|Learning How to Learn: The Sonoma State University Masters in OD A Model for Learning and Organization Development By Jessica Rothman Connolly|
The Sonoma State University Masters Program in Organization Development is a two-year cohort model incorporating theory, extensive practice, and intensive personal development to train process consultants. The purpose of this study was to identify the effective characteristics and frameworks of the teaching methods and learning used in the Program and how they could be applied in organization development work. The qualitative study consisted of interviews with many of the current and former faculty, the program director, and 16 graduates of the program including the author. The conclusion included three over-arching themes: 1) Nurturing relationships are the foundation for learning, 2) Modeling is important for personal growth, and 3) Learning how to learn is an essential skill for creating effective, long-lasting change.
I could not have imagined, on that happy day in March 2000, the day I was accepted into the Masters Program in Organization Development (OD) at Sonoma State University (SSU), that in little more than a year my entire life would be turned upside down. In July of 2001, I had completed my first year of the two-year program. What I learned in those two short and very intense semesters bore no resemblance to what I had experienced in college before, nor to anything I anticipated from a Masters Program. I had found people with whom I belonged. I uncovered confidence, skills, and courage that had been sleeping for years. I had plunged head first into the experiential field project that so consumed my passion and focus that I quit my boring, stifling, well-paying job in order to embrace the project and the Program more fully. I could see that although this was not the case for every one of the 15 members of my cohort, I was certainly not alone. We were not just gaining knowledge and skills, we were learning through the experience itself. Let me be clear: It was no picnic. I worked hard, shed many tears, lost sleep, worried, faced self-doubt, helplessness, and hopelessness, and at times wondered why I had returned to school. I was getting to know myself and truly engaged in my work. Something powerful and transforming was happening, and I did not know exactly what or how. As I studied the profession of OD, I learned that we are not expert consultants who give clients advice and reports. Rather, we are process consultants, facilitators who help our clients uncover and leverage the untapped expertise, skills and wisdom already present in their organizations. I also learned that one our most effective tools is education. We want to help our clients learn how to apply the principles of continuous improvement themselves, to learn how to learn, and eventually work ourselves out of a job. I chose to research and write about the OD Program at SSU because my experience there was exactly the kind of transformative learning experience I wanted to be able to provide for my clients.
This paper is the summary of my qualitative research to discover what made my learning experience so powerful. The questions I sought answers for when beginning the project were these: From the perspective of both the students and the faculty at the SSU OD Program, what are the key areas of learning? And what are the essential methods used in teaching? From the answers to these questions, I hope to gain more perspective and understanding of my experience in order to make the best use of my learning, and to identify essential characteristics and frameworks for learning that could be applied in my future work in organization development. I want to make explicit the fact that, as I conduct this study, I am a student in this program who is having a positive learning experience. With that said, there are a few things this study is not. First, and foremost, it is not an evaluation of the Program. I will not specifically focus on what worked and what did not work for the students, although some aspects of this type of analysis may emerge. Nor will I compare the SSU OD Program to other similar academic programs in OD. I think these would both be interesting studies, but they are not the goal of the present study. Finally, my assumption was that what made my experience so powerful lay in the nature of the Program itself. But, like any learning experience, it was a partnership. My assumption is that my contributionsmaking room in my life, being willing and able to learn on many levels, and having a supportive husbandenhanced my success. For the purpose of this study, I will focus on the nature of the Program itself, and not attempt to look at who among the students I interviewed, was more or less successful. I begin by outlining my research methods. Then I will cover some theoretical landscape about teaching, adult learning, and learning in organizations. I will describe the structure of the Program to give a context for understanding the interview responses. Then I will present the results of the interviews. In the Analysis and Conclusion section, I summarize the answers to my questions about learning and teaching methods in the Program, and discuss how we might utilize these to help our future clients.
To research the teaching methods and learning, I used a combination of interviews with faculty and students, reflections about my own experience, and information about the structure of the Program from the Program website. I chose a phenomenological method of research to attempt to Learning How to Learn 3 understand empirical matters from the perspective of those being studied: the students, including myself, and the faculty. The SSU OD Program is complex and experiential in nature, with learning taking place on many levels. I wanted to gain a deeper yet practical understanding of the Program design, teaching methods, and intentions. I also wanted to know what students learned and how they perceived their learning experience.
I conducted interviews with current students, alumni, and current and former faculty. I consulted with both Saúl Eisen, SSU OD Program director and primary faculty member, and Joel Beak, primary faculty member, about appropriate alumni to interview. I wanted to focus on the more recent experiences, but still to gather a sense of the 15-year-old Program. I interviewed 15 current and former students in total, seven women, and seven men. I chose people who I thought had had rich experiences and would be able to articulate them. Some I knew well; others were strangers. I chose three people from my cohort (2002), three from 2001, three from 1999, and five others from various years between 1987, the first graduating class of the OD Program, and 1997. It is important to note that I, too, was one of the subjects of the study. I gathered data about my own experience from my journal, several papers I had written during the Program, and of course, my ongoing reflections as I conducted this research. I interviewed five members of the OD Program faculty. These included all current regular faculty except for Heather Smith, who has been teaching the recently added Qualitative Research class for two years. I also interviewed all past full-time faculty who had taught since the beginning of the Program. (See Appendix A for data on students and faculty who were interviewed.)
In the literature review, I explore how learning is a valuable tool of the trade in OD and how the SSU OD program has been influenced by the principles of the profession.
