It’s been almost 30 years since Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline hit the shelves and curricula, bringing the importance and transformational potential of Systems Thinking to mainstream management thinking. Although the discipline is surely older, it’s grown in prominence over the last decades, particularly in non-profit and social-good work.
Working in community, we are continually faced with contexts that appear predictable given enough information, but are actually filled with complexity, ambiguity, and unintended, unforeseen activity. These are systems at work, and navigating them means finding a healthy balance between strategic and adaptive capacity. In other words, we have to be equally adept at staying the course and at pivoting. We have to learn how to continually engage new voices to renew shared vision, without totally losing track of what it was we were after in the first place.
What is collective learning?
Practicing such balances – being intentionally adaptive – requires an ongoing commitment to collective learning. So what is it? Collective learning is different from learning as a part of a group. When you take a continuing education course, or participate in a break-out session at a conference, everyone in the room has (hopefully) learned something by the end. But there isn’t any shared vision or shared practice that is going to be impacted by that learning. There is no commitment to each other that exists in the room beyond the scheduled duration, and certainly no collective work in which all participants share. In other words, in these contexts we learn as part of a group, but not as a part of a community. Collective learning requires community – its aspects of continuity, mutual commitment and shared hope and memory.
Collaborative learning not only inspires a more dynamic team through advanced understanding, but also creates more impactful results.
Collective learning is also different from a passive receiving of information. A tightly-knit work team that has received and read this morning’s memo about the new tardiness policy, or listened to the consultant’s 30-minute reveal of the new brand identity, has certainly absorbed some new facts about its world. But no collective learning has taken place yet, because the team has not processed the information, has not infused it with shared meaning. The collective learning is likely to take place a bit later, in conversation – in the kitchen, the hallway or the parking lot.
Collective learning happens when a community adapts to new information by incorporating it into a narrative, creating some practical knowledge by which it will be guided in choosing its behaviors going forward.
Do you need collaborative learning?
We can think of collective learning as an ongoing meaning-making process taken on by a group of interconnected players that integrates new information or new perspectives into a new narrative about something salient to that group, and helps the group to use that narrative in guiding its actions. Seen this way, it becomes a critical component of our adaptive capacity – at the workgroup, collaborative or community levels. We should care very much, and very practically, about all aspects of this process. Taking it seriously means taking the time to design, engage, and follow through on participatory learning conversations.