Tuesday, February 16, 2010

CONFERENCE - LearnTrends 2009 (Balances & Paradoxes)


A little late, I know, but I'm still buzzing from the LearnTrends 2009 Conference -- three days of peace, love and learning about organizational learning -- all online and by the digital glow of my monitor.

With its focus on trends and innovations in learning in the workplace, the event brought together a diverse lineup of corporate and academic presenters plus hundreds of interested participants -- opening day boasted 300-person-packed Elluminate sessions.

The highlight for me was a fruitful session led by George Siemens, co-founder of the Connectivist theory of learning (taking as its central metaphor the network), who made "an argument for contextual reflection" in his talk Finding New Points of Balance (video above).

Beginning with dichotomous perspectives -- such as those that emerge when organizations try to integrate learning technologies into their operations (i.e. open/closed, formal/informal, learner/worker) -- George used a highly interactive webinar to argue that:

  • 'Two elements can be opposed but have overlapping points on a continuum'
  • 'Balancing of oppositional elements fosters learning'

  • 'Context will determine the balance'

  • 'Every act of expression is a potential point of connection'

The four points above, in sequence, would be my twitter summary of the talk -- which is to say that each point packs a massive amount of information for me.

George's element/continuum model echoes for me the particle/wave dichotomy in quantum physics -- which reminds me of a friend's comparison of Newtonian ('linear, logical, traceable') versus Quantum ('circular, non-linear, and constantly in a state of becoming and transformance') thinking patterns, and their relationships to languages ('noun-based' versus 'verb-based', respectively).

'Try describing a chair without using a noun', she challenged me (thanks to lmibach, in reference to an address given by Professor Leroy Little Bear).

All of this occurred in the context of a discussion on knowledge management -- in particular, why rich communications were so rare in large organizational communities of practice.

The upshot for me is that noun-based languages objectify, and therefore tend to rationalize and commodify. A chair is a thing that I sit on. Verb-based languages, on the other hand, would tend to generalize and equalize by imparting animate qualities to all things. A chair is...sitting strong(?).

With regard to communities of practice, then, Newtonian thinking would tend to produce discussions in which fully-formed, pre-analyzed and well-supported ideas were presented, whereas a Quantum-thinking forum would expect the free-flow of seemingly contradictory, incomplete, outrageous and even subversive ideas.

And in my view, the capacity for subversiveness ought to be one (if not the) raison d'être of the organizational community of practice -- which otherwise simply replicates existing structures/discourses and so adds little of new value.

So the question for me becomes: How can one foster Quantum sociality within a Newtonian context? Or to ask it in a more familiar way, how can we foster (open) networks within and across (closed) institutional hierarchies? George's answer would be: Start by finding their overlapping points on a continuum.

It sounds like an obvious strategy -- something I could easily express linguistically by replacing all of my 'versus' and '/' above to 'and' (or perhaps to 'and/versus'). But really it's tight-rope walking -- an attempt to bring together polemically opposed discourses.

This balancing act itself fosters learning, according to George, forcing us as it does to explore "ways in which divergent viewpoints find some level of similarity." Sounds to me a lot like the idea of 'cognitive dissonance' -- those uncomfortable inconsistencies in our worldviews that drive us to learn more.

And that's related to Patrick Cohendet's notion of 'cognitive distance' (sufficient differences in roles, knowledge, perspectives and norms) between communities of practice as an essential condition supporting successful cross-community knowledge building (thanks to fgossieaux).

"We learn from others only when they see and know things differently," Cohendet emphasizes, and "out of this friction of competing ideas can come the sort of improvisational sparks necessary for igniting organizational innovation."

In all three cases, destabilization acts as a driver for learning as means of (re)establishing equilibrium.

So, applied to the case at hand (networks and/versus hierarchies), the overlapping points as I see them are: hierarchies and communities. 'Hierarchies' because networks are also self-organizing hierarchies within the wider institutionally-imposed hierarchy; 'communities' because to me the best example of a community of practice in practice is the organizational hierarchy itself, which produces a culture that tacitly and efficiently socializes its members to acceptable roles, knowledge, perspectives and norms.