Learning in Organizations
Helping organizations learn how to learn is the central theme in The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. Senge defines a learning organization as one that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future (1994, p. 13). He explains that this kind of continuous learning requires systems thinking, because systems thinking integrates and fuses the other disciplines (team learning, mental models, building shared vision, and personal mastery) into a coherent body of theory and practice. It is not just about taking in information, but involves a fundamental shift in the mind. It is a shift from seeing parts to seeing the whole. This kind of a shift requires us to unlearn old ways of thinking as well as digest new concepts (pp. 12-13). As consultants and students, we experience the same dilemmas and resistances our clients do when it comes to changing, learning, and self-reflection. We need to understand the process of learning, how we get in our own way, in order to make any significant, long-lasting changes, and to be able to effectively help our clients change and improve their organizations. Chris Argyris is a long-time professor of education and business at Harvard, and an OD theorist. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, he examined the difficulties some highly educated, professional management consultants have with their own learning process. He explained that in order for learning to go beyond mere problem solving to a more lasting process in organizations, managers and employees must look inward at their own attitudes and behavior. One needs not only to detect and correct errors in order to carry on current business policies, which Argyris calls single-loop learning. One needs to constantly examine and question the policies themselves. This is double-loop learning where one uncovers the underlying assumptions and thinking used to create the standards by which progress is measured (1991, p. 100). This is often difficult for competent, highly educated professionals and leaders of todays companies because the idea that they might be part of the problem often causes them to react defensively. Argyris explained that people become defensive because often the master program people actually use is rarely the one they think they use. He referred to the way people think they should behave as the espoused theory, and the often different way people actually behave as the theory-in-use. It is a very defensive stance that keeps people from willingly looking at their Learning How to Learn 5 underlying motives and thinking because they might be embarrassed or feel threatened or vulnerable (1991, pp. 103-04). Argyris suggested that people have good intentions. Despite the strength of defensive reasoning, people genuinely strive to produce what they intend. They value acting competently. Companies can use these universal human tendencies to teach people how to reason in a new way...People can begin to identify the inconsistencies between their espoused and actual theories of action (1991, p. 106). He noted that the key to a successful educational design is to begin with senior managers, so they can set an example, to connect the program to real business problems and to give people plenty of opportunity to practice. He admits that the process of self-reflection can be emotional and painful, but that having the courage to do this real work can have a great payoff. He describes this work as the groundwork for true continuous improvement, for learning how to learn (1991, pp. 107-109). Herb Shepard was a pioneer and educator in the field of OD. He was a mentor and professor, at Case University, to Saúl Eisen and Joel Beak, both current faculty members in the Program. In 1965, Shepard wrote about the nature of interpersonal and inter-group relationships in organizations. His theories and propositions have become some of the fundamental principles of organization development and are relevant to this study of learning and organizational change. Shepard described two perspectives or mentalities that have emerged in society in general and more specifically in organizations. Individuals embracing the primary mentality are looking out only for their own self-interest and see themselves as separated from the rest of the world. On the other hand, individuals having the secondary mentality focus on meeting their own needs and also the needs of the group or society. They understand that the two goals are not opposed, but consonant. Shepard explained how industrial and governmental organizations turned to coercion and compromise to harness the primary mentality for societys as well as the individuals benefit. In Learning How to Learn 6 such an organization, the structure, decision making processes, and reward system all support and perpetuate the primary mentality. A structure capable of resolving conflicts coercively is established, the pyramid of formal power. Although there is a hierarchical power structure, individuals at any level may leave, reducing the power held by those at the top to one of compromise or bargaining (1965, pp. 1120-1122). He observed that when something is wrong in this kind of an organization the leaders continue to apply the principles of coercion and compromise in attempts to control the situation. If employees are tardy, they are threatened. If two departments are in conflict, superior power is thrown on one side. If a mans performance is unsatisfactory, he is replaced If the problem is motivational, bargaining processes are more likely to be used (1965, p.1123). Shepard observed that all of these efforts at coercive control have a canceling-out affect that siphons energy, which might otherwise be directed toward organizational goals. Other negatively reinforced effects are: risk reduction, where the status quo is maintained because no one individual wants to be blamed for the failure of a new idea; and alienation, because self-interest is separated from the organizational goals (1965, p. 1124). A more desirable form of management is embodied in the secondary mentality in which control is maintained through consensus and collaboration. Shepard modeled the secondary mentality on the principles of Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and others who believed individuals actively seek to grow in the direction of self-actualizing (Shepard, 1965, p. 1124). He described the secondary mentality in organizational dynamics. The commitment of members of the collaboration-consensus system is to one anothers growth and to the goals on which their growth depends. [Members] do not require an external threat as a basis for organizational cooperation and, there is an assumption that a toughness of character and a strong individualism not found in the primary mentality Control is achieved through agreement on goals, coupled with a communication system which provides continuous feedback of results so that members can steer themselves (1965, p. 1129). He proposed that in order to change the basis of interpersonal and inter-group relations from a primary to a secondary mentality there is a need for the development of relationships of a team and personal development in the direction of self-actualization. He noted that the process of Learning How to Learn 7 personal growth must be voluntary, and is assisted by the supportive behavior of superiors. He suggested that this kind of re-education is most effectively achieved through an experiential learning environment like a T-group in which the trainer serves as a model by being open, nondefensive, empathic, and expressing genuine feelings. In this kind of environment participants can build mutual trust, develop new norms together for making decisions and resolving conflict, and serve as resources and support to one another (1965 pp. 1131-33).
