header art by David Thomas

Organizational Learning

Here's a thought: Companies that fail to learn in the coming times of great change will fail.

Ancient Myth of Organization: Large organizations are often still run with methods appropriate to building pyramids. A stongly hierarchical, centrally controlled organization might have worked for building the pyramids because: 1. The central controller could learn everything there was to know about building pyramids. 2. The workers and the boss could both be motivated to work mainly to achieve the central goal. 3. Knowledge and conditions changed slowly relative to the cycle time for information to flow up the hierarchy, a decision to be made, and the orders to flow down. Thus, the metaphor and myth upon which many organizations are based is that human ability to understand, judge, plan, and motivate others is a rare talent. Through promotions, the people who have this rare talent reach the top and through superior knowledge and experience are expert of every aspect of the operations they control. Therefore, it is efficient to have them (the "head" of the organization) make all the important decisions and to have people of lesser mental ability carry it out (the "hands").

Common Current Reality: In the situation that most current organizations find themselves in today, the situation is quite different. 1. The detailed knowledge necessary to operate the company is far more than even the most gifted genius could learn in a lifetime. 2. People have a variety of individual and group motivations. 3. Conditions vary over time and space. The people at "the front lines" know far more about what will work there than people at the top.

The Vision: Imagine an organization in which decisions are made at the lowest feasible level; in which everyone works hard toward common goals in an atmosphere of high mutual trust and respect; in which experimentation and innovation are encouraged; in which an open, honest process controls every aspect of work. Such an organization is more productive than the sum of the individual productivities. Such an organization learns and adapts over time. The point of looking at experience is not to see who was right and who was wrong; not who should be rewarded and punished; the point is to determine what we can all learn from an experience about how to do business better in the future. Such an organization has as a central theme providing a defined and important value to its customers. If it does that, it believes profits will follow. But its goals are not focussed foremost on making money.

Empirical results: Does this all sound hopelessly idealistic? Naive? Pie-in-the-sky? A nice sentiment, but a philosophy that would never surive in the cold, cruel, business world?

Think again.

First, of course, the principles outlined characterize life, something that has survived and grown for a billion years.

Second, a number of empirical studies now show that such principles work in practice, in business, in the real world. Organizations that tend to follow such principles more, tend to survive longer, and achieve greater economic success!

As human beings, we face a tremendous challenge in learning how to run large organizations effectively, humanely, productively. It is an important edge of human knowledge. Once we learn to accomplish this, then science, education, government, and commerce will all benefit.

One of the ways that people have created and shared knowledge throughout centuries is through stories. Here are some links for learning more about how stories can be a significant way to capture and create knowledge in a modern organization.

An example of the role of stories in design

MIT project on stories

My short stories

A short note on the interpretation of Christopher Alexander's fifteen fundamental properties as applied to organizations. These are featured in his most recent books, "The Nature of Order" -- evolutionary sequels to his books on Pattern Languages.

1. Levels of scale. This seems fairly straightforward. A large organization must have sub-organizations and various levels of scale. Just as a huge modern building that has only an overall shape and small details "fails" architecturally (both visually and behaviorally), an organization that misses too many levels of intervening complexity can fail.

2. Strong centers. This too seems straightforward. The parts of an organization must support the whole. The strong "center" can be achieved in numerous ways: a strong vision; a strong individual's leadership (T. J. Watson); a strong set of procedures and processes to encourage behavior (3M and its innovation practices); or a strong tradition and hierarchy (Catholic Church).

3. Boundaries. Just as interesting buildings that "work" will have strong boundaries, an organization that works will have instantiate this same concept in terms of its buildings but also in terms of its culture and people. We do things "the Nordstroms Way." Think of the initiation and rejection rituals of the U. S. Marines or The Catholic Church.

4. Alternating repetition. I interpret this in the context of organizations to refer to activity patterns. Input, process, output. Pick up the phone, answer a person's question, put down the phone. Contact a client, discover their needs, make the sale. Research, develop, deploy. Set the nail, tap, pound, pound, pound. There are many patterns and if one were to see these patterns laid out a symptom of a well-working organization would be that these activity patterns had a rough periodicity to them. If they show so much variability that no pattern can be perceived, the organization is too disorganized.

5. Positive space. I interpret this to mean that organizations that are "full of life" have many parts that are each trying to expand to fill all the "available space." This might manifest itself physically in having buildings that are actually somewhat over-crowded (as opposed to long empty corridors), but it could also be manifested in that every "niche" within a defined market has someone working that market; that the individuals working these markets are internally competing with one another and "pushing the limits" of their own niche outwards. Similarly, the product teams and divisions will be competing with each other; trying to add features to their products to spill out into the neighboring produccts. Notice that such an interpretation is certainly not without controversy! An "efficiency expert" might claim that internal competition of this sort should be eliminated.

