Social Learning in The Enterprise, and What It Means for “Organizational Change”

I remember very my first inspiration for becoming a management consultant.  It came from reading Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s book “The Changemasters – Innovation & Entrepreneurship in the American Corporation“, in 1985 shortly after it was published.

I already knew I was interested in organizations as social systems from my university days, but the book excited me.  A couple of years later I felt truly on my way, as I was by then a junior consultant with a global organizational consulting company that I thought was close to one of the best in terms of helping organizations cope with change .. at least, they said they did.  Little did I know 😉 

Fast forward fifteen years, to the year 2000.

A couple of days ago in an online group meeting with several of my colleagues in the Internet Time Alliance (ITA), I held up the front cover of a FAST COMPANY magazine I have kept around since October 2000, which is when I bought it. The front cover screams:

Your Job Is Change!

– Your boss can’t handle it.

– Your company won’t do it.

– Your future demands it.

– How To Be A Change Insurgent !

(Bonus .. the October 2000 issue also contains Bruce Mau’s delicious Incomplete Manifesto for Growth)

That was ten years ago.  October 2000.  Heh.

Lots of water under many bridges since then .. and ‘change management’ has, I think, for the most part come to mean communications and training sessions for how to use one module or another of an SAP (or other ERP system) installation run by Accenture or Deloitte (etc.) consultants.  In other words, commodified instructions as to how to do something new at work without making major changes in an organization’s culture or the deep intangibles that represent really new ways of working.

And yet, we now keep hearing about Enterprise 2.0 (2.0 denoting a new version ?), social business design, social learning in the organization and so on. 

I am still not really sure about the terms Enterprise 2.0 (though it has stuck), nor ‘social business’ (though it seems on the way to maybe sticking), but social learning makes sense to me.  For the most part, people learn in social interaction.  Yes, we also acquire information and knowledge in formal and structured ways, such as school and training, but there’s a fair amount of research that strongly suggest people learn more and better by engaging, exchanging and doing with others.

Here’s Euan Semple talking at this past year’s Reboot conference about why what may be new ways of working is not just about sticking some new tools in front of people and communicating to and training them as to how to use the tools (he uses a time-tested facilitator’s gambit at the opening to provide some context with respect to his point that the change challenge is neither trivial nor easy nor rapidly dealt with).  

Like Euan, I am worried that in the accelerating rush to Enterprise 2.0-ize your organization, most organizations will not really think and work through the deep structural and cultural changes that are likely to make purposeful social computing really come alive in its potential effectiveness (which includes providing flexibility, resilience, opportunities to innovate, and enhanced work satisfaction).  

SAP implementation stories redux, anyone ?

And here, with colleague Harold Jarche providing the voice-over is a short and concise overview of what myself and my ITA colleagues believe are the core implications of the penetration and spread of social computing in the organizational world.  

It is, I think, a path towards realizing the promise of the concept of the living, learning organization advanced over the past twenty years by luminaries such as Peter Senge, Arie de Geus, Peter Block, Charles Handy and many others.


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