There was a most interesting thread on Twitter today. Bert van Lamoen (@transarchitect) in a series of tweets, said [paraphrasing several]: “Senge’s five disciplines provided instant utility for learning to organizations in 1990, yet learning organizations remain rare to this day. Hierarchy kills all learning. Our social systems are not designed to cope with complexity. Organizational learning is fundamental change. Today’s organization is not fit for organizational learning. Therefore, we need total redesign. Social and transformational architecture encompasses complexity and emergent change.”
In wither the learning organization, I linked to a paper on Why aren’t we all working for Learning Organisations? [PDF]. The authors, John Seddon and Brendan O’Donovan, open with a reference to W. Edwards Deming’s commentary on Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline (1990).
“Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers – a prize for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars – and on up through the university.
On the job people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by Objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.”
After explaining how double-loop learning gets managers to focus on the system and away from controlling people, the authors conclude:
Our argument is that Deming’s statements in his 1990 review of Senge’s work continue to hold true: it is the dominance of the command and control management thinking which, 20 years on, still prevails and prevents the development of more generative learning. It is only by studying an organisation as a system and creating double-loop learning that we might finally see Senge’s ‘learning organizations’ stop being the exceptional and instead become the norm.
Double-loop learning requires an understanding, and a constant questioning, of the governing variables and of course this is where learning abruptly comes up against command & control. Flattening the organization is one way to open communications and delegate responsibility, but asking employees to engage in real critical thinking [double-loop learning], and accepting the resulting actions, will not work unless there is a multi-way flow of power and authority. Critical thinking is not just thinking more deeply but also asking difficult and discomfiting questions. Without power and authority, these become meaningless.
The BetaCodex Network advocates first reducing hierarchy, and then making work independent of the formal structure, in order to increase the value creation structure. This makes sense, but who other than an enlightened CEO is going to make these changes? People like Semler are still outliers in the business world – “On his first day as CEO, Ricardo Semler fired sixty percent of all top managers.”
According to Charles Green this is how large-scale change happens:
Ideas lead technology. Technology leads organizations. Organizations lead institutions. Then ideology brings up the rear, lagging all the rest—that’s when things really get set in concrete.
We have the ideas (and some examples) on the great work that needs to be done at the beginning of this century – create new organizational models that reflect (and actually capitalize on) our humanity. We also have technologies that enable and support collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and connecting on a human level. The major obstacles seem to be that there are not enough good examples and that these organizations are not influential enough to change the dominant business ideologies.
To spread these ideas may require more than just mavens, connectors and salespeople to reach a tipping point. We may also need to identify the “Doer”s inside more organizations and find ways to help them become double-loop learners. We should engage the trustworthy, those people with strong intimacy skills who get things done.
Perhaps we have been focused at the wrong level. I know that my most successful consulting engagements have not been at the very top, but with people who are doing the work. If we can create a mid-level groundswell, without giving up on finding enlightened executives, we may get somewhere.
Unless the dominant command & control management ideology is replaced, then most organizational change initiatives will just be tinkering at the edges. I can see why some people could become jaded over time with every successive new management system that still does not produce real change. The democratization of the workplace has been my guiding mission for the past decade. Democracy is the foundation upon which the likes of Enterprise 2.0 or the Social Business need to build, in order to foster double-loop learning organizations that can thrive in complexity.