In an environment of rapid change, a new kind of organisation is emerging. As the world of work grapples with unprecedented multi-level transformation, organisations are discovering they can achieve both change and growth simultaneously. These organisations have moved the paradigm frontier of what is possible. Learning is ‘sense making’ it is the process that leads to knowledge. It turns out Thurber was right on the money when he said, “In times of change, learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned are beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.”
In the future of work, organisational learning requires learning rather than being learned. When we look to living systems we can see that, in order for an organism to survive, its rate of learning must be equal to or greater than the rate of change in its environment. The purpose of an organisational learning cycle is the continuous transformation of the organisation. The learning processes that are useful in furthering continuous transformation are considerably different from those needed to create a specific change. Organisational learning leads to the continuous transformation of an enterprise and its environment. Crucially, learning creates equals, not subordinates. In this way, work is increasingly conceived as a team effort, and everyone involved shares accountability.
As society’s old outdated hierarchical systems crumble, formerly self-evident business truths are being cast aside. The sacred goal of maximising shareholder value is now “the dumbest idea in the world”. The search for the holy grail of “sustainable competitive advantage” is now recognised as futile. The “essence of strategy” seen as “coping with competitors” is obsolete. The uni-directional value chain – the very core of 20th Century management thinking – is now a problem, not a solution. Supposed distinctions between leaders and managers have collapsed. To top it off, a slew of recent management books suggest that today’s organisations represent a failure so deep and pervasive that there are hardly words to describe it. A veritable learning revolution is underway.
“We are still living in a wonderful new world where man thinks himself astonishingly new and “modern.” This is unmistakable proof of the youthfulness of human consciousness, which has not yet grown aware of its historical antecedents.”
The Keepers of Wisdom
Before we can address the issue of fragmentation, we need to establish what has been fragmented. For millennia, humanity endeavoured to maximise the production, sharing, and application of knowledge. Various individuals fulfilled different roles, with varying degrees of success. For example, in indigenous cultures, elders articulate timeless principles, grounded in their experience to guide the tribes’ future actions.
Doers, warriors, growers, hunters, or nannies, learn how to do things better than before and continually improve their craft. Coaches and teachers help people develop their capacity to perform their roles and grow as human beings. Building, practice, and capacity-building are intertwined and woven into the fabric of the community in a seamless process that restores and advances the knowledge of the tribe. This interdependent knowledge-creating system is the way that human beings collectively learn, generate new knowledge, and change their world.
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”
Tree of Knowledge
We can view this system for producing knowledge as a cycle. People apply available knowledge to accomplish their goals. This practical application provides experiential data from which new theories can be formulated to guide future action. New theories and principles then lead to new methods and tools that translate theory into practical know-how. The pursuit of new goals leads to new experience and the cycle continues.
Imagine that this cycle of knowledge-creation is a tree: The tree’s roots are the theories. Like theories, the roots are invisible to most of the world, and yet the health of the root system largely determines the health of the tree. The branches are the methods and tools that enable the translation of theories into new skills and capabilities and practical results. The fruit is the rubber-to-the-road practical knowledge and contains the fruit of the next tree. In a way, the whole system seems designed to produce the fruit. However, if you harvest all the fruit from the tree, eventually there will be no more trees. So, some of the fruit must be used to provide the seeds for more trees. By utilising the fruits of this tree of knowledge, we plant the seeds of the next. The tree is a living system.
The tree of knowledge is a wonderful metaphor, particularly because trees function through a profound transformational process called photosynthesis. The roots absorb nutrients from the soil. The nutrients flow through the trunk, into the branches and out into the leaves. It is in the leaves that the nutrients interact with sunlight to create complex carbohydrates, which serve as the basis for development of the fruit.
So, how can we as leaders create the fruits of practical knowledge in our organisations? We can see research activities as expanding the root system to build better and richer theories. Capacity-building activities extend the branches by translating the theories into usable methods and tools. The use of these practices enhances people’s capabilities. The art of practice in a particular line of work transforms the theories, methods, and tools into usable knowledge as people apply their capabilities to practical tasks.
“Confidence is ignorance. If you’re feeling cocky, it’s because there’s something you don’t know.”
