Few business leaders make critical decisions of any kind without evidence of a trend. Today’s data rich environment provides vital information executives need to recognize and seize opportunities or to take corrective action. One challenge for leaders, of course, is capturing the right data; but, the real challenge is creating an effective organizational process for engaging the mass of incoming information through a generative learning style—one that 1) recognizes and places value on information, 2) evaluates the information through the lenses of knowledge and preconception, and 3) seeks solutions through experimentation.
Figure 1: Generative Learning
Generative Learning Communities
Billions of invisible bytes of data feeding our dashboards create a picture of institutional performance as it relates to specific goals within specific initiatives. These invaluable bits of information may give an account of changing behavior inside or outside the organization that may require action; but they offer little instruction on how to address the phenomenon behind the symptom. To unravel that mystery, leaders must turn to another invisible resource to create a generative learning community with the imagination to conceive of a future reality and with the capacity to pursue that shared vision through creative problem solving. In order to cope in an age with an abundance of information and a deficit of insight, leaders must access the spiritual resources available to them through their workforce.
The vocabulary of business has largely excluded words such as love, hope, and purpose. If these terms do show up in business literature, they are often confined to discipline of organizational behavior. It is no wonder. Those of us in the western world live and operate under the influence of the age of Enlightenment, waning though it may be. Biblical scholar N.T. Wright says,
The Enlightenment notoriously insisted upon splitting apart history and faith, facts and values, religion and politics, nature and super nature…with one of the consequences being, indeed, that each of those categories now carries with it…an implicit opposition to its twin, so that we are left with the great difficulty of even conceiving of a world in which they belong to one another as part of a single indivisible whole.
To be clear, it is not the author of this paper’s intention to pit the hard and soft sciences against one another. In fact, this author suggests that creating a generative learning team is essential to organizational effectiveness and such a team depends on spiritual and knowledge-based resources to solve problems. Given that data is flowing at accelerating rates, producing mountains of evidence, learning communities capable of discerning the meaning of the evidence have never been more important to an organization’s ability to cope, grow, and survive.
Neither is the author’s intention to consider spirituality in religious terms, though, personally, the author finds it hard to engage the concept of spirituality without encountering existential questions. The author finds Dallas Willard’s view of the nature of human existence to be compelling.
Human existence understood in the context of the full world of God—“all things visible and invisible,” can be as good as we naturally hope for it to be. As we increasingly integrate our world with the spiritual world of God, our life increasingly takes on the substance of the eternal.
Again, the author raises the issue of spirituality only as it applies to the activation of generative learning communities. Like Willard, the author sees the world as an integration of physical and spiritual elements. That alone is enough for us to explore spirituality and its relationship to the learning communities we hope to create. However, to be as transparent as possible, like Willard, the author sees God as the life-giving source of both physical and spiritual elements.
Separate from one’s religious leanings or lack thereof, many people in the organizations we lead long to connect their vocation to their latent existential and cosmological questions or yearnings. Practically speaking, the men and women in our organizations experience, on a personal level, the same shifts impacting our businesses. They, too, are tuned in to disruption, geopolitical conditions, financial shifts, and environmental concerns. Inwardly they wonder if they are part of the solution or are they part of the problem. Ultimately, many of the people who make up the organizations we lead care deeply about the planet and the well being of its people. At their core, most people want to love as they wish to be loved.
The substance of spirituality, if you will allow the characterization, is made up of intrinsic human impulses such as love, hope, purpose, meaning, and discernment. Invisible, though they may be, they provide the key ingredients for creative problem solving. Even more importantly, as Edgar Schein says,
The function of cognitive structures such as concepts, beliefs, attitudes, values, and assumptions is to organize the mass of environmental stimuli, to make sense of them, and to thereby provide a sense of predictability and meaning to the individual. The set of shared assumptions that develop over time in groups and organizations serves this stabilizing and meaning providing function.
Schein observes that all human systems seek to achieve and maintain a sense of equilibrium in order to cope, grow, and survive. The integrity of the organizational system is held together, not only through financial resources and the physical plant, but also through beliefs, assumptions, identity, mission, vision, and values. Put another way, human systems are held together by both visible and invisible elements, with the invisible possessing substantive qualities as essential to the enterprise as the visible. Indeed, I would argue the spiritual forces give energy to the entire system.
