Thursday, April 9, 2015

What Do We Mean by Organizational Learning

What Do We Mean by Organizational Learning?

There are, of course, many commentaries and books written on exactly this subject; so, I do not consider mine to be definitive in any way.  But, I want to address seven subjects that have been on my mind me regarding the field:

1.     The exhausting thrill of multiple perspectives
2.     A simple model of learning
3.     The centrality of feedback and the forces that oppose it
4.     The power of vision and hope
5.     The complexity introduced by various units of analysis
6.     Whole system sight
7.     Post-materialism and the future of Organizational Learning

The Exhausting Thrill of Multiple Perspectives

It is a gross understatement to describe organizational learning is an interdisciplinary field. 

When I file my yearly tax return, my accountant regularly complains about the items I include as business expenses that enhance my practice:

Neo and Trinity
CPA: How could going to see first run The Matrix possibly be a business expense?!

MS: Well, its got a lot of great stuff about futurism which is always great to talk about with clients. It presents an incredible hero myth in the person of Neo and his crew, which is key to understanding what it takes to be a leader. Its got betrayal because one of the team members doesnt get his needs met, which points up the need for better recruitment processes and the criticality of getting to know your teammates.  I could go on.

CPA: Okay, okay.  But Keanu Reeves, I mean, come on!

MS: Actually, hes quite good in the role, and both he and Carrie-Anne Moss kill in leather!

The way I look at it, virtually anything and everything is grist for the mill of organizational learning. OL is a field of boundless curiosity about socio-technical systems. The hard sciences, the social sciences, management science, the dismal science of economics, the humanities, architecture, urban planning, ethnic studies, poly sci, got an -ology, theres a role for it to play in that beautiful and somewhat chaotic field of OL!

And that is totally as it should be! Let 3,863,452 flowers bloom! The disciplines that contribute to the understanding of how and what those human systems called organizations learn are probably as multifaceted as the human project itself. Even though there are a number of commonalities and essential patterns to organizational life, (e.g., gathering inputs, through-putting input, and outputting product and services), there have been all kinds of systems over the course of human history, and they have done a heck of a lot of different things. 

Lee Bolman
Peter Senge
Specialization does present a problem to the field, however. It is relatively easy to find plenty to do in a relatively small cubbyhole and end up thinking that youve found the magic key to the kingdom of deep understanding of everything.  Nobody since Leonardo has gotten to take that big a bite of the Tree of Knowledge.  Thought leaders like Peter Senge, Lee Bolman and Terry Deal have done a big favor to the field by classifying various sorts of inquiries into categories that help us orient our research and our work as practitioners. Reframing Organizations, The Fifth Discipline and The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook are something guides that everyone should pack before lighting out into the OL territory. Without a map of the whole, its pretty easy to get lost in the particulars.  (You might want to bring a copy of Peter Druckers Management along too.)

A Simple Model of Learning

Given the number of tributaries feeding into the sea of organizational learning, it does seem to me that those of us attempting to set a course ought to be able to describe what we mean by OL in pretty straightforward terms. 

The framework developed by Don Schön and Chris Argyris in their masterwork, Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective, has served me well.  They looked at learning as an perpetual cycle of action.

Þ       Invent an experiment that might respond to the need thats been discovered.
Þ       Produce and test the experiment in circumstances where it will have results.
Chris Argyris
Þ       Generalize the results to extract learnings that can be applied in a range of circumstances: Was it easier or harder to use the training exercise after redrawing the graphic? Did disarmament make war less likely?
Þ       Completing the loop, generalization leads to new discoveries.

There are wheels within wheels in this learning cycle. The more one engages in each of these practices the better one gets at it.

Don Schön
Organizational learning in Argyris and Schöns framework, results from people skilled in collaborative inquiry, i.e., the ability to know less and listen more especially when dealing with emotional stressful topics surrounded by ambiguity.  Collaborative inquiry comes from consistent and intentional attention to the Discover > Invent > Produce > Generalize learning cycle.  The more widely this competency is distributed among the actors in a system, the greater the organizational learning.

