Key factors that create living human system learning and change


In the last twenty years a new understanding of organizations has been developed, understanding them as living human systems of enterprise and creativity. It offers as an alternative to the dominant view of organizations as large and complicated machines of production. Methodologies based on this understanding, for instance Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, World Café and SimuReal, allow the whole of the organizational domain to be approached from the living human system perspective. They allow us to address all organizational challenges from recruitment to redundancy within the same living human system frame. Four key factors underpin this approach.


1. The importance of learning for behaviour change

Learning means that something shifts in our understanding of the world; and understanding the world differently allows us to engage with it differently. These methodologies all effectively enable the system, i.e. the people who make up the organization, to learn about itself. They facilitate increased understanding of how the organizational system behaves, what it believes, what it thinks, and its assumptions about both itself and the outside world. They facilitate greater understanding of how things connect, and of how the organization collectively understands forthcoming change. They facilitate identification and connection of the many different beliefs within the organization about what the changes mean. These shifts in the mental maps of the world held by those that make up the organizational system contribute to the organizational system’s mental model of its environment, which in turn influence ideas about how to engage with it effectively.


2. The importance of participation for system behaviour change

Participative Management was a core component of organizational development in the 1960s. These methodologies build on this awareness of the importance of active participation. The key difference with this new thinking is that such participation is extended beyond the management cadre to the whole organizational membership.


3. The importance of dialogue to behaviour change

Dialogic approaches to organizational change emerged in the 1990s, most notable Appreciative Inquiry, as coherent, yet different, approaches to organizational development. The key distinguishing feature of these approaches is the recognition that reality is social constructed. From this perspective reality can be understood as a socially negotiated phenomena, meaning that organizations are meaning-making systems.


The emergence of these dialogic approaches was accompanied by the development of complexity theories of organization. These suggested that psychologists could come to understand the complexity of organisations in the same way that natural scientists grasp complex natural systems. From this perspective organizations are seen as dynamic non-linear systems, the outcome of whose actions is unpredictable, but, like turbulence in gases and liquids, is governed by a set of simple order-generating rules. That is to say, they are complex but not chaotic.


4. The emergence of co-creative methodologies

These dialogic approaches are also known as co-creative approaches to change. They are a separate and distinctive collection of approaches, not to be confused with some other communication methodologies such as town hall meetings, or even Work-Out sessions. While these processes might look similar, in that they gather a large number of people together in a room, they are fundamentally different in process and reflect different sets of underlying beliefs about organizations and change. These co-creative or transformational collaborative approaches have some distinctive features, as discussed in a previous post.


Approaching organizations from these understandings, models and perspectives allows us to access organisational structure, and to create organisational change, through accessible phenomena such as conversation, rather than trying to grapple with intangible phenomena such as culture, yet to the same end of achieving change in ways of being and behaving.


Other Resources

More on this, and details of how to practice Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, World Café and SimuReal can all be found in Sarah’s latest book Positive Psychology and Change

For more on creating positive organisational change visit our knowledge warehouse

For case studies on positive psychology at work visit our case studies collection

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See more, Appreciative Inquiry, Change and Though Provoking articles in the Knowledge Warehouse.



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