In theory, everyone is for the learning organization or the mobilization of collective intelligence. How could you be against it? Would that make you in favour of the “stupid organization”? Yet few organizations have developed a model for a sustainable learning organization. So, is collective intelligence a myth? What are the reasons for successive failures at attempts to implement the learning organization? How can this be fixed?
Those two terms, learning organisation and collective intelligence, carry lots of interpretations, insights and fantasies. I will add more to it with a dialogical perspective and then look at the question of implementation of a learning organisation.
A Learning Organisation is not an Organisation made to Learn
Organisations do not have learning as the centre of what they do. Organisations are purposeful systems, contructs of people who want to perfom a function together. That central function is never about learning (not even schools and universities have learning as their raison d’etre).
As ‘learning organisation’ I will then assume we are talking about a group of people working to adapt its designed system (structures and communications) towards a certain level of alignment with its environment.
If learning does not happen, the group ceases to coordinate their actions in a meaninful way with the environment and ceases to exist. If we look at a designed system as a narrative, adaptative learning is always generative learning.
While people in organisations will always learn, the only way learning can influence structures and communications in designed systems is if we hold spaces to re-design and co-design.
Even if we don’t create an organisations with the purpose of learning, we can design an organisation where opportunities for learning are at hand.
There is an important work in generating learning opportunities or acknowledging learning in organisations today. Besides that, it is crucial that the design allow for spaces of redesign where learning about the organisational system can happen.
Spaces of design benefit from structures where power is more distributed than concentrated and where a variety of voices can contribute to the interpretation of the system’s narrative.
Individual Intelligence is a Myth
Check the questions that are posed by the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence:
What would it mean for a group of people to be “intelligent”? For instance, if a single superhuman intelligence had access to all the knowledge and resources of a company like IBM or General Motors, what would it do? What strategies would it pursue? How quickly could it respond to changes in the marketplace? How productively could it use factories and money? How profitable would it be? And-most importantly-how closely could we approximate the behavior of this imaginary superhuman intelligence by cleverly connecting real people and computers?
These questions seem based on the assumption that intelligence relates to knowledge acummulation and/or a systhesis of greater knowledge that could be generated by a superhuman entity.
Making a syntesis of many conciousnesses into one collective consciousness is a road to abstract metaphysic solutions that ends up in stupitidity over time.
To explore many consciousnesses, there is some talk about diversity, but even that can also mean different things.
Diversity can be used as an abstract mathematical concept – there is a positive correlation: higher the diversity, more accurate the answer. Taken this way, the term confirms the assumption of having one overarching entity representing a group of people in synthesis. The synthesis is a creation of a single story that would be the destruction of intelligence over time.
On the other hand, if diversity is situational in time and space, it would mean that individual consciounesses interact in creating the story that integrates that diversity at a certain time. From this perpective it is individual intelligence that is a myth, since nothing is created by one individual consciousness alone.
So if collective intelligence refers to an abstract entity that represents a group, I would think it is a myth. If it is referring to a multitude of entities in a group generating an interpretation, a prediction or an action that can be judged by an observer as intelligent, than it is the only thing that has ever been.
There is a balance between telling your own story of purpose (within the organisation or in your own mind) and listening to what other systems of society are talking about. There is no formula, only a continuous process.
Companies that have no focus don’t last long. Without holding some things in place, we cannot move forward not even in creating the new. An organisation is defined by the boundaries it creates to operate and this definition of boundaries come with the price of less resilience.
Companies that have great focus on what they do tend to have a clear purpose and thrive until a fundamental change makes the focus unclear or irrelevant. Reminds me of the story from Good to Great – companies being consistent as a hedgehog responds to a fox. It makes complete sense for an environment with foxes, but rolling into a ball is not a good strategy in case an earthquake happens. We live in times of both foxes and earthquakes.
We have to constant re-construct organisations. Rather than fixing, organisations should have clear spaces for re-construction. It might be a fix, it might be a rebuild or just a change in colour – but it is only through a place where engaged multiple intelligences can generate new narratives that learning at the level of the organisational system can happen.
It is more than doing things more collectively or collaboratively, it is about creating a structure of spaces and opportunities where natural collective learning can happen.