Book-projects – Power and response-ability: Knowledge technology

Creating knowledge

The nature of knowledge

All individuals and corporations create and acquire knowledge, unique to their industry, their market and their purpose. As far as corporations are concerned, their knowledge to a large extent defines what they are. And information is supposedly the key asset of the so-called ‘new economy’ – which is why most large corporations spend a fortune on information-technology, data-warehousing and ‘knowledge-management’ tools of one kind or another.

Yet knowledge is more than mere information. It’s built up from the content and context of information, and the connections created between items of information. So on its own, without context and connections to provide an anchor into Reality Department, information has no meaning and no use – and hence no value, either. And whilst the ‘information-technology revolution’ of the past few decades has vastly increased the amount of information available to us, most of it is unusable – and will remain so without a systematic knowledge-technology to create meaningful connections.

Knowledge-technology isn’t the same as knowledge-management – or rather, that specific area of computing that’s been assigned the buzz-word ‘knowledge-management’. Another term closely related with knowledge is ‘experience’: and as a colleague put it to me recently, “how would you store thirty years of experience in a database?” Most current automated ‘knowledge-management’ tools do little more than provide repositories for unlinked and often unlinkable information: they handle the information side of knowledge – and can often do that very well – but they rarely handle the connections which change that information into knowledge.

As the name suggests, databases are great for storing data, the raw content of information. But they struggle to handle metadata, the ‘information about information’ which gives that information its context; and most have no means whatsoever to manage any kind of meaningful connections between disparate information-items – which is something at which, by contrast, people usually excel. For example, let’s say I take a photograph of a colleague, using a digital camera. The image-file is raw data: I can store it easily in a database, or at least on some kind of file-server, and retrieve it at any time. But it’s just an image: and to anyone else – and possibly even to me, after a few months or years – it’ll be completely meaningless. To make any sense of it, we need some additional metadata: when and where the photograph was taken, a caption that describes what the picture shows, and so on. On a suitable ‘knowledge-management’ system, I might be able to make some automated connections to other image-files – for example, an extract, or a monochrome version for use in the company newsletter, or other photographs taken during the same business-trip. Yet even the most meticulous diarist is unlikely to record in any file the kind of connections that any human could recall with relative ease: such as that the man sitting next to my colleague – but who isn’t even shown in the picture – was the one who’d been talking about applications for the imaginary axis in Maxwell’s electromagnetic equations, which is what our company needs to know about right now. The image triggers a chain of associations, leading to the man’s name, the research unit he works for, its web-site, a phone number, and thence the contact-person we actually need. And it’s in those kinds of connections – with multiple, unpredictable steps, often linking to what isn’t there – that the real value of information often resides.

So knowledge-technology is more than knowledge-management. It’s as much about people as it is about machines: storing, collating and cross-referencing data, yes, but also encouraging and assisting people to build and maintain an intuitive grasp of information as a whole, from which those essential associative links can be created – and to record the data, metadata and connections in the first place. It’s more than just management: the techniques – and the study and development of those techniques, as a technology in its own right – are what really matter. At first glance, it looks like a computing issue, a technical issue, but ultimately, as with so much else, it’s best understood as a ‘people-problem’.

Yet whilst huge strides have been made in recent times with knowledge-management technology, some fundamental issues often get forgotten – of which one of the most serious is knowledge-lifetime. Sometimes the problem can be on the data-storage side, sometimes in the people, but often in both. To give just one example, as part of a research project one of my clients needed to review the original data of a structural test undertaken thirty years earlier. The old research reports didn’t given enough detail, so we needed to study the original data, which had been recorded on the then-standard medium of magnetic tape. Fortunately the tapes were still readable – just – but only after being baked to get the moisture out; and it took a while to find a computing museum which still had equipment in working order, so that we could get the tapes transcribed. What came back was columns and columns of figures: but no headings, no metadata at all – and hence no means to tell which column was associated with which sensor in the original test. The only people who might have known which was which were either retired, or dead: it was thirty years later, after all, and no-one had bothered to ask them to record these essential details in the meantime. It took a lot of work to sort out that mess… most of which could have been avoided with a proper understanding of knowledge-technology.

