Beyond the Learning Organization

We face a dramatic challenge. We are changing our climate and driving species to extinction on a scale similar to the asteroid and/or volcanic eruption that destroyed the dinosaurs. We struggle with social inequality (from slavery to the prison industry to our failure to invest in poor youth), theft of our cultural commons (theft both legal and illegal), and the tyranny of mass surveillance and robotic war. Our global governance systems pit one nation against another, one social class against another, and all against the very ecology on which we depend for life and livelihood. Learning organizations are necessary, but getting better at capitalism — improving our ability to extract value for shareholders — is not enough. Humanity and the biosphere — what we think of as ‘the world’ — needs more than ‘learning organizations’ at this point in history. We need radical change. We need Genius Organizations.

We are indebted to Peter Senge and his collaborators for the concept of the learning organization.  That concept, and the various practices shared through books such as The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, have been constant guides through our  professional lives.  For those reasons, people who hear the phrase “Genius Organization” may think we simply mean “learning organization, re-branded”.  It is true that every Genius Organization must be a learning organization, but it must be a very specific kind of learning organization — perhaps what every learning organization should be.

Defining the Genius Organization
A “Genius Organization” is an organization which serves a community both by cultivating the community’s genius and by delivering a particular set of products the community values.

We understand the “genius” of a community to be a combination of special resources (tools, location, history, etc.), useful complexity (knowledge, social organization, social diversity, biodiversity, etc.) and integrity (mutually beneficial connectedness within the community and with its environment).  A community’s genius allows it to produce value in a way that no other community can.

A Genius Organization must be able to maintain a long-term commitment to delivering human development that also benefits the ecologies on which people depend, and must deliver on that commitment with ever more skill over time. A Genius Organization is what Arie de Geus would call a “living company”.

When we use the word “community”, we include the physically co-located communities of neighborhood, village, and watershed, the virtual communities of social networks, the temporary communities of festivals and gatherings, and the broader extensions of these meanings to cities, regions, industry sectors, social classes, psychographic and demographic units.  The important thing is that a community must in some way be self-organizing — “teenagers” are not a community, but “teenagers that go to Beatles concerts” were a community, in the way we use the term.  “Baby boomers that went to Beatles concerts and still love the Beatles today” are a community in the way we mean it, because that group of people accesses the same media and shares an “imagined territory”.  Most of the communities served by Genius Organizations today are imagined communities, in the sense Benedict Anderson used when coining the phrase.  In other words, the people do not all know each other, but they relate to the same media and the same stories about a shared “imaginary territory” — an imaginary territory which may also be physically real, like the physical territory controlled by the United States of America, or which may be virtual or temporary, like the performances of a pop music act or the playspace of an online game.

The Genius Organization provides a kind of servant leadership to its community by enabling that community to develop and transform, in addition to providing whatever other products it may offer.  In fact, those “other products” are usually the means by which the genius organization delivers the transformation.  CSR (“corporate social responsibility”) is usually a separate functional silo within large companies; it makes grants to deserving charities.  While making grants to charity is a desirable thing, a Genius Organization requires CSR (like all functions) to be integrated in the product-based divisions of the organization. Corporate social responsibility is a practice throughout a Genius Organization, and results in strategic benefits that disconnect charitable grants cannot.

Required Ingredients
Every Genius Organization must have certain qualities or practices in order to reliably deliver the servant leadership that makes it a Genius Organization.

In order to understand its community and serve it effectively, the Genius Organization must be a Lean Enterprise (or at least a Lean organization) — it must understand what its customers value, and take responsibility for the whole value chain involved in delivering value to its customers.

A Genius Organization must understand its product in terms of the customer’s experience, and it must bring the different elements of customer experience together into a guided transformation.  This requires an understanding of personal, organizational, and community development and transformation.  At a minimum, this means that the Genius Organization implements the five disciplines of the learning organization. Most Genius Organizations will benefit from practice of user-centered design, lean or agile product development, and personal transformation of the kind documented in ‘Presencing’ by Senge et al. or taught by the Hendricks Institute.

Finally, the Genius Organization must have the structures, processes, and skills necessary for it to govern and manage itself in a deeply participatory manner. If the governance structure is not strongly participatory, there will be a tendency over time for an influential group in the company (such as management) to enrich itself at the expense of the other stakeholders (e.g. shareholders, other workers, and the human and biotic communities where the company does business).  Cautionary tales abound — such as the example of WireMold, once an exemplary Lean company, which was sold and placed under management that was not committed to Lean, resulting in the evaporation of a decade’s devotion to learning and excellence. Either the Genius Organization uses a management and governance structure such as Sociocracy, or it will endure great risks with each new owner and each new generation of management.

Progress on the Journey
When a company is functioning as a Genius Organization, that is the beginning of a journey which may continue for centuries.  I suggest that, as a leader, you track your ongoing success on at least these measures: the productivity of your colleagues, the wellbeing of colleagues, trading partners, and ecosystems where you operate, customer satisfaction, and the resilience of your communities.

To truly transform our world for the better, we must go beyond the learning organization.  Genius organisations learn constantly, but they intentionally serve their communities in very particular ways and they are structured to ensure that they continue to serve into the indefinite future.

2 replies
  1. Lasy
    Lasy says:

    Nath, this is a great article. It would be good to know if there are any existing Genius Organisations? I worry that with all of the various new descriptions of “organisations for good” that we will make it more difficult for business leaders to get behind any single description. I guess I am left with the question of whether it is possible to combine all our various definitions and practices into one heading that could build up a followship?

    • Nathaniel Whitestone
      Nathaniel Whitestone says:

      That’s a good question, Lasy. To be honest, I don’t have any single organization that I could hold up as “the perfect example”, although there are several that practice the primary elements. The element that is practiced least is the participatory management and governance system. It is very rare to see that baked in at the constitutional level, which makes many of the “best practice” examples we see in the business literature somewhat ephemeral. In other words, people in a great company are doing wonderful things for 10 or 20 years, then a new generation of owners or managers breaks the system and destroys the legacy. As I said when we spoke in person, I think Ben & Jerry’s, and Unilever, are doing some pretty good things — the B & J multiple missions really show up in the way they serve the wellbeing of communities along their value chain, and actually enhance the ability of those communities to produce remarkable value, for example in the way they use brownies baked by people with developmental disabilities in a charity which organizes those people.
      Your second question is really useful as well. I know we have lots of “organizations for good” labels — Learning, Lean, Agile, Conscious, Socially Responsible, etc. I’m not attached to using my own label, but I do want to use a label which says precisely what I mean. I’ve mentioned why I think “learning organization” is not enough of a definition, and I think the “conscious business” or “conscious capitalism” definitions aren’t sufficiently clear either. That doesn’t mean those labels are bad; I am very happy to promote them and use them in my work. But they are “big tent” definitions, similar to “socially responsible business”. I want to use a shared definition that is enough to drive total systemic transformation. I mean to ask, “if our grandchildren are to thrive, what sort of organizations must we bequeath them?” We need a clear definition which sets a high enough bar that, if all organizations do that, we cannot lose. But yes, let’s combine! Perhaps we can use a grading approach with a low bar set for anyone setting out on the journey, and a higher one for organizations that are effective learning organizations, genuinely committed to long term service in a way that expands the genius of their staff and all the communities in which they operate.


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