Only a few years ago we were saying that the “management of change” is the biggest challenge organizational leaders face. Today we hear that the problem is no longer the management of change but the management of “surprise,” and we academics are asked more and more frequently to explain not just how organizations can make major transformations but how organizations can do these activities faster and faster.1 The world is changing quickly. In order to survive and grow, organizations must learn to adapt faster and faster or be weeded out in the economic evolutionary process.
In this paper I will analyze the learning process to show how learning at the organizational level can be speeded up. I will start with some abstract concepts but will close with some practical suggestions. I am struck by how little we really know about the dynamics of organizations and social systems, and how little we know about the learning process. A friend and colleague, Donald Michael, has observed that one of the most difficult problems of our age is that leaders, and perhaps academics as well, cannot readily admit that things are out of control and that we do not know what to do.2 We have too much information, limited cognitive abilities to think in systemic terms, and an unwillingness to violate the cultural norms that leaders must always appear to be in control and to have solutions for all our problems. We are afraid that if we admit our confusion, we will make our followers and students anxious and disillusioned. We know we must learn how to learn, but we are afraid to admit it.
Yet current circumstances tell us that learning is no longer a choice but a necessity and that the most urgent priority is learning how to learn — and learning faster. If we are to do this, we must speak about several things that are not often discussed among leaders and managers, particularly, the role of anxiety in learning and the role of groups and communities in helping us cope with this anxiety and, thus, facilitating learning.
1. Robert Horton, former chairperson of British Petroleum, used the phrase “management of surprise.”
2. D.N. Michael, On Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985).
3. W. Bennis and B. Nanus, Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).
4. E.H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985).
5. P.M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1990).
6. C. Argyris, R. Putnam, and D.M. Smith, Action Science (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985).
7. Senge (1990).
8. Schein (1985).
9. E.H. Schein, Process Consultation, Volume 2 (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1987).
10. S. Schachter, The Psychology of Affiliation (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1959).
11. G.R. Bushe and A.B. Shani, Parallel Learning Structures (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1991).
12. R. Beckhard and R.T. Harris, Organizational Transitions (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1987).
13. E.H. Schein, “Innovative Cultures and Adaptive Organizations,”Sri Lanka Journal of Development Administration 7 (1990): 9–39.