Evaluating a program on “learning how to learn” is difficult using traditional quantitative criteria. Fritjof Capra, author of The Turning Point, offers these guidelines for measuring success in complex change processes: the results must be observable and they must be expressed in useful models.
By April 1994, we had already begun to see observable results from one of our organizational learning efforts at EDS, the Leading Learning Communities (LLC) program. The use of organizational learning concepts in a sales proposal, for example, helped EDS win an unprecedented information technology contract. But the biggest accomplishment was the successful turnaround of a weakened EDS/customer relationship.
Our customer, a healthcare provider, was facing mounting competitive pressures to make changes in its strategy and operations. But over the long history of our working relationship, redundancies had slowly crept into work processes, and the “partnership” had deteriorated into internal power struggles. When the customer began considering other information technology providers, we knew we needed to make some dramatic changes in our management practices to renew their faith.
Leadership at EDS-Transformational Approach
After some discussion, the customer agreed to allow an LLC participant to assist in the implementation of a re-engineering effort they were undergoing. In addition, 50 top managers from both companies began a four-month joint training program to learn organizational learning concepts and tools. The result: instead of losing a multimillion dollar contract, EDS almost doubled it by developing a stronger relationship built on trust and mutual learning.
An added benefit of this particular intervention is that the EDS/customer management team learned skills in systemic thinking, communication, and reflection that will support the customer’s strategies and values in the future. This is just one example of the broad strategic impact we believe our work in organizational learning will have throughout EDS.
How We Got Started
The LLC program is one of three distinct efforts to transform leadership at EDS (see “Transformational Learning: A Blueprint for Organizational Change” by Fred Kofman, November 1994). The seeds for these programs were first planted in 1992, when EDS embarked on an extensive strategic planning effort designed by Greig Trosper, director of EDS Corporate Strategy, in collaboration with Gary Hamel of the London Business School.
During this year-long process, thousands of employees, customers, and external advisors were asked to think and talk together about potential business opportunities in the information industry. The strategic intent and stretch goals that emerged from this process helped us to prioritize our corporate activities for 1994, 1995, and beyond.
In addition, participants determined the competencies required for us to remain competitive and differentiated in the marketplace. Central to these competencies was learning — as individuals, teams, and organizations. In order for EDS to achieve its goal of being the company that defines the information industry, we needed to generate previously unforeseen possibilities and generalize them across every boundary imaginable — cultural, hierarchical, industry-specific, and generational. In essence, we had to shed our outdated mental models that were producing inefficiency and suffering, and learn how to constantly reinterpret who we are and how we operate.
A Focus on Organizational Learning
While the strategic planning effort was underway, organizational learning became a natural attraction for another part of the company, Leadership Development. A small EDS executive team went to the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT for a 5-day competency course taught by Fred Kofman and Peter Senge. This course was followed by a number of 3-day awareness-raising sessions at EDS. As the energy from these two activities — strategic planning and leadership development — coalesced, a comprehensive strategy emerged for transforming the mindset, behaviors, and structures reinforcing leadership at EDS. Organizational learning and leadership were deemed to be two capabilities critical to EDS’s future success.
Through extensive consultation within and outside EDS, our director of Leadership Development, Marsha Clark, developed a plan to transform leadership at EDS. The development process was guided by a strong foundation of shared beliefs about human nature and learning (see “Our Beliefs About Organizational Change”), while the program itself was designed in three interdependent tiers (see “Leadership at EDS — Transformational Approach”).
First, Marsha realized that sponsorship of the transformation process was a factor that could make or break the effort. Without the mental, physical, and emotional support of EDS leaders in both formal and informal positions of power, the plan would ultimately fail. So leaders were engaged in one of three programs: Leading Learning Communities, Transformation Agents, or Action Learning Teams.
Transformation Agents, for example, was a 9-month program involving EDS’s senior executive team. This experience used works from disciplines uncommon in business — philosophy, the arts, and music — to rethink old management practices, deepen each executive’s understanding of personal leadership, and strengthen his or her ability to operate as a member of an executive team.
Next Marsha realized that our systems and processes for reinforcing leaders had to be redefined. In the Action Learning Team program, for example, over 50 EDS leaders and external advisors were involved over a 12-month period to create new approaches for selecting, deselecting, acclimating, developing, compensating, and continuously improving leaders at all levels within EDS. These new approaches are currently being deployed in the corporation.
Lastly, we required a new language of transformation that would enable us to change in ways that were formerly impossible on a collective scale. We knew that our old language and approaches would only give us old results. Therefore, Leading Learning Communities aimed at producing a critical mass of business leaders with new skills for continually reframing the thinking underlying their actions (see “Leading Learning Communities Program”). It was hoped that these leaders would guide the transformation occurring in EDS by their deeper understanding of systemic change.
Why We Believe This Is Working So Far . . .
Our approach has been very time- and resource-intensive, and could not have been undertaken lightly. Although we realize learning is a never-ending process, and that our approach will evolve as we proceed, we believe we are on a productive path for several reasons:
- Our corporate planning and leadership development efforts provided the point of entry for this work. Consequently, the learning process has become a core focus of inquiry in our executive and midlevel leadership teams around the world, and has been elevated to a level of vital importance in our corporation’s priorities.
- We have been very strategic with our use of external advisors in the transformation process. Our relationship with them is based on mutual admiration and learning — we consider them partners, not “experts.” We ask them to collaborate not only with us but with one another, so their efforts work in synergy rather than pulling the corporation in contradictory directions. Our goal is to use these partners to catalyze fresh thinking and to develop our internal capacity to facilitate this type of change process among ourselves and our customers.