The point: it is useful to see learning as a cyclical process. To paraphrase an old dictum, even if practice in learning doesn’t make perfect, paying close attention to your practice moves actors and organizations in that direction. Gregory Bateson referred to this sort of learning from practice as “deutero-learning”.  By that he meant learning what the context is within which one is acting so that one is able to act in an increasingly more effective fashion. Bateson uses a trained porpoise that comes to understand his wider context as an example. At first, the porpoise learns that responding to a whistle in a water tank will result in getting fed a fish. But, then, the porpoise discovers that there is no whistle, and flaps his tail in annoyance and a bit of confusion.  And, lo and behold, this results in getting fed. Then, the porpoise comes to see that neither responding to a whistle nor flapping a tail will necessarily result in getting fed, but other, new behaviors will. And, ultimately, the porpoise realizes that it’s not a specific behavior that will result in getting fed but behavior that neither the trainer nor the audience has ever seen before that results in the reward. Innovation is rewarded.  The porpoise has “learned to learn”. 

Children go through deutero-learning within the context of their family.  They learn what the culture of the family is and what it expects of them.  In some families, the children are supposed to be funny, and the more inventive the humor is supposed to be in a family, the more a child is likely to become a comedian or to suffer insecurity because he or she didnt pass the familys test.  In other families, children are expected to be physically adventurous, and, if theyre not, theyre disdained.  In some, the context that must be understood is about religiosity.  And so on.[1] 

Organizations face a similar sort of contextual learning challenge, and the more they become a recognizable brand, the greater the learning requirements:

*    Apple is known to be a highly innovative company. It goes through one quarter where it doesnt introduce a new product and the price of its stock falls 25%.
*    Greenpeace has earned a reputation as an aggressive defender of the environment. When the organization implements some numbskulls idea of trampling all over the Plains of Nazca in as a massive ad for the organization, its supporters are horrified and its detractors delighted.
*    Coke wants to be seen as a fun drink, but its becoming clear that sugary sodas are a primary contributor to increasing rates of diabetes and obesity.  Not fun.

In each of these instances (and in countless others) the context demands that the organization understand and respond to requirements that may be ambiguous, hard to determine, and rapidly changing.

Organizations and systems of all sorts must contend with contextual requirements as well.  The United States advertises itself as the land of the free and the home of the brave. Inspiring words that leave the country susceptible to derision whenever it doesnt live up to its high sounding principles.  Chinas Communist Party presents itself as the vanguard of the proletariat, but it looks pretty ridiculous when the top 1% of the vanguard turn out to be exceedingly corrupt.  The bigger the game a system wants to play, the harder the hill it has to climb.

Argyris and Schön encourage systems to play big games, but point out that the less a system knows about itself, the less it studies itself, the more vulnerable it becomes to losing its way. A family may think of itself as deeply loving, but if it doesnt notice the occasions where family members arent very generous or courteous with each other, it can end up moving farther and farther away from its ambitions for itself.  Ditto for any and every other unit of social system analysis (team, division, organization, industry, community, etc.)

Double Loop learning is an antidote to being on automatic as a system.  Such learning requires the constant consideration of the why a system is doing what its doing and reflection on how well its doing it.  Heres a graphic from on the topic:

Single-loop learning is common. Objectives are set and they are met or missed. Lots of common strategies designed to improve results derive from single-loop learning.  Prices are cut, expenses are cut; marketing and R&D budgets are increased, etc..

Double-loop learning is much rarer. It entails attention to contexts and how they are changing. For example, globalization and the resistance to it are two of the strongest forces coursing around the planet today. Cultures are slamming into each other. Assumptions about how the world work and how it ought to work are under great stress. A great deal is up for grabs. The double-loop learning agenda is full, and, yet, it is hard to do -- both because there is so much to learn and because systems practiced in learning are so uncommon. 

Organizational learning is double loop learning.

The Centrality of Feedback to Double Loop Learning

An Action/Feedback cycle is the key element distinguishing single and double loop learning but this kind of learning seems to be relatively rare. What are the forces opposing it? To answer this, we need to observe and analyze two feedback features of every human system: structure and agency.

