My Theory of Organizational Learning LO30806

From: Fred Nickols (
Date: 11/24/03

Replying to LO30797 --

Our host, Rick Karash, writes:

>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.

You seem to be equating not rising to serious reflection with
wallowing in shallowness. I don't think the one is equal to the
other. I do agree that left to their own devices few will rise to
serious reflection on any kind of issue. I would add that fewer still
do so on a regular basis.

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

Or if their sensory apparatus and their reference signals tell them
it's time to do so. In other words, they can be "provoked" by
circumstances as well as by an agent provacateur (i.e., a facilitator,
mentor or what have you).

> 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:

Who is "our"? Is that a royal "our"?

> - 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

It's not stated verbatim above but I think periodic reflection on
one's life can provoke some "seriousness." I also think it can lead
to depression, even suicide as well as to positive life changes.
Hmm. I guess I'm in touch with the dark side of the force.

> 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.)

What is the unbendable arm exercise? How do we tell which ways of
thinking are more powerful than others? How do we guard against
conceiving that which should not be achieved?

> 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.

That might depend on how the expert's analysis is presented. I will
agree that being engaged and involved is generally more fun than
listening to a lecture.

> 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.

Agreed. How do you identify that which is missing?

> 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!

I think Kiefer's and Senge's positions are amply illustrated as well.
What comes immediately to my mind is the long parade of people who
have been afflicted with some ailment or disease and who wind up
becoming more knowledgeable about it than the leading experts in the
field; indeed, in some cases, they have effected dramatic cures and
treatments. So, I appreciate your more moderate position but I think
the core issue still remains one of "caring enough."

> 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.

I'm not sure the conflict is so much between contending points of view
as it is a matter of economics. It's just plain cheaper and faster to
find and hire someone with the requisite capabilities than it is to
develop someone. There are, of course, long term trade offs as well
but if the need is pressing, selection beats development every time.

> 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)

True but I think there is a contingency in there. There is no joy or
energy in learning anything unless there is also some value perceived.

> 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."

I'm not sure I grasp # 7. I'll wait for a restatement.

> 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.

Closed-loop feedback systems, I suppose. I think that's true of
living systems. I'm not sure an organization qualifies as a living
system. The people who populate it are but I'm not convinced the
organization per se is.

> 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.

Indeed you cannot and, depending on your stimulus (and its
transparency) you might engender some serious conflict. If you
haven't seen it, check out the work of William T. Powers (Behavior:
The Control of Perception).

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

Karl Wiig wrote recently about "situation handling." Karl Weick wrote
about "sense-making." I've picked up on Peter Drucker's notion of
"configured responses." I would clarify what you are saying above as
follows: The control of person A's behavior by person A is very good
and quite reliable. The control of person A's behavior by someone
other than person A is very difficult and notoriously unreliable.

> 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

If by "depth" you mean that people must not only be aware of the gap
but must also care deeply about them, I agree. Many people define a
problem as a gap or discrepancy between actual and desired or required
conditions. That's not enough; the world is full of gaps. Someone
must care about the gap deeply enough to commit to action. And, as
you're suggesting above, (a) we often can't do it by ourselves and (b)
skills are needed. Absent the requisite skills actions taken might do
no more than make matters worse.

> 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).

Hmm. My peak experiences seem tied to achieving meaningful results as
a consequence of overcoming formidable opposition. Easy successes
don't mean much but hard won ones do.

> 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).

For me, the "power" of a good theory ties to the breadth of its
applicability and its utility. Systems theory, for example, is a
dandy in that regard.

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

Agreed. There are lots of "meddlers" out there.

> 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).

Or, as many folks know, Change is indirect; that is, you don't change
it, you change something else and it changes as a result. We
intervene in one place so as to realize some result or outcome in
another. Changes made in one place ripple through the structure of
the system, making themselves felt elsewhere. If we get the structure
mapped properly and if we understand the elements, connections and
relationships making up that structure, we have a chance of making
happen what we want to happen. Generally, we don't even map the
system's structure, let alone understand it. Voila! More meddling.

> 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.

I think that's situational. Brute force might be necessary and the
only way. Pareto's principle, judiciously applied, has paid off for
me on several occasions. But, like you, I prefer to find leverage.

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

My experience is such that I would agree with you. It has also been
my experience that the minute you even look like you're going to
change the structure of the system, the powers that be get very, very
nervous. They know all about leverage and they know all about
structure and they like to keep all that under control. You need
friends in high places to muck about with the structure of a system.

> 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."

I'll have to think about this one. My immediate reaction is to think
in terms of strategy and tactics and I'm not sure that's what you're
getting at.

> 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.)

I think that competition does indeed arise but I don't think it ensues
from different ways of thinking. Instead, I think it arises as a
consequence of the different camps attempting to dominate the issue.
If they weren't trying to impose their view, there would be no

> 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.)

Thorndike's Law of Readiness comes to mind.

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

Hmm. I'll have to give that a shot.

> 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.

To be open is to be vulnerable. However, if your counter-attack
capability is lightning-fast and punishingly powerful, your sense of
discomfort will diminish. : - ) Finally, for what it's worth, I
don't see you as pompous.

Looks like you've been having fun noodling through all this. I hope
the fun continues.


Fred Nickols, CPT
"Assistance at A Distance"
Distance Consulting


Fred Nickols <>

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