Why We Need to Do the Work of Learning
I turn to Herb Shepard again, because of his early and lasting influence on the profession of OD and on the leaders of the SSU OD Program. In his Rules of Thumb for Change Agents, Shepard offered us some aphorisms for success as consultants. His first rule is to stay alive. By this he meant to learn to use ones whole self, to love oneself, to be creative, and to be able to focus on ones purpose in the midst of all of the other interactions, feelings, and distractions. Rule 2: Start where the system is, he called the empathy rule. He said empathy permits us to create relationships with one another of shared creativity and growth. He warned that it is important not to give up who we are, but vital to be aware of our impact. (1975 p.1-2) Shepard was a great advocate of consultants working in teams. Several of his former students, whom I met at the 2001 OD Network Conference, shared stories with me, as have Beak and Eisen, about being sent off by Shepard to a client organization with little or no knowledge of what to do. By working together, they figured it out. In Rules of Thumb, Shepard warns us to invest in resources both within the client organization and with colleagues to avoid being spread too thin. He advised us to work with partners, carefully chosen ones, if only to maintain perspective and purpose (1975, p. 3). Shepards last rule is Capture the Moment. He emphasized the importance of preparation when working as a change agent. Most people think intuition is a gift, something spontaneous, rather than something planned. The opposite is nearer the truth. One is more likely to capture the moment when everything one has learned is readily available One needs to have as many frameworks for seeing and strategies for acting as possible If you have relatively full access to your organized experience, to yourself, and to the situation, you will capture the moment more often (1975, p. 5). It is important to be well prepared, to be able to use our intuition and insight in concert with our intelligence, common sense, and the practical tools and theories we learn in books and in school, in order to make the most of every opportunity for learning, for our clients, and ourselves. Our work as OD consultants is to help our clients work together more effectively to achieve their goals. We are not experts in their business; rather, we are experts in effective work processes. In a recent article entitled Toward a Better Understanding of Process, Edgar Schein, one of the founders of process consulting, described the following characteristics to clarify this elusive concept. Process is a series of events that occurs over time. It focuses on interactions between components of a system, whether they are within ones own head, or among individuals in a group. Human processes, the ways we interact, are often invisible. This invisibility is what creates the need for process consultants. And, one cannot observe the process of a system without influencing it. Lastly, Schein said that the nature of process changes with different human system levels. It can be more complex in groups. The presence of the observer, even if she is present only to gather data, will have an impact on the system at some level, especially on a human system (2002, pp. 1-7). Schein summarized that process is about the dynamics of human affairs: Human process is the moment-to-moment behavior as well as the consequences of that behavior. It is about life. He challenged us to make a choice as consultants and as just plain human beings to become more aware of processes at all levels and begin to own the consequences of our own processes (2002 p. 7). What could be more important to us, as process consultants, than to be aware of the impact we are having, just by our presence, on our clients system? Our clients do not resist change as much as they resist the unknown, which brings up their unacknowledged and unspoken fears about it. But to the consultant, it can look as though they are resisting the change, and resisting us, even when they have hired consultants specifically to produce change. In Flawless Consulting, Peter Block offers consultants a compassionate perspective on resistance to change. He says resistant clients are defending against the fact that they are going to have to make a difficult choice, take an unpopular action, or confront some reality that they have been trying to avoid emotionally. The reason the client has not been able to solve the problem is that he has not been able to see it clearly, being too close to it and having too much of an emotional investment. Resistance is defending against some difficult realities that clients are having a hard time confronting. Block says it is important that we help them face and not avoid the problem. Block also gives us useful advice in saying that consultants need to recognize that even though it may appear as though it is the consultant the client is resisting, they are, in fact, resisting their own learning process. Therefore, we need to learn not to take it personally (1991, p. 155-56). Schein, Block, and Shepard offer several reasons why it is important for us as consultants to do our own psychological homework as we work to effect positive change in organizations. We must develop the skills to know ourselves well, so that we can have clear relationships and learn with our clients.
