By Matthew Rich
Recently a client of mine asked me to create a Top 10 list of recommended books to read on the topic of creating a more effective culture of learning in their organisation. Obviously this is a very juicy topic that could be approached from a large number of different perspectives, but – working from this limited brief – I put together a list which I think represents a solid starting point.
I chose to create a top 12 rather than a top 10 list, and in certain instances have included a few alternative titles that cover some similar material. I have also included a short list of books that did not make the list (often because they are only peripherally relevant to the topic), but which I think warrant a “Special Mention” as they might serve to deepen understanding or support meaningful connections to related subjects. The books are presented in alphabetical order by name of author.
Buck, J. & Villines, S. (2007) We the people: Consenting to a deeper democracy
Buck & Villines’s book introduced the consent based decision-making process known as ‘sociocracy’ or ‘dynamic self-governance’ to the English speaking world. It is an extremely well put together book, both highly practical and comprehensive in scope with many additional examples, templates, and translations included as appendices. Those of you who are slightly more ambitious and wanting to go back to the source could do no better than to get their hands on a translation of Gerard Endenburg’s original text Sociocratie: De organisatie van besluitvorming (available in English as Sociocracy: The organisation of decision-making) or his classic lectureKennis, macht, en overmuch (which is unfortunately not available in English). The primary reason that I have chosen to include a book about a formal decision-making methodology in this list on learning culture is because of the way in which it articulates a fundamental decision-making principle, namely: the principle of dynamic steering. This fundamental principle, which can be articulated in dialectical as well as cybernetic terms, is not only fundamental to adaptive leadership and agile decision-making, but is also at the heart of the virtuous cycles of integral learning that drive a learning culture forward.
Eisler, R. (2002) The power of partnership: Seven relationships that will change your life
For almost half a century leading human rights lawyer turned cultural historian, Riane Eisler, has been a powerful advocate for societal transformation through arguing in favour of move from a global system based on domination to one based on partnership. The power of partnership
is likely Eisler’s most practical and accessible book and serves as a sort of personal handbook for transforming our own worldview. Those who are interested in getting a more in depth perspective should consult Eisler’s 1987 classic The chalice and the blade
or her most recent (and in my opinion her best) book The real wealth of nations
(2007). I believe that becoming conversant with the sort of paradigm shift that Eisler describes is essential if we want to move from the prevalent approach to organisational culture based on domination to one which better facilitates learning and collaboration. You can see Ms. Eisler speaking at TEDx Santa Cruz here (https://youtu.be/f9cMcTWWDkU
Once your reading takes you into this territory it seems likely that you will want to deepen your understanding on the centrally important topic of privilege. There are a couple of classics here which I think are indispensable, notably: Franz Fanon’s The wretched of the earth and Carol Gilligan’s In a different voice. More recent books which I found particularly useful on the subject include: Antjie Krog’s Begging to be black, Eusebius McKaiser’s Run, racist, run, and Joan Williams’ Unbending gender.
Freire, P. (1970) The pedagogy of the oppressed
Freire’s scathing critique of what he called the “banking model of education” the prevalent and inherently anti-dialogical approach to learning which leads inexorable to disconnection and oppression, along with his proposed solution – transformative dialogical action for social reconstruction – has become a classic for educators that want to make a real difference in the last half a century. It is generally read as a book of educational theory, but I think it is highly applicable in the context of organisational change. Much like some of the other books mentioned on this list, the genius of Freire’s approach lies in the way in which he is able to condense immense complexity into a relatively simple principle: in this case the dialectical principle of dialogical action – the transformative change that emerges from the dialectical tension between action and reflection. This proposal necessarily recasts the ‘educator’ as a problem poser. I can imagine no better text for understanding the essential shift that needs to take place in the way we understand the teacher-learner dynamic in order to support a culture of learning.
Isaacs, W. (1999) Dialogue: The art of thinking together
Bill Isaacs book builds on lineage of great works about the transformative power of dialogue. For those of you who wish to go back to the source I would recommend David Bohm’s On dialogue
or Martin Buber’s I and Thou
. Isaacs text presents a simple four part model for practicing dialogue as a transformative collaborative practice. I would consider this model (not altogether dissimilar to Rosenberg’s NVC Model presented in Nonviolent communication: A language of life
) to be quite foundational to creating a culture of learning. Additional resources can be found at the site of Isaacs consultancy, Dialogos (http://dialogos.com/tools-and-resources/overview/
). There are a number of alternative models which are also very worth considering when seeking the best way to frame understanding in your organisations. One which I would particularly recommend is the thinking councils model proposed by Nancy Kline in Time to think: Listening to ignite the human mind
. One other development coming out of Isaacs work which I think is particularly exciting is the way it is being brought into relationship with David Kantor’s structural dynamics (see Kantor’s Reading the room
). You can read more about this intersection here (http://leopoldleadership.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/systhink.pdf
Jackson, M. (2003) Systems thinking: Creative holism for managers
One key topic which is essential to building a more robust understanding of organisational learning is the topic of systems thinking or complexity. I have included The fifth discipline,
another text which covers this topic from a very different perspective later in the list. Prof, Michael Jackson, OBE (not the one with the glove) is erstwhile Dean of the Business School at Hull University. I consider this text to be the best over-all introduction to systems science for a business audience. It strikes an optimal balance between accessibility and comprehensiveness, and offers a highly relevant – almost encyclopaedic – overview of the topic. If you are a cheap-skate (o live in a country whose currency doesn’t fare favourable against the almighty $) you can find a free pdf of the book here (http://webcourses.ir/dl/Systems%20Thinking.pdf
). If you are looking for a quicker, more accessible, but no less impressive introduction I would recommend Donella Meadows’ classic Thinking in systems.
On a similar note I would highly recommend a number of articles from the Donella Meadows archive such as the classic Dancing with systems
Kaner, S. (2014) The facilitator’s guide to participatory decision-making, 3rd edition
This is probably the single book that I recommend most frequently to clients who are wanting to serve as ‘intrapreneurs’ focused on creating positive and meaningful change in the way in which collaborative decisions are taken. Not only is this book eminently user-friendly, but I believe that Kaner does an outstanding job of distilling the immense complexity of leadership decision-making into a coordinating set of principles. Kaner explores the complexities of perspective-taking, perspective-seeking, and perspective-coordination through examine the divergent and convergent sides of the decision-making process. Most usefully he also exposes the common difficulty in bridging these two sides of the process, by naming what he terms ’the Groan Zone’. In my opinion this handbook should be required reading for any leader longing to facilitate better group decision-making. An excellent lecture of Kaner’s from UC Berkeley can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/32178909