Structure refers to the policies, procedures, protocols and institutions that facilitate feedback. Many organizations that systematically collect data for quality improvement and process analysis have some of the ingredients for good feedback activities already in place. The entire quality movement is designed and intended to produce organizational learning.  But, in the context of Wall Streets attention to quarterly earnings and the glare of media attention on organizations that are in motion, frequently there isnt enough time to analyze mountains of information, understand their meaning, assess the implications and implement change.

For example, lets take the issue of privacy and social media:

Facebook, Google, Instagram and other outlets have repeatedly upset privacy advocates. Hell, Facebook was created as a result of Zuckerberg’s deliberate violation of the privacy of a woman who rejected his advances.  All of these organizations are engaged in probes and corrective measures regarding privacy.  Google wants to provide us with street views of every corner of the planet, no matter how remote, but it agrees to blur out the faces of every person that might appear in its footage (subsequent to a bunch of lawsuits). The National Security Agency and other intelligence organs in the US and elsewhere want access to information that Facebook, Apple and other networks keep private, but the companies are fighting tooth and nail to keep governments from gaining access that they are or will be using for targeting advertising to their users.  The situation is in flux. And yet, there is an absence of thoughtful conversation at a mass communications level on the dilemmas surrounding privacy. Yes, elites are engaged in these conversations at academic centers and in thoughtful media convesations, but the billion plus people who are using Facebook arent actually engaged in a dialog about what privacy ought to look like in the 21st century.

At present, there are no structures that can facilitate reflection in an intentional fashion. Of course, the marketis a structure, and its enough for a lot of folks, but its not really set up to generate learning such as this. The market is dominated by what is exciting, popular and profitable at the moment, regardless of whether its a good idea from a longer-term perspective.

Structures that support such learning are difficult to imagine.  Putting the topic in a double-loop learning context, what privacy is, where is came from and where it is going are examples of underlying assumptions that aren't really being explored. Whether Robert Durst murdered a bunch of people and what price hell pay for it if he did, that is being thoroughly explored.  What act of insanity will be committed next by ISIS, that is being investigated.  The opinion of anyone and everyone on the teams that will be part of the Sweet Sixteen, that is the focus of a massive communication structure.  Is Hillary Clinton too old to be President, this inquiring minds want to know, but what is going to happen to privacytoo complicated. 

Agency has to do with the choices made by organizations (and the individuals and groups that act as their representatives) regarding the content of feedback channels and how feedback is expressed. 

Unfortunately, there is a lot of data to demonstrate that most of us tighten up and protect ourselves in emotionally tense feedback situations.  Argyris described this communications posture as a network of automatic defensive routines that happen beneath the level of full self-awareness. While this is not the setting to go into great detail regarding Argyrisview of interpersonal and organizational dynamics, a quote from Strategy, Change and Defensive Routines provides a look into his critical perception of many, if not most, organizational communication processes:

We are programmed to deal with others or organizational defensive routines by bypassing them and acting as if we are not.  The others tend to collude because the bypassing behavior is usually seen as being thoughtful and civilized; no one will be embarrassed.  The collusion is reinforced by the culture of the organization as well as the larger culture in which the organization exists.  That is, one set of defensive loops reinforces each other. 

The next set of defensive loops is related to the professionals who are supposed to help clients overcome the defensive routines.  Management consultants (internal or external) often use the same bypass routines when they deal with threat.  Thus, professionals collude in creating another defensive loop. 

In other words, most of us dont like to get bad news, and a lot of us dont like delivering it either.  We hide critical information because weve been highly trained to experience that as painful, impolite, inappropriate, and/or immature. 

This is a profound dilemma: organizational learning requires feedback and the discussion of valid data, but doing so evokes defensiveness and polarization that makes organizational learning difficult or impossible.  So, what we get are half-measures where a little learning happens, but everyone agrees its not nearly as rich as it would have been if only so-and-so would be willing to listen to some honest feedback.  Alternatively, we get escalating polarization as folks who disagree with each other dig in and (sometimes literally) throw grenades at their opponents.

