Forming Issue Learning Groups

Why do we need Issue Learning Groups, which we’ve called by other names: Action Learning Groups or Vigorous Learning Groups? Because we need to learn how to improve systems (or processes) on which we depend while reducing the level of resources we consume. No one can operationally address huge global issues like world hunger as one big problem. But we can address bigger systems at a local or regional level, where we can trace out a real system if we open our eyes.

Few working organizations are designed or equipped to do this. Not companies. Not government agencies. Not NGOs. All usually deal, at best, with parts of larger systems. This is a fragmented approach in which parties all often represent their “interests.” Companies tend not to look at total systems, but at their markets, and government agencies at their jurisdictions. Some make systemic problems worse by thinking that they have to grow, thereby consuming more resources.

Many localities have one or more groups promoting economic development. Their planning touches many issues, but they usually concentrate on business, entrepreneurship, and jobs. They rarely try to map how socio-physical systems work.

To concentrate on a larger-scope system, form a group to fully study and recommend action on a system and the resources that it represents. For example, take a water interest group. As far as we know, few people try to promote long-term action based on a total watershed serving an area. Where does water come from? How is it captured? Used? Recycled? Discharged? Who are the users? How is water supplied to them? How much energy is required? What will be the anticipated future draw of water? How much water can be anticipated in the future?

Here are a few examples of regional issue group area topics:




Safety and Security


Mapping each of these issue areas soon overlaps into the others. But if we start with systems and goals that we can comprehend, perhaps the cross-area complexity will not baffle us into thinking that we can do nothing.

What appears necessary to form a group capable of ongoing learning and action?

  1. One or more champions, movers and shakers that if they call a meeting, others will come.
  2. A qualified mentor/facilitator able to run dialog meetings in which people from very different perspectives can migrate toward a common understanding of what needs to be done, and what can be done. Most of all, this mentor must keep the group on point dealing with the long-term future of the system. It’s easy to divert into doable projects right now and lose sight of probable long-term outcomes.
  3. Participation by some of the key “doers” in the system now, plus diverse members that will look at the system from multiple, and maybe unconventional viewpoints. For example, for water issue groups include some working managers from a water company plus local regulators. Add a mix of people looking at environmental issues and the needs (versus desires) for local water usage. The group must avoid degenerating into representatives, each “protecting interests” instead of improving the overall system.
  4. Development of a work plan, probably beginning with mapping the overall system as it exists. Have regular meetings to maintain momentum. Most members will be very busy people, so the facilitator has to keep the group on track.
  5. Some “foot soldiers” like college interns, capable of collecting or analyzing data, and with access to such data as exists.
  6. Guided by a vision, developed early on, of what a successful long-term outcome could be. No “living system” remains constant; all change over time, creating new issues to address.

Success depends on continued application of systems thinking, as in the article above. Of course, these efforts will also take money, but not a lot. They are a small investment today in developing and preserving a good quality of life over the long haul in a region with a resource-constrained future. And that is just about every region.

If you are interested, contact Doc at

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