Organisational Learning
The Skills and Methods That Will Make Your Group Smarter

by Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D., © 2000
Published in The Spinal Column, Nelson-Marlborough Health Services, Nelson New Zealand, March, 2000

It was a great feeling. I was watching manager Pam Flory at a weekly "wall meeting" with 120 of the employees in her group. Standing up and lining the walls of the big room, they spoke up about many issues. In this group conversation they spoke of problems and solutions. They spoke of what they appreciated about each other's work. They spoke about improving and learning. They told stories about what mattered and complained about what bothered them. There was no agenda, just a general theme of feedback, and Pam did more listening than talking. It was the obvious openness and intelligence they displayed that gave me such a great feeling.

This group within the Sprint Corporation was responsible for communicating with thousands of customers to enhance the relationship with them and, of course, keep them as customers. Pam, the managers in her group, the people they supervised, and the workers who made the calls had participated in some VBL workshops. They were applying what they had learned by holding weekly group conversations. Facilitating these agendaless meetings was one of several skills designed to bring out the intelligence of the group to help the organisation learn. In spite of being in a hierarchical company and having an ethnically diverse composition, Pam's group accomplished a number of noteworthy qualities. Among them were:

Generally, the ability of this group to learn as an organisation

In this article, I will summarise the organisational learning skills (i.e. the skills that help a group learn to learn) that Pam Flory and other clients have implemented to achieve these kinds of goals in pursuit of fulfilling human values. It might be helpful initially however, to take a look at some of the obstacles to organisational learning.

1. Physical Obstacles. One obstacle involves the physical arrangements that divide people. This includes separate office rooms, or the location of people on separate floors and in separate buildings. The tables and desks in many offices also tend to prevent comfortable communication.

2. Misused Authority Structures. Authority structures, when misused, can also inhibit learning. The "chain of command" implied by the typical organisational chart, if strictly adhered to, can inhibit the flow of information needed for learning.

3. Problems with Rank. Rank in the organisation can cause problems in a couple of ways. Some people use their rank over others to push their own ideas through and demean the thinking of others. Also, people sometimes use their rank under others to withhold their ideas and evade responsibility. Either way, the learning of the group is inhibited when such problems with rank block the flow of ideas.

4. Defensive Behaviour. Defensive behaviour will often prevent information flow. When people defend their ideas, the group may polarise between two competing points of view. ("Here is why my plan is best and your plan won't work." . . . "Oh yeah. I don't think so. Here is why MY plan is best." . . . "But, you neglected to point out that . . . ") All of this is best to prevent.

5. Traditional Organisational Habits. People in organisations often develop habits of when to meet, who to meet with, what to do, and how do to things. Often there is an attitude that activities, such as gathering groups of people together to listen and talk, somehow don't fit even though they may improve morale, productivity and problem solving.

Some of these obstacles can be dealt with more easily than others. For example, in the case of buildings that separate people, adding or making available a commons area can help to overcome that obstacle. However, when it comes to the other obstacles, such as misused authority structures, problems with rank, defensive behaviour, and traditional organisational habits, other skills and methods are needed.


Skills and Methods
for Promoting
Organisational Learning

1. Creating Group Conversations

2. Telling Stories

3. Making Music, Having Fun and Playing Games

4. Making Presentations

5. Listening and Sharing Information by Managers

I'll offer brief descriptions of these organisational learning skills and methods below.

1. Creating Group Conversations

Group conversations are agendaless meetings characterised by open interactions in a group that are within the boundaries set by an agreed upon theme. A group conversation can be as small as three people or as large as a thousand. Here are some of the ways to create an effective group conversation:

1. Circular Arrangement. Group conversations call for a circular or semi-circular arrangement of people without tables in between. That's because with a circular arrangement, each person can clearly see each other person during the meeting.

2. Establish a Theme. The theme for the group conversation could be feedback concerning what the group appreciates about its members or a discussion of unresolved problems. Another theme could be the voicing of problems and forming problem-solving committees. Another theme could be imagining the future of the group or organisation. Many other themes are possible. A good way to establish a theme and the boundary that it sets, is to pose a question or two for the group to ask and answer.

During group conversations in VBL workshops I will often pose a couple of questions to the group in order to establish a theme. Two of my favourite questions are, "What did you learn?" and "How can you apply what you learned?"

3. Use A Talking Ball. Another method is to use a talking ball or stick. Whoever has the ball (other than the facilitator), has the floor and the right to speak without interruption. Using the talking ball in this way assures whoever has the ball can speak without fear of being interrupted. This allows people to speak in depth and feel heard. The use of the talking ball also encourages participation from people who do not normally speak out or participation from people who are not comfortable interrupting others. (There are some people who don't need a talking ball: those of us who came from families where the only way to get in a word is to interrupt when the person talking finally takes a breath. For the rest of us, the talking ball will help greatly.)

4. Speak in Context. Another method is limiting your responses to two types: responding to the person who preceded you or talking from your own experience within the boundaries set by the theme. These two limits can help to prevent excessive discussion of abstract ideas and the subsequent creation of a polarising debate. (The theory underlying matrix management causes classic problems in reporting, thus preventing needed paradigm shifts within . . . )

5. Use a Facilitator. By using a facilitator, a group has a person who is responsible for the process. A good VBL facilitator will help involve everyone and bring about balanced participation. For example, after one person expresses an especially strong idea, a facilitator may say, "And the opposite may also be true for someone here . . . "

6. Allow for Appropriate Pauses. Someone who has just spoken will offer the ball to the group saying, "Who is next?" And then there will be silence. In this case, it is fine to acknowledge that pauses are okay and place the talking ball on the floor in the middle of the group. (Remember, it is during silence that we can really think.) After a period of reflection, someone will resume the conversation by coming up, taking the ball, and then resuming the conversation.

