Learning organization without management's support? LO30497

From: Malcolm Burson (mburson@gwi.net)
Date: 08/22/03

Replying to LO30442 --

In answer to Shawna's request in LO30419,
>how does one continue to encourage and develop a group of individuals
>within an organization that lacks a "learning organization" environment?,

Alan Cotterell wrote,
> You can be a 'change agent' in your organisation, but beware! Many senior
> managers are paranoid, and an identifiable group with an agenda can be
> perceived as a threat. If you can get a group of three people together
> and reach common ground on the issues confronting your organisation, you
> might be able to influence your CEO. If you can't do this, I suggest you
> should step back and leave this area alone.
> Change must come with your CEOs commitment. He is your leader, and it
> doesn't matter how much following you get, if he doesn't agree/approve
> your mission can end with one blow and several redundancies.
> The middle managers in your organisation may be followed by several
> obsequious syncophants - all self- serving. If they are there, your
> mission can be perceived as very unwelcome, in particular, when you 'go
> over their heads'.

Allow me to offer an alternative view, as Alan and I have disagreed about
this subject several times before. I know his experience is gloomy; mine
is less so.

Let me suggest, following particularly Tony DiBella's recent work (see
"The Systems Thinker" 14/6, August, 2003), that all organizations learn,
and, as he says, "the notion of the learning organization is as redundant
as that of hot steam or a breathing mammal. Organizations don't have to
be developed so they can learn; they already do." He goes on to suggest
(which squares with my experience) that "learning occurs through the
natural social interaction of people being and working together."

If this is so, then one approach, Shawna, is to identify those
"communities of practice" anywhere in the organization which are
struggling to find opportunities for reflection, exchange, and focused
learning, and help to strengthen them. CEO's and middle managers are
probably irrelevant in this context: if people are eager to learn, they
cannot be stamped out, merely forced underground. And as I see it,
"change" operates the same way. CEOs neither control nor are required to
endorse change, except at the most formal level. Increasingly, I'm coming
to trust the notion that like all living systems, organizations are, and
have within them a range of, emergent phenomena. So find where change and
learning are happening, and do whatever you're able to support the vibrant
exchange of information and knowledge in a web of relationships.

Frankly, I refuse to bow down to the negativity expressed in phrases like
Alan's "paranoid senior managers" and "obsequious sycophants." This sort
of labeling and demonizing serves no useful purpose. And, if Deming was
right, that 90% of apparent "performance" problems are not attributable to
individual behavior, but to system conditions, then there are good
systemic reasons why CEO or middle manager behavior is not supportive of
learning. They are, after all, the products of the system they inhabit,
and frequently less influential than we tend to believe.. Perhaps if we
stop attributing stupidity or malevolence to those with whom we disagree,
and imagine that from their point of view, their actions are rational and
appropriate, we can find leverage to create a system in which their
learning serves others.

What do others think?

Malcolm Burson
Director of Special Projects
Maine Department of Environmental Protection



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