In some areas the rush to use the latest and greatest in information-technology is actually making things worse. The Quakers – or, to give them their proper title, the Religious Society of Friends – maintain meticulous records of all of the Society’s activities, dating all the way back to its beginnings, in the middle of the seventeenth century. For the first two hundred years and more, everything was handwritten in hardbound journals – all of them as readable now as when they were first written. But with the advent of the typewriter, records were kept increasingly in loose-leaf binders, sometimes as blurry carbon-copies on poor-quality paper. And with the rise of the personal computer came utter chaos: unlabelled cassette-tapes for unknown editor-programs on obsolete computers, with printouts sometimes on thermal papers that faded and fell apart as soon as they were exposed to light and air. The de-facto standards of the present day – Word Perfect or MS Word on IBM-format disks, for example – give little long-term protection: the current programs won’t read the files from the same program of ten years ago, for example, and most magnetic media won’t remain readable even for that length of time. It’s no wonder that the Australian National Library describes this time as “the forgotten generation”: by comparison, paper records may be hard to catalogue and search, but the technology to read them doesn’t go obsolete, and the basic file-format hasn’t changed in a thousand years!

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the human side of knowledge-technology. The issues around creativity, communication and memory are much as they’ve always been, although these days some aspects are better understood than in the past, and some of the techniques are more developed. The crucial fact, though – and one that far too many corporations forget – is that knowledge is, ultimately, always dependent on people. All knowledge is created by people, either directly, or indirectly with the assistance of some kind of information-technology. And for the most part, knowledge resides in people, and often only in people.

Which brings us back to the issues we saw in the previous section, about the corporation’s relationship with ‘its’ people. In a fascinating inversion of Marxist theory, it’s not the corporations who own ‘the means of production’ as far as knowledge is concerned: it’s individual people. Hence, as we saw earlier, if ‘our people’ aren’t treated with respect, ‘our’ knowledge, skill, inventiveness and creativity can just walk out of the door and go work someplace else. And there’s nothing that the corporation or its lawyers can do to stop it: the most they can do is to prevent others from using some of the knowledge – in which case everyone loses. So before moving on, it’s worth taking a brief detour to have a look at those issues – and especially the much-misunderstood concept of intellectual property.

Mobile memory

Information with a potential or actual application is often termed ‘intellectual property’. The ownership of ideas and their expression – as copyrights, patents, trademarks, branding and the like – is central to the ‘new economy’: ideas are often purported to be the primary assets of every corporation. The concept of intellectual property is supported by a huge and complex area of law: what’s worrying is that ultimately there’s nothing concrete behind it. It’s all imaginary: the entire system of intellectual-property law is ‘smoke and mirrors’, a series of legal fictions held together by power-over and power-under, and very little else.

I’ve no doubt that that sounds like an extreme statement, but unfortunately it is correct – and has increasingly serious consequences for business. At a fundamental level, much of even regular property law is suspect: in Australia, for example, the system of real-estate property-titles ultimately rests on an assertion of ‘terra nullius’ – that no-one owned the land before European settlement – which in international law has long since been proved invalid. In many other countries, the title-system is based ultimately on a legally dubious assertion of ‘right by conquest’: in England much of the title-system still derives from the arbitrary division of the ‘spoils of war’ after an invasion almost a thousand years ago, and the legal basis for land-holding in most parts of the United States – or, for that matter, the countries once controlled by the ‘colonial powers’ – is little better. So there’s a lot of truth in the old anarchist slogan that “all property is theft”: and if such theft – however long ago, however conveniently ‘forgotten’ – is used as the ultimate basis for property law, there’s then no defensible reason in law to prevent someone else from taking it in turn, in whatever way they might choose.

Most of the time, this doesn’t happen, of course, because it’s usually in everyone’s interest to ignore the underlying problems and exchange property anyway in the usual way. But that it’s more than ‘an academic issue’ was illustrated by the chaos that occurred after East Germany ceased to exist as a separate state. With the fall of the Wall, there were two conflicting title-systems in force there, one from before 1945, and one after. Tens of thousands of Westerners rushed to claim the land and buildings they said had been theirs under the old system: yet as Charles Handy commented, in his ‘Parable of a Fallen City’, a quietly sad essay on Dresden, many of them abandoned their claims as soon as they discovered what that ownership would entail, in terms of repairs and maintenance. In other words, they wanted only the benefits of ownership, without any of the responsibilities of stewardship – and hence, by their self-focussed inaction, contributed to the continuing decay of that country. In offloading responsibility to others, ‘rights’-based ownership is inherently an expression of power-under – and thus, inevitably, over time, one from which everyone loses.