Breaking from Conventional Teaching Methods
The challenge of teaching OD is incorporating the personal learning and development, with the practice of the consulting skills students are learning, and the knowledge and theory of a traditional academic program. All three SSU professors who founded the Program were influenced by Carl Rogers and shared a humanistic orientation toward education that continues in the Program today. Rogers applied the client-centered approach of his therapeutic practices to education. He allowed his students to be directed by their own interests and explorations, and tried to understand them from the students point of view without judgment or evaluation. He pointed out that traditional teaching and the imparting of knowledge makes sense only in an unchanging environment. Teaching he said, is a vastly over-rated function. Instead he described the facilitation of learning in which he transformed a group into a community of learners. To free curiosity, to allow individuals to go charging off in new directions dictated by their own interests; to unleash the sense of inquiry to recognize that everything is in a process of changehere is an experience I can never forget. If there is but one truth about modern man it is that he lives in an environment that is continually changing. We are, in my view, faced with an entirely new situation in education where the goal of education, if we are to survive, is the facilitation of change and learning. The only man who is educated is the man who has Learning How to Learn 10 learned how to learn Changingness, a reliance on process rather than upon static knowledge, is the only thing that makes any sense as a goal for education in the modern world (1983, p. 120-21). Rogers pointed out that we can create this kind of learningful environment not by lectures or planning or books, but rather through the relationship between the facilitator and the learner (1983, p. 121). He listed several characteristics required for the relations, which include: Realness of the facilitator, Prizing, acceptance, and trust of the students, and Developing an empathic understanding Rogers said that the educator could cultivate a facilitative attitude by trusting the human organism, and living with the uncertainty of discovery (1983, p. 121-28). As we shall see, the Program at SSU hums with overtones from Rogers humanistic theories. Saúl Eisen, one of the founders of the SSU OD program and the current director, began teaching at SSU in 1977. In 1980, when the OD Program was just a twinkle in his eye, he wrote an open letter to his students and fellow faculty to describe his intention to implement an unconventional, humanistic teaching style. He discussed experience-based learning, the content and process of education, and student motivation. Here is an excerpt from Eisens open letter about experienced-based learning: The problem stems only from the mistaken assumption that ineffective behavior stems from lack of information. Education programs, which are based on this assumption, deal with behavioral events in abstract, rational terms. But behavior is not abstract or necessarily rational. The answer to this predicament lies in restructuring educational programs to integrate experience with intellect Instead of the simplistic and somewhat arrogant notion that if someone knows better he or she will behave better, we might say that it is often the reverse: that new behavioral experiences lead to improved knowledge. About the content and process of education he said: The body of knowledge and technology in every field is growing exponentially thus expanding the content of education so quickly that the process of education is emerging as a critical concern. We must work toward developing and experimenting with more efficient techniques and more relevant curricula, and we must develop the kind of educational process Learning How to Learn 11 that develops in students the ability to learn from peers and from their own experience, independent of the traditional academic framework. Eisen made an argument for changing the approach to motivating students based on Theory X and Theory Y developed by Douglas McGregor in 1957 to explain what motivates workers. Theory X represents the more traditional approach in which students are assumed to be passive and must be persuaded, rewarded, punished, and controlled by teachers in order to learn. He favored a Theory Y approach that assumes students have the capacity to be responsible for their own learning and that the teachers role is to make room for them to recognize and develop this capacity and create and achieve their own learning goals. At the end of his letter, he described four beliefs or assumptions about education that guide him in his work as an educator. Briefly they are: 1) Not to give students the right answer, but to help them develop the ability to find and work with alternative approaches, and to apply them in ways that make sense to them. 2) Intellectual learning is not enough. Students need experience-based learning that involves the whole person. 3) It is important for students to improve their ability to learn and for teachers to improve their ability to teach. 4) Creating an atmosphere in which students can rediscover their own energy and excitement for learning, rather than being coerced and resisting. After stating these four beliefs, Eisen said they were far from being actualized and framed them as a crucial goal in his work (1980, pp. 3-6). Before we look at the results of the interviews, let us take a quick tour through the structure of the Program.
Structure of the Program
In order to understand the experiences and comments from the interviews, it is important to have a picture of the framework that holds it all together. Here I will offer an outline of the structure of the Program: the course sequence, cohort format, intentional design, and background on the Programs origins and history. For this overview, I drew from the interviews with both current and former faculty, the Program website, and my own knowledge of the Program. Here are the Learning How to Learn 12 goals and structure of the Masters Program in OD at Sonoma State University, drawn from the Programs website. The Organization Development Program provides professional education for mid-career individuals preparing to become managers and specialists in organizational change, consultation, and leadership. In four semesters, participants gain the practical skills, conceptual knowledge, and field-tested experience to successfully lead organization improvement efforts. Cohort groups of 15 to 20 students participate in seminar discussions, skill-building activities, and extensive field projects under the professional supervision of experienced faculty. The Program focus and format are based on the awareness that our increasingly turbulent business, technology, and socio-economic environments are creating serious challenges for most organizations. They must become more cost-effective, innovative, resourceful, and adaptive. To respond appropriately to these challenges, organizations must be staffed with managers and specialists who have a new set of skills. They need the ability to:
Provide positive leadership for desired change
Practice: The practice element is a carefully designed and supervised program of progressively independent projects conducted by the students. First, students facilitate classes and conduct training for the cohort in the classroom. In the second semester, in teams of two or three, they design and conduct a consulting project with a real client organization using the action research model. In the second year, students continue with various internships in the field, designing their own areas of focus mentored by professional faculty. Personal Development: The T-group (T stands for training, not therapy) or group process class conducted over eight Saturdays in the first year of the offers a strong foundation in interpersonal dynamics and self-awareness. In addition, personal growth is explicitly encouraged as issues arise within work teams and with clients. It is a natural side affect of honing communication and consulting skills and is well supported by faculty and fellow students. The sequence of classes is part of a purposeful design. It may be useful to have a timeline of the classes as context to understand the references to various experiences from the interviews. The first semester students take a course in Facilitation and Training. They then practice facilitation skills by taking turns conducting class meetings over the semester and receiving feedback from faculty and peers. In groups of two or three, they design and conduct various training workshops for the class, with the support and guidance of the professors. In the second semester, students conduct the Spring Project, a consulting engagement with a real client organization. Two second-semester classes are designed to support this project, in which students apply the learning from the first semester. (Please see Appendix B for a complete list of courses and schedule.) With this background about the Program in hand, we are ready to look at the data from the interviews.
The data from the interviews was rich and complex. In this section I will describe how I conducted the interviews, how the data from the interviews was sorted and organized, and I will present the data by through observations, summaries, and substantial quotes.
