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2 Systems dynamics: nonlinearity and positive feedback

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Chapter 5  Thinking in terms of organisational learning and knowledge creation   103

such as cycles in inventory and other forms of investment. The theory of systems

dynamics also points to the limits of predictability by introducing nonlinear circular

causality, which makes it difficult to say what causes what, or what precedes what.

Perhaps the most important development of systems dynamics models for application to organisational and social policy issues has been by Jay Forrester (1958,

1961). His background was that of a servomechanisms engineer, digital computer

pioneer and manager of a large R&D effort. He developed an approach to understanding human systems that is based on concepts of positive and negative feedback,

nonlinearity and the use of computers to simulate the behaviour patterns of such

complex systems. Feedback is the basic characteristic of his view of the world and he

firmly links human decision making to the feedback concept.

Production and distribution chains

Forrester has illustrated his approach by modelling the behaviour of production and

distribution chains. A factory supplies a product, say beer, to a number of distributors who then ship it to an even larger number of retailers. Orders for the product

flow back upstream from retailers to distributors and from them to the factory. The

factory, the distributors and the retailers form a system, and the links between them

are flows of orders in one direction and flows of product in the other. Each part of

the system tries to do the best it can to maintain inventories at minimum levels without running out of product to sell. Each attempts to ship product as fast as possible.

They all do these things because that is the way to maximise their individual profits.

But because of its very structure – the feedback and lags in information flows – this

system shows a marked tendency to amplify minor ordering disturbances at the

retail level. An initial 10 per cent increase in orders at the retail level can eventually

cause production at the factory to peak 40 per cent above the initial level before


Peter Senge (1990) reports how he has used this example as a game with thousands of groups of managers in many countries. Even when people know about the

likely consequences of this system, he has always found that the consequences of a

small increase at the retail level are, first of all, growing demand that cannot be met.

Inventories are depleted and backlogs grow. Then beer arrives in great quantities

while incoming orders suddenly decline as backlogs are reduced. Eventually almost

all players end up with large inventories they cannot unload.

Senge concludes that it is only by being aware of how the system as a whole functions, rather than simply concentrating on their own part of it, that managers can

ensure that the extreme instabilities of the cycles are avoided. It seems, however, that

these cycles can never be removed altogether.

Principles of systems dynamics

By running computer simulations of a great many different human systems, resear­

chers in the systems dynamics tradition have identified a number of principles which

they think apply to complex human systems. These are set out below.

1.Complex systems often produce unexpected and counterintuitive results. In the

beer game, retailers increase orders above their real need expecting this to lead

104  Part 1  Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

to bigger deliveries, but because all retailers are doing this, and because of lags in

information flows, the unexpected result is lower deliveries.

2.In systems with nonlinear relationships, or with positive and negative feedback,

the links between cause and effect are distant in time and space. In the beer

game, the causes of increased demand appear at the retail end, distant in space

from the ­factory and distant in time because of the lags in order flows. Such distance between cause and effect makes it very difficult to say what is causing what.

Those playing the beer game always think that the fluctuations in deliveries are

being caused by fluctuations in retail demand, when in fact they are due to the

manner in which the system operates. The problem is made worse by many coincident symptoms that look like causes but are merely relational. This means that it

is extremely difficult to make specific predictions of what will happen in a specific

place over a specific time period. Instead, quantitative simulations on computers

can be used to identify general qualitative patterns of behaviour that will be similar to those one is likely to experience, although never the same. Simulation here

is being used not to capture the future specific outcome within a range of likely

outcomes, but to establish broad qualitative features in patterns of behaviour.

3.Systems are highly sensitive to some changes but remarkably insensitive to many

others. These systems contain some influential pressure, or leverage, points.

­Managers can exert influence at these points and so can have a major impact

on the behaviour of the system. The problem is that they are difficult to identify. In the beer game, the leverage points lie in the ordering practices of retailers and distributors. Unfortunately these pressure points, from which favourable

chain reactions can be initiated, are extremely difficult to find. More usually, it

seems, systems are insensitive to changes and indeed counteract and compensate

for externally applied correctives. So when retailers find that deliveries from the

distributors are curtailed, they respond by ordering even more and so make the

situation worse. Because of the natural tendency to counteract and compensate –

that is, to move to stability – it is necessary to change the system itself rather than

simply apply externally generated remedies.