So: networks as hierarchies within hierarchies and hierarchies as communities within communities.

If the above is true, then the logical function of an organizational CoP should be to act as a nurtured 'autonomous bubble' within the wider hierarchy (thanks to pstoyko) or a counter-culture within the community. As George put it, "discussion and debate needs to occur to shape any strategy to support organizational culture."

So then why do organizations that invest so much in setting up CoPs then invest further in developing strategies to control the discourse and stifle debate that may unfold on their discussion boards? Does this not nullify the value of (and the investment made in) the organizational CoP?

For me, the answer to that comes from Chris Argyris's work on paradoxes as symptomatic of what he calls 'organizational defensive routines', which he defines as "any policy or action that prevents someone (or some system) from experiencing embarrassment or threat, and simultaneously prevents anyone from correcting the causes of the embarrassment or threat. Organizational defensive routines are anti-learning and overprotective."

The best example of an organizational defensive routine is the 'mixed message', which for Argyris contains "meanings that are simultaneously: ambiguous and clear; imprecise and precise." The inconsistencies in the mixed message are crafted by design, and are produced according to a process:
  1. Design a message that is inconsistent.

  2. Act as if the message is not inconsistent.

  3. Make the inconsistency in the message, and the act that there is no inconsistency, undiscussable.

  4. Make the undiscussability of the undiscussable also undiscussable.
As I see it, the creation of a CoP within an organization that then acts to control its discourse functions as a classic mixed message -- both soliciting and silencing alternative perspectives. Which again makes me wonder why that organization would have set up the CoP in the first place, given its aversion to potential 'threat and embarrassment'.

One obvious reason -- paradoxically -- is to try to break out of stale organizational defensive routines (or 'silos' as they are more commonly known) that take a quantifiable toll on organizational efficiency and stunt innovation. The organization thus recognizes its need for a CoP (or an 'autonomous bubble') within its hierarchical structure, in the interest of its own long-term health -- yet its culture clings to outmoded defensive routines that thwart this.

Looking back at Argyris's characterization of organizational defensive routines, it isn't difficult to draw correlations between how these shape organizational culture in much the same way that we theorize CoPs should be doing:
  1. they are taught through socialization;

  2. they are taught as strategies to deal effectively with threat and embarrassment;

  3. they are supported by the culture of the organization; and

  4. they exist over time even though the individuals (with different psychological defensive routines) move in and out of the organization.
As such, it could be argued that the organization, as a community of practice, already possesses the means (and motivation) necessary to shape its own culture -- it simply needs to learn how to (consciously, constantly) come to a balance between its defensive routines and its risk-taking behaviour, something that Argyris would refer to as 'double-loop learning'.

And that balance, to come back to George's talk, will be determined by context. An organization in rapidly changing and uncertain contexts may need to be both more defensive and more risk-taking, but in different ways and to differing degrees -- as the situation warrants. Its ability to sense changes in signals from its own environment (both internal and external), therefore, and to then adapt accordingly becomes increasingly significant.

With each organization living out its own history in its own contexts, each will need to be able assess its unique environment and respond uniquely -- rather than applying what George called "cut-and-paste template organizational solutions." This is where on-the-ground perspectives become important and where the organization can leverage real value from its communities to both foster and strike an effective balance between competing discourses in its current context.

In practice, however, "there is nothing so rare in corporate learning as considered contextual approaches to problems," according to George. "It's surprising how rarely balance is achieved," and, in his view, "this is the reason so many initiatives fail" -- which should perhaps be seen as the real threat and embarrassment.

As it currently stands, then, learning organizations need to be taught how to learn socially by considering alternative perspectives and practices and by applying a little meta-cognition to their own development -- the same things they ask of their learners.

To put all of this in another context -- or perhaps to push it towards another state of imbalance -- below is a paradoxical and (therefore) enlightening exposé on The Uniqueness of Human Beings, delivered by neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky to the graduating class at Stanford University in 2009.