7. Explore Assumptions, Don't Defend Ideas. When people do not identify with their ideas so deeply that they need to defend them at all costs, something remarkable can happen to the group. Ideas can be explored, examined and enhanced. What had been a firm position and the "One Right Way" can become an option, encouraging the exploration of other options as well. More learning happens with the support of the whole group.

When the above methods and ideas are followed, productive group conversations often follow. And these methods eliminate the obstacles to organisational learning such as the misuse of authority, problems with rank and defensive behaviour.

In addition, group conversations provide a good opportunity for using a wide variety of VBL skills. The group conversation allows people to listen with empathy while using leadership counselling, to make requests and express their integrity, to mediate and negotiate conflicts to create a new agreed upon course of action, to appreciate others by seeing the good in their hearts and their actions, to apologise when the situation calls for it, and to bring about forgiveness and restore relationships.

2. Telling Stories

Storytelling is a practice as old as humanity, and for good reason. Stories are a great way to convey and reinforce the values of a community.

I often ask groups at VBL workshops to share stories that exemplify key values. This stimulates thinking about other related stories and then something good starts to happen. The whole group begins to feel the values as they share their stories.

People who have worked together for many years often know very little about each other. For this reason, sharing these stories about their lives, even if it is only a ten minute version, provides key insights for others about the storyteller's motives, strengths, and the origins of their values.

Stories of success, of failure, of challenges, and of dreams each have their place in a group of people seeking to learn together. Telling stories creates a sense of equality among people. That helps to prevent problems with rank. Telling stories also helps to enhance relationships in such a way that defensive behaviour gets diminished and gets replaced with cooperative behaviour.

3. Making Music, Having Fun and Playing Games

Human beings have an amazing skill. Put them in a group, give them some drums, bells, and wooden instruments, give them a beat - and presto, they play great improvisational music.

Perhaps a key element to the success of our hunting and gathering ancestors is their use of music, dance, and other forms of fun for building the spirit of the community. I believe the positive influence of improvisational music on a group happens for a simple reason - the patterns of interaction in making music are just like the patterns needed for a good group conversation. They include careful listening, allowing pauses, letting each person be a leader at different times, using differences to create a larger, better group performance, and stopping what you are doing when it doesn't fit in with what the group needs.

In 1999, I attended the July costume ball for Nelson Hospital. This was, to me, a good example of an organisational tradition that helps build community spirit by pursuing pure fun. Everyone was literally at the same level (on the floor), and each person is playing at being someone a bit different from who they normally are at work. This helps people see each other as people outside of their particular work role and rank in the organisation. I hope to make it to the next costume ball.

There are simple but profound benefits to music, dance and fun activities. I saw a television program where a North American Indian man was asked why his community danced and played the drums. In reply, he said that there were two reasons; "Our dances and music help renew the spirit of our community. Also, if anyone has angry feelings towards someone else, the anger is often healed by the experience of dancing with and playing music with that person." The outcomes achieved by playing music, dancing, playing games and doing fun activities will help to overcome many of the obstacles to organisational learning mentioned earlier.

4. Making Presentations

There are times when making formal presentations or speeches to a group can help the whole group learn. That's where public speaking skills can help anyone making a presentation, make a case for a direction he or she would like the group to follow. Also, a formal presentation can convey progress made on a project as well as suggest potential solutions to problems. Many of the skills of oratory and presentation, when learned and used, can help the group learn. For example, a talk that conveys a message of unity and cooperation can tend to reduce the misuse of authority and reduce defensive behaviour, and break people out of traditional organisational habits.

5. Listening and Sharing Information by Managers

Because of the power and authority of their positions, it is essential for managers to listen with an open mind and heart to requests that people make, to share non-confidential information with those interested, and to follow a "no" to a request with the reasons for not saying yes.

In my experience, people in an organisation don't want a yes to every request or a solution to every problem they bring up. Rather, they want to be heard, to know what is going on, and to participate in guiding the organisation, while being treated with respect and dignity. When managers listen to and share information with the people in their groups, that will help achieve these desires.

In Closing

The environment within which any organisation operates is rapidly changing. Some of the changes result from new technologies and the consolidation of industries. Others come from governmental shifts in party or policy. Organisational learning is needed more than ever before in such a changing environment. Organisational learning can make any organisation even smarter than the individuals who comprise it. While many of these methods, such as group conversations, are not traditional business activities, they are traditional human activities. As such, it is best to be disciplined with patience and faith in these processes, for they help activate the talents and contributions of people from throughout the organisation. Pursuing the skills, methods and activities suggested in this article (if you haven't already) will help to overcome obstacles to learning and will be a rewarding journey for you and your organisation to take. Being a part of a group that is growing in intelligence and learning is a great feeling - a feeling that you can continue to enjoy over and over again as the journey of organisational learning continues.

Close Window To Go Back to the VBL Articles Frame