6. Good shape. It is a bit abstract or metaphorical to see how this applies to organizational design. My best guess is this. The suborganizations themselves all have a distinct "shape" -- meaning a distinct purpose and function and character that "holds together"conceptually in an elegant rather than an arbitrary way. At the same time, looked at from a larger perspective, these suborganizations participate in forming a coherency at the next level. An example of trying to do this (whatever the underlying reality) is the map that Nicholas Negroponte draws of the Media Lab and its parts and constituencies. An organization that has "good shape" has a balance and splits that are based on something more fundamental that accidents of history, friendship, or politics.

7. Local symmetries. As I interpret this, it means that in a living, working, organization, there is both the freedom and the desire at local levels to make symmetries that are appropriate to that level. Many of these symmetries have to do with the abstract qualities of work that must be done. For instance, in attempting to have a conversation between a customer and a customer service rep, there is a certain symmetry of ignorance and knowledge. Each knows something that the other doesn't. In a good conversation, there is a symmetry of knowledge exchange leading to a resolution. In a larger context, in developing a system to serve users, there should be a symmetry of value and power that mirrors the symmetry of knowledge and ignorance. In good management practice, there should be a symmetry between the employee contributing to the higher level team and the rewards that the larger team gives the employee. In a team of fishermen rowing a catamaran, there is a symmetry of stroking. In the stock market there is a buyer for every seller; prices fluctuate to make this so. All these local symmetries make up something that works, that is, in a sense quite beautiful; but it is not something that can be dictated by a detailed master plan; it is something that, however, can be fostered and encouraged by the overall climate and "rules" of an organization.

8. Deep interlock and ambiguity. Ambiguity? Surely, this is something that an organization cannot want. But is that true?

Is a Research Division supposed to be doing long term research or helping the company solve today's problems? Both is the answer. And, in fact, to the extent that one can achieve a deep interlock between these apparently contradictory goals, the better. Is a sales person's job to maximize sales revenue or satisfy the customer? Both. And, again, to the extent that conditions are created that make for a deep interlock and ambiguity so that the salesperson themselves feels that they are doing both; that these are parts of one whole, we have a well-functioning sales organization.

9. Contrast. I take this to mean that an organization must create within it dynamic tensions of opposites. In animals, there are pre-existing, well-defined, and opposite tendencies of behavior. The contrasts can be shaded by events but it is much better to have an animal that sometimes sleeps and sometimes is awake than one that is always half-awake. It is better to sometimes fight and sometimes flee than to always fight half-heartedly.

Similarly, an organization needs contrasts of people and of function and of activity. A healthy organization should have people who are complete optimists and believe anything is possible -- and complete pessimists who question everything. An organization should have an organization (or process) whose purpose is to expand the company in every possible direction and an organization (or process) whose purpose is to contract the company as much as possible. When brainstorming, to be as effective as possible, no real-world constraints should be allowed. When choosing which brainstorming ideas to pursue, every real-world constraint should be applied.

10. Gradients. Taken together, Contrast and Interlock, as well as Gradients and Boundaries, would seem to push design in opposite directions. Yet, there are architectural examples that seem to provide both of each property pair simultaneously. Living organisms also simultaneously exhibit both properties. An unresolved issue is when, how, where, and in what degree do we push Gradient more versus Boundary more. When should Contrast be emphasized and when Deep Interlock and Ambiguity?

It would seem off-hand that traditional command and control organizations have tended to emphasize Contrast and Boundaries to the detriment of Interlock and Gradients. One would hope that in an adaptive organization, people would pitch in more and help each other out "across" organizational boundaries.

Some examples of where gradients might be effective might include the following. One could imagine a gradient funding system wherein projects would not be either "in" or "out" of a plan, but gradually get (or lose) more funding as the benefits and costs became clearer. Organizations already use a gradient market introduction system where successive "trials" allow for increasing commitment to a product with favorable results. One can also conceptualize summer employment as a chance for company and individual to examine the suitability of longer term employment. Often cross-organizational activities that result in mergers and acquisitions begin as much more limited partnering arrangements. A natural example of gradient might be that very large customers get very large account teams while progressively smaller customers get smaller account teams.

11. Roughness. Basically, anything that tries to function in a complex living world must make adjustments from any over-arching plan. In organizational terms, this quality refers to exceptions, localization, and personalization. Software should be customizable to some degree. The interpretation of policy must vary depending on circumstances. Indeed, one of the main functions of management personnel is to provide the judgement that allows roughness to occur.

12. Echoes. This seems most naturally construed as the organization pulling toward an overall vision so that many different aspects of the activities have the same "flavor." If Customer Service is paramount, that should manifest itself in a thousand small ways. Each of the individual acts that provide excellent customer service is different, but each is an echo of each other and an echo of the larger whole -- the vision.