Bottom line, structure and agency combine to yield low learning in a multiplicity of situations
Þ    from frozen O-rings that many Morton-Thiokol engineers knew were a big problem before Challenger blew up
Þ    to an Iraqi invasion based on demonstrably false information about uranium cake
Þ    to violent predators being released from prison into society even though there is no doubt that they will harm others again
Þ    to parents continuing to deprecated their kids even though that clearly constitutes bad parenting
Þ    to traffic jams that happen as regularly as clockwork
Þ    to bankers repeatedly violating the same laws against insider trading and facilitating tax evasion that theyve already been fined for several times previously.

At present, in many situations, we have neither the communication structures nor the human will to engage in the feedback processes we need to achieve organizational learning.

Maybe I should end this thought piece right here and put my head in a plastic bag!

The Power of Vision and Hope

Fortunately, when I look at all of the social and scientific innovation happening across the world and at all the positive, generous and kind people doing all manner of projects, I am saved from the swamp of pessimism. 

When a person or a collective of people confront something or someone that they are truly passionate about, that they truly believe in, they are willing to move past the boundaries created by defensiveness and the limitations of existing communication structures and step up to honesty and new opportunities.  I have seen this many times in my own life and in my observation of others. 

Walter Isaacsons biography of Steve Jobs returns repeatedly to Jobs ability to distort the reality field of people with whom he interacted. He showed them that things they didnt think were possible were, in fact, very much realizable, as long as one could think different.  This ability to remake the eyes with which one and others see the world strikes me as a fundamental ingredient of visionary leadership. 

There are a lot of people individually, collectively and organizationally telling their truths. Sometimes the truths people tell are in direct opposition to each other.  In philosophy, these juxtaposed truths are called antinomies, a contradiction between two apparently equally valid principles or between inferences correctly drawn from such principles.  For example, Welfare state saves millions of lives versus Welfare state enslaves millions into a life of dependency.  Both positions have strong and articulate adherents. When I listen closely and with something like an open mind to each view, I get a headache!

But, thats beside the point. When people and organizations argue persuasively for and against a multitude of ideas, products and services, they sway others, they incline others to do more than they might have thought themselves capable of doing, more than they were actually capable of doing. 

Love, vision, idealism, and hope impel and compel people and organizations to transcend the constraints of structure and conformity.  If the channels arent there to facilitate communication on critical topics, people will build them, even in places like Israel and Palestine where acrimony and suspicion are the rule rather than the exception.  If you really believe in someone or some institution, if you love someone, youll take a hard lesson from him, her or it.  If you think that the product or service youre working on will make a difference that matters, youll go through hell to see it through. If you have to become simultaneously psychologically tougher and more sensitive to have a relationship with another person, another group, another organization, a new public to achieve a highly desired goal or state of being, you can.  You must.

Organizational Learnings Unit of Analysis

A unit of analysis refers to the scope of the system or organization that is supposed to be engaged in a learning process. The more complex a system, the bigger its learning challenge. Its vision must be highly compelling and its structures for integration have to work very well. 

Assume a simple system, a small business employing 30 people supplying a fairly specific service, e.g., a dental office in a bedroom community owned by two male dentists who are also relatives.  Its learning requirements are neither trivial nor massive.

Here are a few of the learning needs that such an organization might face:

    Its personnel must be professional in both their technical skills and in the quality of their interaction with patients.
    Its tracking and record keeping systems must be efficient. 
    Its leadership must assure quality communication between hygienists, assistants and administrative staff members. 
    Attention must be paid to new clinical developments and technological advances (e.g., the role remote monitoring and the internet of everything will play in dentistry). 
    The community being served should be well understood and the outreach campaign to establish and maintain relations with that community should be well thought-through and maintained.
    A succession plan involving the right parties needs to be thought through.
    The dynamics of each owners family life will affect the enterprise and, therefore, need close consideration.