The above points lead to the conclusion that attempts to plan the long-term future

are likely to prompt counter-forces and lead to unexpected and unintended changes.

Archetypes of feedback processes

The strong possibility that systems will counteract correctives and produce unintended consequences makes it necessary for managers to analyse and understand the

feedback connections in the system in order to understand the system as a whole.

Through their simulations, systems dynamicists have built up a set of templates, or

archetype feedback processes, that are very commonly found in organisations of all

kinds. The purpose of these archetypes is not to make specific predictions of what

will happen, but to recondition perceptions so that people are able to perceive the

structures at play, to see the dynamic patterns of behaviour and to see the potential

leverage in those structures. The templates are meant to be used in a flexible way

to help understand patterns in events. For example, Senge describes an archetype

called ‘limits to growth’, which occurs when a reinforcing positive feedback process

is installed to produce a desired result (a positive growth loop) but it inadvertently

Chapter 5  Thinking in terms of organisational learning and knowledge creation   105

creates secondary effects (a negative limiting loop) that put a stop to the growth.

The ‘limits to growth’ structure is found wherever growth bumps up against limits.

The most immediate response to this structure is that of pushing harder on the factors that cause growth. In fact this is counterproductive because it causes the system

to bump even more firmly against the limits. The solution is to work on the negative

loop, on relaxing the limits.

For example, a company may grow through introducing new products flowing

from its R&D efforts. As it grows it increases the size of the R&D department,

which becomes harder to manage. Senior engineers then become managers and the

flow of new product ideas slows. Pressing for more new product ideas will simply

lead to a bigger R&D department and that will exacerbate the management problems, so reducing the flow of new ideas. Instead, there is a need to rethink the whole

process of developing new products and running R&D activities. The leverage point

is the way in which the actual R&D effort is organised, and to see how this should

be done one needs to understand the whole system of which R&D is a part.

Box 5.1 summarises the key points that the theory of systems dynamics makes on

patterns of organisational change over time.

5.3  Personal mastery and mental models: cognitivist psychology

The second discipline required in a learning organisation is personal mastery. Senge

does not mean by this some form of domination but, rather, a high level of proficiency such as that possessed by a master craft worker. Those who have personal

mastery consistently obtain the results that they want and it requires commitment

to lifelong learning. It is a process of continually deepening one’s personal vision,

focusing energy, developing patience and seeing reality objectively. He links it with

spiritual foundations. The strongly humanistic flavour of his view of human nature

is evident and takes the same line of inspirational motivation as that described in

Chapter 4 in relation to strategic choice theory.

The third discipline required for the learning organisation is an understanding of

the notion of mental models. These are deeply ingrained assumptions, or generalisations, often taking the form of pictures or images in individual minds. Individuals are

mostly not aware of their mental models: they are hidden, or unconscious, mental

constructions. Senge emphasises how mental models restrict perceptions, and points

to Royal Dutch Shell, claiming that it developed the skill of surfacing and challenging the mental models of managers. Mental models are internal pictures of the

external world, and he claims that individuals can learn to surface them and subject

them to rigorous scrutiny. Institutional learning is a process in which management

teams work together to change their shared mental models of their company and its

markets. This is cognitivist psychology as in strategic choice theory.

According to cognitive science, humans are compelled by their limited brain

capacity for processing new information to simplify everything they observe. They

are unable to know reality itself; all they can do is construct simplifications: that

is, mental models of reality. The influence of Kant (see Chapter 3) is very clear

in this kind of thinking. When people look at a particular situation, they see it

through the lens provided by the mental models built up through past experience

106  Part 1  Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

Box 5.1

Systems dynamics: main points on organisational


• Organisations are goal-seeking feedback systems, but amplifying feedback loops and nonlinearity

means that they are not self-regulating in the cybernetic sense. Instead, they are self-influencing

and this may take a self-sustaining or a self-destructive form. They may be adapting to pre-given

environments through negative feedback or diverging from them through positive feedback.

• Systems dynamics takes a realist position on human knowing.

• The system is recursive. This means that it feeds back on itself to repeat its behaviour.

