Organizations That Learn

An Organization That Learned To...




Ignore the Rules

Create the Foundations for BIS Experience

Proceed to Succeed

Inspire Continuous Discovery


Special to the NY Times:


An Organization That Learned To Learn

By Donna, Kristie, Matt, Scott

Do you remember being in college and thinking to yourself, "What am I doing here?" Maybe you remember studying for a final exam, aiming to get the all-important "A" and thought to yourself, "What am I really learning?" You may have even asked the question, "Am I really learning?" "The point of attending college is to learn, right?"

These questions were posed to twenty University of Virginia students five years ago by two visionary UVA college professors, Dr. Glenn Kessler and Dr. John Corlett, and the answers propelled these two professors, the twenty students and the University of Virginia to a vision that many could have never imagined. Those key questions initiated a movement that would eventually change how the University of Virginia would approach teaching forever.

It all started the year before. In the spring of 2004 Dr. Kessler and Dr. Corlett had a teaching experience that opened their minds to new ways of teaching and learning. During that semester they were co-teaching a course on critical thinking for the University Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studied (BIS) adult degree program and things were not going well. "The students were disengaged and not learning. Glenn and I were frustrated about what to do" said Dr. Corlett. So what they did was throw out the syllabus mid semester and have the students participate in creating a new syllabus. The teachers and students collaborated in creating a class that was open to any possibility, and the second half of the semester became an experiment that included outside visitors, music, family members (including pets), and fun. Although unconventional, it turned out to be a huge success. "The energy level increased, participation increased, creativity increased, and ultimately - learning increased." " It was obvious that after that experience and after reading the subsequent class evaluations that we were onto something.” said Dr. Kessler.

The idea of throwing out the syllabus mid semester and having the students participate in guiding the direction of the course was inspired by an organizational theory familiar to Kessler and Corlett called "Learning Organization" theory. "A learning organization is an organization, be it business, theological, or academic that values and promotes learning." said Dr Corlett. "The theory's essence is having organization members working together to build a community that breaks down the barriers of learning." followed Dr Kessler.

Influenced with this new experience, Dr. Kessler and Dr. Corlett wanted to take the learning organization approach to the next level at UVA. So, in the spring of 2005 they collaborated on a new radical course titled, "Organizations That Learn". Like the second half of the critical thinking course, this original class of twenty would begin with no syllabus. The class working as an organization with the professors created a syllabus and a direction for the course. That first course evolved into its own organization, “The Successful Learning Program” also called the “SLP”. Amazingly, the SLP still exists today at the University of Virginia, and has great influence on how the University approaches teaching and learning.

The Successful Learning Program celebrated its fifth anniversary today at Madison Square Garden. The participants of the celebration included the Co-founders, Dr. Kessler and Dr. Corlett and many of those that participated in the original Organizations that Learn class. Other members included BIS Director Donna Plaskett and University President, John Casteen.

Former Organization that Learn student Dr. Scott Stanley gave the opening speech. Dr. Stanley began his speech by sharing the goals and visions that went into creating the SLP. He explained that the first night of the Organizations That Learn class involved a brainstorming session. "It was
that night during the brainstorm session that we all realized that we as students at the University of Virginia have more to give in the learning process, that the students as well as professors bring something to the class that others, including the professors, can learn from." said Dr. Stanley. "We as students knew that we could improve the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies Program at UVA". he added. Apparently on that first night ideas began to surface and the class agreed one of the most important visions would be to allow students to participate and influence, in a real way, the learning and teaching processes. It was a risky idea, but one that Dr. Kessler and Dr. Corlett were confident would work. The class worked tirelessly that first semester to understand the theories of the Learning Organization. They devised a plan to apply these theories within the BIS program and the success was more than anyone expected. "We did make some mistakes along the way, but we did learn from them." said Dr. Stanley. "Anyway, making mistakes is one of the best ways to learn." added Dr. Corlett. The SLP challenged standard methods of teaching and learning. "We focused mainly on promoting active learning." "We knew that an interactive learning environment was much more effective than a traditional professor-lecture and student-listen method." Said Dr. Kessler "One very important part of this initiative was finding new and creative ways for students and professors to experience new ideas, thoughts, expressions and not worry about making mistakes." "The idea that mistakes are new opportunities to learn was really driven home." said Dr. Stanley.

