A Metaphor for a Worldwide Paradigm Shift
Creating Learning Organizations Through Core Competence in Community Building
Softstuff: Work Teams in Technical Organizations
From Chaos to Community at Work
Discovering a Generative Path to Organizational Change
Dialogue and Organizational Transformation
The Wisdom Council
Rediscovering the Circle: Community in Balance
A Sense of the Whole: The Essence of Community
The Quest for Collective Intelligence
Principles for Sustainability
My Journey Toward Hope
Creating Learning Organizations
This document is a revised version of the chapter
"Creating Learning Organizations Through Core Competence in Community Building"
in the anthology "Community Building: Renewing Spirit and Learning in Business", New Leaders Press, 1995.
Please do not quote without the permission.
Because businesses vary in complexity, maturity, size, vision, and culture, there are many paths to creating a learning organization -- an enterprise defined by Peter Senge as one " that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future. " One of these many paths is through developing a strategic core competence in community building.
Through my work facilitating Community Building Workshops for The Foundation for Community Encouragement, collaborating with M. Scott Peck to expand his original theories on community, and teaching businesses to embody community, I became convinced that living communities need learning organizations in which to grow. As I pursued the development of organizational forms that can sustain an experience of community, I found that Senge and others seeking to create learning organizations are having a parallel experience, but in reverse: they are seeking forms of community that are compatible with learning and business.
Intrigued by this confluence of ideas, I began to formulate a model for business that incorporates and extends both Peck's and Senge's visions. Imagine this developmental process as a map. It focuses on developing an organizational core competence that sustains both learning and community over time. Such a core competence requires the mastery of specific aspects of community that, taken together, comprise a system of skills for sustaining learning.
Sustaining community, however, also requires that the organization prepare itself for, and nurture itself through, stages of growth, each with its own set of developmental challenges. With our map, we can anticipate new challenges that arise as a natural result of a community's growth process. We can prepare organizational responses that optimize growth while minimizing chaos.
Of course, as with all maps, this one can only attempt to describe the territory. Individual cases will almost never match the map, as pioneers in the days of the early West can attest. Organizational leaders will need to pay dose attention to the reality of their organization's actual growth process.
To grasp the essence of a core competence in community building, we need a systems perspective. Though composed of numerous parts, a community is something larger their sum. Some of the elements that characterize a mature, living community are: inclusiveness of diverse people and information, semi-permeable boundaries, collective intelligence, flexibility, discipline, and a systems oriented paradigm. The benefits of corporate community include a profound sense of trust and collaboration, leading to a coherent organizational vision; there is an openness to creativity and innovation. Authentic community makes love in the workplace possible by creating a group of all leaders who embody a profound sense of mutual respect and have the ability to fight gracefully while transcending differences.
When I say a learning organization has a core competence in community building, I mean that it has a central commitment and capacity to learn and grow, throughout its life cycle. It is a living community that learns Senge states that for a learning organization " it is not enough merely to survive. 'Survival learning' or what is often termed 'adaptive learning' is important -- indeed it is necessary. But for a learning organization, 'adaptive learning' must be joined by 'generative learning,' learning that enhances our capacity to create. " The model described in this essay is my approach to actualizing this vision. Peck, a theologian and psychiatrist, has articulated the foundation of a psychology which includes several dimensions of personal and social development. I have sought to integrate these dimensions into a system of growth and development for learning organizations. The core competence model for business, based in part on Peck's perspectives, is first and foremost transpersonal. That is, it includes aspects of life that are spiritual, psychological, and physical. The business that is unwilling to embrace the transpersonal or spiritual aspects of community will disable itself -- becoming unable to nurture that spirit over time.
When a group seeks to learn as a community, it simultaneously seeks psychological and spiritual growth for the organization. Community building is a process of learning and spiritual growth. Senge points out that learning has varying qualities. When a community probes its deepest assumptions, exploration invariably challenges the spiritual foundations around which it is organized. Having these qualities, learning is not only generative, it becomes synonymous with spiritual growth. Such learning is a lifelong task beginning with the organization's birth and continuing throughout its life cycle.
