With a nod of acknowledgement to Isaiah Berlin, let me suggest a model of corporate evolution that may be useful in analyzing learning and development in large companies and organizations. The genesis of this consideration is my remembering Berlin’s musing on what happens when two or more values — all useful and beneficial — conflict with each other. The classic offering — you can have it fast, or you can have it done right — illustrates the problem. Fast is good. So is having something done right. But usually one precludes the other.
Organizations grow up around such values, and discrete disciplines within organizations focus on their particular specialties — faster, better, easier, user friendly, less costly and so on. The conflicts between these values extend to the learning organization as well. Some disciplines focus on generating learning content, others on the presentation of that content, still others on content distribution, or on metrics, or on the various learning venues and media.
Bureaucracies accrete to such seemingly simple questions as: What features does the product have? How do these features benefit the customer? What is leadership? How do we know the training works? The list is long, and the departmental divisions of labor that labor over the questions grows and grows until it resembles a theocracy gone mad over the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
The inherent forces that impact such bureaucracies are centralization and decentralization. If centralization has gathered too much stultifying authority to itself in the form of unresponsive and inflexible policies and practices, the sheer weight of the problem generally topples the bureaucracy, and authority flows outward to the various divisions and other smaller entities within the organization. Eventually decentralization shows its weaknesses, and the process of centralization gathers authority once again, until it, too, exceeds its grasp.
Even the attempt to have it both ways — with those needs that apply to all the organization being centralized, and those that apply only to local audiences decentralized — generally satisfies neither set of values completely and results in time-consuming, inefficient turf wars.
In a time of bullet points and short attention spans, it may be heretical to suggest that these are not problems but difficulties. A problem requires a solution; a difficulty requires skill and practice. Articles such as this are supposed to conclude with the six or 10 or 15 things you can do that will solve the problem. But the complexity of culture within organizations is beyond pat solutions.
The centralizing/decentralizing cycle is an easy metaphor to use for an overall pattern, but a more accurate metaphor for a real-life organization would be many centralizing/decentralizing pendulums, all in various degrees of gathering or distributing authority. The average might be in one direction or another, but knowing that is not particularly useful.
The centralizing tendency represents a desire for efficiency. The decentralizing tendency represents a desire for control by those closest to the learning need. Either tendency represents value to the learner and to the organization but not to each other.
In some ways technology has rendered this still-active cycle moot. The learning organization now has at its disposal an array of learning tools that can serve every learning style and content. These tools are, like computers, no longer the protected domain of experts, nor expensive beyond the range of most budgets, but inexpensive, easily mastered and just as easily distributed.
Alas, the remaining difficulty is intractable. While the mantra of the Internet is that information wants to be free, the mantra of political control within the organization is that information is power, and the spigots of information must be closely guarded. The dire consequence of potential loss of information to competitors is always used as the deciding criterion that cannot be argued against. A close second to this argument is the supposed need for uniformity of presentation and the editorial control of experts.
But the pyramidal hierarchy that worked so well for the industrial revolution has had its day. The hive has become the model of efficiency and information distribution. In the hive, authority does not reside in a single figure at the top of a pyramid but rather in the communal values of the hive that are implanted in each individual. The Internet, the blogosphere, and such fluid entities as YouTube, Wikipedia and its kind, all demonstrate how common values aggregate naturally without coercion and how those values are present in the behaviors of individuals without any oversight.
Still, we live in pyramids. The transition to hives will take longer than the likely career of any CLO reading this article. In the interim, it will simply be useful to understand and monitor the transition and to do what can be done to facilitate the tendency of more and more employees to want individual control over their information, their learning style, and the accessibility of content. Perhaps the interim model is a hive imbedded in a pyramid — the exoskeleton of organizational bones protecting a thriving colony of enabled individuals living in a hive within.
It may be that the centralizing/decentralizing cycle is only in one of its ordinary decentralizing phases. It may be that all the technology being used to empower and enable individuals will someday subside and swing in the other direction. Stranger things have happened. But the CLO whose job it is today to enable every individual in the organization to fulfill their maximum potential in the service of common institutional values may find that the most valuable thing they can do is to make sure those values are firmly established, to make information as widely available as possible, and then to let the bees out of the hive into the wide world beyond. The hive will always bring them home, and what they bring back with them is the nectar of real productivity.Filed under: Measurement, Technology