The concepts of organizational learning are a core aspect of the MSLS program, and we worked with them a lot last year – they were essentially the backdrop for everything we did. Still, it was really helpful to spend three intensive days delving deep in the concepts with a new group of people and facilitated by the folks that developed and articulated the ideas.
What organizational learning is, exactly, can be difficult to put into words. Essentially it describes an ongoing process of profound change within an organization (business, school, NGO, government agency, etc.) Senge’s The Fifth Discipline is a central book in the field, exploring five disciplines of a learning organization: team learning, mental models, personal mastery, building shared vision, and systems thinking. These are interrelated concepts, each with a lot behind it. Most are to some extent self explanatory – mental models refer to the “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and take action.” Systems thinking I’ve talked a lot before – it is “the fifth discipline” and also the basis of the framework for strategic sustainable development (SSD).
One of the basic tools in the field of systems thinking and systems dynamics are causal loop diagrams (CLDs). The field also identifies some common patterns, or archetypes, that often play out in various ways in different systems. These archetypes are quite intuitive, as they are common patterns we have experience with, and the CLDs help clarify these patterns, bring them before us so we can get a better sense of what’s happening.
Here are two basic archetypes – Shifting the Burden and Limits to Success – as well as an example of each:
Another central theme in the field of organizational learning, which is also an integral part of the framework for SSD, is the concept of building a shared vision amongst a group of people, giving an honest analysis of the current reality. The gap between the vision and the current reality results in a creative tension. This is the basis of backcasting and enabling a strategic approach to sustainable development.
In the 5th Discipline, Senge points out that MLK Jr. once said: “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind, so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths…so must we... create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism.” The same is true for creating a sustainable society, and navigating the enormous transformational change that is accompanying that creative effort.
The book and the program explore the two basic motivators for sparking change: aspiration and desperation. The latter is responsible for the phrase “no change without crisis” and in the context of sustainability it is a motivator we see a lot, when organizations hit the funnel walls. When Wal-Mart feels the pain of consumer boycotts, or when Greenpeace campaigns against PVCs, dumps old washing machines on Electrolux’s parking lot, companies are motivated to make some changes towards sustainability.
However, when the conditions that created the desperation are no longer there, when enough has been done to relieve the outside pressure, the change toward sustainability often subsides. This can lead to frustration within the organization and from outside groups, as well as to many books and papers on why sustainability efforts fizzle out.
When organizations are motivated by an aspiration, on the other hand, when they are pulled towards a compelling vision of a successful, healthy, sustainable future, they often have a better chance of sustaining their efforts, and making more dramatic progress towards eliminating their contributions to unsustainability. It’s usually only through a real aspiration to move towards sustainability can a company reap all of the benefits like greater employee attraction and retention, increased productivity, meaningful innovation, dramatic cost savings, etc.
Bob Willard’s concept of 5-stages of corporate development with regard to sustainability highlight this concept:
Put into the context of the funnel, this idea shows how as companies move up through the stages they can reduce risks associated with unsustainable behavior:
We’re getting excited to head down to Atlanta for the SoL Sustainability Forum, where we’ll keep the learning going as we meet with those pioneering the shift to a new way of doing business and using organizational learning concepts to move towards sustainability. Stay going.