The situation for intellectual property is even worse. The three basic domains for intellectual property are copyright, patents and trade-marks – which are not only maintained independently of each other, but are different in every country, and often in every state. In all three domains, there are two fundamentally conflicting principles in use to determine ownership: ‘first in, best dressed’, or priority of application for registration of ownership in that specific domain; and existing related use in another domain, such as in another country or another intellectual-property context. In all cases, the intellectual-property rights are exactly as per our definition of the dysfunctional form of ownership: an arbitrary assertion of exclusive right to exploit the resource without reference to others in the present or elsewhen. And they’re exactly as defensible as other dysfunctional forms of ownership: in other words, they’re not. Enormous conflicts can arise whenever a property-holder attempts to expand their business into a different realm, or wherever a new structure is added to the system: for example, witness the fights over ‘cybersquatting’ in the Internet domain-name space. In most cases, the ‘winner’ is the one who has the most legal clout, often combining the implicit power-under of the law with the explicit power-over of coercion and threats, and in which the final assignment of ownership arises from something that’s dangerously close to ‘right by conquest’ – and hence ultimately indefensible in law.

It’s worth remembering, as Charles Handy and others have warned, that the intellectual-property system – historically, copyright first, then patents, with registration for trade-marks arriving much later on the scene – was created for the purpose of providing individuals with recognition and reward in return for placing their ideas into the public domain. Trade-marks were originally assigned more for protection of the general public – to help identify counterfeit products – than for protection of ‘corporate property’. But over time, the legal fiction of an idea as property which can be bought and sold, the legal fiction of company as an individual entity which can ‘own’ such property, the nature of contract law which enables corporations to assert ownership of ideas created by anyone in their employ, and the notion that ownership confers exclusive rights without responsibilities, have all combined to create the chaos we face today. Eben Moglen, professor of legal history at Columbia University, is one of an increasing number of legal authorities who contend that, by comparison with other legal precedents, the current overlapping systems of patents, copyright law and trade secrets have not merely become unworkable: they’re very close to complete collapse. In that sense, mistaken attitudes about ‘ownership’ now place everyone’s work at risk.

Perhaps the closest legal parallel to the present situation is that of the infamous Enclosure Acts in Britain. During the mid-eighteenth century, the British government forced through legislation to ban common ownership of land – primarily to break the power of the Scottish clans and their repeated resistance to external rule. This provided a precedent for a fifty-year flurry of parliamentary activity, in which individuals paid politicians to promote private legislation – the Enclosure Acts – which asserted the right of those individuals to ‘enclose’ arbitrary portions of common land, and convert it into private property. The new ownership was literally exclusive: enclosure meant that the other previous owners were excluded from what had been in part their own land – and would have to pay for the new ‘privilege’ of being allowed to use it. So the Acts were little more than legalised theft, in that the other owners received no compensation for the loss – though the new owner often had to pay quite a lot, in bribes to politicians, bureaucrats and other ‘between-takers’, in order to ‘legalise’ that theft… And as with the current domain-name system, whoever got their legislation through parliament first became the owner – regardless of anyone else’s often equally valid claim. The result was, and still is, a legal mess of massive proportions.

Exclusive ownership, in this sense, is an arbitrary assertion of the ‘right’ to exclude others from access to some resource. Where such exclusion is demonstrably for the purpose of maintaining the resource – such as for a nature-reserve, or for sustainable agriculture or a similar land-use – it’s easy to defend on ethical and legal grounds: the ‘ownership’ is stewardship, in the definitions we saw earlier. But where the purpose of the exclusion is power-over or power-under – for destructive exploitation of a shared resource, for example, or to enforce a ‘between-taker’ monopoly, as is the case with the many continuing attempts to assert private ownership of some aspect of the human genome – it’s impossible to defend on ethical grounds, and increasingly difficult to defend on legal ones.