• It follows that causality is circular. However, in systems dynamics causality is nonlinear. Causal links

are distant and often difficult to identify.

• Predictability of specific events and their timings is very difficult, and this makes it important to

recognise qualitative patterns.

• Control becomes difficult but if the structure of the system is understood, leverage points can be

identified. These are points where efforts to change behaviour have the most effect. These points

are difficult to find. Changes there might simply provoke compensating and offsetting behaviour.

• Instability is an essential part of what goes on and one cannot simply ignore it or write it off as something to be banished by negative feedback controls. There is too much evidence that this focus on

negative feedback alone leads to unintended positive loops and unintended consequences.

• Behavioural patterns of the system as a whole are of great importance. Behavioural patterns can

emerge without being intended; in fact they often emerge contrary to intention. The result is unexpected and counterintuitive outcomes. The systematic feedback structure of the organisation itself

determines the pattern of behaviour over time.

• Because the analysis is conducted in feedback terms, there is still the notion of an external point of

reference. The system still operates on the basis of representations of its environment.

• There is a clear boundary between system and environment, between inner and outer. Although the

system is adapting to its environment, it is itself a closed system. It operates/changes with reference

to a fixed point at the boundary with its environment, either amplifying or damping in relation to that

fixed point.

• Its state is determined by its own structure as well as flux in the environment expressed through the

fixed point of reference. Instability comes from within the system as well as the environment.

• The system is no longer homeostatic, or equilibrium seeking, but far more likely to be in non-­

equilibrium. However, left to its own devices, the system has a tendency to stabilise and so deteriorate in the face of change.

• History is important in that the current state of the system does depend upon the sequence of previous states. However, the system does not evolve of its own accord. Any change must be designed

outside the system and then installed.

• The goal is still to achieve as much stability, consistency and harmony as is compatible with changing to adapt to the environment.

and education. Humans approach each situation every day with a mindset, a recipe

they have acquired from the past, that they use to understand the present in order to

design actions to cope with it. When they take actions that fail to have the desired

result, the reason often lies in the way the problem is perceived in the first place. The

remedy is to amend the mental model, the perspective, the mindset, the paradigm

with which the task is being approached.

Chapter 5  Thinking in terms of organisational learning and knowledge creation   107

Managers will not simply observe a given environment and a given organisational

capability – that is, the facts. They, like all other humans, will sometimes inevitably

invent, to some extent, what they observe. The whole process of simplifying and

selecting means that the environment is in a real sense the invention and the creation

of the managers observing it. It will then only be possible for managers to make

sense of what they are doing after they have done it (Weick, [1969] 1979). In highly

complex and uncertain situations, then, explanations of strategic management need

to take account of the possibility that environments may be invented or created in

managers’ minds and that they can often only make sense of what they are doing

with hindsight. This is a move from cognitivism to constructivism.

Constructivist psychology

Maturana and Varela (1987) argue for a constructivist view of human psychology.

They hold that people do not simply respond to stimuli presented by the environment but select aspects of their environment according to their own identities. In

other words, they enact, or bring forth, the environment that is relevant to them.

This is a view of cognition – that is, of recognising and responding – that is active

rather than simply passively registering what is already there. The world of an individual is an active construction by that individual of his or her own world, not a

passive representation of a pre-given world. Each in a sense creates his or her own


Maturana and Varela present evidence for their view that the human brain does

not simply register stimuli but also creates patterns associated with them. The brain

does not process information or act as a passive mirror of reality to form more or

less accurate representations of the world. Instead, it is perturbed by external stimuli

into actively constructing global patterns of electrochemical activity. Furthermore,

these patterns are not stored in specific parts of the brain, because each time a stimulus is presented to the body, the brain constructs a pattern anew that involves whole

ensembles of neurons in many different parts of the brain. This leads Maturana and

Varela to conclude that the nervous system does not simply represent a world; rather,

it creates, calls forth or enacts a world. The world people act into is the world they

have created by acting into it. In other words, Maturana and Varela adopt a constructivist perspective rather than the cognitivist one usually underlying the theory

of strategic choice and many views of the learning organisation.