3 Elements of Knowledge Creation
In our society:
Research represents any disciplined approach to discovery and understanding with a commitment to share what is being learned. This is not only the domain of scientists performing laboratory experiments. Rather, this is research in the same way that a child asks, “Why?” By pursuing questions, we can continually generate new theories about how our world works.
Practice is anything that a group of people does to produce a result. It’s the application of energy, resources, and effort to achieve an end goal. By directly applying the available theory, tools, and methods in our work, we generate practical knowledge.
Capacity-building links research and practice. It is equally committed to discovery and understanding and to practical know-how and results. Every learning community includes coaches, mentors, and teachers – people who help others build skills and capabilities through developing new methods and tools that help make theories practical.
“What transforms this world is knowledge. Nothing else can change anything in this world. Knowledge alone is capable of transforming the world, while at the same time leaving it exactly as it is. When you look at the world with knowledge, you realise that things are unchangeable and at the same time are constantly being transformed.”
The Essence of an Organisation
Imagine for a moment an organisation in which all the records disintegrated overnight. Suddenly, there is no more data, no more reports, no computer files, no employee records, no operating manuals, and no calendars – all that remain are the people, the buildings, the capital equipment, raw materials, and inventory. Stay with us here. Now imagine another organisation where suddenly, mysteriously, all of the people have disappeared. The organisation is left intact in every other way, except there are now no employees. Which organisation would find it easier to rebuild its former status, to continue to operate, and to learn?
At first thought, you might be tempted to conclude that substituting new people would be easier than replacing all the information and systems. However, even in the most bureaucratic organisation you could bare to imagine – with all its standard operating procedures and established protocols – there is much more about the enterprise that is unsaid and unwritten. In fact, numerical and verbal databases only capture a small fraction of the information that is floating around in mental “databases.” The essence of any organisation is embodied in its people, not its systems. The intangible assets of a company reside in the individual mental models that contribute to the organisation’s collective memory. Without these mental models, which include the subtle interconnections that develop among the members at different times, an organisation will be incapacitated in both learning and action.
The old model of a hierarchical corporation where the top thinks and the bottom acts is giving way to a new model where thinking and acting must occur at all levels. As organisations push for flatter structures and reduced bureaucracy, there will be increased reliance on the individuals to be the carriers of the organisation’s knowledge. Instead of codifying rules and procedures in handbooks and policy manuals, the new challenge is to continually capture the emerging understanding of the organisation wherever it unfolds and continually finding ways to manage the transfer from individual to organisational learning.
“Fragment after fragment we make sense of everything.
Fragment after fragment we travel our existence.
Fragment after fragment we evolve.”
The Fragmentation of Our Institutions
Donald Schön coined the term “technical rationality,” where you first develop a theory, and then you apply it. Or first, the experts come in and figure out what’s wrong, and then you use their advice to fix the problem. Even when the advice is brilliant, sometimes we just can’t seem to figure out how to implement it. But perhaps the problem is not in the advice. Perhaps our assumption that this method is how learning or knowledge-creation happens, doesn’t actually work. Maybe the problem is our way of thinking: that first, you must get “the answer,” then you must apply it. Because research, practice, and capacity-building each operate within the walls of separate institutions, the people within these institutions feel cut off from each other, leading to suspicion, stereotyping, and an “us” versus “them” mindset.
The implicit notion of technical rationality often leads to conflict between executives and the front-line people in organisations. Executives often operate by the notion of technical rationality: In Western culture, being a boss means having all the answers. However, front-line people know much more than they can ever say about their own jobs and about the customer. They actually have the capability to do something, not just talk about something. Technical rationality is great if all you ever have to do is talk.
“The most effective people are those who can “hold” their vision while remaining committed to seeing current reality clearly”
Organising for Learning
If we let go of this notion of technical rationality, we can then start asking more valuable questions, such as:
- How does real learning occur here?
- How do new capabilities develop?
- How do learning communities that interconnect theory and practice, concept and capability come into being?
- How do they sustain themselves and grow?
- What forces can destroy them, undermine them, or cause them to wither?
Clearly, we need a theory, method, and set of tools for organising the learning efforts of groups of people. Real learning is often much more complex and way more interesting than the theory of technical rationality suggests. We often develop significant new capabilities with only a partial idea of how we do what we do. When we are learning to ski or ride a bicycle, we “do it” before we really understand the actual concept. Similarly, practical know-how often precedes new principles and general methods in organisational learning. Yet, this pattern of learning can also be problematic.
