Organizations That Learn


Journal Notes

This is my own ongoing personal Journal of thoughts and hypotheses about Organizations that Learn. Everything is subject to change. It’s intended as a platform for further development rather than a fixed blueprint for the course. Please excuse the typos and myriad solecisms. Much of this is close to stream of consciousness. – GK


GK's OTL Journal

“If divisions, dualisms, and polar opposites didn’t exist in nature, we would simply make them up. And we did."

Date: 10/27/2004

Scenarios. The idea is to engage participants from the start in building the course. This will create a shared vision of where we want to go and a shared story about how we’ll get there. One approach would be “scenario planning.” Scenario planning can be done in different ways. In one version the facilitators, after a considerable amount of “breathing in”, construct alternative scenarios as a framework participant discussion. These scenarios lay out conditions that obtain in possible futures. They offer a set of “environmental boundary conditions” that force participants to consider varying “operating assumptions.” In another version, the participants are used to create the scenarios themselves. Participants (in groups) develop the alternative possible futures. This discussion could be seeded through a goal brainstorm or different groups could be assigned specific scenario labels: ranging from “Nirvana” to “Painfully Pedestrian.” Kahane’s discussion of the development of the four Mont Fleur scenarios (ostrich, lame duck, icarus, flight of the flamingoes) could be instructive here. Some adaptation of the Weisbord “future search” or “open space” techniques may also work.

Basics. The overarching theme of the course is a reflexive one: how can we – the participants in the seminar – build a class that is itself a successful learning organization. Presumably, in order to do this, we’ll need to agree on a few basics as a class to ensure we’re moving in the same direction:

Both constellations of questions require a careful consideration of the role of environment in which the organization lives and its relationship to that environment. Beyond this we’ll probably want to look with a critical eye at what others have said about organizations that learn. Obvious topics might include

Since the ultimate goal of the seminar is to build as well as study learning organizations, nearly everything has to be up for grabs – content as well as structure. It would be an easy matter for the instructors to tacitly import certain assumptions about learning that defeat the practical goal. Unexamined hypothesis can be especially dangerous in this environment. They exemplify one of the articulated hypotheses about barriers to true learning. An especially potent area concerns grading. It may be that the traditional approach to grading is essentially incompatible with the model of learning we want to implement. The connection between organizational success and individual success needs to be examined. This may be one of the outcomes of the early phase of the course.

Structural Outline. One possible outline for the structure of the course:

Date: 10/29/2004

Notes. Conner & Clawson, “Creating a Learning Culture,” Transforming Culture (Darden: Batten Institute), June 2002

Includes a quick overview of adult learning. Argues that technology can aid learning but learning among adults is essentially a social enterprise:

“People need information … and they can get it only by working with others whom they respect. … learning for adults is less about taking in new information than it is about connecting with people who help put that information in context and suggest new ways of understanding it. This social aspect is central to the way people learn at work. In fact, it is the central feature of a learning culture.”

To what degree is this true in the classroom as well? What does this tell us about the respective roles of the instructor and student?

Conner & Clawson also talk about learning as adaptation and learning well as “aggressive adaptation.”

A useful metaphor from Donald Schon: high hard ground with “manageable problems [that] lend themselves to solution through the application of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowland, messy, confusing problems defy technical solutions. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large ... while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern.” (8) It’s worthwhile to complement this with Kahane’s trifold definition of complexity: generative (non-predictability) , causal (non-proximate effects), social (non-uniform values, goals, approaches).

There’s an obvious connection between learning and evolution, both figurative and literal. Dennett ( CE) discusses this in some detail. The Baldwin effect and then neurological plasticity accelerates the learning curve from evolutionary time to an individual’s lifetime (three “levels” of evolution). What’s the analog for an organization? What constitutes the “genetic predisposition” and the neural flexibility? What goes for the origin or transformation of the species in this setting?

Date: 10/29/2004

Communities of practice. See Snyder & Wenger. Functional structure with instructor student v “communities of practice” as the driving engine of the course. These might capture domans such as education (learning), IT, team learning, systems thininking or they might divide into types of organization. The key is to find something about which groups of students share a common passion. Each community is supplied with the “tools” required to move forward in their contribution to the overall group effort (blog, discussion group, etc.)

Topics/Themes.We might want to make tension the overarching theme of the seminar. There’s some central about tension and stretch (see Senge, FD). We might examine tension in terms of organizational culture dimensions (see Schein), learning, personality and intelligence types, structures (hierarchy, etc.), more general concepts. In particular we could use the overarching tension between order and chaos as a container for the semester.

Date: 11/3/04

Organizations that learn. An organization learns – or learn in a certain way – because of its attitude towards learning. This includes its understanding of what learning means, why learning is important, the relationship it bears to the ultimate goals of the organization, etc. This attitude is embodied in and supported by the culture of the organization. It’s perhaps tautological that a culture of learning yields an organization that learns but it’s nonetheless instructive. It points in the right direction. Building a successful learning organization involves building the appropriate culture in the organization.

