Fred Kofman & Peter M. Senge, "Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations," in Chawla & Renesch's (ed.) Learning Organizations: Developing Cultures for Tomorrow's Workplace (Portland, Oregon: Productivity Press, 1995), pp. 14-43. (Also in American Management Association, 1993.)
This article is focused upon explaining the approach adopted by MIT's Organizational Learning Center, when the Center gets involved with organizations that desire to become "learning organizations." It states that the members of such organizations should be committed to a "galilean shift" of mind, and explains what that means in terms of changes in individual values and organizational culture.
According to Kofman & Senge, building "learning organizations" --organizations which are capable of thriving in a world of interdependence and change-- requires basic shifts in how we think and interact. In this shift of mind, some of the questions which must be addressed are:
Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder?
Why do we derive our self-esteem from knowing as opposed to learning?
Why do we criticize before we even understand?
Why do we create controlling bureaucracies when we attempt to form visionary enterprises?
Why do we persist in fragmentation and piecemeal analysis as the world becomes more and more interconnected?
The Center perceives its work as an orchestrated effort to build "communities of commitment," i.e., to help build a group of organizations which are committed to make this change.
COMMITMENT TO WHAT?
Kofman & Senge argue that the main dysfunctions in today's organizations are actually by-products of their success in the past. These dysfunctions, therefore, are not problems to be solved, they are frozen patterns of thought to be dissolved. The solvent they propose is a new way of thinking, feeling and being: a culture of "systems."
In this new systems world-view, we move from the primacy of pieces to the primacy of the whole, from absolute truths to coherent interpretations, from self to community, from problem solving to creating.
Thus, by commitment, they mean "commitment to changes needed in the larger world and to seeing our organizations as vehicles for bringing about such changes."
AREAS OF CULTURAL DYSFUNCTION
FRAGMENTATION. Human kind has succeeded over time in conquering the physical world and in developing scientific knowledge by adopting an analytical method to understand problems. This method involves breaking a problem into components, studying each component in isolation, and then synthesizing the components back into a whole. Thus, we eventually became convinced that knowledge is accumulated bits of information and that learning has little to do with our capacity for effective action, our sense of self, and how we exist in our world.
According to the authors, this sort of linear thinking is becoming increasingly ineffective to address modern problems, especially important ones. In public affairs, fragmentation is making our society increasingly ungovernable.
COMPETITION. The authors also believe that we have lost the balance between competition and cooperation precisely at a time when we most need to work together.
Overemphasis on competition makes looking good more important than being good. The resulting fear of not looking good is one of the greatest enemies of learning. To learn, we need to acknowledge that there is something we don't know and to perform activities that we're not good at. But in most corporations, ignorance is a sign of weakness; temporary incompetence is a character flaw. In response, people have developed defenses that have become second nature --like working our problems in isolation, always displaying our best face in public, and never saying "I don't know."
REACTIVENESS. Moreover, people have become accustomed to changing only in reaction to outside forces. For most people, reactiveness was reinforced since childhood. We solved problems identified by others, read what was assigned, wrote what was required. Fitting in, being accepted, became more important than being ourselves. We learned that the way to succeed was to focus on the teachers' questions as opposed to our own.
Not surprisingly, our current organizations exercise authority in a way that undermines our intrinsic drive to learn. Many managers believe that management is simply problem solving. The authors argue that it is more, that it is related to creation. The problem solver tries to make something go away. A creator tries to bring something new into being.
Most leaders believe that people are willing to change only in times of crisis. Yet the wellspring of real learning is aspiration, imagination, and experimentation, i.e., continuous change is needed.
ROOTS OF OUR CULTURAL CRISIS
The triumph of reductionism and mechanical thinking has given rise to a set of conditions for which they are no longer suited. The very same skills of separation, analysis, and control that gave us the power to shape our environment are producing ecological and social crises in our outer world, and psychological and spiritual crises in our inner world. Both these crises grow out of our success in separating ourselves from the larger fabric of life.
Throughout our history as a species, the primary threats to our survival came as sudden dramatic events. Today, the primary threats to our survival are slow, gradual processes. We are poorly prepared for a world of slowly developing threats. All our instincts are to wait until the gradual changes develop into crises --when it is often too late to take effective action. Moreover, these threats were external; their causes were outside our control. Today's primary threats are all endogenous, the by-products of our own actions. The causes lie in collective behaviors and unintended side effects of actions that make individual sense.
Thus, our evolutionary programming predispose us to seeing external threats and to reactiveness. Layered onto it is a culture of fragmentation and competition, and together they hold us captive.
