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THE ORGANIZATION LABORATORY.

An Experimental Training Setting for Learning the Process of Organizing

BarbaraLesjak and Hubert Lobnig

As change becomes an abiding reality in most organizations today, individuals in organizations are both objects on which change is imposed and subjects codeveloping change on different levels and with different possibilities to have an impact on larger results. Senior and middle managers are expected to initiate, promote and implement change processes, but many times they also become objects of the changes they themselves initiated. Advanced managers therefore need profound knowledge of organizational dynamics which they are a part of and specific knowledge of how groups and organizations operate as social systems. But today these kinds of capabilities are not required only of those filling management positions; organizations are increasingly relying on "distributed leadership" (Bolden 2008)—a term designating management and leadership which are not restricted to designated managers. A great deal of knowledge about organizational dynamics can be acquired when a learning process based on practical experience in social interaction is applied instead of or in addition to a more traditional "leadership- classroom" approach. As such, performance-based learning— when combined with reflective analysis and theory—allows the integration of "head, heart, body and soul" and thus provides a powerful tool for executive learning (Mirvis, 2008). In our chapter we describe the "organization laboratory" as a learning setting which differs considerably from prevailing methods of management education as it focuses on learning about the process of organizing in the here and now rather than learning about elements and functions of organizations.

ORGANIZATION LABORATORY—THE CONCEPT

The organization laboratory (OLab) as we practice it was developed at the Alpen-Adria University of Klagenfurt as an application of the principles of experimental learning as performed in "Training-group" settings (T-group) to the wider system of an organization. The underlying learning model is based on Lewin's field theory (Lewin, 1963) his educational concept of action learning and his theory of change (Bradford, Gibb, & Benne, 1964; Kleiner, 2008; Lewin, 1947). The methodology was applied to a newly developing social science discipline—group dynamics—which is based on the principles of social learning, process oriented research, collective self-determination and participation.

In the 1940s Kurt Lewin and his disciples experimented with sensitivity training, inventing the concept of the laboratory method. For a longer period of time the laboratory concept was applied only to intragroup processes (social processes within groups) focusing on learning and behavioral change through feedback mechanisms, greater awareness of social perceptions and improvement of skills for social interaction. Although different methods, fields of applications and designs were developed over the years, the laboratory method remained within the area of small group practice and research, it provides learning about groups through focusing on the own group, observing and reflecting the "here-and-now-situation" as well as individual contributions and activities in the context of the group setting.

However the didactic of the laboratory method (training and learning) has been maintained to the present day, because the methodology can be used to work with different types of social processes; what is essential is the focus on interactional dynamics in and between social formations.

The founders of the first laboratory saw the group as the link between the individual person and the larger social structure. They saw the group, therefore, as a medium for serving two sets of interrelated functions: the reeducation of the individual toward greater integrity, greater understanding of himself and of the social conditions in his life, greater behavioral effectiveness in planning and achieving changes both in himself and in his social environment; and the facilitation of changes in the larger social structures upon which individual lives depend. (Bradford et al., 1964, p. 5)

This didactic principle is still valid today, also for the organization laboratory.

It was in Europe in the early 1970s that the setting of the T-group was transformed into OLab and the concept of group dynamics found a home in large group applications. The first of these "labs" in the German-speaking countries was organized in Bad Tainach in 1970 and was led by Traugott Lindner, Don Nylen, and their colleagues. This first organization laboratory resulted in experiences with the relationship between large group plenums, official and informal subgroups, the necessity and opportunity to clarify one's own purposes and their realization within the framework of group constellations (Rechtien, 2001). The concept of laboratory learning was adapted to the processes which are played out between groups and therefore reach an organizational dimension (Krainz 1991, 2006, 2010). The American description of the fundamental methodology of the laboratory setting is also still valid today:

Such notions about the creation of learning situations and their management are drawn both from the canons of scientific method and from the philosophy of science. The form they take in the laboratory may be thought of as action research. Action research is an application of scientific methodology in the clarification and solution of practical problems. (Bradford et al., 1964, p. 33)

Here learning is strongly connected to the idea of participation:

It is important to emphasize that democratic methodology is seen here as closely akin to scientific methodology. Both depend ultimately upon consensual validation of results achieved. Both build safeguards against 'false' consensus into their ways of operating. Both are experimental in approach. Both are committed to incorporating a maximum induction from relevant individual experiences and from alternative models of interpretation into learning results sought. Both insist on public processes of validation. (Bradford et al., 1964, p. 35)

The laboratory method as applied in an organization laboratory is an innovative instrument for forming and steering larger social organizations—an instrument which is intended to realize the connection between learning and doing, focusing on learning-as-practice. Certain theoretical concepts of organization and development play an important role in analyzing the underlying organizational dynamics.

As already suggested, "system theory" also plays an important part in the designing of laboratory learning. It is through analyzing the encounters, conflicts, and confusions between systems at many levels of human organization that motivation to learn about human behavior and, hopefully, actual learning, in a context of use and application, are accomplished. (Bradford et al., p. 31)

Drawing on the American laboratory concept, the OLab is a learning setting whose goals are directed toward social learning within a framework of organizational dynamics.

The OLab provides a learning arrangement in which organizations both are established and can reflect on their processes. It has less to do with dynamics within clear sub-groups, and also not primarily with so-called large group processes, but rather with dynamics between groups, with the creation of cooperation on a scale larger than the single group and the possibilities or difficulties of steering larger social associations. (Krainz 2006, p. 28, translated by the authors; see also Krainz, 2005)

There are some learning goals: First the experience and understanding of organizational dynamics as a special form of social dynamics; second, social competence in dealing with steering organizational dynamics is further developed; and third, understanding of the difficulties of the "process of organizing" (e.g., decision making with collective effects) is deepened. As described by E. Krainz (2006) the content as well as the process of the OLab include dealing with hierarchies and the inevitability of the emergence of hierarchical structures, the desire to follow one's own individual needs (and their frustrations) and the wish to be integrated, to participate in creating and determining something larger (and their frustrations), the analysis of the role of power in general, and the search for influencing decisions in the parts of the organization which are formed in the laboratory in particular. The focus is on problems of collective decision making, representation and delegation, on communication and control and the resulting collective and partially collective atmospheres which are created by the organization's culture and subcultures.

Under normal conditions it is not easy to approach these emotional streams; in the OLab using self-designed methods and instruments, it is possible to follow up the changing relationship between social structures which develop and emerge unnoticed and consciously applied organizational actions, above all, however, the system decisions, that is, those metadecisions, which affect the decision-making mode.

 
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