Data Gathering and Summary
As you can see from the description above, the design of the Program is both purposeful and complex employing the three elements of theory, practice, and personal development to create multi-levels of learning. I was interested in both the content and process of learning. From the students perspective, the content included areas of skill and knowledge. The process was comprised of the teaching and learning methods. With this in mind, I began with two basic questions: What did you learn? How did you learn? With regard to these questions, I asked people to share what had been most meaningful for them, and what had had the biggest impact on them. As people began to discuss their experiences, I asked for examples, for reflections they had had since graduating, and what had influenced them the most when they went on to practice organization development. I focused on content and process with the faculty as well, asking the questions with a different slant. For content, I ask about learning goals for the students, and for process, about the intentional design and teaching methodology. Each interview lasted from one to two hours. All but one was conducted in person. I took extensive notes and transcribed them immediately after each session. Keeping the student and faculty interview data separate, I sorted statements or comments into themes of frequently mentioned topics. This was difficult because many of the statements could have easily fit into more than one, and sometimes several categories.
As I compiled the faculty responses, I found I could gather them into the following five themes:
There were almost three times as many student interviews as faculty interviews. After sorting the student responses, I had 14 themes. I grouped them into five broader themes, each having several sub-themes. Below is the complete list to alert the reader to which topics are discussed and presented under which themes in the next section. I did not include my own comments in the sorting process. Rather, I added my comments and stories at the beginning or end of each section into which they fit.
The data was bursting with heart-felt stories, meaningful quotes, dynamic observations, and insightful reflections. I chose to include a hefty portion of quotes arranged in a way to help tell the story, to give the depth, color, and complexity I found in the interviews and in my experience. I present the data from the faculty interviews first, in order to show the intentional design and teaching methods from the facultys perspective. This data will also provide more background about the nature of Program and the faculty. The student interviews reflect the learning, the effect, the impact, and results, looking back from the other side of the partnership of learning. As you may be starting to notice, the environment of the program is purposefully informal, fostering deep personal learning and often close friendships among students and faculty. It is the convention, in Structure for Learning Sociotechnical Systems Systems Theory Learning about Ourselves Becoming that which I truly am Using Self as Instrument Belonging I found my people Learning with Others Giving and Receiving Feedback Building Relationships Using the Cohort as a Model Learning by Doing Practice, Practice, Practice Tolerating Ambiguity Learning to Learn Client/Student centered teaching Modeling and Mentoring A Balance of Safety and Risk Surfacing Assumptions and out of class, for students and faculty to address one another by their first names. In order to maintain the authentic tone expressed in interviews, I will use first names when referring to specific people. I chose to combine some comments into composites from several respondents in order to provide a full picture and context. As much as possible, I used direct quotes and preserved original phrases and language, modifying only for grammar.
In this first section are excerpts from faculty responses presented under the appropriate themes. The faculty I interviewed had varied backgrounds and personalities. What they had in common was their commitment to the students and the Program.
The faculty described how they allow the cohort to define its own rules, which empowers the students and builds confidence and self-esteem. They support students to be more effective learners by trusting them to direct their own learning, make discoveries for themselves, and pursue their own interests. They shared authentically with me about the challenges of their unconventional roles in the student-centered approach, and the students struggles to adapt to their newfound freedom. The intense nature of the Program begins to show through these comments. We start from an invitation to the cohort to create rules that work for them, to build conditions for optimum learning. I propose a design for the class, and then take input from students. We create it together.
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* * *
The themes overlap and wind together like a tapestry. The faculty modeled the client-centered approach because it is an effective way to teach, and because it is the consulting style the students learn and will use in their field projects throughout the Program. The faculty modeled many key OD values, one of which was leading by example.
Modeling and Mentoring
Both the current and past faculty were proud of how they have consistently modeled the values of continuous learning and improvement, managing democratically, and relating authentically, not only with the students, but with one another as well. These quotes reflect the robust relationships faculty shared with the students and one another.
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A Balance of Safety and Risk
The professors truly embraced the spirit of learning by taking risks in service of improving the Program and the students learning. This creates an atmosphere that is not for the timid. It took a while for students to understand that taking more risks ultimately creates safety, because everyone is vulnerable together. The faculty also understood the need to help balance the students uncertainty by offering big doses of support.
The professors tell students that trying new things requires a tolerance for feelings of insecurity. It helps to acknowledge that it is scary. We learn all our lives to be confident, not to show our vulnerabilities. In the Program faculty model breaking those norms by talking about their feelings.
I remember feeling incredibly uncomfortable going into our first client engagement. I complained to Saúl that I was not used to feeling unsure of what to do next. He smiled and said, It is always like that. You never know what is going to happen. I feel that same scary feeling every time I start a new project. It was refreshing in the interviews, as it had been in classes, to hear these well educated, experienced professionals expressing doubt, fear, and uncertainty.
Building Relationship Skills Through Working with Others
Since OD is about working with groups, faculty use the cohort group as a teaching tool and model for how groups develop and work together, and for learning relationship skills. In my cohort, there was a constant struggle between spending time on the subject matter of organizational theory and processing our groups interpersonal issues. Some people thought we were spending too much time on process and not learning the real content. After a while, it became clear to many of us that as we worked together, we were honing the skills needed to work with client groups. Everything we experienced was something a client might experience. These are not just consulting skills; they are life skills. The professors were well aware of the struggle we were having, but they let the students figure it out for themselves. The following comments reflect the spirit of the Program.