And that latter case, unfortunately, is the situation for most trademarks. For example, Coca-Cola claims ownership of the phrase “the real thing”, Ferrari claims ownership of a specific frequency of red light, Harley-Davidson claims ownership of a specific sound, a small telecommunications company claims ownership of the word ‘Yes’ – and as we all know, their lawyers run rampant if anyone else makes use of such items, even inadvertently. But what’s the basis for such private ownership of public space? The basic answer is that there’s none: it’s just an arbitrary assertion of ‘right’. The situation is even worse with patents: the current system is so inadequate that an Australian attorney, John Keogh, was able to obtain ‘Innovation Patent #2001100012’ for a ‘circular transportation facilitation device’ – in other words, the wheel. He applied for the patent in order to illustrate the flaws in the patent registration-system itself: yet according to current international patent law, he now has the right, in principle, to charge everyone in the world a fee for the use of his ‘invention’. In practice, of course, he wouldn’t get very far – public pressure would override the nominal rights assigned in the law, much as Unisys found when it tried to assert its ownership of the GIF file-format – but the result is that the law itself is now demonstrably close to meaningless. The overall intellectual-property system has become so misused, and moved so far from its original purpose, that it’s now little more than a legal fiction held together by lawyers’ bluff – a fragile foundation-stone for the so-called ‘information economy’!

The other problem is the notion of assigning ownership of ideas in the first place. For ownership of an object, we can establish a history of ownership, and a trail of ‘added value’ at each stage of its construction, all the way back to the original location of the material resources from which it’s made. In that sense, ownership of objects is ultimately based both on ownership of land, and identification of individual ownership of resources at the time of creation – subject to additional complications, such as the concept of leasehold rather than freehold title. But where do ideas come from? How do we establish their history, or the conceptual components from which each is made? How do we establish ownership of the original location of each ‘resource’ – the content, context and connections – that underlies an idea, in order to establish ownership of the ideas themselves? The short answer is that we can’t: and it doesn’t take much thought to recognise that, legally speaking, we’re on very shaky ground here…

A number of attempts have been made to resolve this issue of ownership – such as the ‘micro-payments’ concept in Ted Nelson’s long-running Xanadu project, or Tim Berners-Lee’s ‘distributed Web’ – but they’ve all foundered on the problem of identifying the ultimate sources of any idea, and thus the list of ‘owners’ who would need to be paid for their part in its development and use. As Isaac Newton put it, we each stand ‘on the shoulders of giants’: every idea depends in some way upon every other idea, through the web of connections that makes up the core of what we call ‘knowledge’ – in fact, Newton’s own ‘Opticks’, published in 1704, contains clear precursors to some discoveries on the interaction of gravity and light that arose from Einstein’s work on relativity two centuries later. And even if we discount Jung’s concept of the ‘collective unconscious’ – a shared pool of imagery to which everyone has unconscious access – the fact remains that parallel discoveries and inventions are common: for example, the simultaneous yet independent development of the calculus in the mid-seventeenth century by both Gottfried Liebniz and Pierre Fermat was a severe blow to Newton, who had thought himself the sole ‘owner’ of that idea. For all his brilliance, Newton could be remarkably childish and egotistical, indulging in power-over and power-under in every way that we’ve seen so far: like many a modern-day intellectual-property attorney, he accused Liebniz of plagiarism, and tried to manipulate the scientific establishment of the day to enforce his claim of exclusivity. In the long term, though, Newton’s self-obsessed rages have proved utterly irrelevant: he’s now just one of many who share credit with the discovery, and it’s Liebniz’s notation for the calculus, not Newton’s system of ‘fluxions’, which is most often used today. The real value of ideas arises not from who invented them, or who ‘owns’ them, but in their use – and anything which blocks that use is, and must be, eventually discarded.