This change in the underlying theory of psychology is important because it presents a serious challenge to the cognitivist underpinnings of the theories of strategic choice and the learning organisation. It presents a view of mental process as

one of perpetual construction, thereby moving away from the notion that brains

faithfully represent an external reality and also any idea of the brain as storing and

retrieving representations in any simple way. The Maturana and Varela perspective

brings bodily action to the forefront and develops the notion of enactment: that is,

of humans acting into what they have constructed.

However, the individual is still held to be primary and the theory is still a systems

theory. They present a theory of autopoietic systems where the individual, understood

as a system, is the fundamental unit of analysis and the conservation of individual

identity is the fundamental principle. Here, individuals are bounded, ­self-determining

entities. The constructivist position is not inconsistent with the notion of mental

108  Part 1  Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

models, since it can be taken to be an alternative way of u

­ nderstanding how mental

models are constructed. The individual mind is then functioning purely in terms of

an identity, on one side of a boundary, constructing variations in itself, triggered by

changes in other identities contained within their boundaries.

Enactment and sense-making in organisations

One influential writer on organisations who adopts a constructivist approach is

Weick (1995). He emphasises enactment and also the role of storytelling in communities of practice as processes of sense-making, which have the following features:

1.Active agents place stimuli in some kind of framework so that they can comprehend, explain, attribute, extrapolate and predict. Weick often uses the metaphor

of a map and talks about individual mental models.

2.Individuals form conscious and unconscious anticipations and assumptions as

predictions of what they expect to encounter, and sense-making is triggered when

there is a discrepancy between such expectations and what they encounter. The

need for explanation is triggered by surprise and takes the form of retrospective

accounts to explain those surprises. Meaning is ascribed retrospectively as an output of a sense-making process and does not arise concurrently with the detection

of difference.

3.Sense-making is the process people employ to cope with interruptions of ongoing


4.It is a process of reciprocal interaction of information seeking and meaning ascription: that is, it includes environmental scanning, interpretation and associated


5.A distinction may be drawn between generic (collective) and intersubjective

(­individual-relating) forms of sense-making.

Weick regards sense-making as both an individual and a social activity, and

argues that it attends to both how a ‘text’ is constructed and how it is interpreted, to

both creation/invention and discovery. He argues that sense-making is grounded in

identity construction, where identities are constructed in the process of interaction

between people. He emphasises its retrospective nature, where meaning is the kind

of attention directed to experience. Sense-making is a process of relating in which

people co-create, or enact, their environment. This leads him to place particular

emphasis on talk, discourse, conversation, storytelling and narrative. In this process,

people notice, extract and embellish cues, which he regards as the simple, familiar structures from which people develop a larger sense of what may be occurring.

For him, the metaphor of a ‘seed’ captures the open-ended quality of sense-making

because a seed is a form-producing process. He quotes Shotter (1983), who describes

how an acorn limits the tree that grows from it to an oak tree but does not specify

it exactly. Rather, it grows unpredictably. Notice here how this assumes a theory of

formative causality (see Chapter 3).

Weick ascribes particular importance to novel moments in the process of sensemaking. He locates the origins of novelty in dissonance, surprise, gaps, ­differences,

disruptions, unexpected failures and uncertainty. For him it is events of this kind

that trigger sense-making, which could produce novel explanations. He describes

Chapter 5  Thinking in terms of organisational learning and knowledge creation   109

Box 5.2

Constructivist psychology: main points on human


• The biological individual is at the centre of human knowing.

• Individual brains do not represent a given world but rather actively select the world into which they

act. They therefore create or enact their worlds.

• Sense-making is triggered by discrepancies between what people expect and what they encounter.

the process as one that involves emotion and is necessarily confusing. What he does

not question is the split between individual and social and the dual causality that

goes with it.

Box 5.2 lists the key points about knowing that are made by cognitivist psychology.

So far, we have been describing two theories of mental models: namely, the cognitivist theory in which mental models are internal representations of external reality,

and constructivist theory in which mental models are active constructions that create

the world that people act into. Whatever the perspective, however, learning has to

do with changing mental models. A very influential theory of learning as change in

mental models derives from the work of Bateson (1972) and later that of Argyris and

Schön (1978). They distinguish between single- and double-loop learning.

