Organizational learning in focus: World Forum of SOL - Society for Organizational Learning - Paris, May 19-21, 2014

"Metamorphosis. New Players. New Games." was the title of the SOL World Forum with more than 400 participants from all over the world. My personal conclusion: It still is up for discussion, whether a real metamorphosis to a more sustainable and value-based development are taking place in the economy, in the educational systems or in society as a whole. However, there are enough encouraging examples of transformation in all of these three areas, which the numerous case studies presented at this conference illustrated (such as the introduction of systems-thinking in educational schemes or joint ecological or social initiatives). 

 

"Learning" and "mindset supporting transformation" were the overriding themes of the presentations and key note speeches with a stronger business context. In the following I am focussing on those aspects which I found most inspiring; thoughts that are worth pursueing further in future.

 

Arie de Geus, former vice president of Shell and author of the influential business book "The living company", highlighted the two different kinds of learning according to Piaget. There is assimilation, which means applying experience to a new context. And there is accomodation, which requires learning new things in order to be able to solve problems. Companies are required to adopt the two learning styles, in order to be able to solve the complex problems of the future. Moreover, de Geus argued for a change in the economic game: Business needs to find ways to be "much more in harmony with the value system", which is already under way in society and especially in the younger generation, such as the value of personal autonomy, emancipation and the eroding acceptance of the old "demand & control". 

 

Adame Kahane highlighted that leaders of social change need to watch out for a thoughtful balance of power (force of assertion and mobilizing) and love (force of collaboration and engagement). [He was well aware of the fact that the use of the term "love" might be irritating and difficult in the business context, but consciously took this risk.] Both fundamental forces can have a generative as well as a degenerative effect. On the negative side power could be defeating and love manipulative. Thus, of both forces there can be a "too much". Moreover, leaders do need both, power and love. Finding the right balance between both forces is a constant quest. There is no "perfect balance", but there is a right balance to be found in any particular situation. The caution of an overly strong exertion and accumulation of power can be also found in Arie de Geus' book "The living company".

 

Peter Senge, founder of the Society of Organizational Learning and author of "The Fifth Discipline", introduced another perspective. He focused in his speech on the aspects which do influence our thinking and interaction patterns. "Institutions shape how we interact."; "Intellect is influenced by culture.". There he particularly mentioned the rather typical Western dichtonomous thinking and the traditional distinction of rational versus emotional. 

 

These mentioned concepts are not new to the world, however, it might be interesting to take them as a framework to look at the current organizations and the commonly applied leadership practices in today's companies. We might come to rather discomforting and disquieting conclusions about the status and mindset of some of the organizations nowadays.

 

Among the numerous case studies on transformation I found the examples of the French post (La Poste) and the French railroad SNCF particularly interesting. Both of these organizations illustrated a complex and fundamental transformation in the way how to run the business. How to learn from customers and include them into learning processes was well demonstrated by the French post. The change of the leadership approach within SNCF and the long-ranging transformation plan was most interesting to me. An initiative by the Finish government is worth mentioning. This initiative is aimed at getting Finland ready to "become the best European workplace by 2020"; a brave and really stretching venture overall.

 

Transforming organizations is always a big challenge. With increasing size of the organization this endeavour is becoming exponentially more complex and challenging. Therefore another approach is needed. Kazimierz (Kaz) Gozdz, from the US based Helix Group LLC, presented a framework which looks at large organizations as self-developing large scale learning communities, which learn to transform themselves and transform themselves while learning.

 

I find this way of thinking very inspiring as it is built on a different understanding and design of organizational transformation programs. This calls managers and change consultants to come up with other kinds of interventions than the ones out of the traditional change management toolbox. And it challenges our belief that one 

can develop organizations according to a defined project plan "from the outside". 

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