In the abstract, spirituality as an energizing and organizing force of any enterprise may not be difficult to acknowledge. The challenge is figuring out how to activate it. Any thought of harnessing it, as if it is a renewable resource, is wrong headed. Leaders who attempt to tap into the motivational energy of their workforce by pandering in some superficial way to the deeply held, personal sensibilities of meaning and purpose or vocation and calling will be seen as inauthentic or untrustworthy if not abusive. The test of the leader is to first see, then cast, a vision of an organization’s contribution to a future global reality at which point they invite a learning community to participate in a shared journey, not only sharing in the vision, but also in the risks and rewards. In so doing, leaders can form and influence the health and vibrancy of an organizational community. More toward this point, L.W. Fry says,
Leaders must create a vision wherein the organization’s members experience a sense of calling in that their life has meaning and makes a difference. They must establish a social/organizational culture based on altruistic love whereby leaders and followers have genuine care, concern, and appreciation for both self and others, thereby producing a sense of membership.
The key to activating spiritual resources is to access them in an authentic way by gathering a community around a shared identity and a vision of a future reality and engaging them at a personal level, meeting them on the spiritual plane. This requires leaders to come to terms with their own spiritual assets such as love, hope, purpose, and integrity. Business expertise alone, whether in finance or marketing, does not qualify one to lead a community into a complex future in a hopeful and productive way.
While I hope the ideas presented to this point have been meaningful, I doubt they have satisfied the practical questions that hover near the top of mind. How do personal values and beliefs translate into motivation and action? How do they reach the bottom line of the balance sheet? Admittedly, we may not be able to draw a clear straight line from the spiritual plane to the investor’s return, but we can clearly see the role it plays in improving organizational effectiveness.
Peter Senge famously referred to a shared vision as a “common caring.” He says, “Few, if any, forces in human affairs are as powerful as a shared vision.” Again, in the abstract, we sense that mission and vision are somehow important if not vital, but we find that the real struggle is to activate them to address real world problems.
Given that today’s leaders find themselves at the relative beginning of the age of hyper acceleration, coping and surviving have become daily agenda items. Reactive leaders seeking resources to cope with disruptive change are finding that material resources alone are insufficient to solve the problems associated with accelerated change. Once visionary leaders are now focusing less on the future state of their organization in favor of preserving the mission for today. They do so at great risk to their long-term goals. Minus an animating vision of a future reality, or a desire for the “struggle of shared aspirations,” organizations will labor as adaptive enterprises, reacting to real time challenges and opportunities. In the age of hyper acceleration, adaptive organizations will likely respond too slowly and the great struggle to cope, grow, or survive will create chronic institutional fatigue and eventually failure.
The speed of change and the growing rate of disruption in the current and future environment is prompting leaders to create generative learning organizations that gather information, data, and process it through new filters to view old solutions differently. Generative learning calls upon teams to solve problems by working with both spiritual and knowledge-based elements. The common struggle to reach for the future destination motivates teams to see their future in the context of a world with its many promises and problems.
“Shared vision,” Senge says, “is vital for the learning organization because it provides the focus and energy for learning. While adaptive learning is possible without vision, generative learning occurs when people are trying to accomplish something that matters deeply to them.”
Figure 2: Activating Spiritual and Knowledge Based Resources
As mentioned previously, generative learning depends largely on four major steps: Attention, motivation, knowledge and preconceptions, and generation. The process provides a platform for addressing old problems in new ways, but especially for recognizing and understanding new problems.
The world needs people who can select, interpret, and use information to solve new problems they have not encountered before. Today’s focus on twenty-first-century skills such as creative problem solving, critical thinking, adaptability, complex communication, and constructing evidence-based arguments can be seen as a call for generative learning that helps people develop “transferable knowledge and skills.”
While the skills of the generative learning team are key to interpreting information and identifying and discerning the nature of new problems, the greatest benefit to the organization comes through the motivational factor. Motivation is the internal, cognitive state that prompts and gives energy and sustainability to goal-directed behavior.
With this in mind, today’s leader must consider the energizing, discerning, and productive qualities that spiritual resources provide. While asking the functional questions that shield the organization against risk, leaders must also ask some of the most enduring questions with which humans have wrestled over the ages.
- What is real?
- What is true?
- What is my purpose?
- Who is my neighbor?
These questions, though soft or sentimental to some, are in reality the questions that drive everything. They always have. The colleagues you lead are longing for you to ask these questions and to relate them to the work your organization has been called to do.