My Theory of Organizational Learning LO30797

From: Richard Karash (
Date: 11/23/03

[LOers, this is the item I mentioned by I distributed Grady's seminar
announcement LO30796. ..Rick]

Theory Underlying Organizational Learning
by: Richard Karash

DRAFT for Review and comment on the learning-org list; please do not
quote or redistribute; instead, please contact me for an up-to-date
copy. Copyright 2003 Richard Karash.

In the mid 90's, I encountered David Kantor in a very interesting
model building project at Innovation Associates, Inc. The aim was to
create and document IA's model of team learning.

The language and activities of the project team were quite confusing
to me. This was a hint that I might learn something from these people!
(I'm quite serious in this comment.)

This year, when Grady McGonagill mentioned that he had done Kantor's
extended seminar and would offer a seminar of his own, I jumped at the

I participated in Grady's seminar during 2003 and found it stimulating
and demanding. For me, it resulted in significant insights and
adjustments to the way I approach my work. During the seminar period,
I have been much more aware of myself in the world, continually
asking, "Is this consistent with my model? What does this tell me
about my model?" Grady is remarkable in his support and coaching of
the seminar participants. If you are looking for an opportunity for
serious personal reflection on your work, this is a good place to

This document attempts to document my reflections on my model during
the past six months.

The subject matter is me, my actions, and my views of how the world
works. When I try to talk about any of these, I am abstracting from
the actual experience... that's a model in the sense of Grady's and
Kantor's seminars.

I am most grateful to Grady and to the other participants in the
seminar for the reflection I have been enjoying.

After thinking about this a bit, I have decided to share this with my
friends and colleagues on the learning-org discussion list.

There are various ways to approach the question "Overall, What is the
Theory Underlying Organizational Learning."

I wanted, in particular, to address the question of what is MY theory
as part of a personal model-building effort. I'm less interested in
the question of what is the theory of any particular author, or
whether there are different "camps" in the field, except to the extent
it helps me sharpen my own views.

In Argyris' terms, I am much more interested in my "theory-in-use"
than in my "theory espoused."

I approached this question by addressing: "What do we actually do in
the org learning field, and in particular, what do I do when I work in
the field? What theories would lead to that kind of action?" Here are
my notes from that examination, and from the several conversations
about this.

I published an earlier draft in Grady McGonagill's "Model Building"

The Theory Underlying Organizational Learning
  1. People tend to wallow in shallowness. This tends to be a stable
situation unless and until provoked. Alone, few will rise to serious
reflection on meaningful issues; for many life is just to be lived.
There is joy in just going with the flow.

  2. Most people will rise to seriousness if provoked skillfully.

  3. In our experience, we find some things that are successful
stimulation for #2, that is, things that succeed in provoking people
to seriousness. Some of these serve as useful ongoing exercises for
those so provoked:

   - Visioning: think about your life exactly the way you want it to
be, talk about what you really care about
   - Conversations: listen to others talk about what they really care
   - Centering: reaching a meditative state of heightened
concentration and awareness
   - Great Life Events: life-changing events can provoke reflection,
but these are generally not under our control

  4. Personal Mastery: Some ways of thinking are more powerful than
other ways. What we carry in our mind tends to become realized. The
"unbendable arm" Aikido exercise illustrates this. This can be
developed and strengthened by practice. (See #6 below.)

  5. It is more engaging and energizing to figure out something
yourself than to hear someone else describe their analysis of the
system and it's dysfunctions. This is true even if that "someone else"
is an expert whose analysis may be more insightful than your own.

  6. Capacities (skills, abilities) for learning and for depth are
missing for many people. These skills can be developed like the way
muscles can be strengthened. Practice, instruction in specific
methods, and coaching all help develop these capacities. Reading about
the theory of doing so has little effect.

  6a. The org learning field seems based fundamentally on an
assumption that the important skills are developable. Kiefer, Senge
and other practitioners state an extreme position, "If you care enough
about something, you will be able to learn whatever is required to
realize it." A slightly more moderate position would be, "If you care
enough about something, amazing developments in capacity are
possible." This is well demonstrated in our experience!

  6a1. The "developable" point of view is opposed to the "some are
born with it" point of view. Operating in day to day life, this is
illustrated by the tension between "development" and "selection"
approaches to filling capability gaps in an organization.