I had just explained, as with everyone I interviewed, my purpose, how long the interview would take, and asked permission to use quotes. It was a matter of making my expectations clear and giving them a chance to voice their own needs. The professor I was interviewing referred to my own behavior to illustrate the point. Contracting this way is a simple yet powerful skill for building relationships.
Leading by Example
As I conducted interviews with the faculty members, all of them mentioned Saúls valuable contribution to the Program. He is the current director and the only member of the original founders who is still directly involved.
When I interviewed Saúl for this research, he shared generously about his experience in starting the Program. He talked about the founders of the OD profession from whom he had learned, such as Herb Shepard and Bob Tannenbaum. He also spoke candidly about how much it means to him to do the work of consulting and teaching, and some of the struggles along the way. Here are some excerpts:
Now lets continue to explore the data with excerpts from the student interviews.
Everyone I spoke with welcomed my request for an interview with enthusiasm and warmth. I felt as though I had a special inside connection when I mentioned I was a student in the SSU OD Program. They were supportive of my efforts to understand my experience, and several asked to see the final paper for their own learning. Below are the five broad themes into which I gathered the student responses. With each one are several sub themes that are listed in the text, but not labeled under each heading. (Refer to the section above on Data Gathering and Summary for a complete list of themes.)
A Framework for Learning and Practice
Theory provides students with a framework for understanding. Theory itself did not emerge as a prominent theme in the interviews, but nearly everyone mentioned systems theory or organizational culture, as they described the more experiential aspects of the Program. It is the landscape and the foundation for all of our work in OD. The theory was integrated into the Program in the reading and some classroom instruction. Students also applied it in real time as they ventured out into field projects. Systems theory was most frequently mentioned, and several students mentioned sociotechnical systems (STS) design, a complex whole systems approach that incorporates technology, people, and business into the organizational design.
The STS principles were tough to read about. The ideas became much more compelling when we needed to learn how to redesign work processes for a client during our Spring Project.
Learning with Others
The powerful dynamics of learning with others and the importance of building relationships as a tool for effective consulting were key themes in the interviews. The students responses mirrored the facultys comments as they described the powerful learning that took place while working in teams, using the cohort as a model of group process, and learning how to give and receive feedback. It was difficult to choose which ones to share here. The following two comments reflect the value of learning and working with others in the cohort during the two-year Program.
The cohort model gave students a chance to experience what their clients might experience during an intervention designed to bring about change in an organization.
At the end of the first class in the Program, Saúl asked us for feedback about the session and wrote our comments on chart paper. I was impressed with his willingness to bravely take input from us. Eventually, we learned to use feedback as a learning tool with our clients and one another.
I worked on many projects with a variety of my classmates and clients. For a while, I tried to avoid difficult situations. Finally, I chose to continue with one project because it was important to me, and specifically because this one person just pushed all my buttons. I wanted to develop a coping strategy. I practiced giving feedback when I needed to, choosing my battles, and staying focused on my work and the project objectives. I learned that I could work with almost anyone, and I found some strategies that would be useful to support clients in the future.
Learning by Doing
Learning with others goes hand-in-hand with learning by doing. The practice element is one of the signatures of the SSU OD Program. From the very beginning, the students practice what they are learning, usually before they are sure of themselves. They learn by taking risks, trying out new behaviors, learning what makes learning safe, and tolerating the ambiguity of the learning process. Progress is swift but turbulent in the unpredictable, real-life field projects that begin in the second semester. The Program prepares students for the unexpected; in the process, they discover skills, intuition, and courage did not know they had. Students describe what happens when you start with two or three eager OD students, add a field project that pushes them right to their learning edge, and give them lots of support and coaching.
The students comments about balancing safety and risk and tolerating ambiguity told the other side of the story that the faculty described in the previous section. For many of us, it was like using a muscle we did not know we had. Students were shaky at first, but learned, over time, to embrace the process of learning itself. Dr. Eisen uses the term whitewater learning to describe the unpredictable, challenging nature of this kind of learning. There was no shortage of frustration for many students who craved structure and someone to tell them what to do. In the process of taking risks for the sake of learning, at times they felt the faculty went too far.
There was also no shortage of fodder for learning.
During my two years in the Program, I watched as my fellow learners and I went from tentatively writing on newsprint in front of the class in the first semester to designing and facilitating large group processes for real clients a year later. Everyone seemed to get what he or she needed, although sometimes it took some time to uncover the treasures. One of the more powerful but often subtle gifts was developing the skills to notice the treasures in their unpolished forms. This required trekking down the internal path of learning at the same time we were rafting the waters of practice with real clients.
Learning About Ourselves
At first, I was surprised to notice that many students, including me, had trouble readily identifying what we had learned. When I asked about this, one former student said the learning was so deep, it was cellular. I understood. My own learning was so personal and transforming that it was difficult to remember who I had been before I started the Program. The irony was that the more students ventured out into uncharted territory and had successes in the field, the more courage they developed, discovering untapped personal power and confidence. Students candidly talked about learning to be themselves, a sense of belonging at SSU and in the profession of OD, and learning to use their self-awareness as a powerful tool for consulting.
