On Doing Things Well

My business partner, Kristin Cobble, is a Peter Senge disciple, and we’ve been having good conversations over the past few weeks about learning organizations. In the course of these discussions, I was reminded of a huge pet peeve of mine. I hate it when people say things like:

“We’re not collaborating.”

“That’s not a network.”

“We’re not a learning organization.”

when what they actually mean is:

“We’re not collaborating well.”

“That’s not an effective network.”

“We’re not an effective learning organization.”

I’m not just being pedantic. Not only does the qualifier matters, it’s the question that most of us actually care about.

Let’s take learning organizations as an example. Senge defines learning organizations as organizations that are continually expanding their capacity to create their desired futures. (This is almost identical to Doug Engelbart’s definition of organizations that are collectively intelligent.)

By this definition, any organization that is profitable is a learning organization, because more money generally increases the capacity of most groups to create their desired futures. Of course, this is not what most people actually mean when they talk about learning organizations. It’s not because it’s wrong. It’s because what we really care about is what makes organizations effective at learning. Profitably can indicate effectiveness, but it is not the defining factor.

Treating things like learning and collaboration as a continuum rather than as a binary acknowledges what you are already doing and supports you in building on that, rather than assuming (usually incorrectly) that you’re not doing it in the first place. It also gets you out of the mindset of trying to follow someone else’s predefined template. In other words, it puts the emphasis on the verb (to learn, to collaborate) rather than the noun.

Senge’s attributes for learning organizations are great, and I refer to them all the time. But when people ask me about what it means to be a learning organization, I turn the questions back to them:

  • What does it mean for you, individually, to learn?
  • What’s an example of something you’ve learned well?  What enabled you to learn that effectively?
  • What’s an example of something your organization has learned? What enabled it to learn? How could you create conditions that would enable your organization to learn more effectively?

Simply taking the time to explore these kinds of questions together is the first step toward making any group effective at learning.

Learning and Collaboration

On a warm summer evening in Virginia last July, I sat on Marcia Conner‘s porch and wondered aloud whether we were in the same business. Marcia cares about collaboration, but she’s nuts about learning. If she doesn’t hear the word “learning” in the context of projects she’s involved with, alarm bells go off in her head.    (LJ7)

I’m equally passionate about collaboration and learning, but I can talk about my work without ever mentioning the latter. My reasoning, as I explained that night, was that good collaboration encompasses learning, and the best way to learn is to collaborate. You can’t talk about “collaboration” without also thinking about “learning.”    (LJ8)

Doug Engelbart often says that high-performance communities are experts at CoDIAK — collectively developing, integrating, and applying knowledge. I hate the acronym, because I think it’s unnecessarily esoteric. What CoDIAK boils down to is:    (LJ9)

  • Learn.    (LJA)
  • Share and apply what you know.    (LJB)
  • Repeat early and often.    (LJC)

There’s that “learn” word again.    (LJD)

I still believe that collaboration encompasses learning, but I’ve changed my mind about whether it’s important to explicitly mention learning in the context of my work. Marcia, of course, is to blame. We were chatting in the attic of a colleague’s home last Friday, with her two year old son, Clarke, playing on the floor as we talked, and our conversation again drifted towards learning. I was talking about a project I’m involved with, and I explained that while it still felt important, I wasn’t learning any more.    (LJE)

As soon as I said it, I laughed to myself, because it sounded like something that Marcia would have complained about. Yesterday, as I was reading Allison Fine‘s Momentum, a book that Marcia gave me, I was again struck by how important learning is to my work. I believe very strongly in defining projects concretely and getting things done, but I refuse to take on a client who doesn’t care about learning. I expect to learn from my work, and I expect my clients to want to learn as part of our collaboration. This is not a requirement to be in this business. There are plenty of projects where clients don’t give a damn about learning. They just want you to get the work done. I’ve been offered these kinds of projects in the past, and the work itself is often intellectual, enjoyable, and well-paying. I still turn it down. My mission is to help people learn about collaboration, and I won’t work on projects where that’s not happening.    (LJF)

I’ve already made it a practice to describe Blue Oxen Associates‘ long-term goal as building and facilitating a Learning Community centered around collaboration. I could just as easily have chosen Engelbart’s term, Improvement Community, or Etienne Wenger‘s term, Community of Practice, but I chose Peter Senge‘s instead, and the fact that “learning” is there was a major reason why. I’m currently in the process of revamping our web site, and I plan on making “learning” a more explicit part of our message.    (LJG)