Generating ideas, connections, and action

Elephants in the Room

Today, “-we are struggling as professionals and in our private lives to meet the demands...the anchors of identity, morality, coherence and stability are unravelling and we are losing our bearings.”1

The old story of half a dozen blind men in a room, each feeling a different part of an elephant in order to collectively 'recognize' the nature of the beast is no longer a realistic description of the task of understanding that the current complex reality demands.

Hitherto highly regarded professionals who offered solutions to systemic problems are now themselves floundering, busy rewriting their web sites, looking to write new rules for more 'new' books. I know, because I have worked with them for over a decade. I've guided Cabinet Ministers, worked with their teams from The House of Commons and with European Cabinet Office officials, as well as with top international coaching principles, their firms and with 'corporates' and Universities.

What we now have is a plethora of pseudo science with which we are supposed to face what is a change of age rather than an age of change.
It never took half a dozen groping hands to figure out the elephant in the room...

(Rembrandt van Rijn, An Elephant, The Netherlands, around AD 1637
A careful study This is one of several drawings by Rembrandt of female elephants in different poses. This elephant may even be one called 'Hansken', a female despite her name, known to have been in Holland in 1641. Behind and to the right of the animal are the outlines of three figures, perhaps a family with a child.)

Let Us Consider Elephants

>I would really appreciate if you could explain or
>list disadvantages or drawbacks of the LO.
>I cannot wait to hear from you ;-).