Carl Rogers uses the term becoming that which one truly is to describe the personal learning that brings a therapy client toward self-discovery and self-acceptance (1961, p. 180-81). This term rings true for my learning experience and that of many others whose stories I heard. The faculty and students worked hard to create safety and build relationships that made room for abundant personal learning for those who were ready. It was such a critical time in my life.
Many students I interviewed emphasized the importance of getting to know themselves and using themselves as instruments in their consulting work. The skills for and habit of personal development are necessary for effective consulting.
Because the learning was so personal, many people developed close relationships that continued long past their years in school.
My first internship in the second year was working as one of several table facilitators, most of whom I did not know, for a client group of about 100 people. At the mid-point, the leader gathered the facilitators together and asked for our input because we were running late. In 10 minutes, we came up with a new plan that fit the groups emerging needs and the time frame for the day. It felt so easy and exciting to be part of this in-the-moment design team. We spoke the same language. I looked around and realized that we were all alumni or interns from SSU.
Learning How to Learn
Many of the students I interviewed shared an attitude, an approach that everything is an opportunity to learn. Almost any of the interview quotes could fit under the umbrella of learning skills. The ones I placed here, more than the others, described how the teaching approach in the Program, in very practical ways, made room for and encouraged learning as a skill in itself. There were no cookie-cutter approaches. People had plenty of complaints about ambiguity and lack of structure, but no one said they had felt anonymous or unseen. In the same way students learned to partner with clients in a consulting engagement, it was explicit that they were partners with faculty in creating their own learning experience. It took some digesting for the students to develop a taste for the student-centered teaching approach.
The students learned to be aware of their own assumptions and to talk about them. At the same time, they learned to help clients by verbalizing the clients unspoken assumptions. It is like trying to teach a fish about water. It is everywhere, but it is hard to learn to notice. These next comments show the hard work, commitment, and insight this intense level of learning required.
The students expressed admiration for the faculty in the way they model the values and philosophy they teach. Many people said, They walk the talk. They appreciated the fact that the faculty were willing to make themselves vulnerable, to show they did not have all the answers, and to learn with the students. This made room for the students to embrace the role of learners, as well.
During the second semester, we were thrown into our first field project with a real client organization. I remember wishing I could see a professional consultant in action so I could see how it was done. One day in the middle of the semester, we were reporting to the class about our project, and I was feeling particularly overwhelmed with it. Saúl was gently pushing us, asking reflective questions about our experience. He gave us some direction mostly through his questions, and he encouraged us to explore our own ideas of what to do next. On the drive home that night I reviewed what I was learning when a big light bulb went off; we were his clients. We knew the project best because we were there. I was getting what I had asked for. He was modeling client-centered consulting.
Analysis and Conclusion
The enthusiasm that I have cultivated for learning during my two years in the SSU OD Program continues as I complete this, the final paper for my degree. More than ever, I am excited about doing the work of organization development. I hope that I can offer my clients the same kind of support, guidance, and room to learn and change that I have received in the Program. So, back to my original questions. What are the key areas of learning? And, what are the essential methods used in teaching?
From the answers to these questions, I hoped to identify essential characteristics and frameworks for learning that could be applied in my future work in organization development. There are three over-arching themes I found repeatedly in both the student and faculty responses. They are interwoven throughout the data on many levels. These, I believe, are what make the SSU OD Program both unique and powerfully effective. They are also the principles or methods that, when applied in the arena of consulting, will make our work to help clients adapt to the changing climate of business and life more effective. The first principle is that relationships are a foundation for learning. So much of the learning in the Program takes place with others. Students learn in teams, in their cohort, and through the mentoring and modeling of the professors. Students look to one another for reflection, even as individuals face their fears and shadows, and find confidence and acceptance through feedback. All of these experiences require and cultivate the strong relationship skills of authenticity, knowing and speaking about ones feelings, listening, empathy, and surfacing assumptions.
Carl Rogers suggested that a student-centered climate of learning, in which students learning is dictated by their own interests and their sense of inquiry is unleashed, is created not by lectures and books, but through the relationships between facilitator and learner (1983, p. 121). Herb Shepard noted that having shared goals in an atmosphere of collaboration is the most effective form of management. Embracing the secondary mentality, in which individuals can move toward their own potential and contribute to the success of others in the process, eliminates the need for threats and coercion to motivate people to work or to learn (1965, pp. 1124, 1129). At SSU, the faculty exemplify the secondary mentality in their approach to teaching. They model the very qualities and attitudes that support the learning relationship: empathy, authenticity, and trust. The students also learn these attitudes and practice them with one another and the faculty while working and learning together. In Rule 4: Innovation requires a good idea, initiative, and a few friends, from his Rules of Thumb, Herb Shepard also stressed the importance of working with others in consulting situations to build resources and keep a clear perspective (1975, p. 3). The powerful relationships characterized by immense support and respect that are created among the students and faculty are the foundation for the leaps of learning that take place in the SSU OD Program. The second principle or theme that emerged is that modeling is important for personal learning and growth. This is closely related to the first principle that relationships are the foundation for learning. I read and reread, sorted, categorized, and digested the interview responses, trying to find answers to my questions: What did the students learn? And how did they learn? What I discovered is that much of the content, or what was learned, is conveyed through the teaching process itself. The data revealed that what stood out for students and faculty were their experiences related to the process of learning. This is apparent