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Viewing Organizational Learning as a Synthesis across Time Frames

A Think Piece by Dr Yee Lai Fong, Associate Consultant, Capelle Consulting

The COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call in recognizing how tightly inter-connected and inter-dependent we are as a global ecosystem. It challenged many assumptions that we’ve been holding deeply in the way we operate all these years. Using the language of “learning organizations”, COVID-19 taught us deep lessons on systems thinking and challenged our mental models in practically every facet of our lives – much like pressing the reset button in our operating system. If 2020 was a year of the great reset, I hope that 2021 will be a year of generative renewal.

Reconnecting with our Bigger Purpose

Before we dive into another year rolling out a packed schedule of programmes and learning activities, it is timely for us to reconnect with our bigger purpose as Learning and Organizational Development (OD) practitioners in developing the capacity for renewal within the organizations that we serve.

My preparation for this article gave me the opportunity to pause and reflect more deeply on how my understanding of organizational learning has evolved over time. Citing Peter Senge’s definition of a learning organization, how might we create the conditions for such renewal in a manner where “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together”? (Senge, 1990). Given today’s context, I would extend the definition of a learning organization to include the capacity to weather and respond to disruptions and shocks like the global pandemic that we are experiencing now, the resilience to bounce back, and the capacity for generative renewal.

Navigating across Three Time Frames

Perhaps one way to view organizational learning is in terms of three time frames – past, present and future, and what it means to concurrently navigate and synthesize across them. Refer to table below:

Time Frame Past Present Future
Level of Perspective Mental Models or Prevailing Assumptions Patterns and Systemic Structures Vision and Collective Aspiration
Mode Reflective Adaptive & Creative Generative
Key Questions What lessons can we distil from this experience?

What assumptions were challenged?

How can the rest of the organisation benefit from this learning?

Cycles of Adaptive Action: What? → So What? → Now What?

What patterns are we observing? So what do all these mean? Now what actions do we take next?

How might we learn from signals, trends and drivers in the emerging future to develop our anticipatory capacity and shape our vision?
Time Frame: Past
Level of Perspective
Mental Models or Prevailing Assumptions
Mode
Reflective
Key Questions

What lessons can we distil from this experience?

What assumptions were challenged?

How can the rest of the organisation benefit from this learning?

Time Frame: Present
Level of Perspective
Patterns and
Systemic Structures
Mode
Adaptive & Creative
Key Questions

Cycles of Adaptive Action: What? → So What? → Now What?

What patterns are we observing? So what do all these mean? Now what actions do we take next?

Time Frame: Future
Level of Perspective
Vision and Collective Aspiration
Mode
Generative
Key Questions
How might we learn from signals, trends and drivers in the emerging future to develop our anticipatory capacity and shape our vision?

The levels of perspective and modes are adapted from Peter Senge’s work on learning organizations (Senge, 1990). I layered upon them some key questions based on my learning and professional practice as an organizational learning specialist. Let us unpack each of these time frames with some examples.

Past › Reflective Mode

In this frame, we are revisiting an organizational phenomenon to distil lessons from the experience with the aim to disseminate and feedforward such learning to the rest of the organization. Such experiences could be in the form of a major change initiative, a significant turning point in the organization’s history or a critical incident.

During my final season of work in Singapore Public Service, I spent eight years documenting several whole-of-government signature initiatives using this reflective mode, adapting from the learning history approach (Kleiner & Roth, 1996). The condensed versions of two of these learning history documentations – Our Singapore Conversation and SG50 were published on ETHOS, a biennial publication by Civil Service College1. The jointly-told tales were converted to teaching case studies and videos, and incorporated into programmes and communities of practice sessions to develop the public sector’s capabilities in citizen engagement. The lessons learned also informed the design of subsequent citizen conversations2.

Essentially, learning history is an approach to organizational reflection and institutional learning. It is a written document (or series of documents) that captures stories (including difficult and tough stories) that people tell in their own words about a specific learning experience or change effort, and reflects them (like a mirror) back to the organization and others through structured dissemination.