From a business perspective, this is far from trivial. None of the attempts to extend the classic physical-property model to intellectual-property have really worked: they may look impressive, especially when a ‘cease and desist’ demand, for example, is couched in voluminous legalese, but none of them have any real foundation – a fact which is becoming increasingly evident to everyone involved. And the more that corporations and their lawyers try to force the various intellectual-property kludges to work, the more risk there is that the entire edifice will come crashing down – possibly bringing the physical-property system down with it, too. As with the large question-marks currently hanging over company-law – particularly the anomalous rights and responsibilities of shareholders relative to other stakeholders – the best approach for business at present is a cautious ‘wait and see’: but there’s no doubt now that any attempt to build a business on such flimsy foundations would not be a good idea.

Given all the uncertainties about the ownership of ideas, many organisations have, predictably, tried to own the ‘means of production’ instead: the minds of individual employees. Many employment contracts look like a throwback to the days of slavery, attempting to claim ownership not only of every idea created in work-time, but in personal time too, and indefinitely into the future. Restrictive clauses are also common, purporting to prevent employees from ever working for any of the organisation’s competitors, or even in the same industry. But whilst remembering is often hard, forgetting is even harder: what is remembered cannot simply be forgotten on a lawyer’s demand. And once again, these contract-conditions may look impressive when couched in suitable legalese, but none of them are enforceable in practice – although for any individual it can often be too expensive to prove that point, of course. In my own case, as one of the original developers of what’s now known as desktop publishing, I broke out of one of those contracts by writing a book on the arcane subject of water-divining – which, strangely enough, my former employers did not want to own… But the usual result is that, when subjected to a contract of that type, people simply shut down: as a colleague commented the other day, when informed that everything he did in his doctoral research on medical imaging would become the automatic property of the university, “I’ve stopped being able to do science – my heart just isn’t in it any more”. It’s obvious that, to organisations that don’t understand the human side of systems, one-sided contracts look like a ‘winner’: but because it’s a one-sided ‘win’, they don’t actually work. In this case, by claiming exclusive ownership of everything, the university actually gets nothing – and neither does anyone else. The only result of power-over or power-under, in any form, is that everyone loses.

The real intellectual property – the use of information – resides primarily in people’s memory. In relation to that fact, organisations have only two choices: create a lose/lose by ‘controlling’, or create a win/win by sharing with their employees and others. What does work for intellectual property is to create and maintain a sense of stewardship rather than ownership: in other words, responsibilities shared with everyone, rather than ‘rights’ for a self-selected few. We’ve already seen one form of this, in the commercial advantages of sharing information with stakeholders and with competitors. By emphasising stewardship, we’re also going back to the original intention of the intellectual-property system, which was to provide a fair means to encourage the exchange of information and ideas.

So where do ideas really come from? We have no way to tell: all that we know is that it’s not from anywhere that can be owned – and that any attempt to own that place costs us our access to it. Ultimately, intellectual property belongs to everyone – or else it ceases to exist. Those are some of the fundamental facts of knowledge-technology: corporations and their lawyers might well prefer them to be otherwise, but that’s the way it is, and it’s best to learn to work with it!

Analysis and intuition

Knowledge is built up from content, context and connections. Content may be anything at all: facts, figures, names, numbers, dates, places, images, and all manner of other kinds of data-structures. A predefined set of connections provides some basic context: for example, a figure may be linked to its source and a date – the bottom-line for the day’s trading for a draper’s store on 12th June 1924, perhaps. But the use of that information is more often derived from far wider connections that are not predefined: as part of an aggregate figure for the year, perhaps, or for the town, or for the industry, or as a link in a newspaper article on the life of someone born on that date. Knowledge and experience are more than mere information: and for real knowledge, anything goes as far as those connections are concerned. But that’s also what makes it so hard to separate out meaningful knowledge from amidst the morass of everyday information.

The standard solution is analysis: look for proof, make it all certain. But it actually doesn’t work – or work well, at any rate. As Murphy’s Law indicates, we can never have enough data if we’re trying to analyse everything: and every comparison takes time. The result is what’s commonly called ‘analysis paralysis’ – and many, many missed opportunities. And whilst the uncertainty – the lack of apparent control over knowledge – can often cause a cause a great deal of angst, it’s often the unpredictable associations which provide the most value: just think of all those business relationships that arise from casual conversations during flights and conferences and those long lonely evenings in hotels a long way from home. Unlike machines, which for the most part can still only follow predefined rules, we learn, through experience, to just know when something may be relevant.

