Source:Learning Got “Cancelled”: The Cancel Culture Arrives at The Learning Organization | by Michael Lissack | Aug, 2020 | Medium
Aug 17 · 27 min read
What the media and its critics often fail to note about the “cancel culture” is its deep roots in some of the most hollowed out parts of our so-called meritocracy. We have millions of teachers teaching students about content they know little about, because they were busy studying “how to be a teacher” instead. We have hundred of thousands of management consultants and their ilk who claim a mystical expertise in “process” can replace a deep understanding of the industry and subject matters they “consult” about. We have tens of thousand of journalists, who, like the teachers, studied “journalism” and use that as a pretext to write about subjects they barely understand and yet claim a “moral imperative” to pass that amateur knowledge off to an unsuspecting public as “knowledge”, “news” and “expert opinion.” The meritocracy has become a “mirror-tocracy.” If you act like, look like, sound like, or spout off “truthies” like these so called “experts,” you are “approved.” If you dare to disagree? Last century, disagreement with members of the “professions” above would have led to dialogue — and learning. In the third decade of this century: disagree and risk being cancelled.
I and my work were cancelled this week by none other than the academic journal which claims to speak for, of all things, “The Learning Organization.”
I had been invited to write the article in question. It was peer-reviewed and edited twice. It was accepted and ready for publication.
But, I dared to be critical. So I was cancelled. The editor included these helpful lines from a second set of reviewers he sent the article to to kill it off:
The way LO is portrayed is my main concern. The way the article is written also suggests that LO simply promotes reductionism and simplification, and that the current LO literature denies or dissuades reflection, agency, context and the possibility of emergence. The main reason for rejecting your manuscript is the lack of clear and relevant connections to the field of the learning organization.
The Learning Organization and the concept for which it claims to speak would rather cancel criticism than engage in dialogue. Agreement and praise are not the foundation for learning. But they are the mirror on which the consultants who preach about learning organizations depend. As noted in my opening paragraph, these “professionals” tell organizations how to be more open to “learning” as if naked process alone was sufficient. It has fostered a huge industry. But, unless the learning is about what matters to the organizations’ purposes, goals, and business, it is a giant waste. There I said it again. Medium, however, will not cancel me.
I present the Learning Organization intended article below and, unlike they, welcome your feedback.
Not learning but reflecting and dialoguing: updating the concept of a learning organization through cybernetics
In a learning organization it is believed that a culture of learning can overcome the traditional thought that reductionism is “good,” and complexity is “bad.” Yet the very concept of a learning organization treats what is learned as a stock of knowledge, a resource to be exploited. The learned thereby gets reduced to another “simple” object. This article suggests an alternative. There is an inherent power in each manager’s role as a sense-maker, helping participants etc. to discern coherence. Shifting from a stress on an ascribed coherence (measured by adhesion to labels and categories) to a culture which promotes emergent coherence (determined by contextualization and open to change) can offer new tools and perspectives to organizations facing complexity, uncertainty, and change.
What happens to the concept of a learning organization when its focus is shifted from the current emphasis on processes to a new focus on what it is that is worth learning?
I suggest that learning which contributes to self-reflection of choices made and shortcuts, or representation used is worthwhile … and that the pursuit of learning processes which fail to so contribute is not. Coherence is the goal. Learning is one of many potential means.
Helping managers to determine what is behind the shortcuts they make with regard to their assigned responsibilities and their many contexts becomes the reflective and dialoging tasks which can both redefine what a learning organization “ought” to be and promote resilience therein.