in the themes formed by the data: for example, working in teams, tolerating ambiguity, student-centered learning, balancing safety and risks, and experiential learning. Both the faculty and the students mentioned modeling as one of the most effective methods for teaching and learning. The faculty modeled the same principles and practical skills of organization development that they intended the students to learn. Modeling is especially important in the field of OD because, as consultants, we too will be faced with the challenge of educating adults. Herb Shepard made this observation in his paper about the changing relationships in organizations. He said that the kind of re-education needed to achieve more effective working relationships is best done through experiential learning, like T-groups where the trainers can model authenticity, non-defensiveness, and empathy (1965, p. 1131). Modeling can help make it safe to learn by reducing the fear of being judged. It feels safer when we sense that we are all in the same boat. The SSU faculty modeled learning by admitting their mistakes, welcoming feedback and acting on it, speaking about their uncomfortable feelings, and trusting students to direct their own learning and find their own answers when it often would have been easier and faster just to tell the students what to do. Learning How to Learn 32 The third significant and pervasive theme I discovered in this research is that learning how to learn is an essential skill for creating effective, long-lasting change. Learning how to learn gives us the skills we need to continue to grow with the ever-changing environment. As consultants, we must be willing to take risks and to model our learning process with our clients. Carl Rogers said that the only truly educated man is one who has learned how to learn (1983, p. 121). It requires hard work, courage, and a sense of humor. This sounds like a very broad topic, but actually, it is a very personal one. Chris Argyris observed that people strive to do well, to follow their intentions, but that there are inevitable inconsistencies between what they intend and what they actually do. The process of self-reflection can be emotional and painful. Argyris said it requires courage to pursue, but has a great payoff (pp. 106 109). One of the students I interviewed put it well: she said that she had suffered the loss of her assumptions and beliefs about herself and the world. Saúl Eisen suggests that the most powerful learning takes place through the experience of testing new behaviors (1980, p. 3). In the Program, students learned by taking risks and reflecting about what they had learned. As the data revealed, they are given many opportunities to practice. And they are given a safe, supportive environment in which to reflect and evaluate their progress. In order for long-lasting change to take place, we need to look not only at whether we have met our goals, but to examine how we set our goals; whether we are measuring the right things. Chris Argyris calls this double-loop learning (1991, p. 100). Self-reflection, learning through our experiences, examining our underlying assumptions, and evaluating our learning processes themselves are the learning skills emphasized in the SSU OD Program. Many of the students and faculty whom I interviewed commented that continuous learning had become more of a way of life for them than a consulting skill. Organization development is about helping our clients work together more effectively toward shared goals. Our role is to help them adapt to the ever-changing business environment. Peter Senge describes a learning organization as one that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future (p. 13). Education is one of our most effective tools toward this effort.
Because the Program was so effective for my learning, I hope that with commitment and effort I can embrace these three crucial principles in my work with future clients. In summary they are:
1) Nurturing relationships are the foundation for learning.
There were many other important and valuable concepts, skills, and principles that emerged in this research. These ideas, though not exhaustive, are, I believe, fundamental to the work of OD. They are easy-to-remember guidelines to keep in mind as we work. They are also lofty goals I am just beginning to learn how to implement. I learned much more during my two years in the Program than what came out in this study. And, there were many things about OD and consulting that I did not learn. For example, during the interviews, some students said they wished they had gotten a better sense of consulting as a business, how to write and present a proposal, how to estimate time and price an engagement, how to connect our work to the clients bottom line, and how to market ones services. Although we touched on these topics, they were not emphasized. As I venture out into the world of consulting to organizations, I feel very grateful for the education I received at Sonoma State. There were many moments of great joy and friendships that will last a lifetime. Also, it was and is incredibly hard work. More than once, my fellow students and I turned to one another and wondered why we were paying so much money and suffering so much for the sake of learning. The reason is because when people turn to us as consultants, it will be because they need help. They will put their trust in us. Edgar Schein observes that from the first moment we begin our conversations with a client about their problems and how we can help, we are intervening and impacting their organization (2002, p.6). It is our greatest responsibility to continually develop the knowledge and skills we need to be aware of and manage the impact and influence we have. We are the instruments of change. Herb Shepard encouraged us to stay alive in our work by learning to use ones whole self, to love oneself, to be creative, and to be able to focus on ones Learning How to Learn 34 purpose in the midst of all of the other interactions, feelings, and distractions. He warns that it is important not to give up who we are, but vital to be aware of our impact (1975, p. 1-2). To do this well, we need to know ourselves very well. We need to know our strengths and weaknesses so that we can allow our clients the freedom to learn and, as Peter Block says, not take their resistance personally (p. 155-56). By being clear, we also give ourselves access to deeper levels of our own intuition and intelligence. In the Program, this final paper is referred to as the culminating paper. For me, it was very culminating. I had taken many leaps, many risks, but when it came to finally saying what it all meant, I felt stuck. There I was, almost finished, asking Saúl to tell me how to write the paper. I felt frustrated and angry. I shared these feelings with him one day, and he said, Dont worry about disappointing me. Write the paper for yourself. Write something people will want to read. He was still helping me learn. Yes, I was so worried about getting it right, pleasing him that I had lost touch with my own voice. Here was my resistance. I had not given myself permission to be an authority on OD. I was just a student. I needed to take myself back to what originally inspired me to write this paper. I found an incredible sense of appreciation, passion, and clarity. It was another opportunity to tolerate the ambiguity of learning, to take a risk, to continue to learn. I had learned how to learn. Finally, as you see, I did it. What a gift.