Organizations. Organizations are systems of a certain kind. Among their other traits they are systems organized for a purpose – systems designed (intentionally or not) to reach a certain goal. They share this with organisms generally. The lowest common denominator goal – the “final goal” of organisms generally is survival. In the service of survival organisms adapt and pursue subsidiary goal. There’s no mystery here, just an evolutionary explanation. Those organisms that don’t have their priorities straight (e.g., the make pleasure rather than survival the primary goal) don’t live to tell about it. What’s the goal of the organization that we’re trying to build? We can start with the lowest common denominator and work out from there: survival. We want to make it through a 14-week semester. This is, I think, about as ambitious a goal as we sometimes set for a course. It will do if it has to. But, as a group, we can begin to develop some further more specific and elaborate goals for this organization. Categories might include

Scenario planning. It might be useful to consider goal in a more general context. There are many ways that the class can play out. Scenarios can take two forms: facilitator generated context scenarios used as an aid to envisioning possible futures; participant generated possible outcomes that serve as a starting point for group discussion. The latter implicitly embody goals and objectives.

Date: 11/12/2004

Core topics. Some sort of common context or shared framework will be necessary to as platform. The following core topics are possible areas, perhaps developed by groups, communities of interest, etc.:

Date: 11/15/2004

Holographic metaphor. One possibility is to use the “holographic metaphor” as laid out in Images of Organizations (94) as a rough “blue print” – a sort of initial platform for building the course. Morgan’s “principles of holographic” design are good starting points or “framework markers” for what we want to do:

Goals. As part of this framework an initial consideration of the culture of explicit goals (or targets) and measurement v. value-based boundaries (or limits) might be a great way to start the course. What is our purpose? Survival? Does it have anything to do with process? Does it place any constraints on process? By setting explicit goals to what degree to we undermine the longer term “global” objectives in which we are engaged? What are they? Why are we in the classroom? All of these could serve as a good starting point for discussing our “strategic direction,” time horizon, environmental constraints, etc.

Date: 11/21/2004

Start at the end. Start by giving out the Course Evaluation Form. Look at it and think about it. Brainstorm the assumptions upon which it is based; e.g., assumptions about

Do these assumptions foster or block learning? Do the support or subvert the mission we are here to pursue? What is that mission? Why are we here? What’s our purpose? How does that purpose differ from a specific list of “goals” we might to present to you for this course? What other assumptions do we bring to the table (note the metaphor) that might inhibit learning? And how is this learning related to our learning system in or beyond “the table.” What is the table at which we need to sit to best accomplish learning?

Puzzlement. Plato argued persuasively that the first step towards learning is puzzlement and uncertainty. Before you can learn you must admit ignorance. A person who thinks he or she knows an answer will not look for it. A person who is confident in a particular solution will not question the assumptions on which it rests. This course begins in puzzlement. It began with a question to which we have no answer:

Our idea for this course was to use the class itself as a laboratory in which to reflexively explore this question. By attempting to build “the perfect learning environment” we will inevitably run into roadblocks. By evaluating both the barriers and our responses to them, we can generate our own answers to the above questions and, in so doing, address a broad set of related questions.

So we have two threads to consider: the content of the course and the process. As I’ve just described, in thinking about this course we started in a very non-traditional way; we started with the process. But it also seemed to us that it would be helpful to investigate material about the very problem that our experiment was designed to address: organizations that learn.

Four questions. What’s makes a learning environment work? What allows an organization to learn? In this context it may be useful to introduce a framework suggested by Hock. He suggests, in building an organization, it’s critical to use four perspectives. We must consider things as they were; things as they are; things as they might become; things as they ought to be. This could be a very useful tool for consolidating our own thoughts about what we want the class to look like, which possible future we want to pursue.

Purpose. Let’s begin at the beginning. We have fourteen weeks to do something that sustains and builds on our collaborative energy and intelligence. What do you want to do? What is your purpose for coming here tonight, for enrolling in this course, for pursuing the BIS program, for joining the University community? Were do we want to go and where do we want to be in May? What can we do, build, create together that will allow us to explore the process of organizational learning. What is our reason for being? Let’s not consider how we’ll achieve the purpose, or whether we have the required knowledge and tools. Let’s instead focus on whether we can define a shared sense of what we want out of the semester and the framing principles that will guide us along the trip.

Date: 12/02/2004

Texts. Ask each student to choose one text or article as the focus of discussion for (part of) a session. The class is responsible for exploring its connections to our purpose and topic. (This could also be done as a group activity; e.g., all texts related to a group-selected area supporting a “communities of practice” theme.) The only condition on the reading is that the one who selects it finds it personally important (meaningful) and it has had some sort of impact on them. (It should also be readable in one or two weeks; e.g., Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason won’t work.) As an example, I might choose the Nietzsche “Truth and Lies,” the Forrester “Counterintuitive Consequences” article, the Meadows “Dancing With Systems” article, or Senge’s Presence.


