To be a true learning company, it is a risk to hold the perspective of being an organisation. Because an organisation might be seen as static – a single unmoving way of being. To perceive yourself as an organisation suggests you may perceive fixed boundaries and rules. From here it becomes easier to build or hold barriers within and around you, restricting what you are and how you operate and how you move with the world. This is risky in a world that calls for creative, nimble and adaptive ways of working. We suggest that to be a true learning organisation, capable of swifter adaptation and movement, it is helpful to explore the perspective of being an organising. Organising is a term we are framing to provoke this way of being – always fluid, moving, learning, adapting. It illustrates the distinction between perspectives of static states and fluidity. And it is a verb: showing that it is work in progress.
Static and fluid
This distinction between static and fluid might also be explored in how the two sides of the brain work. The left side of the brain operates to create separation, abstraction and fixedness. The right of the brain is more holistic, fluid and connected in the moment experience. In his book, The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist describes the differences between the two hemispheres of the brain in more detail. McGilchrist emphasises that it is not what the two hemispheres do that makes a difference (they are both somehow involved in all activities) but how they do things. So the right side of the brain is always looking to work in a connected, holistic and dynamic way – being part of a whole in the specific moment. The left side on the other hand creates abstracts from the whole, separates them and categorises them in order to analyse and ‘manipulate’. It transcends the here-and-now to create a construction or reduction of complexities that helps us understand the world around us.
Left side, right side
McGilchrist argues that over many generations we have allowed the left side of the brain (the Emissary) to take over much of that the right side might be doing (the Master). This also applies to how we have developed our organisations and societies. The danger is that we are dampening right side thinking with overly mechanical and analytical ways of working. What this means in the context of organisations is that the left side leads us to do things in a disconnected way – limiting our progress to mechanical thinking and acting. Sometimes even creating a perception of separateness to others and the rest of the world. We then create 'islands' within organisations, or fail to look outside the organisational borders to see what the impact of an organisation on its social or ecological environment is.
But we are at an amazing time as leaders, managers and entrepreneurs in companies and communities! For the first time we are asking ourselves whether we have done things too mechanically in how we build the places where we work and live. We are asking how it might be to start doing things in a more connected way, moving away from notions of separateness. And if we are looking to build organisations (or organisings!) that truly learn as a system, then this shift towards right-side working becomes very important.
So what then do we need to start making these shifts – and to win while we are doing it? There seem to be many initiatives and practices exploring this more ‘participatory’ worldview and how to operate in it. In our own realm of learning, I believe practices such as action research and appreciative inquiry are related to doing things more from the right side mind. I also believe that bringing design-led thinking and playfulness into organisational development is part of this movement. And I believe that we are now starting to understand more of how we might learn from nature to develop truly long-lasting learning systems.
An ecological view
Thinking of this natural perspective, the work of Fritjof Capra is fascinating. Capra is a leading contributor to holistic, ecological sciences. In his book, ‘The Web of Life’ (1996) he relates to the conditions that are necessary for a system to stay alive – essentially taking lessons from over 4.7 billion years of life in many forms. I interpret these as:
- Interdependence – seeing each aspect as part of a wider system
- The cyclical flow of resources – helping each part of the system thrive together
- Cooperation – an active attitude in supporting each other
- Partnership – the coming together of tactical and strategic relationships
- Flexibility – an open mind to know the world will move and a need to adapt with it
- Diversity – a deliberate intention to explore new boundaries and edges
This may be the essence of staying alive and thriving. Moving away from mechanical ways of being towards this more organic and symbiotic for of organising. The wonderful questions we play with as learning and change practitioners are about how we make this happen. How do we help to shape new learning perspectives? How do we shape minds to break down silos and create more generative bridges, relationships and opportunities? How do we do this to shape organisations that are better connected, constantly flowing and growing? How do we do this so that the whole can grow as well as the small parts?
In the current climate, the more we understand our mind, and the more we can relate out thinking and actions to natural systems, the better we will get at developing true learning organisations. Hopefully, this blog is one way to stimulate both left- and rightsides parts of our brain, to start playing with these new ways of thinking!
This blog forms part of an ongoing series into how we develop learning organisations (or organisings!). More will follow in 2012 in which we will explore some of the topics mentioned in this blog, such as playfulness or diversity, more in depth and look for organisational practices that support such principles. The blogs will be written by my colleagues Marloes de Jong, Niel Van Meeuwen, Saskia Tjepkema and myself.
On Iain McGilchrist:
- Website with more information on Master & the Emissary
- RSA Animate presentation on the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World:
On Fritjof Capra:
- Website with more on his books and work with Schumacher College in the UK and the Center for EcoLiteracy in the United States.