“Change is Great Boss, You Go First”: John Soter on Leading Organizational Learning.


Waiting for Godot. Copyright Unknown.

Our guest blogger today is John Soter of ZweigWhite. John will be presenting “A 12-Step Program for a Learning Organization” at KA Connect 2010 in Chicago on April 9th.

Every Organization is a Learning Organization

Like any highly complex, human system, a learning-based work environment is highly adaptive and constantly adjusts its behavior to respond to a varied and endless stream of data and information about the interactions and transactions taking place among its members. It’s organized chaos, basically a fractal equation with an essential strange attractor. That attractor is the hunger, the itch that triggers the rigorous gathering, filtering, testing, assimilation, and deployment of knowledge, skill, and attitude.

Too often, leaders see knowledge and learning as the gathering, not the hunger. Forget about measuring knowledge and learning, most leaders struggle to define them. “How can you nail Jell-O to a tree?” I was once asked. Leader behavior routinely conflates means with ends and usually achieves neither. The truth is that every organization is a learning organization. Learning bad habits and behaviors is still learning, isn’t it? We need to acknowledge that business structures, protocols, and entrenched leader and manager behaviors are the first barriers that need to be swept away.

We need a 12-Step Program

What’s required is a 12 step program that works though the stages of awareness, acknowledgement, commitment, support, and change that overcomes entrenched attitudes, blind spots, and behaviors. This is a significant challenge, often due to the fact that what made leaders successful as they progressed through their careers is the very thing that prevents them from architecting a learning environment. The very thing that made them rich makes them poor!

Why are there so few examples of purposeful and successfully architected learning organizations? One theory is that, while numerous tools are implemented to capture practices, the driving need for structured knowledge management is seldom strong enough to overcome inertia and the dysfunctional behavior of leadership. Like any addictive condition, leaders’ blind spots are massive, their denial not to be conquered, and their awareness of their addiction is absent.

So, what is this addiction that leaders suffer from? At its most primal level, it is fear of failure and the unknown. Nothing that worked in the past to get them to this point in their careers works to understand, conceive, articulate, merchandise, or deliver the intangible benefits of structuring knowledge and learning. It’s a bet the farm moment.

Rather than going for it or walking away, many will nibble at a systems solution holding back their full personal and positional endorsement betting that the organization will embrace and validate the thought. Essentially, they are hoping for a parade that they can get in front of and declare victory.

It’s the Fractal, Stupid – find it!

Changing an organization, for example freeing and focusing the capture and sharing of knowledge and learning, requires a change to the fractal equation. In nature, that radical change requires long runway evolution, or discontinuous change usually brought on by cataclysmic events.

The same goes for businesses, especially knowledge based businesses like AEC. Evolution is slow and difficult and is complicated by routine changes in leadership personnel. Moreover, most new regimes generate change exercises that sometimes work, but more often cause employees to “ride this out”, thereby stressing the metal and making it less malleable for the next change. Change is easier during a crisis and we need a good one now and then.

Leader, Heal Thyself

Like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, leaders are sure that knowledge management is definitely coming today, or tomorrow at the latest, despite not knowing what it will look like. In reality, ad hoc knowledge management and learning systems and processes are already in place in every organization. The challenge is to understand the current learning networks, define the future networks, and engineer the change. Surely, tools and systems will help, but they will rarely change behaviors, they more often cement behavior.

Knowledge plus skills (practical application) plus attitude form the basis of learning. So what are the barriers to becoming a learning organization? The simplest explanation is dysfunctional behavior, usually at the leadership level. Like every junky, leadership practices denial, avoidance, blaming, and quest for quick fix behavior. Looking for a pain-free cure to their addiction, they grab for the methadone of tool and systems solutions, thereby avoiding the investment in time and effort on their part to change.

We need a 12-Step Program for leading learning organizations. Come join us at KA Connect 2010 to learn more.

About the Author

John Soter is a Principal with ZweigWhite. He has 25 years of organizational and behavioral consulting experience and has conducted hundreds of engagements with clients at Fortune 500 and emerging growth companies that rely on innovation, knowledge, and focus for competitive advantage. John specializes in assisting clients with architecting learning and high performance environments. For more information about John, please visit

Posted: February 9th, 2010 | Filed under: All Posts | Comments Off on “Change is Great Boss, You Go First”: John Soter on Leading Organizational Learning.

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