One of the reasons why analysis doesn’t work as well as might be expected is that it depends on repeatability: but in practice – in business as much as in the sciences – important connections may be made via the accumulation of small, often unidentifiable and unrepeatable, items of information. Over time, we each build up a kind of hologram of our world, always sketchy, always incomplete. We’re constantly refining that hologram, through observation and experience, but the key point is that it’s never complete, it’s never entirely static – which is why we can’t rely absolutely on analysis. If we try to analyse a hologram, we’ll discover that it’s just a meaningless mess of lines: there’s no apparent structure on which we can build the analysis. What works instead is to view the hologram as a whole, rather than as divided up into arbitrary parts – and then provide conditions under which we can take a kind of ‘snapshot’ of that whole from varying perspectives. Unlike analysis, the snapshot is instantaneous, which means that we can use it at the speed of business: the catch is that it depends greatly on the quality of the hologram – and on the metaphoric ‘lighting conditions’ that we use.

This snapshot-process has many different names: intuition, gut-feeling, heart-response and so on. It’s still almost entirely a human characteristic, because – unlike analysis – there are no clear rules on which we could base some kind of machine to do the same: I’ve only seen one artificial-intelligence knowledge-system which could use genuine intuitive-type rules, and even then it was very rudimentary in what it could do. So given that, as Beveridge put it, “the origin of discoveries is beyond the reach of reason”, a company’s knowledge-technology needs to include systematic support for the human process of discovery. It needs to emphasise the complementary roles of analysis and intuition, with each supporting the other. And it needs to emphasise the discipline of intuition, observation, analogy and the like – which is where those many tools and techniques on creativity, brainstorming, mental-models and so on come into play.

I emphasise the need for discipline here because without that discipline, the ‘snapshot’ is usually not taken from the hologram, but from our own assumptions and prejudices. There’s a fundamental paradox of perception – Gooch’s Paradox – which warns that “things have not only to be seen to be believed, but also have to be believed to be seen”. Without discipline, and without awareness of the dangers of that paradox, it’s all too easy to get caught up in circular reasoning, in which we see only what we expect to see, and ignore everything else – which is what leads to ‘groupthink’, and the all-too-common error of “ready? fire! aim…”. Corporations are understandably cautious about intuition, because a single undisciplined assumption can sometimes destroy a company: as the old joke goes, be careful about jumping to conclusions, because the conclusion you jump to may be your own! Yet with discipline and systematic study and practice, intuition is a skill that can be learnt – and, as many examples show, is the most valuable business skill of all.

The real problem is that so few companies are willing to take the risk: and the excess of caution is what cripples the company, in many different ways. The risk is not as high as it seems, because analysis is always available as a backup, providing default recommendations in case of serious doubt. It’s essential to understand, though, that analysis only works backwards, working from the known-in-general to the known-in-particular: that’s why, if we rely too much on analysis alone, we get stuck on that old trap of “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. Instead, we need to remember that “the origin of discoveries is beyond the reach of reason”: what happens in practice is that there’s an intuitive jump from the present ‘here and now’ to some trend pointed out by the hologram, and then reason comes into play, to provide a kind of backfill, linking the intuition to the rest of our experience – as Beveridge put it, “verifying, interpreting and developing [information] and building a general theoretical scheme”. In practice, the main purpose of analysis is to provide us with some means to explain our intuitions to others: intuitions and the like are our own perspectives on the hologram – which are not necessarily obvious to anyone else!

Intuition is literally ‘teaching from within’: as such, it’s the basis of all skill and creativity, because whilst others can help us to learn, the only people who can truly teach us anything are ourselves. Knowledge ultimately arises from the ways in which we combine our own experience with a sense of ‘connectedness with everything’ – another reason why a win/win attitude is so important, because the barriers built up through win/lose inevitably close off access to some parts of the hologram. Sharing ideas with others, as power-with, constantly creates new connections – and hence new knowledge. And play is an important part of this – not only in that a safe space to practice is needed for the development of skill, but simply that creativity flows more freely when people are having fun.