It reports not just what people did, but also their underlying reasoning and assumptions that led to their actions or decisions, where the unwritten but powerful tacit knowledge and undiscussable myths are surfaced, codified and converted into “reflection-able knowledge” in the form of stories. It serves as an artifact to enable individuals, a team and an organization to share a common, collective history of what happened in the past, building on the learning of others, and establishes the context for further conversations in a way that facilitates planning for the future.

Examples of Questions for Focus Group Interviews

  • What is your (or your team’s) role?
  • What were the key highlights of your (or your team’s) work so far?
  • What worked well? What were the key considerations? enabling conditions?
  • What challenges or dilemmas were encountered? How did you (or your team) overcome them?
  • On hindsight, what would you have done differently?
  • Transferrable lessons: How can this experience inform other divisions / functions involved in similar initiatives?

1 “Redefining Engagement: Lessons for the Public Service from Our Singapore Conversation”, June 2014 issue of ETHOS. https://www.csc.gov.sg/docs/default-source/ethos/ethos_issue13.pdf“ and “SG50: What the Public Service learnt”, December 2016 issue of ETHOS. https://www.csc.gov.sg/articles/sg50-what-the-public-service-learnt

2 “How Singapore designed citizen conversations – Interview with Jill Wong, Senior Director, Resilience and Engagement Division, Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth”, GovInsider, 26 Nov 2020 How Singapore designed citizen conversations | GovInsider

Present › Adaptive and Creative Mode

In this frame, learning is generated through iterative cycles of adaptive action, experimentation and prototyping. As described by Yrjö Engeström, Professor of Adult Education, University of Helsinki, “people and organizations are all the time learning something that is not stable, not even defined or understood ahead of time. They are literally learned as they are being created.” Building such adaptive capacity requires us to look beyond the traditional conception of learning as a vertical process of raising competency levels of individuals toward horizontal forms of learning at the collective level, that are integrated with activities at the workplace (Engestrom, 2000).

In other words, we are looking beyond learning that are pre-designed as courseware and delivered to learners to develop their competencies. We are referring to learning that are generated from iterative cycles of collective action. It is therefore crucial for leaders to recognize the value of such horizontal forms of learning in nurturing new and expansive patterns of thinking; and provide the space and time for such learning to take place.

One horizontal form of learning is design thinking, which involves insights gathering, experimentation, prototyping and testing. In early studies on organizational learning, learning through experimentation was one form of experiential learning to facilitate knowledge acquisition. Recent years saw the concept of prototyping entering into literature on organizational studies. Though similar to experimentation, the concept of prototyping is about failing fast and failing early, sometimes in real-life contexts rather than in controlled environments. Today’s dynamic environment calls for a more emergent strategy involving small-scale experiments or prototyping that enables faster learning by failing often and early, translating to faster organizational learning (Coughlan et al., 2007; Fixson & Rao, 2014).

Another approach is Adaptive Action developed by the Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) Institute, anchored on three questions: What? So what? Now what? Adaptive Action is an iterative process that uncovers patterns and possibilities, draws upon these insights to adapt and shift the underlying systemic structures.

  • In the What? stage, we are describing current reality.
  • In the So What? stage, we are exploring the implications and underlying dynamics.
  • In the Now What? stage, we take action and then assess the impact.

During this season, I am privileged to be part of Capelle’s team working with the non-profit sector on their productivity and digital transformation journey. Amongst the range of solutions being explored, one example is an online chatbot made available on mindline.sg to help people build mental resilience and learn self-care3. We are experiencing these iterative cycles of adaptive action and learning, bringing in voices and views from a diversity of stakeholders, including policymakers, charities, social work professionals, tech solution developers, donors, volunteers and clients from the community. The value is not just in the process and the product, but also the shared understanding generated from the process of co-designing or co-creation with multiple stakeholders (Coughlan et al., 2007 and Liedtka, 2011).


3 mindline.sg is a joint initiative of Ministry of Health Office for Healthcare Transformation (MOHT), Ministry of Social and Family Development, National Council of Social Service and Institute of Mental Health (IMH). https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/community/feeling-stressed-chat-with-emotionally-intelligent-wysa

Future › Generative Mode

In this frame, we develop our anticipatory capacity in learning from the future as it emerges. One approach is the application of futures thinking, translating foresight to insight, and in turn, to action. This is particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic as we seek to reimagine new business models in a hyperconnected world, amidst digital disruption and blurring of industry lines.

