Group-Learning: The Relationship Between the Individual and the Group

Our research and experience show that the group is the first "escape" for the individual, as groups provide safety, connectedness, face-to-face communication and trust building. But when it comes to making a difference in the whole organization, the group is of limited value. The group

Learning levels of the organization laboratory

Figure 4.2. Learning levels of the organization laboratory.

offers very specific learning opportunities: If the group functions even halfway well and a friendly climate of trust is established, then metacommunication can surface and the group can make itself the object of reflection and steering. This requires that the membership of the group is clear and the group experiences strategies for mastering problems. Typical group issues then can become learning themes: building trust, group leadership, external presentation of the group, building coalitions, forming subgroups, integration versus personal freedom, group pressure, social control, for example. The members of the group are responsible for making these themes relevant for their learning, that is, widely varied themes will be dealt with, depending on what the group considers to be important. Experiences in the OLab show that in this context groups react with widely differing degrees of professionalism: There are groups, for example, which are extremely disciplined in managing their time and work—it is important to them to deal with themselves. We also observe, however regularly that some groups are lacking self-discipline: Groups are "not available," "scattered" or even falling apart which often is a symptom of lack of steering. When one studies these difficulties more precisely, group problems such as unsettled questions of power or unresolved conflicts are revealed.

Role-Learning: The Relationship Between the Individual and the Organization

Unavoidably, some participants will deliberately leave their home groups to collaborate with other groups and with "management groups" to target collective decisions. The main learning here is that there is a basic difference between the social systems of a group and an organization. The participants learn about delegates and roles "between" different parts of the organization—the "dilemma of delegation": How can we master the ambiguous role of being a representative of one group (e.g., a working group) while we are at the same time a member of another (board, committee, etc.). Additionally, the importance of formal and informal roles and processes and how they relate to each other is experienced, since both are important means of creating impact. The laboratory method also intensifies the dilemma of delegation because roles must often be changed very quickly. For many participants it is evidently difficult to become aware of and act out the demands of the various roles and the expected behaviors related to them. Various inclinations can be observed here: Few participants have difficulty with the role of the delegate, but there are always some who seem to have absolutely no difficulty with the idea of breaking ties with their dispatching group and adjusting to cooperation with others. Most are, at least at the beginning, irritated and disoriented because they are emotionally attached to their group and therefore often act forcefully in its interests without noticing that the dominance of a single group can paralyze an entire organization (for a comprehensive description of the specific potential for conflict, see Krainz, 2005).

Organizational Learning: The Relationship Between Groups and the Rest of the Organization

On this level learning is at its most complex level because making collective decisions is a great challenge for individuals and groups. When delegates collaborate, they are also affecting a group process, so the group dynamics interfere with the organizational dynamics. The main learning happens around developing structures and the role of hierarchy: What is the function of hierarchy? What are the problems related to this organizational element and how we can cope with effects created through hierarchy? We repeatedly see, that groups which have a steering role try to establish other modes than delegating the decision power to one group and installing a hierarchy. While experimenting with other types of steering like network-organizations or forms of representative steering, very soon the complexity of the required information-flow, involvement and engagement surfaces. When other leadership-models than hierarchies are established, those in leadership positions are very much challenged.

Besides the decision making other issues are of importance: How can we work across organizational boundaries (vertically and laterally)? Why is it necessary for organizations to go beyond groupthink and partial interests, and how can the decisive element of "responsibility for the whole" be implemented?

Above all, it is also important for comprehensive control that a form of communication develops which is capable of bringing inherent potential for conflict to the fore and developing strategies for its resolution. This can work when the second order group (delegate group) has developed so well that it can value the meaning of the organizational dynamics more highly than the meaning of the individual group's interests. In other words, the empowerment of the delegate group must be accepted in the group to an extent that at least its fundamental conditions of existence are not questioned. Not until that point it can be assured that the decisions of the entire organization can have sufficient effect. Experiences show that this process of empowerment does not always succeed; frequently the seminar ends before the second order group succeeds in translating its decision making power to the entire organization. Evidently the pull of the original group is so strong that insights into the organization's imperatives are subordinated to it. However, whether "successful" or not, the insight and analysis of this problem advances the organizational competence; in the best case it is also possible to test this in the laboratory.

These three learning dimensions individually and in relation to each other can be activated in an OLab which is open to the processes and not predetermined into a special direction. Through this the OLab setting provides learning opportunities which extend simulation methods or role play. The methods and the special research and training concepts of the laboratory are not new; but what is new are the real problems in our society which are connected to increasing organizational change and the need to steer and to organize that change. In this respect the OLab is an appropriate learning setting because it consequently focuses organizational change and development as explicit objects of learning.

In the future we see the OLab not only as a learning hub for process oriented management skills reaching beyond traditional management education but also as a setting for experimenting with cross- and transcultural attempts to organize. As more and more organizations are confronted with these issues, dealing with authority, communication and collaboration will require advanced skills and mindsets for managers, and those who are acting in extended leadership functions.

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