Sustainability of a living sense of community -- and of learning -- depends on a balanced approach to the growth of three essential, interrelated aspects: the experience of interconnectedness, sustainable collective intelligence (mind), and learning architecture (body).
I recently interviewed a group at a high-tech computer company that once had a very alive sense of community. Everyone experienced it. Productivity and learning were phenomenal. Results were so good, in fact, that management gave the group a million dollars to build a new facility and to add more resources. A year later, the group no longer felt like a community and everyone was afraid to say so. Management was pretending that all was as it had been, and evidence to the contrary was shunned as traitorous.
In examining the history of their process, it was easy to see that no effort had been expended to keep alive the resource that had made the group so successful: its spirit of community. It was just assumed that the sense of community would automatically transfer to new conditions as long as management financed an expansion of the project. A collective spirit of community is highly prized in organizations. Yet, more often than not, actions to preserve this spirit actually drive it out instead. In this case it was largely " ignored to death. "
The opposite can also be true -- where managers " control " for a sense of community. Not knowing that the experience of community transcends control, some managers apply traditional management methods to the community's detriment. They ask: How is community defined? How can it be measured? What results it will produce? Often, this kind of leadership leaves organizations starving for an authentic connection.
Because of its associations with religion, the idea that there is a " spirit " in community can become controversial. But the spirit referred to here is nonreligious.
Almost anyone who has survived a significant crisis in a group knows this spirit of community. Starting a new organization, enduring a tragedy like the death of a dose colleague, a natural disaster such as a hurricane, flood, or earthquake -- all can lead to a spirit of interconnectedness. Most often, community arises as the result of a group's need for survival.
In business, this spirit emerges primarily during crisis. It can be translated into a culture which deliberately seeks to foster community . Rather than depending on haphazard events such as crises, a team can nurture its capability to create experiences of interconnectedness through authentic communication. Paradoxically, the team does this by acknowledging differences.
The typical organization is actually what Peck called a " pseudo-community, " an organization unwilling or unable to acknowledge its differences. Steps in creating the experience of interconnectedness can begin with authentic and vulnerable communication, the use of " I " statements, avoidance of generalizations, and a willingness to hear multiple viewpoints. A group can be taught this discipline -- learning to acknowledge and transcend these differences. If members are willing to learn to face reality together, they can develop true connectedness. Through such a process the organization can become aware of its barriers to true community.
In my work with business organizations, I have observed a recurring phenomenon: When teams and organizations manage to experience interconnectedness, complete with its benefits of authentic communication, safety, and intimacy, they are so enthusiastic about these benefits that they try to stay in this state continually. But after a while, they notice that their attempts actually create less community. The spirit of community, which manifests as a sense of interconnectedness, is not a permanent state. It ebbs and flows with the community's life cycle.
Figure 1: Source: The Systems Thinker
The second aspect of core competence, sustainable collective intelligence, is the organization's ability to translate the experience of interconnectedness into organizational learning. It is an integration between the process of creating collective intelligence and accomplishing the tasks on a group's agenda.
Although the experience or spirit of community is essential to core competence, it is not sufficient unto itself. If the group cannot convert collective intelligence into organizational action it can easily become a bonded support group rather than a high performing learning community. Sustainable collective intelligence represents the organization's ability to sustain itself as a learning community while simultaneously acting and making decisions with the group intelligence, surpassing the sum of the IQ of individual members.
A currently popular method for developing collective intelligence in learning organizations is the dialogue process introduced by physicist David Bohm. This process focuses on creating shared meaning through both surfacing and examining assumptions within a group. It emphasizes the importance of rational and largely cognitive group learning. As described by Bohm, the Greek words " dia " and " logos " create a new picture for what collective intelligence in a group can be. He says: " The picture or image that this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which will come some new understanding. "
Bohm's approach to collective intelligence is effective yet limited in two important ways. First, it produces temporary rather than sustainable intelligence. Second, it limits the range of emotion within a group, its focus being on cognition. An alternative process which addresses both these weaknesses is to use a community-building process that incorporates both Bohm's cognitive emphasis and Peck's focus on authentic feeling states and the four stages of community building.