13. The Void. Chrisopher Alexander writes (The Nature of Order, Part I, p. 80) "In the most profound centers which have perfect wholeness there is at the heart a void, which is like water, in infinite depth -- surrounded by, and contrasted with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it....Is there a way that the presence of the void arises mathematically, as part of a stable unified structure, or is it merely a psychological requirement? It is the latter. A living structure can't be all detail. The buzz finally diffuses itself, and destroys its own structure. The calm is needed to alleviate the buzz."

One obvious interpretation of how this might apply to organizations is simply to emphasize the danger of over-optimizing and re-engineering to the point where there is zero rest, zero inactivity, and every second is filled with predetermined activity. Living organisms are certainly not like that. They rest, they store food, they can sustain injury and survive. In each overall pattern of activity, there needs to be some time for reflection, for quiet, for nothing. Otherwise, how can the organization possibly learn and improve over time let alone recover from some unforseen catastrophe?

14. Simplicity and Inner Calm. Christopher Alexander (Ibid., p. 85) writes "Everything essential has been left; nothing extraneous is left. But the result is simple in a profound sense, but not in the superficial geometric sense. So it is not true that outward simplicity creates inner calm; it is only inner simplicity, true simplicity of heart, which creates it."

Applied to an organizational context, I believe it means that an organization with an elegant business model -- a unique and coherent vision of what it is about -- gives rise to true simplicity. It does not necessarily arise because of a superficially simple org chart. The organization must ask itself constantly: "Why are we doing this? Why do we have this organization? Does it forward the essence of our organization or detract from it?"

15. Not-separateness. "What 'Not-separateness' means, quite simply, is hat we experien e a living whole as being at one with the world, and not separate from it -- according to its degree of wholeness." So too, an organization that is "out of touch" with the competitive landscape, with technological trends and breakthroughs, with social changes, with legislative and legislative changes, or with the needs of its customers will not long survive.

On a small scale, we can think of a corner pawn shop that gives nothing to the community and ends up being the first place destroyed in a riot. On a larger scale, we can imagine a large company that does nothing about falling educational standards until it suddenly finds such a shortage of competent labor that it can no longer vie effectively with its foreign competitors.

There are a thousand ways an organization can fail to adapt to its surroundings if it is cut off from them.

Relevant References.

Bohm, D. On dialogue. London: Routledge, 1996. Introduces an alternative conversational structure to "Listen to me; I'm right so I win!"

Collins, J. and Porras, J. Built to last. New York: Harper, 1994. An empirical study of what it takes to have a corporation succeed in the long term.

DeGeus, Arie. The Living Company: Habits for Survival in a Turbulent Business Environment. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1997. An empirical study of what it takes to have a corporation succeed in the long term.

Ornstein, R. and Ehrlich, P. New world new mind. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1989. Shows how our genetic heritage has predisposed our perceptual and cognitive systems toward the near-term and dramatic changes -- rather than slower, more systemic changes that threaten our existence.

Heijden, Kees van der, Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation, New York: Wiley, 1996. Quantitative projection into the future based on the past is a good tool -- provided that you realize it only works if the underlying dynamics of the system are not changing.

Moore, James F. The Death of Competition, New York: Harper, 1996. Whoa! Look! My neighbor has stuff I want. I'll just go get it. What could be easier! Sounds ridiculous, eh? But, that is the basis for many corporations "strategies" for competition. Just go invade someone else's territory. An alternative is to invent and nurture an entirely new ecosystem.

Putnam, Robert D. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princepton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993. An empirical study of what makes organizations succeed.

Schein, E. Organization, culture and leadership. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992. Discusses the relationship among these concepts.

Schon, D. A. The reflective practitioner. New York: Basic Books, 1983. Talks about the nature of true expertise and the relationship between explicit and implicit knowledge.

Senge, P. The fifth discipline. New York: Doubleday, 1990. Outlines what is needed for individual, team, and corporate success in the modern world.

Senge, P. Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R. Smith, B. The fifth discipline fieldbook. New York: Doubleday, 1994. Case studies of applying the ideas in Senge's earlier book.

Underwood, Paula. The Walking People. Tribe of Two Press, 1997.

And here are some useful links to other organizations actively involved in research on organizational learning or to other sources of information.

Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz home page

University of Colorado Center for Life Long Learning

Stanford University's Center for the Study of Organizational Learning

MIT related Society for Organizational Learning

bionomics institute -- a better way to measure economics

Another organization concerned with systems thinking

Doug Engelbart's Boostrap Institute

Finally, here is the LONG UNBROKEN draft text of a paper I prepared for a joint conference on Organizational Learning held in 1995 with NYNEX, the University of Colorado, and the Institute for Research on Learning. The paper speculates about possible analogies between what works in natural systems (as opposed to machines) and what might work for corporations.

Text of Talk


To contact the author: truthtable@aol.com

Last modified: Sun Aug. 10, 1997