Key Words: Learning, Cybernetics, Ashby Space, Context, Coherence, Reflection
Introduction — The Critical Role of Ceteris Paribus in Modern Management
Modern management’s successes and failures can be traced to a common root: how well does ceteris paribus hold, thereby allowing the simplifications, chunking, modularity, isolation, and other forms of reduction on which traditional management is based to flourish? The ability of a manager to reduce complicated problems to a set of well-defined tasks is the key to success. Doing so often means ignoring the manifold layers of inter-related systems of which a given organization, its participants, users, resources, and context are a part. The oft suggested solution to this ignorance is to create a learning organization — where a culture of learning can overcome the traditional thought that reductionism is “good,” and complexity is “bad.” Yet the very concept of a learning organization treats what is learned as a stock of knowledge, a resource to be exploited. The learned thereby gets reduced to another “simple” object. This article suggests an alternative. There is an inherent power in each manager’s role as a sense-maker, helping participants, etc. to discern coherence. Shifting from a stress on an ascribed coherence (measured by adhesion to labels and categories) to a culture that promotes emergent coherence (determined by contextualization and open to change) can offer new tools and perspectives to organizations facing complexity, uncertainty, and change.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted such contexts of complexity, uncertainty, and change and made it clear they are rather ubiquitous. The traditional lessons of modern management are coming up short. Their dependence on stability, their resistance to context dependence, and their structural inadequacies in confronting ambiguity and fluidity of meaning have all been exposed by their inability to “manage” the Covid-19 crisis.
Management has been ascendant in Western society for more than a century. Much of that success has been built on the ability of managers to effectively isolate their organization as much as possible from the vagaries and uncertainties inherent in their surrounding contexts. In the ongoing tension between efficiency and resilience, modern management has a strong preference for efficiency — individual tasks have defined goals and achieving those goals with minimal time and resources while maximizing quality is, by definition, measured in efficiency terms. Critically, not all environments nor contexts are stable. Covid-19 hasmade that instability rather obvious.
A mundane example is illustrative. Consider the role of an American football kicker. The task is easily defined — the ball is snapped to a holder; you are to kick the ball through the goalposts. Success and failure are easily measured — “did the kick succeed?”. The tasks are discrete — snap the ball, hold the ball, kick the ball. But, football, like life, is not quite that simple. There is the context — the opposing team’s goal to try to tackle the hold and the kicker. And the wider context — one’s team is either at home or away, and the game is either close (i.e., the points to be scored matter) or not. There are the internal pressures on each of the participants — perhaps there are health issues or family issues, or a lack of sleep, or severe indigestion. If the football team is to be a learning organization, it must deal with these wider considerations and not just focus on the task at hand — kicking the ball.
How businesses have adapted to the new “stay-at-home” rules arising from Covid-19 more broadly illustrates the problem. No longer is it sufficient to focus on churning out the best marketing copy a creative team might imagine. Instead, the tasks now include remote conferencing, secure document sharing, developing a sensitivity for local nes and contexts, and remote production. In a wider context they now include: working with children at home demanding attention, inability to find quiet time, multiple demands for attention, lack of proper workspaces, lack of access to needed materials and inability to segregate the professional from the personal. Traditional management, as a discipline, lacks the tools to deal with these ever-widening considerations.
While some may argue that being or becoming a learning organization can help address such issues, this article makes a different case: what is learned and “how” is much more important than “being” a learning organization.
Cybernetics offers a perspective on what needs to be learned and provides a “how.” Cybernetics is the study of feedback and its effects in purposive systems. “Cybernetic systems are complex, interacting, probabilistic networks such as brains, markets, living organisms, industries, battles.” (Beer, 1959) Cybernetics is a thinking and decision-making approach designed to deal with such observations as: (1) many of our interactions cannot be described with direct relationships, (2) our environments are neither fixed nor completely exogenous, (3) our actions and communications have multiple order effects, and further time-delayed effects, and (4) our goals regarding the very actions we pursue are often in flux. This sounds like Covid-19.
Cybernetics warns us that we live in a complex world where ambiguity is ever-present in our world despite our oft-exercised option to ignore it. We assert the simple in lieu of the complex, the direct in lieu of the nuanced or the subtle, the label or category in lieu of recognizing the portfolio of choices that label/category represents. By asserting the simple, we can isolate tasks and projects from contexts if we are willing to simultaneously isolate those same tasks and projects from “fit.” Our labels and categories, our self-imposed boundary constraints, are necessary if we are going to attempt to measure efficiency and efficacy and to manage so as to optimize either. But their use also functions as a set of blinders — closing the task, the project, the manager, the organization, and its artificially constrained environment off from the changes going on about it and them.
Boundaries are always shifting. Identities are unclear. As Heisenberg (1959) told us: “The world is not divided into different groups of objects but rather into different groups of relationships…. The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.”