Making collective intelligence part of everyday work life requires a skill that neither technology has developed; shifting back and forth on demand from generating collective intelligence to attending to the organization's everyday work agenda. By emphasizing this skill neither the intense feeling states of a community-building process nor the disciplined demands of creating shared meaning in dialogue stand at odds with the accomplishment of work. In short, rapidly shifting between the group's " head " and " heart " allows for a collective intelligence which can be put into action.
Chris Argyris and others have described organizational " defense routines " that are obstacles to collective intelligence in organizations. These defenses tend to prevent groups from dealing with the actual issues at hand and can be highly charged emotionally. Group defenses (like personal defenses) tend to have deep roots. Neither emotionally processing the issues at hand nor identifying actual causes suffices because overcoming obstacles to learning entails dealing with both competently. By disciplining themselves to move rapidly and easily from working on interpersonal awareness to organizational tasks, the group intelligence can more thoroughly uncover its collective barrier to learning.
The experience of interconnectedness and collective intelligence are cornerstones on which the systems and structures of a learning organization are built. Collective thought and action is a requirement for groups to change the complex architecture which either supports or discourages community.
The learning architecture of community consists primarily of the systems and structures that sustain memory and learning in the organization over time. Examples include the compensation system, the career development process, style of leadership, methods for distribution of power and governance, what George Por has called " learning system architecture, " and even the physical structure of the site. Both visible and invisible structures, systems, and forces affect a group's ability to experience itself as an authentic community.
Unless these forces are acknowledged and examined, the organization will stay trapped in the pseudo-community stage. Structures will prohibit its maturation. No amount of attention to interconnectedness, collective intelligence, team spirit, or learning will be productive if insight into unjust or unethical structures are not translated into action.
This is why Peck has suggested that the only obstacle to true community in organizations is politics. Without commitment to true growth, a community-building process leads to disempowerment and the loss of hope. Community routinely dies in organizations where the politics of the organization cannot or will not allow real change. Peck's insight must be backed by the an acknowledgment that complex systems are not readily changed. Even with commitment from an organization to change, it must do so as a system. It is here that Senge's tools for mapping systems dynamics and focusing on system leverage change are most critical to sustaining community.
But how will an organization know if its systems are growing toward maturity and health? Based on Peck's attributes of true community, I often use this list as a diagnostic framework in organizations:
All the above indicators are related to functions and processes that systems and structures create and support. While each question points toward an element for creating authentic community, their power is significantly enhanced when these elements are seen as a system.
Senge points out that invisible structures generate patterns of behavior. According to systems thinkers, these invisible structures are more permanent than the events they shape. It is for this reason that intervention at the learning architecture level can be more powerful than simply creating a feeling of community. More often than not, an organization that is having difficulty sustaining a sense of community is operating with systems that create fragmentation or disempowerment. The reason for this will become more clear when we discuss the nature of paradigms.
The learning architecture aspect of a core competence in community building has, as a basic tool, the capability to map and change system-level forces. Such competency would involve, for example, identifying, reinforcing, and balancing feedback loops, system delays, and exponential growth patterns. Even when the organization's leadership politically backs the enhancement of community, if the enterprise cannot gain the competence to create change, it can inadvertently destroy hope. Understanding how the organization's learning architecture enhances or blocks community is critical to realizing the trust, joy and flexibility of community.
With the actualizing of these three aspects of core competence -- interconnectedness, sustainable collective intelligence, and learning architecture -- the organization takes its first steps in becoming a community. Unlike other organizations facing challenges to survive and thrive, the organization operating as a community can do so more competently. These first steps lead to an extensive growth process beginning with questioning the current business paradigm, adopting a commitment to discipline and mastery, and finally leading to embracing a call to social responsibility.