The SLP impacted not only the adult degree programs, but other schools within UVA as well. Matt Hartung, an Assistant Dean at UVA’s Darden Business School explains that after taking that original class he realized just how effective this method would be when applied to the business world. “Look at the business world. It is littered with the decaying husks of companies that refused to learn, companies that refused to change with the times, companies that from the top executive down to the lowest entry level worker thought they knew everything there was about their business and what their customers wanted.” “I took what learned in that original class and applied throughout my career, and it made a difference.” Said Mr. Hartung. The application of these theories was a huge success. It wasn’t long before Mr. Hartung was approached by the Dean of Darden and asked to integrate the SLP into the Darden curriculum. The results have been positive. “It has been a challenge, but a successful one. Our graduates are now more than ever prepared to face the business world.” added Mr. Hartung

The celebration of the SLP will continue through the end of the week at Madison Square Garden. Leaders from other top Universities from around the country are attending to learn how they might apply the theories and methods adopted by the University of Virginia and the SLP.

An Organization That Learned To Ignore The Rules

By The Open Seat (with assistance from Jamey, Fatima, Rachel, Holly)

Today, thousands turned out for a parade to celebrate the 5 th anniversary of the landmark Organizations That Learn (OTL) project that started at the University of Virginia in the, then little known, Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies Program. What began as an experiment by Doctors John Corlett and Glenn Kessler in systems thinking quickly evolved into a reinvention of what the world perceived to be a learning organization. This methodology quickly spread across the world like a virus and reignited a healthy skepticism of the rules of organizational behavior.

Many of the original class were present at the parade, and received the kind of response that hasn’t been seen since the heyday of Beatlemania. They all went on to be very successful in their respective fields, and have been in continuous communication with the OTL project throughout the last five years. Rachel Harrison and Hollyann Jenkins stepped off one of the more impressive floats and spoke for a few moments about what helped steer the genesis of the organization.

“We soon discovered that every organization was different and subject to different internal and external forces,” said Harrison, now CEO of the global juggernaut Harrison-Jenkins, Inc. “We knew that there must be a more organic way to learn that both suited the challenges and character of each different group while allowing the spirit of each individual toshine.” She says that each organization must adapt from the first day to by throwing everything they knew out the window, and finding the unconscious process inherent in the group to reach their goals.

“We saw significant barriers to learning in the way that organizations operated,” said Jenkins, COO of Harrison-Jenkins and holder of several patents pending. “It was universally accepted that a healthy organization must be full of life-long learners, but we found that very little was being done by the group, as a whole, to maintain this. We found that the rules in place ultimately bound us to replicate what had been done before. So, by reinventing an organization at the beginning of the meeting, everyone became actively involved, and it forced us to reevaluate each new day and to not become complacent.”

Fatima Boamah was one of the most popular founders at the parade and the first woman to make ‘Diva’ an actual job title. The member of many boards of directors, she cut to the chase with one of the pillars of the OTL doctrine. “We had to create an environment that inspired the members to share their ideas and feelings. By, in a way, reinventing the wheel, we got commitment and complete buy-in from the organization. You could say that we ignored the rules, but there were rules in place. But they were OUR rules and they were created to help us achieve all that we desired. OTL was and will remain a work in progress.”

Much has been written about the OTL project over the last five years, and most of it glorifies the members of the class and the teachers. “But that was the genius of the organization,” said Harrison. “We are just normal people. We didn’t come to the process with anymore than a desire to make a difference in ourselves. This just created a foundation for us to experience everything life has to offer. We began by taking a course, but in the end, we mapped a course to a higher learning experience”

As the parade began to die down, several of the classmates exchanged hugs with a disheveled-looking man who could have been mistaken for a homeless person if he had not been wandering the street with a broom and dustpan cleaning up the confetti. After a few moments, he was introduced as Jamey Barlow, one of the founding members of OTL and most mysterious figures in the project. He was vague about his whereabouts for the last five years, but he was happy and tanned.

I asked him if he was surprised as to the way that their influence spread across the world like a virus to help other organizations. “A virus?” said Barlow shaking his head. “No, this was the antidote. You just have to open your mind to get it.”

Barlow, then, walked away from the parade and put his cleaning equipment into the back of his Ferrari. As he drove off, the crowd could be heard singing songs on their way home, while carrying the message of the OTL project in their minds: Ignore the rules, make your own.

An Organization That Learned To Create the Foundations for BIS Experience

By Alix Brunst, Ryan Gibson, Mary Ellen Sprouse and Stephanie Thomas

Few could have predicted the dramatic, ongoing results that True Learning could have generated since its inception in 2004. The successes of this non-profit organization, originally entitled Organizations That Learn when it was created as a class at the University of Virginia, are especially remarkable considering the relatively short amount of time which the program has been operating. The class began five years ago without so much as a syllabus or defined goal.

“It was really all designed by the students”, according to John Corlett. “Glenn and I just provided the framework for the initial thinking.”

“This is truly the most rewarding project that has ever been developed and I am glad to be a part of this group, and to have worked with these students….it’s truly amazing what has been accomplished in the past five years”, says Glenn Kessler. Kessler, along with John Corlett, were professors at the University of Virginia when they first developed the idea for a course about learning. Due to the nature of what they do, the course developed into a full time non-profit business for the duo, who utilizes the students as consultants working together with the communities and institutions of learning, to reform learning environments at various universities and, most recently, at a private high school. The students in the class may change from year to year, but the intentions remain the same: continually changing the way they learn by challenging established hierarchies, challenging each other and those around them to adopt a systems-thinking mentality.