Single- and double-loop learning

A person would function very slowly if for every action that person had consciously

to retrieve and examine large numbers of previously acquired mental models and

then choose an appropriate one. Experts therefore act on previously acquired models which have become unconscious. One process of learning, therefore, involves

the repetition of an action in order to make the design of later similar actions an

automatic process. The expert seems to use some form of recognisable pattern in a

new situation automatically to trigger the use of past models developed in relation

to analogous previous situations. Experts do not examine the whole body of their

expertise when they confront a new situation. Instead, they detect recognisable similarity in the qualitative patterns of what they observe and automatically produce

models which they modify to meet the new circumstances. This is single-loop learning. Each time people act they learn from the consequences of the action to improve

the next action, without having consciously to retrieve and examine the unconscious

models being used to design the action.

Nonetheless, expert behaviour based on single-loop learning and unconscious

mental models brings not only benefits; it also carries with it significant dangers. The

fact that the mental models being used to design actions are unconscious means that

they are not being questioned. The more expert one is, the more rapidly one acts on

the basis of unconscious models. This means that one more easily takes for granted

the assumptions and simplifications upon which the mental models are inevitably

built. This is efficient in stable circumstances but, when those circumstances change

rapidly, it becomes dangerous. The possibility of skilled incompetence (Argyris,

1990) then arises. The more expert people are – that is, the more skilled they are in

110  Part 1  Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

designing certain actions – the greater the risk that they will not question what they

are doing. It follows that they are more likely to become skilled incompetents. This

gives rise to the need for double-loop learning. Here people learn not only in the

sense of adjusting actions in the light of their consequences, but also in the sense also

of questioning and adjusting the unconscious mental models being used to design

those actions in the first place.

There may well be a difference between espoused models and models in use

(Argyris and Schön, 1978). Experts are quite likely to say one thing and do another.

The more expert people become in working together as a group, the more prone they

are to do this. Ask managers what they do and most will say that they organise and

plan. Observe what managers actually do and you may see that they dash from one

task to another in a manner that is not very organised or planned.

When it is recognised that there are frequent differences between what expert

managers say they are doing and what they are actually doing – differences of which

they themselves are not usually aware – it can be seen how easy it is for managers to play games and build organisational defences against facing up to what is

really happening (Argyris, 1990). For example, most managers espouse a rational

model of action and believe that they should uncover the facts and consider a sensible range of options before they take action. Most espouse free and open discussions because that is a rational position to take. At the same time, however, there

is a widespread norm in organisations requiring subordinates to withhold the truth

from their superiors, especially if they believe that the superior will find the truth

unwelcome and accuse them of being negative. Games of deception and cover-up are

therefore played. Everyone knows they are being played but no one openly discusses

what is happening, despite espousal of rational behaviour. Managers sometimes say

one thing, but do the direct opposite, and rarely find this strange. Add to this the

existence of skilled incompetence, and you can see how very difficult it will be to

change these games and break down these defences. Attempts to explain how strategic management is actually carried out and to prescribe how to do it better will

be misleading and perhaps dangerous unless they explicitly recognise the existence

of skilled incompetence, the difference between espoused models and models in use,

and the behavioural dynamics these lead to.

Double-loop learning begins when people question their own unique mental models and when together they start questioning the mental models they share with

each other. As soon as they do this they arouse fears to do with failing to produce

anything that functions in place of what they are destroying, as well as the fear

of embarrassing themselves and others with questioning and discussion that may

appear incompetent, or threatening or even crazy. As soon as such fears are aroused,

people automatically defend themselves by activating defence routines of one kind

or another. The raising of such defensive routines in an organisational setting is what

is meant by ‘covert politics’. It is a form of game playing that all are aware is going

on but which all agree, tacitly, not to discuss (Argyris, 1990).

