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Organizations as Communities: Invoking the Human Spirit

Saybrook University | Tuesday November 29th, 2011 | 0 Comments

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

By Alexander Laszlo, Ph.D., and Kathia C. Laszlo, Ph.D.

It’s Monday and you wake up without an alarm clock, looking forward to your day at the office—you love what you do and you love the people with whom you work. You are a member of a community: trust, mutual support, open communication, and friendships sustain your whole self as much as the income you receive from your job.

Just a dream?

It might seem that way, but it’s not. In fact, this idyllic scenario isn’t quite as out of reach as you might think. Russell Ackoff observed that “the principal obstructions to corporate development are usually self-imposed.”

As more people come to value right livelihood and community, a new kind of organizational culture is fast emerging.

Think of the small entrepreneurial software company that rents an office with an eye to livability as well as workability. Inside, it has work, play, and learning areas for business meetings, workout sessions, and creative arts seminars. Outside, it is near a favorite coffee shop and Wi-Fi accessible green areas. The people who work here are equally focused on making both a life and a living.

That’s fine for a startup, you might say, but major corporations require a more hierarchical structure to function efficiently and maintain a competitive edge. But what are these corporations giving up? What is the economic value of attracting and retaining talent? How much does it cost to keep a work team healthy and motivated? What is the impact on the bottom line of people’s ability to create and innovate? These questions relate to human and social capital; they are indicators of a larger movement to redefine the meaning of business success.

According to Dee Hock, founder and CEO emeritus of VISA International, a corporation is—at its most basic level—a community. We define community as a group of people with a shared identity, a common purpose, and a commitment to the joint creation of meaning. True community cannot be created top-down—a true community self-organizes by the cultivation of relationships and by a coming together around issues that matter to everyone involved. This is especially true for “knowledge workers” whose source of value is their ability to learn, create, and collaborate. Community provides a context for individual inspiration through collective aspiration and underpins high-performance teams.

Making or transforming a corporation into a community is not revolutionary but evolutionary—a process that ushers in the emergence of a new form of social organization that seeks efficiency and productivity through human wholeness. There is a lot that can be done to assist in this evolutionary transformation. Here are some ideas:

Listen for readiness

Plenty of indicators show how unsustainable it is to continue depleting the human spirit in organizations. What are the signs you see in people who yearn for community? Where are the fertile conditions for the seed of community to sprout and bear fruit?

Find common ground

There are many things that pull people apart, but what are the issues and concerns that can pull you together? What do you all care about?

Learn the art of facilitating learning and strategic conversations

We’re not talking about small talk, but big talk! What are the questions that need to be asked? Who are the voices that need to be heard? How should the community engage in conversations that build trust, promote learning, and enable positive action?

Make it fun

Reflecting on the importance of communities as stewards of change, Margaret Mead noted that “there must be humor, laughter, games and good food as well.” Work and learning don’t have to be all chores and bores, do they? How can you make them interesting?

Reconnect with nature

Nature is a community. There is so much we can learn from and with nature. Can you hold a meeting while walking through the park? Can you create a garden where you work? Can you schedule a hike? How could you celebrate the turning of the seasons?

Alexander Laszlo, Ph.D., and Kathia C. Laszlo, Ph.D., are the founders of Syntony Quest and are also faculty members of the organizational systems program at Saybrook University. Kathia C. Laszlo regularly contributes to Rethinking Complexity, a blog produced by students and faculty members of Saybrook’s organizational systems program. Read more of her work at: www.rethinkingcomplexity.com.


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