Within the practice, there are several potential units of analysis:
    Each of the dentists: what is their curiosity about themselves as clinicians and as a  leader of a practice/business?
    The dentists as partners:  how open are they with each other about issues in the practice? How skilled are they at engaging in conversations that open their partnership up to learning rather than polarization?
    Each of the staff functions (i.e., hygienists, assistants, administration): What are their expectations for their own development as professionals
    Each of the functions in their relationships with the owners: How well do the players do at empathizing with the challenges that each position in the system faces?
    Each of the functions in their relationships with one another: How well do they do at identifying inefficiencies and inadequacies in their relations with each other and in fixing those problems themselves
    The interaction of all of the internal players with patients
    Various patient groupings (e.g., children, teenagers, middle-aged adults, elderly)
    The practices interaction with its community or communities 

Considering these units of analysis from a double loop learning perspective, one might want to know: What is the quality of learning happening in each of these domains and in the system as a totality?  What are the structures that support learning? How much inquiry and openness is expressed in the conversations between the players in the system?  Is the system as a totality united by an overarching vision of service and professionalism that is actually manifested in practice through the identification of gaps between the vision and present outcomes in a spirit of joint inquiry? 

This brief and incomplete excursion into the world of dental practice is only meant to highlight the complexity of what it means to establish a learning organization. Imagine the challenge of achieving the ambition of double-loop learning in a huge system like a multinational corporation, a state government, an international agency, etc..

Of course, the more complicated the system, the stronger one would expect the mechanisms for organizational memory, feedback and learning to be.  Data collection and processing protocols would probably be codified and routinized, for example.  Staff meetings and data analysis sessions would be commonplace and regularly scheduled.  Management consultants would be running around improving systems and offering insightful suggestions. 

But, ultimately, we are still looking at human beings and their level of engagement with the systems they are part of, their willingness and their ability to reflect together on past events and future possibilities, their openness to the ideas and perspectives of others, their curiosity about their internal processes and their behavior together, etc.. So, the more complex the system, the larger the unit of analysis and the more challenging the job of comprehending and/or improving the nature of organizational learning. If one expects a system of 100,000 to operate as an effective, focused learning entity, the job of assessing how its doing is a daunting one. 

Whole System Sight

Yet, very large systems do learn.  Francis Fukuyamas most recent book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, describes six interrelated elements of all political systems that need to work together well in order for a state to be successful, i.e., deliver high quality goods and services to its citizens and residents who manifest their happiness in being part of a state by high levels of social engagement. Very briefly, these are:

*    Economic growth, i.e., that there is some degree of dependable economic robustness and security
*    Social Mobilization, i.e., that the members of a social system participate in activities related to the functioning of that system
*    Idea/Legitimacy, i.e., that people within a society believe in something that makes the functioning of the state legitimate
*    The State itself, i.e., the workings of the governing institutions
*    The Rule of Law, i.e., the extent to which everyone in a society is subject to the same set of rules that have been codified
*    Democracy, i.e., the degree to which there is public participation in the structuring of the state.

Fukuyama asserts that learning and development have clearly occurred in the last three of these factors, State, Rule of Law, and Democracy.  Both in this volume and its companion, The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama describes many, many centuries of experimentation that make a system mature or immature and demonstrates how the strength or weakness of Economic Growth, Social Mobilization and Ideas/Legitimacy impact the particular ways in which the other elements unfold and vice-versa.  In other words, the elements of the system of political order interact in ways that reinforce learning and productivity or chaos and poverty. 

Its beyond the scope of this note to address the richness of Fukuyamas argument (other than to say that its a great book, in my opinion), but I do want to note one point that he makes repeatedly about the development of the State, which is relevant to the question of learning in highly complex systems.  He makes it very clear that a professionally trained and competent bureaucracy is critical to the success of states.  The people who work at the IRS have to know how to add and subtract!  More seriously, government and administrations of all sorts need to be based on meritocracy and well-considered standards of practice.