A core competence of community in the workplace must be nurtured through three significant stages of growth. By definition, growth necessitates a certain amount of pain. When we grow as individuals, we have to give up the innocence of childhood in order to meet the challenges of adulthood, and later face the loss of physical agility and health to embrace our dying process. We cannot avoid these transitions as we mature -- and neither can a community. If the organizational community avoids the pain of growth, it stops the learning process. But if it consciously embraces the three learning challenges, it finds opportunities to grow spiritually, psychologically, and competitively.
Businesses cannot sustain themselves as communities or as learning organizations unless they become capable of embracing a paradigm of wholeness, a paradigm compatible with a living systems perspective. The skills of the learning organization and of community building can be temporarily grafted onto an old worldview, which rejects a spiritual sense of life, seeks answers in linear causality, and fragments system problems into symptoms for easier comprehension. But such a transplant will not " take " permanently. Community is a living system, and the organization will see that it dies if it is treated like a machine or factor of production -- behavior the current mechanistic worldview reinforces.
The first developmental stage in sustaining a core competence in community is to wrestle with the assumptions of its prevailing mechanistic paradigm. Larger than individual and organizational mental models, a paradigm determines what an individual, organization and an individual can or cannot learn and remain part of a community. A paradigm contains the operating assumptions of the corporation's prevailing world view, translated into rules by which issues and solutions are experienced and evaluated.
In his ground-breaking work on paradigms, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions , Thomas Kuhn revealed how a scientific discipline (in his case, a group of practitioners in the hard sciences) creates a picture of how the world works and defends it via an invisible process that pre-selects what is perceived as valid, significant enough to merit attention, and meaningful enough to command resources. He showed that, more often than not, a group holding onto old ideas and values will die conserving these rather than risking the learning required for change. The only technology Kuhn offered to remedy this situation was to wait for people to die off over time. Unlike these ill fated groups, businesses can use the technology of community building to transition between paradigms consciously.
Michael Ray, co-editor of The New Paradigm in Business , has been at the forefront of articulating an alternative view that is just beginning to emerge. He states:
...doing business from our most profound inner awareness and in connection with the consciousness of others and the earth. Simply put, this means that we each acknowledge that we have inner wisdom and authority and that others have it too. And as...virtually all scientists operating from the new paradigm tell us, there is a wholeness and connectedness between all living things. Everything and everyone is connected in some way to everything else.
Senge suggests that systems thinking must become integral to a learning organization's culture and, further, that " direct experience " of the " indivisible wholeness " of systems is critical for individuals becoming systems thinkers. Developing core competence in community building calls for organizations to model community as a living system rather than a mechanically controllable program, to experience chaos as a process that is creative rather than destructive, and to embrace diversity as a pathway to an underlying wholeness.
There is a clash between the assumptions operating within almost every company in the West and the assumptions within those few that Ray feels are moving toward a new business paradigm. Our traditional organizations create and legitimize paradigms. Since this happens in groups, acts of individual leadership are ineffective for changing a paradigm. It is a community-building process that must challenge and transform a collective worldview. Senge uses the term " metanoia " to describe a " fundamental shift in mind, " a generative learning that radically affects an individual's worldview.
Ray and I have been exploring community-based teaching methodologies whereby individuals could " try on " new paradigm assumptions in a practice field created in the safety of a learning community. In community, a paradigm becomes more apparent, in fact, it becomes open to challenge. Learning in community solves the puzzle for business on how to avoid a premature organizational death brought about by holding onto an expiring worldview. This learning process offers a technology for shifting paradigms effectively.
Few communities can do this quickly, or through just one effort. The change is more likely to occur over years or even decades; therefore, the community's task is to engage in a process of discipline and mastery to facilitate this change over time.
