Why Vigorous Learning Organizations: The time has come.

Why Vigorous Learning Organizations? The late Yogi Berra put it well, “We’re completely lost, but we’re making great time.”

Organizations can no longer ignore serious consequences from single-mindedly pursuing an objective, whether it is to make money or something else. For any kind of work organization to stay on point – to become really good at what it does – it has to focus on its mission and on its core capabilities. However, obsession with a single goal ignores unintended consequences and collateral damage from its own success pursuing it, so of course it can’t preclude such messes.

High-profile examples: Volkswagon’s emissions control software, Toyota’s sticky accelerators, and perhaps soon now, Monsanto and the hazards of glyphosate (Round-Up). Avoiding such debacles not only takes a broad range of technical savvy, it takes very strong cultural commitment to “do the right thing,” now and far into the future.

What, then, is success? Who and what benefits? Who and what loses? And when?

Most of us like 21st century conveniences. We don’t like it when messy processes for obtaining them disrupt our personal lives, property, and environs – like when an old tailings pond breaks loose into our river. If we can afford it, we prefer to be trusting consumers of whatever a market can provide. And executives prefer to make money satisfying us, unhampered by “other considerations.” So entrenched is this framework of thought that it permeates our idioms of speech. (Do you “buy” this idea?)

Unfortunately, besides the increasing complexity of human systems, safety and environmental hazards keep emerging faster than even environmentalists can track. Climate change is just one. As noted in many prior posts, the world is a finite place. Both fossil energy sources and mineral ores are depleting. Low return on energy makes suspect the ability of alternative energy sources to fully replace them. And the planet’s biosphere is under serious pressure. No wonder we prefer to wish this away. The potential upheaval is unimaginable from our present framework of thought. That’s why we need a new one.

Ideally, every work organization, public, private, or hybrid, should learn to foresee outcomes for all “consequentees.” Perfect forecasting being impossible, we should prepare to adapt to rapid and sometimes unexpected change. Project a variety of future scenarios; then prepare to adapt to any of them, rather than press for results by a single objective, like ROI. For example, wise farmers since antiquity learned to plant a variety of crops. If pests or weather destroyed one of them, they could survive on the others. That just-in-case thinking is the opposite of just in time. Both kinds of thinking have their place protecting against factors we cannot control.

A complex problem may be resolvable by a simple countermeasure unthinkable by our current framework of thought. Loss of biodiversity is an example. Die offs of honeybees and monarch butterflies are visible, publicized examples of a larger problem, rapid extinction of many kinds of species. Why? We destroy natural habitat to obtain more for human consumption. Countermeasure: Do nothing. Let more trees, grass, and weeds grow. Give nature more room to live.

E.O. Wilson, well known for studies of ants, calls this “rewilding.” He proposes that humans live on half the earth and let nature do its thing with the other half. Turning half the earth over to nature even strikes environmentalists as audacious, much less business executives, but it signifies how seriously close observers of biodiversity see the situation. We haven’t catalogued all species on earth, either living or extinct. We can’t keep up with nature cataloguing evolving ecospheres. But observers know enough to realize that if we keep exterminating all life, sooner or later we will do ourselves in.

To take such matters seriously, something like Vigorous Learning and Compression Thinking have to displace business orthodoxy. Today, entrepreneurial instinct is to coattail on rewilding in a different sense. Google and you will find consultants eager to help you rewild your thinking for business success, warping Wilson’s proposal and surfing a meme before his complete book even comes out.

Wilson’s proposal is much like that of the Compression Institute.  We are faced with a big blob of ill-defined problems, so what can we do? Learn to live well while making huge reductions in the use of fossil energy, raw ores, and known toxic chemicals. (Do better with less.)

And how can we do that? By becoming more comprehensive seeing both human and natural systems and devising interventions.

Doing nothing is not always the wise course of action. For example, by the latest count, 2491 abandoned oil and gas wells in Texas are out of compliance with the procedures considered safe for closing (which may be lenient). They are called orphans, meaning that responsibility is being shirked. Operators may have walked away broke, unable to finish closure even if they wanted to. In that case, who takes responsibility? A system that leaves such messes in its wake needs to be reconceived, not merely tinkered with.

The depth of the chasm between conventional business thinking and that requiring Vigorous Learning Organizations is huge. What would a new system of thought entail?

1) Preparing to adapt to either sudden or drawn out changes.

2) Considering the welfare of nature in preparation and execution.

3) Trying to balance the needs and obligations of all stakeholders (or consequentees)

4) Discovering and dealing with our own motivations.

5) Not fearing a reduction in monetary transactional volume.

6) Limiting systems thinking only by thought capacity, not by limiting the scope of systems to be considered – “open-scope systems thinking, not narrow scope.”

Point 5 triggers paranoia in orthodox business and economic thinkers, but all six points suggest a mindset very different from a winner-take-all rush to nowhere. Whatever major changes in system might help, rehashing socialist-capitalist ideologies of the 20th century seems useless. None of that really addresses our challenges today. Re-conception of what we need to do must grow from the bottom up.

Our guide to thinking differently is six “principles” of Compression Thinking. One is “quality before quantity, always.” That encapsulates the idea that quality processes, intended to benefit all “consequentees” in the long run, have much higher value to us than consuming as much as possible at an accelerating rate.

Faith in the present system consists of faith in 1) Bureaucratic organization with command-and-control; 2) entrepreneurial start-ups; 3) technical advance; 4) economy of scale; and 5) unending growth. But cutting way back and tending to the biosphere scrambles these faiths. The biosphere is a pastiche of local environments, each with a different set of “consequentees.” Small-scale local innovation, adapting to specific situations, is less risky. To do that, working organizations must test and observe, free of the obligation of success being only profit. Profit systems are narrow scope systems.

When unbounded, systems thinking becomes more like dealing with an organism rather than a machine. Overstress an organism like a human body or an ecosystem, and it is apt to keep getting sicker until we relieve something. To intervene, we have to broaden the context of the problem: physics, biology, psychology, social interaction, and much else. That’s why we need to grow Vigorous Learning Organizations, with different values.

By Compression Thinking, value is quality of life itself, not arbitrary targets. That is, long-term benefit resides in our role in life cycle processes, not the monetary value of maximizing consumption. Seen in this way, business orthodoxy is an artificial construct, kept going only because the bias in the system tells us that we must grow. We are slaves in bondage to our own profligate consumption, but we think it is freedom. If you are part of the growing “precariat,” you sense this. Precariats are proletarians, often self-employed, whose earnings are precarious.

Vigorous Learning has to release us from this. Freedom is being imaginative securing our own welfare, realizing that we are not independent of everyone and everything else. Cultivating Vigorous Learning Organizations lets working groups deal with this newly emerging world. They should mature into self-governing more by a learning system than by so much command and control.

As always, our biggest challenge is us, overcoming our fear of momentous change before it is forced on us. Nothing much will change until we change ourselves and take action.

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