Defence routines become so entrenched in organisations that they come to be

viewed as inevitable parts of human nature. Managers make self-fulfilling prophecies about what will happen at meetings, because they claim it is human nature; they

indulge in the game playing, so confirming their belief in human nature. The defence

routines, game playing and cover-ups can become so disruptive that managers actually avoid discussing contentious issues altogether. Even if this extreme is not reached,

Chapter 5  Thinking in terms of organisational learning and knowledge creation   111

the dysfunctional learning behaviour blocks the detection of gradually accumulating

small changes, the surfacing of different perspectives, the thorough testing of proposals through dialogue. When they use the control management model with the

organisational defence routines it provokes, managers struggle to deal with strategic

issues. They end up preparing long lists of strengths and weaknesses, opportunities

and threats that simply get them nowhere. They produce mission statements that are

so bland as to be meaningless, visions not connected to reality, and long-term plans

that are simply filed. Or they may decide on an action and then not implement it.

Managers collude in this behaviour and refrain from discussing it. They then distance themselves from what is going on and blame others, the chief executive or the

organisational structure when things go wrong. They look for solutions in general

models, techniques, visions and plans. All the while the real causes of poor strategic

management – the learning process itself, the political interaction and the group

dynamic – remain stubbornly undiscussable.

People within an organisation collude in keeping matters undiscussable because

they fear the consequences if they do not. Consultants too find themselves sucked into

defence routines because they are nervous of the consequences of exposing them –

they may be fired. The result of the defence routines is passive employees and managers, highly dependent upon authority, who are not well equipped to handle rapid

change. In these conditions, managers produce vague, impractical prescriptions as a

defence against having to do anything in difficult situations, such as ‘we need more

training’ or ‘we need a vision’. The organisation loses out on the creativity of people

because of the management model it uses.

The way out of this impasse, proposed by Argyris, is for managers and managed

to reflect jointly, as a group, on the processes they are engaged in. If this can be perceived as a challenge rather than a potential source of embarrassment and fear, then

managers will be able to engage in double-loop learning.

Double-loop learning, then, involves changing a mental model, a recipe, a mindset, a frame of reference or a paradigm. It is a very difficult process to perform simply

because one is trying to examine assumptions one is not normally even aware one

is making. People will therefore keep slipping into single-loop learning because that

is easier. But it is important to encourage double-loop learning since it is this that

produces innovation. Managers who would innovate need constantly to be shifting,

breaking and creating paradigms – they must engage in double-loop learning.

5.4  Building a shared vision and team learning: humanistic psychology

The fourth discipline of the learning organisation is that of building a shared vision.

A shared vision inspires people to learn. It is a lofty goal and requires the skill of

identifying inspiring pictures of the future. It is important that this vision not be

dictated but developed by people working together. The humanistic foundations of

this idea are evident.

The final discipline of the learning organisation is that of team learning. Senge

maintains that teams can learn, and when they do the intelligence of the team

exceeds that of the individual members and produces extraordinary results. When

this happens, the individuals learn more rapidly too.

112  Part 1  Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

Teams and shared models

Managers do not act as isolated individuals but interact with each other in teams or

groups. According to organisational learning theory, individuals learn to share the

mental models they use simply by being part of a group. In this way they cut down

on the communication and information flows that are required before they can act

together. In particular, the more they share those implicit, expert models that have

been rendered unconscious, the less they need to communicate in order to secure

cohesive action. This sharing of implicit models is what is meant by the culture of

the group or the organisation in learning organisation theory. Groups and organisations develop cultures, company and industry recipes or retained memories, as they

perform together, in order to speed up their actions.

Individuals who are part of any group are put under strong pressure by group

processes to conform, that is, to share the mental models of the other members.

While this may have great benefits in terms of efficient action in stable conditions,

it becomes a serious liability when conditions are changing rapidly. It then becomes

necessary to question the implicit, unconscious group models that are being used to

design actions. As conditions change, the unquestioned models may well become

inappropriate. The powerful pressures that grow up within groups of experts to

accept rather than question very fundamental values open up the strong possibility

of skilled incompetence in group behaviour: of groupthink.

The kind of group that learning organisation theory focuses on is the team, and

the key question is what kind of team performs double-loop learning effectively. The

basic premise is that this will happen when people can engage in true dialogue rather

than in the kind of defensive conversational cover-ups discussed in the previous section. This requires that members of a group trust each other enough to expose their

shared assumptions to public scrutiny. It is held that this is possible only when the

team is cohesive: that is, when there is good team spirit. Today, organisations spend

considerable sums of money to provide social and training events where teams can

be together in the belief that this fosters the required team spirit. In addition, attention is paid to the composition of the team in terms of different personality types. It

is believed that a balance of different personality types will enable a team to function

and learn effectively.