Yet paradoxically, the most satisfaction arises when that enjoyment occurs within a framework of self-discipline – literally, of self-leadership. A discipline imposed from outside rarely works, because the purported ‘discipline’ is usually a muddled morass of power-over and power-under; but a displine accepted as a personal choice provides a means to express personal power – and share that power with others. Productive organisations focus on more than just the obvious layers of work: they invariably interweave work, play and learn as part of every activity, though not always in a conscious way. The most productive organisations do so intentionally, as part of their purpose, and provide systematic support for the development of each individual to find increasing response-ability as a result. And as each person grows – learning more in practice about the nature of connections, the nature of knowledge, the balance of analysis and intuition, and the balance of personal power and shared power – the ‘learning organisation’ as a whole grows with them: and everyone wins. If we want our organisation to be productive – and profitable – it’s the only way to go.

The learning organisation

The term ‘learning organisation’ was coined by Peter Sengé to describe a kind of continuous process of self-education and self-development, acting as the underpinning for an entire organisation. It goes far deeper than any of the usual ‘fast-fix’ fads, or the usual handful of shortlived ‘human resource’ training courses: instead, it promotes a quiet, careful re-think and re-work of every aspect of business – carried out by the business itself – to create a fundamental shift in orientation and focus, towards empowerment, in every way and at every level within the organisation. As a result of that orientation, the organisation as a whole becomes far more flexible, proactive, resilient and adaptable – essential attributes for any business involved in a fast-changing market. Despite the fundamental nature of the changes in approach and attitude that this demands, the process is less disruptive than it sounds – certainly far less so than a typical attempt at downsizing and ‘restructuring’. And as usual, all that stands in the way of those organisational advantages is the destructive set of habits that underly ‘business as usual’ – and corporate fear, which helps no-one, especially the corporations themselves!

In that sense, the tools and concepts developed by Sengé and his colleagues at MIT Sloan School of Management are exactly complementary to what we’ve seen here. Their three books – ‘The Fifth Discipline’, ‘The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook’ and ‘The Dance of Change’ – provide theory, techniques, examples and case-studies in a wide range of business types: but on their own they don’t address directly the basic issues of power-over and power-under which cause so many problems in any practical business context. Placed together, and used in parallel, the two combined sets of tools provide what is probably the most powerful and productive means available to support corporate knowledge and create qualitative organisational change.

As that book-title suggests, Sengé’s approach emphasises five distinct yet complementary disciplines: systems thinking, mental models, shared vision, team learning and personal mastery. Systems thinking is a kind of holistic analysis, always looking wider than the scope of a single system: the key example used is the ‘Beer Game’, which demonstrates how the apparently independent actions of a brewery, its distributors and its retailers can interact in ways which seem inexplicable without a system-wide overview. Mental models provide a means to ‘reframe’ the perception of an issue, in order to gain leverage towards practical solutions. Team learning is a discipline in which results in the intelligence of the team being greater than that of any individual – for example, the Open Source concept that “given enough eyeballs, all [software] bugs are shallow”. Shared vision is another name for the process of developing and maintaining corporate, team and personal purpose, much as we’ve seen earlier. Personal mastery is the development of the individual skill and creativity upon which corporations ultimately depend – and which in turn depends on a solid understanding of power, response-ability and the human side of systems.

A key aspect of both the disciplines of systems thinking and mental models is the search for similarities – for patterns which are common to many different arenas, and which are ‘self-similar’ in that they recur at different levels within the same arena. One of the most useful of these – especially in the context of knowledge-technology – is the ‘skills labyrinth’, a common pattern in the development of every type of skill, which uses the classic single-path maze as a model of the various stages in the personal process of learning new skills. The usual model of skills-development is linear: a steady increase in ability, as each layer of training builds upon those which preceded it. That model seems obvious enough, but it doesn’t describe the difficulties, the uncertainties, the common feeling of ‘one step forward, two steps back’, that are so commonly experienced during skills-development – and which make the development of new skills so challenging. And the development of skill is far more than mere training: it’s the education of experience, literally ‘out-leading’ that experience from within the inner depths of each person. The skills-labyrinth provides a precise metaphor that addresses these issues, in a way which is common to every skill – and hence can make the learning of any skill an easier and less stressful experience.