Greetings dear Elixabete,
I cannot wait to answer you ;-) I will be in trouble because I had to be home already.
Well, your question (not any mistake) did cause me into making self the
fatal mistake of thinking "she questions the unquestionable" since
Learning Organisations (LOs) have no disadvantages which I can think off.
But then I corrected myself thinking that the impossible question often
delves deeply in to what has not yet been said, i.e. our tacit knowledge.
Elixabete is a new-comer to our list. She probably has heard of so many
Systems for Organisational Management (SOMs) that she might think that the LO is merely one among the many SOMs proposed up to now. I do not think that a LO is a replacement SOM for another SOM. Each SOM has its own peculiar disadvantages. I think that the LO is rather a way for making any SOM to work better as it should. This means that we have to picture the LO as a "processing structure" or "structuring process". Should we fail to do so, the LO may have disadvantages.
Living organisms and populations of them are profound examples of
processing structures. One of the main disadvantages in the present
understanding of LOs based on the "Fifth Discipline" and the "Field Book"
is that Systems Thinking has too little "systems living" in it. In other words, too little thinking is done on a Learning Organisation as a Living Organisation. But this is merely a result of the times we live in because how many people would say that learning is like living while living is like learning?
Both learning and living is for me different outcomes of something, say
XYZ, which initially had the name "evolution", but now also has different names like "autopoiesis", "irreversible self-organisation" and "complex adaptive systems" as a result of different viewpoints. From my own viewpoint I can also add the name "constructive creativity". A LO not aware of the struggle to articulate this XYZ may easily stop functioning in perilous conditions. Furthermore, the ultimate destiny of this XYZ in human organisations is for me metanoia. A LO not aware of the importance of metanoia may also easily stop functioning in perilous conditions. I will now try to articulate possible disadvantages of the LO, not from viewpoints on XYZ such as "evolution", "autopoiesis", "irreversible selforganisation", "complex adaptive systems" and "constructive creativity", but by comparing learning with living.
Let us consider elephants as an example. An elephant cannot live in either the Sahara desert or the Arctic pole. Both regions have no food for an elephant. Furthermore the Sahara desert is too hot and the Arctic pole is too cold for an elephant to live in. This does not imply that there are living organisms in the Sahara desert or Arctic pole. For example, the Sahara desert has its lizards and the Arctic pole has its ice bears.
Likewise, when an OO (Ordinary Organisation) has to transform itself into
a LO, it has to ask the fundamental question:- Is our environmental
conditions such that we can retain our SOM while becoming a LO? In other words, can we retain our identity like an elephant when trying to live in desert or Arctic conditions? The answer is no in my opinion. For example, I think that an OO which has developed a highly hierarchical SOM to maintain itself in its environment, will find it impossible to become a LO. Should it try as such to become a LO, it would die off. The elephant first has to become a lizard or an ice bear before it can attempt to live in such harsh conditions as in the desert or Arctic zone. Similarly a honest answer has to be given to that OO. It will first have to change its highly hierarchical SOM before becoming a LO. In short, the present articulations on the LO are not suitable for all kinds of organizations under all kinds of conditions.
Let us compare elephants to humans. It is possible for humans to live in such extreme conditions like in desert or Arctic regions. They can
accomplish this by making use of modern equipment such as transportable water reservoirs or gas heaters. But when these external support systems fail, they will soon die just like an elephant without it. Likewise I think that any LO relying with blind faith on its external support systems will stop functioning as a LO when they fail. A LO which relies on any such an external support system, should do so merely temporally. It should develop a strategy to keep on living when such an external support system fail and actually begin to employ that strategy.
Some people like the San in the desert and the Eskimos in the Arctic zone have actually put such a strategy into action. They are able to live there without external support systems. They use whatever that region can offer and nothing more. But they had to develop a lifestyle completely different to someone who makes use of transportable water reservoirs or gas heaters.
Likewise I think that the viability for a LO depending on external support systems are oversold, unless it actually makes itself increasingly less dependent on them.
For example, knowledge (which lives within people) and information (which exists outside people) are vital to any LO. The LO ought to generate its own knowledge and information rather than frequently importing knowledgeable persons and information sources from elsewhere. This means that the LO has to change rote learning into authentic learning. In short, the present articulations on the LO make a LO very vulnerable when it relies too heavily on rote learning.
Another disadvantage of a LO is that it is prone to diseases which often can be fatal. For example, an elephant is prone to bacterial diseases.
Yes, the biggest animal on earth has little defence against the tiniest
organisms on earth, namely bacteria. Thus the LO should never assume that it is immune to all diseases. These diseases are called in LO terminology Mental Models (MM). Forgetting about such MMs or neglecting to identify those in action may have fatal consequences. It ought not to happen in a LO, but it does happen.
For example, I tend to think of the first Christians congregations some
2000 years ago as LOs. The writings of the apostles like John and Peter as well as Luke and James give me more than enough evidence that these first congregations acted like LOs. But in the last book Revelations of the Bible the apostle John is told to write seven letters to the seven major churches in Asia Minor. The light giving candle from each will be taken away from them should they not rectify their mistakes. All these mistakes were that they diverted from their earlier authentic learning, falling back into MMs which they got rid of.
I think that it is likewise for LOs. Learning alone will not help them to discover the MMs which they should have discovered. They will have to learn that to learn is to create. It is by creating that they will
discover these MMs. Unfortunately, far too little attention is paid to
creativity in the present articulations of the LO. An elephant is able to overcome bacterial diseases by its Immunological System (IS). Should we study this IS, we ought to find that it is a magnificent example of creativity. But should we neither understand how the IS function nor how it can be an example of creativity, then it signifies the impairing of our creativity. Creativity does for a LO what the IS does for an animal.
Creativity keeps the LO healthy. The Fine Arts (FA) are a profound outcome of human creativity. Any LO giving little attention to the FA in it, cannot be serious about creativity. Such a LO will frequently become ill because of MMs (Mental Models) in it. That illness may easily become fatal because of the poor functioning of the LO's creativity. In my country South Africa the articulated concept of a LO is very much unknown. Yet many organisations try to articulate in their own manner with metaphors known to them that they try to become LOs or that they function as LOs. The first thing which I then do, is to look for the role which the FA play in them. It tells me how healthy they are as LOs. Often, when there is little FA in them, they also have little metanoia. Sometimes it is so serious that I think that they are dead as LOs. But where there is still a spark of life, there is still hope of becoming healthy again.
As a sidetrack, I am reminded of universities. Can a university become a LO? Perhaps it can, but when it keeps Einstein in one faculty and Magritte in another faculty, it will be an ill LO all its time, fighting against its looming death.
Creating a theory of all the Fine Arts (FA) is extremely difficult. For
each theory proposed up to now there are so many exceptions to it that the theory becomes dead soon. This points to how difficult it is to create a theory for creativity itself which will not become dead soon. I am self now definitely sure that any theory of creativity which do not take the 7Es (seven essentialities of creativity -- liveness, sureness, wholeness, fruitfulness, spareness, otherness and openness) into account, will be more dead than alive. Consequently, when we want to keep healthy in the presence of our MMs (Mental Models), how much do we need these 7Es to deal with these MMs in a healthy manner? For me personally the 7Es are of immense help.
We can also learn about another disadvantage of a LO and not merely its
present articulations by looking once again at elephants. When young
elephants are removed from a herd of elephants to be kept in a game park all on their own, they develop all sorts psychological deviations. Perhaps the most important deviations are aggression and sexual misbehaviour.These misbehaviours are unknown in the herd because of its highly developed Social System (SS).
It makes me think of young LOs operating in a society without mature LOs to assist them. They may easily become like these young elephants with their misbehaviour. Thus I think it is vitally important for LOs of various ages to reach out to each other so as to cultivate a highly
developed SS among themselves within the greater society. A young elephant can be trained by a human in captivity to behave itself. This usually works, but when that elephant gets suddenly total freedom through some accident, that elephant usually gets berserk. The same can happen to a LO making use of consultants not operating themselves from a LO.
I am part of a team helping a certain organization to transform itself
into a "tacit LO". By that I mean that nobody else in the team nor in the organization knows anything about a LO as articulated in many sources by
now. I am not going to tell the team and the organization about a LO. I
merely help them by using their own peculiar articulations to help them
focussing on their thoughts. Using a "strange language" will help them
little, if anything.
One of the things which I had to convince the team of, is not to make use of information sources as usual, but to have a dialogue with others who are actually involved in "tacit LOs". Several dialogues with two other organisations of the same kind, but acting as "tacit LOs" has been arranged. The one "tacit LO" is healthy and the other one is ill. The outcome of these dialogues were dramatic. The tacit knowledge of the team on the LO increased considerably. The team is now much more focussed on what to do. For example, they clearly now understand how dangerous it is for their "little elephant to wander without a herd" and for their "little elephant to be trained by a human who is not also an elephant".
With care and best wishes
At de Lange

(The essay by At de Lange was originally posted at the now dormant Rick Karash learning-org site. I as a pupil of At de Lange for many years and he graciously gave me free copyright to all his published works.)