“The goal here is not so much education reform, as it is community reform. And by community, we are referring to the global system of human interactions- working to teach people how to learn and better understand one another”, says Corlett.

The group began with the intention of reforming the way that classes were taught in the Continuing Education department at the University of Virginia. After two years of success, the rest of the University caught on and spread this type of curriculum development and student participation to the other Colleges at the University. The idea was that by developing and fostering such a learning environment in the school, it would spread out to the business world and eventually to everyday life. “Its like the ultimate corporate accountability”, says one business student who has remained with the program since its inception. “By changing the way we, as a community learn, we can slowly make positive changes such as creating more ethical and democratic business structures.” While that has yet to be seen, there have been democratic-like changes that have taken place at the university level that may be an indication that their trickle-down theory might be successful.

This class/organization truly is a community effort, involving everyone from local leaders, teachers, business experts and on occasion they have even been known to include stay-at-home-parents. In this program, everyone is a contributor with good ideas. Originally, the professors had conceived an “open seat” which would allow one individual from outside the class to participate each week. Eventually it was decided that each guest would need to attend multiple sessions in order to have adequate feedback. By having the guest return to consecutive sessions, they could share learnings and further insight once they had a concept and structure (or lack thereof) of the class/organization in mind.

The functioning of the class/organization is not traditional, at all. They meet anywhere that is conducive to learning, ranging from local parks when the weather is nice, to coffee houses, shopping malls, abandoned railway cars and even the local Super Wal-Mart. “The varying locations stimulate creativity and each different environment will often inspire different members of the group to speak. By recognizing the unique thoughts, opinions and ideas of each individual, we create a comfortable work environment that truly precipitates learning”, remarks a new student. “It helps when these relationships between the members are fostered early.” The class/organization continues to reinvent itself as much as it reinvents the world around it.

Both Kessler and Corlett, along with their teams of students have already been awarded a litany of regional grants and awards. When the awards are mentioned the group just smiles and one student replies, “We’re just in the business of learning to learn and sharing our findings with others. It’s not that we know more than everyone else, it’s just that we take the time to pay attention to the learning itself. The end result is a better community. It always goes back to learning.”

The Organization That Learns, Proceeds to Succeed

By Janet Centini, Trisha Gordon, and Raymond Kram

Charlottesville, May 6 - Benjamin Franklin once said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” These simple words resonated five years ago with the founders of ISSS 476 as they envisioned what their revolutionary college course could become. One thing they knew for sure, out of the myriad number of things they were not certain about, theirs would be an organization whose primary purpose was to evolve. To do that, they understood that they would need to create a culture that fostered learning both on an individual level and on the organizational level. So, with much anticipation and excitement, they embarked into the realm of possibilities of what their organization would become…and what it is still becoming.

It all began back in the spring semester of 2005 in the ISSS-476 – Organizations That Learn class. One of the first things the instructors repeated to the students during the first session was, “Warning: we don’t know what we are going to do or what will happen in this course. We will decide together.” Right way, the room was filled with a mixture of shock and awe. Immediately, the ambiguousness of the instructions caused some students to become anxious, while others saw a unique opportunity to learn. And, from the initial chaos, those students’ mind-meld proved fruitful for all ISSS 476 participants. Indeed, in the final analysis, this article is truly about what those students did to make this learning experiment exceed expectations.

At their 5 th year anniversary, ISSS 476 students regrouped with their course facilitators, Dr. Glen Kessler and Dr. John Corlet, to not only reminisce about the program, but more importantly to discuss its proven learning processes that continue to steer ISSS 476’s driving success. Janet, Trisha, and Raymond are three of the original twenty members of the first ISSS 476 class. This article reflects their findings.

Who are we now and what have we accomplished since our genesis in 2005? Aside from being students and instructors of the first Organizations That Learn class, we are friends; we are stakeholders; we are diverse in talent and aptitude. We continue to endeavor to become the “embodiment of community,” as social thinker Dee Hock aptly points out is “the organization of the future.” Most importantly, we continue to build lasting relationships based on trust and a passionate conviction for becoming the best we can be…continuously.

Critically, we continuously strive to become an organization that embodies community. Doing so, we understand that fundamentally, the process of organizational learning is ever continuing. Once the learning organization ceases to learn and to challenge itself, it implodes, only to be consumed by stagnation and entrenching ideas and perceptions.

