Revisiting: A critical pedagogy for organizational learning?

I just re-read a post I wrote in June, 2015, reflecting on a challenge posed by educator and author Cathy Davidson.

In Why Start with Pedagogy 4 Good Reasons, 4 Good Solutions, Cathy Davidson writes: “If your goal is equality in a world where inequality is structural and violent and pervasive, you can at least start with your classroom as a place in which to model a better way...Be an activist in the realm where you have control. You can change to a pedagogy of liberation today.”

I wrote this post just after the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., at that point yet another reminder of the deep, structural and persistent nature of racism.

Oh how things continue to remain unchanged.

In the post I wondered aloud about the possibility of a critical pedagogy for those of us who are learning practitioners working in organizations, and especially business. How might we bring a philosophy to our work within organizations, where we might deal with the messy job of challenging power structures that result in injustice for whole classes of people?

And go ahead. Please tell me now that power and justice issues in organizations are not within the scope of organizational learning and performance. Tell me that bro-culture has not left a trail of victims, destroyed talent and innovation and resources. Tell me that males in power – who assume that their status somehow privileges their dicks – do not destroy lives. Tell me that inattention to social issues in developing algorithms and tech platforms does not, oh, totally erode our democratic foundations or encode racism into practices that impact people’s efforts to become educated, get jobs, or attain financial stability.

So yeah, there’s that.

Today, in my revisiting this issue, I am divided across two lines of thinking. The first is that there is hope by pushing these questions into the conversation with organizational learning practitioners. The second is that it is a fool’s journey, that we’ll only dance around the edges until the fundamental model for business changes.

Let me explore each.

There is hope in pushing the conversation

On the there-is-hope line of thinking, I can point to anecdotes from the course I co-teach on enterprise technology and organizational learning. Graduate students in the course are leaders and emerging leaders across many types of organizations.

In the course we explore a selected set of concepts taken from academic research and theorizing to help challenge assumptions and perhaps inspire more critical thinking. One set of concepts pushes us to think about knowledge and learning as more than what can be written down, or that exists only inside an individual’s head. We try to look beyond the individual to the organization.

This means we first need to recognize within organizations the system of social-professional norms and practices, routines and what my colleague Ryan Smerek refers to as learning mechanisms (“after action review” is a good example). Once we see these things we begin to understand how learning is more than just learning “how” but also learning “to be” within the organizations we work. I came from a career in corporate organizations before moving into higher ed. I was very conscious of my learning “to be” a higher ed professional (and accepted as a practitioner) as an effortful process.

If we begin to see these systems we can start to think about “organizational learning” as something co-constructed by individuals in the organization as they engage with (and influence) the social systems, norms and mechanisms. We might also recognize how activities outside the organization can disrupt these systems and, if productive, help the individuals and organization learn and co-create something new. We can hope, for example, that #metoo is doing just that.

To summarize: You can start to see “organizational learning” as a dynamic set of social elements and practices, continually co-constructed with members of the organization, but which can persist over time, or be changed over time to adapt to new situations.

Last year, exploring these ideas led to reflections from two students that still impact me.

The first was a story shared by a student that begins with the news of a racially motivated shooting in the metro area in which her company is headquartered. The day after the incident, no one spoke openly about it in the office. She speculated that no one was certain how to show their emotions, or they were afraid to say the wrong thing, or just to share their confusion, face-to-face.

But in internal online communities the outcome was different. People openly shared their feelings, questions and reactions to the news. They explored what it might mean. The student again speculated that the trust that had been created within these virtual communities – and among the virtual community members – was instrumental in fostering this open inquiry and reflection.

At the most basic level, it is simply inspiring to me that this kind of collision between the “outside” social world and internal organizational world resulted in some level of  exploration. As a social technology geek, it also points to some interesting questions about how and why these particular online communities came to play this important role. And what, as social technology practitioners, we might learn about how to increase the probability of this occurring and ultimately moving this exploration towards more productive inquiry, resulting in new insights or practices or norms for the organization.

The second student story is more an example of critical thinking that emerges from our explorations. I share it because I know this student to be a talented, new guard organizational leader; his point of view will undoubtedly show up in his organization as innovative and refreshing new practices.

In a blog post assignment to review our readings exploring social learning concepts and practices, this student dipped into his knowledge of LGBTQ studies to challenge what appear to be some underlying assumptions about communities of practice (CoPs).

He noted in his post that our class discussion about CoPs focused on how individuals choose to partake in the norms of the community – learning “to be” a type of practitioner – rather than the reverse, where the community might intentionally look at how its membership develops the community. From the literature on queer theory, he introduced the concept of queering a space – and defined it as intentionally subverting the norm. This type of subversion, he argued, should be seen as a critical element of learning-in-practice.

Here’s how that might play out. Let’s say you join an organization with a distributed, maybe global workforce. You are a marketing professional working on this organization’s products or services. A well established, online community of practice exists for marketing professionals across the company to share best practices, insights, “how we do things here,” discuss new challenges, etc.