The basis of team learning is said to be dialogue and Senge’s discussion of dialogue is based on the views of Bohm (1965, 1983; Bohm and Peat, 1989). According to Bohm, dialogue means the free flow of meaning through a group of people,

allowing them to discover insights not attainable individually. This is a collective

phenomenon that occurs when a group of people becomes open to the flow of a

larger intelligence. Bohm talks about a new kind of mind that comes into existence.

People are said to participate in this pool of common meaning, which is not accessible individually. He talks about the whole organising the parts. The whole here is

this common pool of meaning, a kind of transcendent mind analogous to the idea

in quantum physics that the universe is an indistinguishable whole. This is Bohm’s

idea of an implicate order that is unfolded by experience. The parts in this way of

thinking are individual mental maps that guide and shape individual perceptions.

Here, Bohm is clearly thinking in terms of formative causality, in which the future

is the unfolding of what is already enfolded as implicate order, rendering any true

novelty impossible. This idea of an already enfolded implicate order is expressed in

Chapter 5  Thinking in terms of organisational learning and knowledge creation   113

the notion of a common pool of meaning, a kind of transcendent whole or group

mind that people access when they interact with each other in dialogue. Bohm takes

a perspective in which there is both a collective pool of meaning and an individual

mind that is shaped by the common pool, quite outside individuals, in dialogue.

For Bohm and Senge, then, dialogue is a special kind of collaborative conversation, quite distinct from discussion, which is primarily competitive. Dialogue, as

special conversation with a life of its own, is said to be rare nowadays and the call is

for a return to ancient wisdom, to ways characteristic of so-called ‘more primitive’

people who used to practise it. Native peoples of North Americas are often given as

an example of the few people who still practise it today. Senge says that when we

do (rarely) experience dialogue nowadays, it is a chance product of circumstance.

So he calls for systematic effort and disciplined practice of the art of dialogue, which

we need to rediscover to satisfy a deep longing. If we do it right we will all win.

In order to do it right, people have to participate in a particular way: they must

suspend, that is, be aware of, their assumptions; they must regard each other as colleagues and friends; and there should be a facilitator present who holds the context.

Resistance and defensive routines are then diminished and dialogue can take place.

Bohm claims that in these circumstances people can become observers of their own

thinking and that, once they see the participative nature of their thought, they separate themselves from it. Conflict then becomes conflict between thoughts and not

conflict between people. Dialogue, therefore, offers a safe environment in which it

can be balanced with discussion. Dialogue becomes a new tool and a prescription

for management behaviour (Isaacs, 1999), although Bohm himself thought dialogue

was virtually impossible in hierarchical organisations.

Team learning also requires skill in identifying factors that block true dialogue.

These blockages must be recognised and surfaced. Senge claims that it is teams rather

than individuals that learn. It is important to notice how Senge handles this question

of the individual and the team. It sounds as though he is making the group primary

to the individual. However, this is not so. Although he says that it is the team that

learns, when he develops what he means by team learning it is clear that he is saying

that an effective team provides the context within which a number of individuals

together learn more than they could on their own. It is still the individuals who

learn. They arrive to form a team and the atmosphere of that team then affects their

capacity for learning together. Part 3 will take a very different view of the relationship between the individual and the group, arguing that individual minds are formed

by the group while they form it at the same time. This perspective also takes a very

different view of the nature of conversation, avoiding the positing of a special form

called ‘dialogue’ in the way that Bohm and Senge do.

The move to the mystical

For Senge, then, the notion of dialogue is an essential aspect of the learning organisation and it is understood as an activity enabling people to come into contact with

a rather mysterious pool of ‘common meaning’. This notion is greatly elaborated

by one of Senge’s collaborators, Scharmer, who outlines a theory of learning as the

sensing and enacting of emerging futures (Senge et al., 2005). Scharmer distinguishes

between two different sources of learning and argues that both are required for

organisations to succeed. He calls the first ‘reflecting on the experiences of the past’

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2 Systems dynamics: nonlinearity and positive feedback

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