" Life is difficult, " says Peck. " This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult -- once we truly understand and accept it -- then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. "
And so it is with sustaining community. A learning organization that embraces community as a core competence requires day-in and day-out practice of discipline and mastery, so that the community and the individuals within it cannot help but move toward optimum professional competency, joy, and aligned organizational purpose.
No learning organization is fully mature, fully in community at its birth. Life in our organizations is significantly more ordinary than a constant state of generative learning or communal bliss will allow. No organization can constantly create a positive learning environment or always feel like a " family. " The evolution of a living community will include turbulent times as we encounter one another's and the organization's shadow sides. The learning organization will constantly cycle through the stages of pseudo-community, chaos, emptiness, and glimpses of community as it grows toward wholeness.
The primary task during the paradigm-shift stage was to develop a sense of connectedness that emerges from shared vision and purpose. At this stage, the group must move beyond the excitement of bonding and interconnectedness in community (akin to what Peck called the myth of romantic love in individual relationships.) Signs of health in community rest not in how interconnected and bonded the group feels, but how flexibly and responsively it moves from its existing reality toward the one it desires.
Like Peck, Senge sees learning as a lifelong program of study -- what he calls " discipline. " He explains, " By 'discipline,' I do not mean 'enforced order' or 'means of punishment,' but a body of theory and technique that must be put into practice. A discipline is a developmental path for acquiring certain skills or competencies. As with any discipline...anyone can develop proficiency through practice. " Senge has elaborated five central disciplines for the learning organization: systems thinking, team learning, team vision, personal mastery, and mental models. These disciplines, like sustainable community, are developmental. A core competence in community can be added as a sixth discipline.
In order to help individuals master lifelong learning, Peck developed a four-part system of techniques -- an algorithm for problem solving, which I have applied as a process for organizations or groups to become masterful at any discipline. When applied as an algorithm for problem solving, these four steps become a tool for gaining mastery of discipline itself:
Once a learning organization has embraced a paradigm of wholeness and established itself as a sustainable learning community, it will find itself called to the responsibilities of the larger society. This final developmental stage is really just a starting place for another level of growth.
Community, which is comprised of multiple levels of systems, always acts interdependently. Each level, while a whole system in itself, is also a part of a more comprehensive whole. For example, the individual self is a whole, and simultaneously part of the learning organization. The self and the organization are part of a larger whole: society.
The developmental challenge for individuals, organizations, and societies is to understand the interdependence of these levels and act to develop each appropriately while keeping the whole in mind. With experiences of interconnectedness to inform its view, a community will undoubtedly discover that its survival is linked to that of the larger society. If the organization has achieved a level of maturity and has integrated the prior two stages, it can take systems-oriented actions. Otherwise, it will again be treating symptoms rather than root causes of problems.
An organization at this level of development will discover that its impediments to community tend to be drawn from the larger social system. For example, the interlocking systems of oppression -- racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia -- will emerge as obstacles. Many organizations are surprised by the level of tension and struggle intrinsic to reaching mature community. Community is paradoxical; the more spiritually mature it becomes, the deeper the questions and concerns.
The fully mature community will once again encounter turbulent times, because this level of development is just the beginning. Once individuals reach this level of social awareness, the organization will need to re-clarify its fundamental vision, values, and purpose. It will require this new clarity to balance its fundamental vision against its need to act on awareness of social issues.
Figure 2: Source: The Systems Thinker
Learning, community building, and spiritual growth are interdependent, like systems in a body or an organization. A business seeking to become a learning organization can choose to take the path of developing a core competence in community. If it does, however, it will be embarking on a complex journey. The reward is to become involved in the larger world's problems.
This map for sustaining community outlines critical aspects of core competence needed to create and sustain community. It also describes the developmental challenges to growth that the community will face as it matures.
Embracing this journey can and does provide a means whereby a pseudocommunity, or old paradigm business, can transform itself into a more authentic community. Learning can become a central competitive advantage and also lead to personal and organizational satisfaction far beyond what is possible in the absence of a spirit of community.