Developing anticipatory capacity does not happen only during an annual strategic planning exercise. It requires sustained and dedicated commitment to scan the environment and look out for signals, trends and drivers within and beyond the industries that we operate in. According to the Institute for the Futures (IFTF), the goal of foresight is not to predict what’s going to happen, but to provoke our creativity.

One example is the future of entertainment. Back in 2018, AT&T collaborated with IFTF to produce the report “Blended Reality: The Future of Entertainment, 5G, and Mobile Edge Computing4” Think about the blurring of industry lines; this report drew upon IFTF’s ongoing research in mobile computing, wireless networking, the future of entertainment, bringing in adjacent and intersecting areas of immersive media and artificial intelligence. In this report, I was most fascinated with the idea of ‘floating islands of the imagination’ which offers me the tools to create my own immersive experiences and invite my friends to join me in these “shareable dreamspaces”. Collective virtual reality environments like these will become tomorrow’s art galleries, performance spaces, theme parks and even destination resorts.

Closer to home, the local arts, events and entertainment sectors were amongst those most badly hit by the impact of the global pandemic. These are also the sectors with a sizable number of freelancers and self-employed. In October 2020, the NTUC Freelancers and Self-Employed Unit rallied key leaders in the sector5 to present insights and ideas on reimagining the future of social and community events. These were ground-up ideas generated from multi-stakeholder engagements, which will eventually dovetail and align with the broader directions set out in the Industry Resilience Roadmap (IRR) for the MICE industry6.

Conclusion

Let me wrap up by putting forth the following questions, inviting you to notice what stood out for you and draw connections with your practice as a Learning and OD practitioner.

ENCOUNTER: After reading this article, what patterns do you notice?

  • Generalizations: In general, I notice …
  • Exceptions: In general, … except …
  • Contradictions: On one hand …, but on the other …
  • Surprises: I didn’t expect …
  • Puzzles: I wonder …
  • Connections: This reminds me of …

APPLY: Considering the perspectives presented in this article, which aspects can you apply in 2021?

EXTEND: How would you extend these perspectives and connect with your prior learning and practice?

(Source: https://www.hsdinstitute.org/)


4 Blended Reality: The Future of Entertainment, 5G, and Mobile Edge Computing https://www.iftf.org/fileadmin/user_upload/images/ourwork/digintel/IFTF_ATT_BlendedReality_FutrueofEntertainment_061518.pdf

5 Key leaders in the sector included Tencent, Singapore Association of Convention & Exhibition Organisers & Suppliers (SACEOS), and Singapore Talent, Artistes and Resources (STAR) Association. http://ufse.org.sg/Pages/Details.aspx?ItemId=43

6 https://www.visitsingapore.com/mice/en/plan-your-event/event-industry-resilience-roadmap/ and https://saceos-irr.wixsite.com/website

References

Antonacopoulou E. & Chiva, R. (2007). The social complexity of organisational learning: The dynamics of learning and organising. Management Learning, 38(3), 277-295.

Coughlan, P., Suri, J. F. & Canales, K. (2007). Prototypes as (design) tools for behavioral and organisational change – A design-based approach to help organisations change work behaviors. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 43(1), 122-134.

Easterby-Smith, M., Crossan, M. & Nicolini, D. (2000). Organisational learning: Debates past present and future. Journal of Management Studies, 37(6), 783-796.

Engestrom, Y. (2000), Activity theory as a framework for analysing and redesigning work, Ergonomics, 43(7), 960-974.

Fixson, S. K. & Rao, J. (2014). Learning emergent strategies through design thinking. Design Management Review, 25(1), 46-53.

Kleiner, A. & Roth, G. (1996) Field Manual for a Learning Historian. MIT-COL and Reflection Learning Associates, Inc.

Liedtka, J. (2011). Learning to use design thinking tools for successful innovation. Strategy and Leadership, 39(5), 13-19.

Schwandt, D. R. & Marquardt, J. M. (2000). Organisational learning: From world-class theories to global best practices. Florida: CRC Press LLC.

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation. New York: Doubledy/Currency.

Stacey, R. D. (2003). Learning as an activity of interdependent people. The Learning Organisation, 10(6), 325-331.

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