  6b. There is great joy and energy in learning skills. "The drive to
learn may be more powerful than the drive to reproduce." (Senge,
speeches in the mid 90's)

  7. Most org learning work is based on the premise that "It's a depth
problem (i.e. are we serious enough about it) as well as a learning
problem (the need to learn certain behaviors and skills)." The
organizational learning approach is distinguished by addressing
"depth" as well as "skill."

  8. Living systems are structurally determined systems (Maturana).
That is, a wide range of stimuli can cause a living system to make a
response, but the nature of the response is determined by the internal
structure of the living system and not by the stimulus itself.

  8a. A corollary I draw: I can not reliably cause another human being
to do anything significant. I can stimulate to produce a response, but
I cannot reliably determine the response.

  8b. Behavior in human systems is emergent, and inherently difficult
to control.

  9. Awareness is curative. Or is it? The theory is, once aware of
something, most human beings tend to address it. Several authors say,
roughly, "When a gap is identified, people learn to reduce the gap."
This is a very contentious theory... It is demonstrably untrue in many
examples, people discover gaps and the gaps are stable. But much work
in org learning and knowledge management seems based on the theory
that awareness will be curative. I believe it takes more than
awareness. I belive it takes awareness, relationships, depth, and

  9a. Maslow said that "peak experiences" include these three
elements: meaningful goal, realistic appraisal of self, other people
care. Csikszentmihalyi offers the concept of "flow" which appears
similar. Org Learning is based on the notion that these provide energy
to a person, and that this is a desirable state: highly energized,
clear about what we are trying to create, highly skilled, taking great
personal reward and satisfaction from the flow. My favorite science
fiction characters are depicted this way (e.g. by authors William
Gibson, Neal Stephenson).

  9b. There is great joy in creating (Fritz).

  10. "There is nothing as powerful as a good theory." Daniel Kim and
(?) Einstein. Also Charles Sanders Peirce. That is, by considering
our experience in the world, by trying to explain why and how things
happen, we can create theories of how the world works that help us be
more effective in the world. This is Senge's "fifth discipline" (the
discipline itself, not the book).

  10a. Forrester believed that without considerable skill and
extraordinary intelligence, we would create misleading models and
generally make things worse. Deming talks about tampering.

  10b. Karash, Goodman, Senge believe that model-building (in the
sense of #10 above) is an important personal learning process even at
basic levels, and we teach this as "systems thinking." Forrester
thinks it is not possible to teach systems thinking in the short
learning programs we deliver.

   11. Differential Impact... Our systems present a wide variety of
intervention possibilities. Research on dynamic systems shows that
interventions in different places have vastly differing effects. In
most places, our interventions will be ineffective, counteracted by
balancing loops (negative feedback).

  11a. Leverage... In a few places, a small effort can produce a large
benefit. This is leverage. The alternatives are brute force (attacking
everything) or Pareto (making a list of concerns and addressing these
in priority order.) In my theory, leverage is essential in the modern
world: we cannot be effective enough by brute force or by Pareto.

  11a. Usually, optimizing within a given system structure is low
leverage. High leverage requires changing the system structure.

  12. Distributed thinking... People close to the problem have
essential knowledge that cannot be held at higher levels. Operating in
a way that engages and harnesses collective wisdom is more powerful
than top-down, Anthony-style, operation. More powerful than an expert
model, such as Michael Hammer's reengineering. The Society for
Organizational Learning includes this point in its Purpose and
Principles as "Localness."

  13. Communities of thought... In addressing any problem or issue,
people tend to group into communities of like thinking, and a form of
competition ensues between the communities. The competition is based
on their results (data, science) and on their ability to articulate
their point of view persuasively (media, charisma, leadership). For
example, consider the differing schools of thought about diet and
weight management. (This particular piece of my theory was suggested
by a colleague, Mark McElroy.)

  14. Teaching, Student ready... You cannot teach someone else
anything unless they are open to the instruction and open to learning.
(Joke: How many OD consultants does it take to change a light-bulb?
Only one, but the light-bulb must be ready to change.)


  15. One nice way to explore theory is to state one, and then
consider what would be the alternative theory, the opposite theory.

  16. It is uncomfortable for me to write this outline and distribute
it. I feel I might be perceived as pompous. "Who is he to try to write
down the theory of organizational learning!" As a result, I and we
avoid making our theory explicit, even privately, and we do not
articulate it.

Richard Karash

Eastman Pond, Thursday June 12, 2003. Updated at Eastman Pond,
October 30, 2003. Updated in Washington DC, November 18, 2003.


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