For example, teams within a large institution can produce significant innovations, but the new knowledge often fails to spread. Modest improvements may spread quickly, but really impactful breakthroughs are difficult to diffuse. Brilliant innovations won’t spread if they don’t have a way to spread. In other words, if there is no way for an organisation to extract the general lessons from innovations and develop new methods and tools for sharing those lessons. The problem is that wide diffusion of learning requires the same commitment to research and capacity-building as it does to practical results. Yet, few businesses foster this kind of commitment. Organisational learning requires a community that enhances research, capacity-building, and practice.
“All the evidence from the science of complexity says that given certain clear parameters…communities or teams will become self-organising. They will be attracted to certain flowing states of organisation natural to the people who make them up. In complexity theory, these flowing states are poetically called strange attractors.”
A Knowledge Creation System
The absence of effective learning communities limits our ability to learn from each other, from what goes on within the organisation, and from our most clearly demonstrated breakthroughs. Imagine a learning community as a group of people that bridges the worlds of research, practice, and capacity-building to produce the kind of knowledge that has the power to transform the way we operate, not merely make incremental improvements. If we are interested in innovation and in the vitality of large institutions, then we are interested in creating learning communities that integrate knowledge instead of fragment it.
In a learning community, people view each of the three functions: research, capacity-building, practice-as vital to the whole. Practice is crucial because it produces tangible results that show that the community has learned something. Capacity-building is important because it makes improvement possible. Research is also key because it provides a way to share learning with people in other parts of the organisation and with future generations within the organisation. In a learning community, people assume responsibility for the knowledge creation process.
“If you want to grow an organisation then enable its employees to experiment, explore and express their creativity without limiting them to title, department and designation”.”
Learning Communities in Action
To commit to this knowledge-creation process, we must first understand what a learning community looks like in action in our organisations. Imagine a typical change initiative in an organisation; for example, a product development team trying a new approach to the way they handle engineering changes. Traditionally, such a team would be primarily interested in improving the results of their own projects. Team members probably wouldn’t pay as much attention to deepening their understanding of why a new approach works better, or to creating new methods and tools for others to use. Nor would they necessarily attempt to share their learnings as widely as possible – they might even see disseminating the information as someone else’s responsibility.
In a learning community, from the outset, the team conceives of each initiative as a way to maximise learning for itself as well as for other teams in the organisation. Those involved in the research process are integral members of the team, not outsiders who poke at the system from a disconnected and fragmented perspective. The knowledge creation process functions in real-time within the organisation, in a seamless cycle of practice, research, and capacity-building.
Imagine if we approached learning and change this way in all of our major institutions! What impact might this approach have on the health of any of our institutions, and on society as a whole? Given the problems we face within our organisations and within the larger culture, do we have any choice but to seek new ways to work together to face the challenges of the future? The time has come for us to begin the journey back from fragmentation to wholeness and integration. The time has come for true learning communities to emerge.
“Education is only a ladder to gather fruit from the tree of knowledge, not the fruit itself.”
Calling Conscious Leaders!
True leadership does not lie in individual leaders, it is created by three elements, a clear purpose, articulated into a call to action by collective leadership, in a way that aligns and orchestrates individuals to take a collective and collaborative course of action. So much needs to change. The old ways of doing things are no longer fit for the future. Whether its leadership in business, economics, institutions or politics, the systemic challenges humanity now faces demand a new way of leading right around the globe. This new way of leading draws upon next-level leadership consciousness which is significantly different from the old ways of leading. The epic challenges we now face as a nation, as a human race demand leadership of a different order.
No matter your official title, as a leader, you are also the Chief Knowledge Officer of your organisation. You are responsible for managing the company’s knowledge capital, including how it is created, maintained, and used. The leader of a learning organisation is not the traditional hero, individually responsible for tough decisions. Instead, you are the designer of corporate culture who accepts the uncertainty implied by experimentation. Know that there is light piercing the end of this long dark tunnel. Where there is breakdown, there is the potential for breakthrough if we have the courage. Deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, or even pictures and images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action must be recognised and challenged to allow for new ideas and changes.
“Imagine this design assignment: Design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, makes complex sugars and foods, changes colors with the seasons, and self-replicates. and then why don’t we knock that down and write on it?”