Thus, it is vital that the learning organization strive to challenge its members’ and participants’ perceptions and attitudes regarding issues such as community participation and contribution. To successfully create a flourishing learning environment, then and now, organization coordinators do right by facilitating a thriving culture of inclusivity, transparency, intelligent action-taking, and constructive reflection. Finally, members collectively implement best practices while shedding failed practices.

The organization with an environment where trust, respect, and intelligent risk-taking are married with characteristics as professional competence, technical ability, and skills-development fosters innovation, transparency, and an organization that is capable of learning. To this end, the class of ISSS 476 facilitated stakeholder buy-in, sincere collaboration, and a lot of initial work. However, once their mission was implemented, an organizational culture cultivated on a commitment toward learning began to blossom as ISSS 476 members continuously nourished it with their unique contributions.

Why was it important to us to create such an organization? The answer to this question lies in our mission statement:

To think locally, and act globally (build strong local communities while being aware that what we do here has a significant impact outside our communities).

To embrace and celebrate diversity (diversity in perceptions, backgrounds, as well as ideas).

To be a part of, and build, a stronger, better global community (by starting with ourselves, as well as within our communities building first from within and then concentrically affecting others as we move outward).

To ensure the survival of our organization (by continuously building an organization that learns and by challenging new and old members and participants not to settle for the comfortable and the stagnant).

To have fun! (Need more be said?)

How did we ever hope to accomplish these lofty goals? First, we had to surface and confront many of our assumptions about organizations, about group work and cooperation, and about ourselves. We had to ask ourselves what we wanted out of being a part of a learning, evolving organization. Next, we developed and tested a set of core values to guide our efforts and by which we could measure our success. These are values that we believe foster sustainability, adaptability, and diversity in our organization:

As you can imagine, the prospect of all this soul searching and uncertainty was bit terrifying for many of us. Yet, with patience and a commitment to celebrate each other’s accomplishments as well as mistakes, we accepted the challenge and embarked on our creative, if chaotic journey to becoming. It began as a slow, painstaking process that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t…as learning so often happens.

What we have been able to produce is an organization that is organic, fluid. It evolves in response to its environment and so long as it able to do so, it will survive.

An Organization That Learned to Inspire Continuous Discovery:
“Work of Art” Tool Kit Changes How Adults Learn

By Kara Miller, John Ryan, and Ann Witkower
May 5, 2010

        CHARLOTTESVILLE – What began as a small seminar class in an adult degree program and became the prototype for a new type of learning in universities all along the East Coast celebrated its fifth anniversary today.

        “Organizations That Learn,” led by the University of Virginia’s John Corlett and Glenn Kessler, was an experiment to see if class members themselves, along with their instructors, could become a learning organization. To help them focus on what they wanted to accomplish, the group took inspiration from the artist Michelangelo’s words: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” As student/instructor John Ryan put it, “Essentially, we started with a view of ourselves as a block of stone containing an unknown work of art. Once the extraneous is chipped away, the underlying work is revealed.”

        Another student/instructor, Kara Miller, added, “All involved felt free to assume the roles of student or instructor as the project unfolded, with the goal of identifying those extraneous elements that we hypothesized were barriers to learning.” At the celebration, participants mentioned anxiety, apathy, and fear of failure as some of the barriers that needed to be faced and overcome so that learning could occur. Their prior classroom experience, they said, had convinced them that the prototypical university class—where the professor conveys expertise and opinions—does not truly promote learning.

        Class members found principles and practices that they could apply to all aspects of their lives—family, work, and other organizations of which they were a part. Their excitement spread to others in their sphere of relationships and, in response to requests, the class formulated a tool kit called “Work of Art” that has gradually been adopted by a broad spectrum of adult degree programs.

        Two key principles that the tool kit promotes are personal commitment and personal mastery. Personal commitment is the concept that each student is committed to her own learning and to the group’s learning. Personal mastery expresses the expectation that each student will pursue excellence for his own sake as well as for the group’s sake; it includes being willing to take risks, accept mistakes as part of the learning process, express opinions, and finally set aside his own opinions if necessary for the good of the group.

        According to Mr. Kessler and Mr. Corlett, all students involved in the initial project were equally responsible for producing the tool kit. Each person’s contributions proved indispensable in bringing forth the organization’s identity and creative power. Class members say they grew to know one another well enough to recognize who was gifted in which areas, and which person was needed for which task.

        Learning for the group began in the classroom but spread into surrounding Charlottesville as meetings were held in coffee shops and other atypical surroundings. Participants said that this helped them to break out of their preconceptions about learning, setting them free to be more creative and more open to new ways of seeing and interacting.

        While no specific syllabus is included in the tool kit, its basic premise has inspired East Coast adults to return to school in record numbers and has resulted in the genesis of new adult learning programs in numerous colleges and universities. The learners in the original seminar are not completely joking when they suggest that retirees may choose to trade in their social security benefits for education vouchers. This class has been known to change lives.


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