- While we are well-versed in sharing “what we know we know” at EDS, we are also open to exploring our shortcomings. It is often said that we are good at patting ourselves on the back and beating ourselves up at the same time. While this might seem contradictory, it provides a critical balance that continually inspires us to be better.
- Historically, EDS’s culture has been one of action, action, action! As a result of our organizational learning efforts, however, we are becoming increasingly more sophisticated in the art of reflection as we learn how to embed “reflective spaces” within the structures that support our organizational activities. We think that combining both modes — action and reflection — is an unbeatable combination for learning.
- Our organizational learning efforts were launched and continue to be supported collaboratively among our business and support unit functions, instead of emerging solely from one unit. Organizational learning has provided the glue for linking individual unit aspirations and organizational goals by providing coherence and rein-forcing our ability to work effectively together.
While these characteristics have enabled our approach at EDS, we recognize that other organizations must deploy approaches that are suitable to their own unique cultures, forms, and business situations.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Now that the initial work is complete, we are in a new phase of our organizational learning efforts, full of new insights and challenges. Our current work is centered around four activities: internal facilitation capacity, leadership development, experimentation, and learning infrastructure.
Internal Facilitation Capacity. We are currently wrestling with the dilemma of maintaining the quality and integrity of our programs while meeting increased demand for this type of work throughout the organization. To help spread the work, we are currently orchestrating a program aimed at teaching the graduates of the first LLC program how to coach others in the transformation process. Based on what we learn from this, we will officially launch a Coaching Development program for all future LLC graduates. In addition, our LLC programs are now being facilitated in part by an EDS coaching team.
Leadership Development. To continue building the skills of our leadership teams, we are augmenting the Transformation Agent program with organizational learning concepts so our executive team members can coach others in the transformational learning paradigm. Furthermore, we are presently sponsoring 50 EDS business leaders in another LLC program and designing two additional ones. We are also integrating organizational learning practices into development programs designed for those who interface with EDS customers, such as account leaders, consultants, and salespeople.
Experimentation. We are currently sponsoring a pilot project between EDS and a key customer to determine if this work is an appropriate platform for enhancing customer partnerships. We are also integrating organizational learning practices into our efforts to capitalize on global diversity. This work involves actively planning additional organizational learning projects specific to our business issues in Europe, where we are experiencing rapid business growth. Our first step in Europe will be to understand the implications of using a transformational learning approach with multiple cultures and languages at the same time.
Learning Infrastructure. We are also developing and implementing “knowledge-net,” an electronic information link among MIT’s Organizational Learning Center consortium companies, so that this extended community can share lessons learned and expand each other’s’ thinking. We feel that the support of other managers who are struggling with the same issues is a critical part of our development.
Feedback from participants of our current programs has indicated the depth of impact our beliefs about transformational change has had on people. For example, one participant of the LLC program stated at the end of the program: “Not only do I thank you for the changes I’ve experienced, but my children thank you.”
One person entered in his journal during the first day of the program: “1 can see things differently now. I can see them from many different viewpoints. It doesn’t bother me that there is not just one right way. I also realize that to deal with complexity in business, my own judgment and understanding is not enough. I can see there is a yearning for me to…let go of past frameworks that were inflexible and unidimensional.” He felt that the program provided him with a new frame of reference — a new lens through which to look at life.
Another LLC program participant entered in his journal: ‘I’ve begun to chip away at my defensive posture…. I will work at being more honest in my interactions with others, more direct. More willing to risk negative reactions in order to further understanding. I’ll look to others to help me acknowledge my blind spots. I will treat others with more respect and more acceptance of their individuality.”
The lessons we have learned from the LLC program are helping us create models and strategies for effectively facilitating this type of deep learning on a wider scale, both internally and in our customer environments. But perhaps more importantly, we have the strong sense that the momentum for change is growing rapidly at EDS because we are touching the hearts and minds of our employees.
Renee Moorefield and Marcia’ Losada, PhD are part of a team working to fadlltate the LLC programs within EDS and its customer environments. In addition, they help to design and implement EDS’s strategic direction for organizational learning, as well as explore opportunities for doing this type of work on a mufti-cultural level—Martial In South America and Renee In Europe.
Editorial support for this article was provided by Kellie T. Wardman.
Leading Learning Communities Program
Homework assignments consisted of self-directed activities (keeping journals, reading and reflecting, and analyzing how well we and others are putting the new theories into practice), business application projects, and specific dialogues among 4-person learning teams and our appointed coaches. The dialogues addressed issues such as how to translate new insights from chaos theory into fresh approaches for managing large-scale change.
The program was conducted by Fred Kalman, assisted by three coaches: two who provided feedback on home-work assignments and helped with the activities during the conferences, and one who conducted some activities and offered feedback on the program’s over-all progress. As a microcosm of the participant community, the facilitation team actively modeled the tools they were teaching. The EDS administration and facilitation teams were tightly linked to make the orchestration of LLC transparent so that participants could totally devote themselves to learning. A technographer was provided to take notes of all the activities, and participants received the notes shortly after the conferences and clinics ended so that they could reflect upon their learning and share their knowledge with others.
EDS sponsored 36 participants in the first LLC program, all of whom were selected based on their willingness to learn, ability to influence their organizations, and current or future leadership potential. A range of organizational positions were represented — from individual performers to Strategic Unit (SU) leaders. Most came from middle management ranks. Participants were sponsored by their SU leaders — known in the program as “champions.” Champions paid for the program, supported participants’ efforts to learn, and met periodically to discuss interim progress and proem improvements. In addition, the participants’ families and “significant others” were invited to one workshop designed to learn about the tools and concepts the participants were using.