A GALILEAN SHIFT
David Bohm argues that the quest "to put the pieces together" is fundamentally futile when operating from a belief in the primacy of the parts." The Center's work involves exposing the limits of this analysis, and developing an alternative paradigm --one that can help to recover the memory of the whole. Three fundamental theses serve to shift our understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live.
1. THE PRIMACY OF THE WHOLE. The defining characteristic of a system is that it cannot be understood as a function of its isolated components. First, the behavior of the system doesn't depend on what each part is doing but on how each part is interacting with the rest. Second, to understand a system we need to understand how it fits into the larger system of which it is a part. Third, and most important, what we call the parts need not be taken as primary. In fact, how we define the parts is fundamentally a matter of perspective and purpose, not intrinsic in the nature of the "real thing" we are looking at.
2. THE COMMUNITY NATURE OF THE SELF. When somebody asks us to talk about ourselves, we talk about family, work, academic background, sports affiliations, etc. The self is not a thing, but a point of view that unifies the flow of experience into a coherent narrative --a narrative striving to connect with other narratives and become richer.
The constitution of the self happens only in a community. The community supports certain ways of being and constrains the expressions of individuality to certain patterns of behavior. A systems view of life suggests that the self is never "given" and is always in the process of transformation.
3. LANGUAGE AS GENERATIVE PRACTICE. We invent structures and distinctions to organize the otherwise unmanageable flow of life. That organization allows us to operate effectively, but it can become a tranquilizing barrier to exploration and creativity. The more efficient a model of the world turns out to be, the more it recedes into the background and becomes transparent. The more successful the model's strategies, the more the "map" of reality becomes "reality" itself. The danger of success is that the thinking behind it can become entrenched and disregard the necessary context of its effectiveness. When a model loses its "situation" and generalizes its validity to universal categories, it sooner or later stalls our capacity to deal freshly with the world and each other.
Those contexts that display their precarious nature, those contexts that invite revision and recreation are inherently better than those which hide their precarious nature and fight revisionist attempts. The best constructs for explaining and organizing the world will imitate life itself. They will be in a continual state of becoming.
OPERATING PRINCIPLES OF THE CENTER
THERE IS NO SUCH A THING AS A "LEARNING ORGANIZATION." When we speak of a "learning organization," we are not describing an external phenomenon or labeling an independent reality. We are articulating a view that involves us --the observers-- as much as the observed in a common system. We are taking a stand for a vision, for creating a type of organization we would truly like to work within and which can thrive in a world of increasing interdependency and change.
It is not what the vision is, but what the vision does that matters.
NEW CAPABILITIES BEYOND TRADITIONAL ORGANIZATIONS. Learning organizations must be grounded in three foundations: (1) a culture based on transcendent human values of love, wonder, humility, and compassion; (2) a set of practices for generative conversation and coordinated action; and (3) a capacity to see and work with the flow of life as a system.
As a result of these capabilities, learning organizations are both more generative and more adaptive than traditional organizations. Because of their commitment, openness, and ability to deal with complexity, people find security not in stability but in the dynamic equilibrium between holding on and letting go --holding on and letting go of beliefs, assumptions, and certainties. What they know takes second place to what they can learn.
COMMUNITIES OF SERVANT LEADERS. In learning organizations, the leaders are those building the new organization and its capabilities. Such leadership is inevitably collective.
The clash of collective leadership and hierarchical leadership nonetheless poses a core dilemma for leaning organizations. The dilemma can become a source of energy and imagination through the idea of "servant leadership," people who lead because they chose to serve, both to serve one another and to serve a higher purpose.
LEARNING ARISES THROUGH PERFORMANCE AND PRACTICE. It will be necessary to redesign work if the types of ideas developed here are to find their way into the mainstream of management practice. The authors believe that a guiding idea for redesigning work will be virtual leaning spaces --places were people experiment, rehearse and practice.
PROCESS AND CONTENT ARE INSEPARABLE.
LEARNING IS DANGEROUS. The learning required in becoming a learning organization is "transformational learning." In it, there are no problems "out there" to be solved independent of how we think and act in articulating these problems. Such learning is not ultimately about tools and techniques. It is about who we are. We often prefer to fail again and again rather than let go of some core belief or master assessment. Only with the support, insight, and fellowship of a community can we face the dangers (or internal threats) of learning meaningful things.
THE ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING CENTER
The Center accomplishes its work using a three-stage process: (1) predisposition --finding those organizations predisposed to engage in this work; (2) community-building activities; and (3) practical experimentation and testing.
Prepared by Aldo Santos.
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