This was absolutely not always the case and, in many places today, the qualifications of bureaucratic personnel remain anything but professional.  For example, prior to the Progressive Era and innovations by the two Roosevelt presidents in particular, the Federal bureaucracy in the United States was almost completely a clientistic operation, i.e., political machines promised people jobs in governmental departments in exchange for the delivery of votes.  This began to change in the US in the late 1800s, in part because of the effectiveness of German bureaucracy.  The German state, which was still significantly autocratic, delivered in ways that the US did not. The US had to learn to change the operation of its Federal bureaucracies, which happened as a result of extensive legislative analysis and debate.  The decisions that improved the functioning of the agencies of the American state strengthened both the Rule of Law and the Democracies of both society, while supporting Economic Growth, Social Mobilization, and Ideas/Legitimacy. 

Fukuyama is one of a large, but pretty rarified, group of observers and commentators who think in whole system terms. STRATFORs George Friedman with his geographically based view of geo-politics is one. Jared Diamonds comparison of learning processes in longitudinal versus latitudinal continents is another.  Marx is a significant figure in a fairly long line of systems thinkers who map the evolution of economic systems by looking at the forces that alter the locus of power between different classes of actors. Peter Senges presentation of system archetypes provides a very powerful analytical framework for looking at organizational blind spots at a whole system level, such as the automatic tendency to over-invest chronically in existing business lines while systematically ignoring new developments. 

The firm Anika Savage and I created, Art of the Future has presented its own way of thinking about how whole systems operate in our book Life Sustaining Organizations A Design Guide, which concentrates on the rigor and robustness of an organizations approach to anticipating the future.  Our thesis is that the more open-minded an organization is about the diverse pathways to alternative futures, the better job it will do at recruiting and keeping creative talent who will function well in a range of scenarios. We have described a whole systems approach to considering future possibilities and interrogatingthese possibilities for actions to take in the present.

Barry Oshry, the designer of simulations that have constituted a database for his research over the last 40+ years, offers another powerful way of seeing entire systems at both the organizational and societal levels. 
Barry Oshry

According to Oshry, organizations can be stripped down to a basic four-player model:
*    Tops, who have overall responsibility for the functioning of the organization
*    Bottom, who do specific work within the organization and report to others
*    Middles, who manage some of the Bottoms and report to the Tops
*    Customers and other members of the organizational environment, who depend on the organizations goods and services for what they want to do and/or need the organization to function in particular ways

Oshry points out people existing in each of these organizational positions face a particular set of vulnerabilities and opportunities.  Inattention to the vulnerabilities is characteristic of organizations on automatic, which dont do well over time.  Understanding the vulnerabilities and paying conscious attention to their management is characteristic of organizations that value partnership and learning. It is a powerful and simple way to understand complex organizational dynamics.

Oshry’s whole systems thinking also includes a way of assessing the vulnerabilities and “robustness” of a system based its management of two dialectal axes[2]:

The Integration/Differentiation axis concerns the degree to which a system coheres around a set of principles or a mission versus the degree to which it is subdivided into different parts or power centers pursuing their own objectives.[3]  The Individuation/Homogenization axis refers to the degree to which a system encourages self-expression at a multiplicity of levels versus the degree to which it requires uniformity in behavior.[4]  These axes are like a gyroscope for systems: if any one node gets overweighted even slightly the whole system can start to destabilize and tip over.  A robust system is one in which there is enough balance between these poles to tolerate a wide range of different behaviors and impulses without faltering.  I’ve found it very useful to have this model of what a whole learning system should look like. 

Obviously, these comments about seeing the whole system are impressionistic and meant only to highlight the importance of holistic thinking for the advocate or assessor of organizational learning. The agent of organizational learning needs to have a full repertoire of frameworks for seeing whole systems. This is extremely helpful in assessing whether an organization as a totality is learning, what kind of learning its doing and how it is accomplishing it. There are so many perspectives to work with in this field.  Like I said, organizational learning is exhausting fun!

What the Disappearance of the Bottom Line Means for Organizational Learning

To achieve its full promise, I believe that the field of organizational learning must embrace a post-materialist vision of the future.  What does that mean and why do I say it is so?  I believe that humanity is standing on the edge of at least two great oceans of change and mystery that must be seen and addressed for our species to move forward.  Both expanses of the emerging future require us to give up certain mental models and defensive patterns. 

