Circular Org Design for Human Learning Systems

Recently I attended a presentation and discussion on Human Learning Systems, which could provide a compelling alternative to the New Public Management paradigm which most governmental organisations use to underpin their structure and practices. Many practitioners have had a sense for a while now that strategy, outcomes, and measures developed by a small number of leaders at the top of a hierarchy, and then cascaded down to be managed by leaders at various levels, is struggling as a way of working to create positive impact, change, and adaptation at the scale necessary to address the pressing challenges of our time and constantly adapt to the increasingly VUCA, rapidly changing environment.

One strategy that is commonly being employed is to create “change labs” or “innovation teams” whose job it is to test new more impactful approaches and scale them if they can be proven to work better. But this can run the risk of outsourcing(or “insourcing”) change and innovation to a particular function. I love UNDP Accelerator Lab’s article on “Engaging the Mothership” which proposes some solutions and models to address this:

At a time when many would claim that we reached “peak labs”, UNDP is launching 60 Accelerator Labs across the world. How do we build on lessons from other organisations and our own innovation journey to prevent the new labs from becoming (yet another) island, separated from the core business at UNDP? In this post, we share our current thinking, based on the hypotheses that the best way for labs to accelerate impact is not to create new projects at the edge, but to engage with what is already in place (the existing project portfolio) and provide a new frame to understand patterns and relevance gaps. This takes us into the territory of portfolio sensemaking and portfolio design, and creating new mindsets and models to think with, rather than methods and innovation pilots

He goes on to describe a strategic design and innovation practice, intended to operate at a whole of organisation scale, where strategic designers’ job is to learn from experiments conducted in different parts of the organisation (all parts of the organisation innovating when and where appropriate to increase the value they provide) to iterate strategy and facilitate “Double loop learning” to facilitate transformational, paradigm shifting change.

In a recent conversation with Colin Bass of Business Lab about change for local government organisations, what materialised was a vision for some of the system changes required for local government organisations to become human learning systems.

I’ll focus on “power dynamics” as a starting point for the systems change required to shift our local government systems towards human learning systems.

From a heirarchy setting and managing strategy to connective agents facilitating experimental learning and strategic cohesion

Traditionally local government organisations have been optimised to develop, implement and manage a strategy decided by senior leaders. A shift towards human learning systems would require a different power dynamic

In a circular Human Learning System design, place based and specialist units (the small circles) could be facilitated by central connective agents(the central circle), whose role would be to facilitate and build capacity in reflective human learning in teams, and facilitate cohesion between the parts, to increase collaboration, shared learning from experimentation, etc.

Central connective agents could also facilitate the laddering up(inductive) and laddering down(deductive) of strategic intent and learnings throughout the system as in Niho Taniwha(a strategic reflection, learning, and design toolset)

Myriad other system changes across the six conditions would undoubtably be required, but this seems like a useful starting point for systems change towards human learning systems.

Generative Strategic Learning Questions:

  1. There will always be some managing and maintenance required, even for a learning organisation. How might we balance this with the strategic learning and development functions implied in HLS (Human Learning Systems)?
  2. What is a reasonable timescale and how might we create a pace of change that takes into account the speed of human development required for a change in power dynamics? (the heartsets change)
  3. Currently accountability of public servants to the public they serve, who finance the work they do through rates, taxes, etc, is managed by proxy, by a heirarchy of managers. How might accountability be managed more relationally between public servants and the communities they serve? (more collaborative co-production relationships between citizens and government, like the participatory city approach might provide part of the answer; could citizens and public servants, working in collaboration and relation, hold each other accountable?)

What do you think? How might this look in your organisation? What excites you? What terrifies you? I look forward to your comments :)

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