As a newbie, this community is an asset to your professional development and identity within the organization. You can learn the ropes by taking part in the community. So you really feel pressure to be there, and participate.

Even with a community management team that moderates the online community for out-of-bounds comments, you, as a newbie, may still be experiencing harm. For example: unconscious bias related to gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc. that shows up in routines or assumptions in the community experience.

Queering the space, then, would be the act of one or more people subverting norms to help others (as the graduate student noted in his post) “unlearn and relearn through engagement in the process” of subverting those norms.

For me, this just highlights the difficult, but important work of community management and leadership. How to move from simply “moderating” to recognizing the need for subverting norms in the service of equality and justice, and working the magic to make that happen. We simply need to set our sights higher than the (difficult) challenge of recognizing CoPs as valuable to our work practices. They must be valuable in shaping and reinforcing the principles upon which a civil and just society depends.

It’s a fool’s journey

The second line of thinking is that we’re simply dancing around the edges.

Small wins do help – and I consider the student examples as small wins. Perhaps I need to do a better job of collecting and highlighting research and stories that provide insight into how business, in particular, truly moves the needle through the momentum gained via small wins such as those examples from the two students.

But I am also starting to believe more deeply that we must fundamentally change the organizing principles of business and the culture of capitalism. Howard Rheingold gets at a similar point in Thinking about thinking about what to do about technology.

Questions about the threats of technology often come down to the nature of capitalism: The microtargetted advertising that makes Facebook a conduit for hyperpersonalized propaganda is precisely what makes Facebook such a valuable medium for paid advertising — which is what returns profit to Facebook’s stockholders. So what can be done about that? Some argue that because communism failed, there is no alternative remedy. Yet we are seeing potential alternatives beginning to emerge: while platform cooperativism and profit-from-purpose businesses are relatively new, successful cooperative corporations have existed for more than a century. What other models can be added to this list? Can any central principles or points of leverage be inductively derived by examining these alternatives.

I, too, am intrigued by alternative organizing structures such as public benefits corporations (Kickstarter is an example), certified B Corps , and worker or consumer cooperatives (REI is an example of a consumer cooperative).

Each of these is an an approach to more explicitly weave social impact and equitable treatment of employees into the legal fabric of the organization.

The thought experiment I want you to take is this: read Kickstarter’s charter. Then imagine you are the Chief People Officer of that organization, guided by that charter. Does your framing of “organizational learning and performance” change? How might it feel, as an organizational learning leader, to be tasked with ensuring your organization successfully meets its legal obligation  to “support a more creative and equitable world?”

Such structural changes alone do not, of course, change the game on their own. Etsy was a mission-driven certified B corp which, according to the New York Time, after failing to meet shareholder expectations, is letting its certification lapse. A new CEO and leadership team are shaking up Etsy and it appears the company may be losing some of the deep-seated commitment to social impact.

What’s to blame? David Heinemeier Hansson, founder and CTO at Basecamp, argues convincingly that Etsy simply did not take care of business.

When Etsy looks back at the arc of its story, it’s easy to flatter themselves into thinking that everything was hunky-dory until The Evil Capitalists came for their pound of flesh. But give me a break. This story is as old as time, and the outcome perfectly predictable.

Etsy corrupted itself when it sold its destiny in endless rounds of venture capital funding. This wasn’t inevitable, it was a choice. One made by founders and executives who found it easier to ask investors for money than to develop the habits and skills to ask customers.

Heinemeier Hansson and Basecamp founder/CEO Jason Fried are making visible this type of conversation, challenging assumptions based in the current culture of capitalism (see Existing the dark ages of capitalism, or Basecamp doesn’t employ anyone in San Francisco, but now we pay everyone as all did). Following this conversation in response to current business news or everyday business challenges provides an inspiring counterpoint to much of what we read and hear – made more inspirational because Basecamp is a successful enterprise that embraces (my interpretation) the power afforded by being profitable.

So if organizations are to more seriously embrace the role they play in society – where, among other things, they deal more actively with the messy job of challenging power structures that result in injustice for whole classes of people – there just seems to be a lot of work to do on the organizing principles and current culture of capitalism.

The roadmaps seem to be there. Leaders and organizations who do it, through their own leadership perspectives and/or in combination with literally embedding contributions to society into the legal foundations of the enterprise. Are these small wins, too? Or I am just not paying enough attention and the movement to a new understanding of capitalism is taking hold?

Where are the voices?

Let me come back to the organizational learning profession.

I do know some of the organizational learning professionals who voice similar challenges and inquiries on themes I explore in this post. And I am continually thankful for what each teaches me. (You know who you are…thank you).

But where is the profession-wide call to approach our roles as activists, in the way that Cathy Davidson did in her challenge to educators?

Or are we just happy to blow our whole bank account of attention on “gamification,” or “micro-learning,” or…?

Photo by Alyssa Kibiloski on Unsplash

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