Organizations That Learn



What’s a hypothesis? What differentiates a hypothesis from an axiom, a principle, a fundamental truth, a fact, a belief, an assumption, or a hope?

What makes something a hypothesis is an attitude or an approach. There is no intrinsic quality in the world or our society that marks certain things as hypotheses and others not. Hypotheses are one of the things in the world over which we can exercise control. Something is a hypothesis because we deem it so and treat it with the respect and circumspect due a hypothesis. To own something as a hypothesis is to seriously open ourselves to new possibilities - the possibilities that things both are and are not as the hypothesis predicts – and then to engage in serious exploration of these possibilities. Owning and seeing something as a hypothesis has two parts: 1) seriously opening ourselves up and fully understanding new possibilities and 2) actively investigating (confirming and disconfirming) these possibilities.

Organizations That Learn is a course about creating and exploring hypotheses. On one level we will, as a class, investigate a host of “standard” hypotheses about how organizations learn, how they don’t, why some thrive and others fail, etc. But we’ll do more. We’ll enforce a constant appreciation that this class itself is an organization. This means that the hypotheses we investigate should apply no less to our own class than they do to any business, volunteer group, social, religious , or other organization. It also means that the assumptions we bring into the classroom about what organizations are and how they learn will have to be thrown into the mix and investigated as relevant hypotheses.

Each person in this class (instructors included) carries into it a set of framing ideas that define his or her image what a class is, what a classroom is, what an instructor is, etc. Unless we explicitly examine these assumptions we run the risk of tacitly building into this class a set of assumptions that may guarantee its failure as a learning organization. We will therefore, as a class, attempt to surface and treat as many of our assumptions as possible as hypotheses to be tested. We will treat them as suggestions about possibilities for the class rather than necessary constraints and limits.

This attitude itself reflects a set of hypotheses that the instructors bring into the class. These are some of the driving ideas behind this course. One is the hypothesis is that learning requires constant reflection on the assumptions that we bring to the process. Deep (or generative) learning comes with not just the accumulation of information but from insight into how and why we are engaged in the process. Another hypothesis is that learning is inseparable from conversation. Learning and thinking are collective exercises which can best (or only) be done through sharing of ideas and receiving feedback. A third hypothesis is that true learning requires some degree of chaos and unpredictability. Learning cannot be fully planned or scripted. Chaos is to learning what spices are to cooking; it’s possible to do without but the results are always unsatisfactory. Of course, in both cases, finding the right balance is critical.

In their Art of Possibility Bernard and Rosamond Zander refer to the world we construct through our unexamined hypotheses, the world in which we normally live, as “the measurement world.” It’s a world of black and white, us and them, good and evil, obvious boundaries, and clear contrasts. It’s a world in which each thing has a definite place and a clearly specifiable role and the effectiveness of each part in that role can be accurately measured and quantified. Either you “measure up” or you don’t. It’s a world of objective standards and, hence objective standard setters (or at, least, objective standard knowers). The Zanders contrast this measurement world with another, the universe of possibility. They suggest that “In the measurement world you set a goal and strive for it, in the universe of possibility you set a context and let life unfold.”

Perhaps the fundamental hypothesis underlying this course is that one standard approach to learning – the one thoroughly embedded in the measurement world and familiar from so many classes we’ve all taken – is not the only possibility. OTL was designed to test this hypothesis. Instead of setting goals to which students are expected to strive, it’s designed to collaboratively establish a context in which the semester will unfold. In doing so we hypothesize that we’ll come away with important insights about if and how organizations learn and hypothesize that we’ll actually create our own learning organization along the way. These results are neither known nor guaranteed. All that’s required is your commitment to fully participate, let things unfold, surface and test your own hypothesis and reflect on the process.



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