The labyrinth model and its use are described in depth in the ‘toolkit’, but a brief summary would still be useful here. The classic labyrinth pattern – found in many cultures around the world – is a maze with a single twisted path. There are no choices, in that there are no branches, no junctions – so as long as we can keep going, we’ll get to the centre. Yet as with all skills, reaching that central goal – the personal mastery of some aspect of the skill – can take a lot longer than we’d expect: and there are plenty of opportunities to get lost along the way… The version of the labyrinth that I use for this model has seven distinct sections, in what would seem to be a linear order: survival, self, control, caring, communication, mind, meditation, mastery. But that’s not the order in which we experience them. In practice, we start with ‘beginner’s luck’ – where we succeed because we don’t know what we’re doing; then, if we keep going, we move straight into ‘control’ – the limited sort-of-mastery that can be attained through training. But to go any deeper into the skill, we have to go outward, to look at ‘self’ – in other words our own involvement in the skill; and then go outward again, to the long, slow, painful and often barely-productive ‘survival’ stage – practice, practice, practice, often without much apparent point. At the end of that section is the worst point of all, the place where many people give up completely: traditionally known as ‘the dark night of the soul’ – and the exact opposite of ‘beginner’s luck’ – it’s often experienced the day before the exam, or the first presentation before the board, or some other crucial challenge. There is a way through that bleak stage: caring – in other words commitment to the self and to the skill itself, as much as caring in general – is the essential attribute that helps this happen. And from that moment, the skills learned so far are never lost – although there are a few more twists and turns to go before true mastery can be achieved!

The labyrinth model is fractal, or ‘self-similar’, in that it applies as much to each stage of skills-development as to the development of the overall skill itself. It illustrates several common mistakes – in particular, the tendency to try to cling to the shortlived success of ‘beginner’s luck’, which is what leads to the common addiction to ‘fast-fix’ fads. It shows how the interactions between people who are at different stages of the skill will often contribute to confusions and mistakes; for managers, it helps explain why productivity and proficiency will necessarily go down during some stages of development. And by demonstrating that the ‘dark night of the soul’ is an inherent part of the process, it helps to reduce the risk that people will abandon their development of skill at the moment before success – at what would otherwise be great cost to the company, and to themselves.

The core of the ‘learning organisation’ concept is that the learning concerns more than just the organisation: the development of awareness, skill and creativity needs to involve – and, wherever practicable, include – the wider scope of stakeholders as well, because those stakeholders are part of the wider system within which the organisation operates. At present, few corporations do much, if anything, to foster that skill and creativity: many purport to do so – such as in the claim that “our people are our greatest asset!” – but most still crush it through clumsy handling of the human side of systems. Sengé’s five disciplines, combined with a better understanding of the nature of power and response-ability, presents a view of an entire of a corporation’s activity as an integration of work, play and learn – and thus provides a functional means to move out of the impasse.

More to the point, this approach to organisational development finally signals an end to the misleading metaphor of business as a kind of war – because it becomes obvious that the inherent assumptions about win/lose result only in destructive relationships from which, ultimately, everyone loses. The nature of business itself demands that competition will always be necessary: but we serve ourselves best by treating it as competition-with, not competition-against – treating our stakeholders and competitors alike as our allies in our chosen purpose, and in a greater quest for knowledge and experience.

In learning new skills, new competencies, we’re each forced to face our greatest ‘enemy’: ourselves. We’re forced to face our own fears, of inadequacy, of uncertainty, of powerlessness, and much else besides; we’re forced to face that weird moment of insanity when “I can’t” coincides with “I can”. And no-one else forces us to do this: in facing these inner aspects of expanding our own skills and knowledge, there’s no-one else to compete against, so we can only compete with ourselves – with the help, and the power-with, of others. We can’t play win/lose in that context: there’s no-one to ‘win’ from, and only one possible ‘loser’… And slowly – though sometimes too slowly – the realisation sinks in that the same applies in other contexts too. ‘I’ and ‘We’ interweave; it becomes obvious that ‘Them’ are also part of ‘Us’, and thus are ‘Us’ and ‘We’ and ‘I’. At that point, our purpose, our relationships and our knowledge all combine in a truly powerful way – for everyone involved. If we want our organisations to be productive – and profitable – it’s the only way to go.

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