A Trash Mountain in Mumbai
One concerns the dialectic between the global environmental crisis and the need to adopt technologies that can transcend our present limitations and to develop a deeper practice of conservation on a global basis. Virtually every day innovations are being developed that could revolutionize patterns of energy consumption, transportation, pollution, and waste of resources.  And, every day, most things remain pretty much the same.  New technologies arent adopted.  Most current models of the good life continue to emphasize material success and consumerism. Those whose lives would be upended by a shift away from the status quo understandably deny the need for change and remain in power in many if not most political arenas.

There is a very real chance that we are not only burning up the planet by over-consuming its resources and underinvesting in paths forward, but we are also risking an endless sea of war as millions of armed people are driven to the wall by poverty and hopelessness.

The maturity advised in 1 Corinthians is relevant: 

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Our species and our planet are dealing with a variety of pressing crises. It is the responsibility of organizational learning as a field to embrace the challenge of these big, messy, wicked problems.  Of course, it is pleasant to have nice things and a comfortable lifestyle, but organizational learning professionals should resist the blandishments of material success for their own sake, if they take us away from our roles as agents of inquiry and learning.  Too much of the energy of organizational learning practitioners is devoted to supporting a political-economic system that has no ultimate objective beyond making a small group of people very rich and another larger group of people relatively comfortable.[5]  In my opinion, that kind of collusion with the status quo misses the point of the field: we are supposed to see and work with the new context, the wider whole. The times require, if not heroic action, then at least a life lived, at least partially, in concert with the seriousness of the era. The paths toward a sustainable future are clearly marked. We have to be part of the leadership that starts walking down them.

While the first of the great challenges requires learning in the face of resource limits and the need to invest in long-term solutions, the second compels us to confront infinity. Both our planet and our individual consciousnesses have become pilgrims in unfathomable and uncharted oceans of the unknown.  At a planetary level, we have discovered that we are on Spaceship Earth and in the last fifty years we have begun actively to probe the vastness of space and time that our forbearers could only dream of or explore theoretically.  At the level of our own being, physics is demonstrating that our assumptions about the nature of reality itself are only that, assumptions that are increasingly up for grabs.  Certainly, there is and will be an interaction between the discoveries that are occurring in inner and outer space. 

The Possibilities are Infinite
It takes a highly developed degree of curiosity, imagination and openness even to begin to think about engaging infinity as a fact, not as a mental construct. The films Interstellar  and Contact offer some sense of what it means to be the new person who can see emerging new truths.  I can only begin to speculate on the consequences of what is emerging in the science of the universe and the study of the self on the practice of organizational learning, but I know that they are profound.  They require a future mind that unifies science and wonder. 

A new era is unfolding, one that seems to necessitate both retrenchment and expansion simultaneously.  The discipline of organizational learning has a great deal to offer those undertaking this adventure. The horizon is vast; let us move toward it. 

[1] For a fuller discussion of Bateson’s ideas on levels of learning see his work directly in publications such as Steps toward and Ecology of the Mind or Guide to Emergent Learning by Marilyn Darling, Heidi Sparkes Guber and Jillaine Smith. 
[2] For a more detailed description of Oshry’s thinking see his work directly, e.g., Seeing Systems, or my “The Power of Position: A Diagnostic Model” in Organization Development: A Jossey-Bass Reader, 2006. 
[3] Think of General Electric’s Works Equation:  “We have a relentless drive to invent things that matter: innovations that build, power, move and help cure the world. We make things that very few in the world can, but that everyone needs. This is a source of pride. To our employees and customers, it defines GE.” versus the fact that the company has been identified as the fourth largest corporate producer of air pollution in the United States and has been repeatedly fined and criticized for causing environmental damage.  Obviously, there are occasions where the company isn’t working together as a unit in service of its high-minded mission.
[4] Think of a creative arts high school in which one might observe scores of individual fashion statements daily versus a parochial school requiring a specific uniform. 
[5] For a thorough, data-based assessment of trends in inequality and their consequences, see Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century, Harvard University Press, 2014.