community is almost the opposite." The logic of community is for what people can contribute. Benefits don't matter. Obviously all people in an organization have to be concerned with their benefits, but it's a secondary concern. The primary concern that holds a community together is that it gives me the opportunity to contribute. The artistic community draws on this vitality. It gives people opportunities for self-expression. That's the way that we approach SOL.

NFC: Where do you see these concepts going as we approach the dawn of a new century?
Deep down, people have to really believe that they can bring about some change. Believe that they can contribute to one another and to a larger goal.

If they lose that kind of deep self-confidence then everything shifts and everybody is trying to get somebody else to bail them out.

We live in a time of extraordinary cross currents. I mean anyone who's awake should realize that things are going to be getting better and worse simultaneously. If there's some truth to the idea, that we've reached the end of the road of the industrial age organization you're not going to expect everybody to say, "okay we quit, we'll do it differently." It's going to work based on small experiments that gradually grow. The same way the industrial revolution started. The same way any revolution started. The agricultural revolution didn't start because everyone said, 'let's stop being hunters and gatherers and be agriculturists.' It occurred over hundreds and thousands of years of small groups that gradually became more and more influential. There's going to be innovators, creating something new, operating at risk, demonstrating something new can really work. And there will be people working harder and harder to prop up the traditional system. Life is tough. And you've got to expect those two things are going
to exist simultaneously.

March '98 News for a Change | Email Editor
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