… and contexts. One of the dualisms most critical to understanding organizations is system/environment. This is paralleled in the foreground/background context/content distinctions. The important of “context” (and the very legitimacy of this distinction) should be a central thread of the course. (e.g., see Farson, Management of the Absurd, “Technology of Human Relations,” and game example in Clawson)

Date: 12/02/2004 (w JC)

Texts. Texts for the course will be a collaborative effort. John and I will order one text each from the bookstore that we have found personally meaningful and played a transformation role in our thinking. As background we’ll also order Images of Organizations. We’ll decide how together if and how these texts will be used in the course. They’ll be classified as “Recommended” rather than “Required” reading.

Inspirations. We’ll ask each participant for recommendations for personally meaningful material that is somehow related to the topic. The relation does not have to be clear. Some sort of vague and intuitive connection is probably preferable. These recommendation can come from any genre, area, discipline, etc. We’ll also provided additional recommendations. Essentially this will be material that has collectively inspired our thinking on the topic. We’ll decide together what to do with these readings and how to integrate them into the course.

Purpose. We need to begin at the beginning: “Why are we here?” “What are we doing here?” The answer to this question will provide a purpose. Exploring possible answers will be the starting point of the course. In conjunction with the purpose we’ll also need to develop the general principles that will guide our behavior and action. (See Hock, “Prologue”) We anticipate that a guided discussion of purpose and principles will extend of one or two classes. Once this is established, we’ll be able to develop a more detailed plan for the class.

Evaluation. We’ll decide collectively about evaluation for the course. Like everything else in the course, our first pass will be a hypothesis to be tested throughout the semester. Specific projects, “deliverables,” group activities, etc. are part of this decision. Like everything else in the course, our first pass will be a hypothesis to be tested throughout the semester. That said, it’s likely that we will ask each student to develop his or her own hypothesis about some aspect of learning organizations early in the semester, publish this hypothesis for comment, use the course as a test bed for evaluating the hypothesis, keep an ongoing electronic Journal containing observations, solicit feedback from others in the class and periodically refine the hypothesis. Should we decide to divide into smaller groups this will provide an additional laboratory for testing the hypothesis.

Caveat. This course will probably be very different from anything you’ve experienced at the University. Our topic is organizations that learn. Everything else is up for grabs. What we explore, how we explore it, the guidelines that inform the exploration, the participants sharing the exploration, the structure and organization of the exploration, what constitutes success, etc. will all be collaboratively defined. As part of this process we’ll try to surface and call into question as many “common sense” assumptions as possible about what organizations in general, and a class in particular, ought to be. If we make a conscious decision to discard an assumption (e.g., if we decide to eliminate the standard instructor student distinction) we’ll examine the consequences and treat this is another hypothesis to test. After this planning phase, we’ll work together to actually create an organization based upon these idea. As we do we’ll continually evaluate what’s working and what’s not making improvements as necessary.

The results of this experiment cannot be predicted (e.g., we don’t even know what texts we’ll use) and may not be acceptable to everyone enrolled in the course. Whatever we come up with, in order for it to succeed, everyone must be equally committed to its success. For this reason we may, if necessary, consider offering a more tradition “default option” that allows students who opt out an alternative and more traditional path to a grade.

Our goals. As instructors we have two very different sorts of goals for this experiment. First, we hope to investigate what it means for an organization to learn, be they businesses, churchs, families, societies, or any other group in which members share a purpose. Second, and most important, we will collaboratively, try to create an environment that fosters learning and that sustains and magnifies our natural desire to learn. That is, we want to explore the dynamics of an ideal learning environment. We want to create as well as explore an organization that learns.

Date: 12/21/2004

Games From :

How is building and working in an organization like playing a game? Is a game a useful metaphor to use in thinking of learning organizations? I'm not just taking about "family resemblance" here. I'm thinking about some real insight into what gives life, energy and purpose to organizations. There's a lot of interesting work on content vs. context, center v. periphery, local v. global, order v. chaos, part v. whole, function v community, etc. in relation to organizational learning. What do games have to tell us about this? To what extent can they be used to illustrate in action some of the theoretical insights about organizations that learn?

Games can provide a framework for the first class. They offer both a metaphor and a tool; a metaphor for what an organization is and a tool for creating one. Playing a game for an hour or so will provide a rich pool of material on which to base a subsequent general discussion about what organizations are, how they work, how they don’t and, maybe, how they ought to work. This will also accelerate the “bonding” period required for participants to reach an appropriate comfort and trust level. A one-hour board game is probably equivalent to 5 or 6 class discussion sessions.

Games & organizations Some random thoughts & discussion points

Open chair The class will have an “open chair” for visitors and other participants based on interest or expertise with respect to particular topics. Visitors could be professors (June West has volunteered, also consider Clawson, Kehoe, Megibow, Horniman, etc), community members ( Linden, VOP member, Melanie Snyder, etc.) or anyone else. The class would determine and then locate the sorts of expertise required for given topics.

Local expertise Each student could be responsible for developing “local expertise” on one or two topic areas over the course of the semester, presumably bridging individual interest and the subject matter of the course. The topic area could relate to the student’s hypothesis discussed above.

Date: 12/21/2004 – “First Class Thoughts”

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