Unfolding plans 39 – self-organising work environments

I’ve talked about Sugata Mitra’s School in the Cloud idea before.  It’s more than an idea as it exists and has proven to deliver benefits.  Following a visit to Newcastle University’s Culture Lab I met up with Dr James Stanfield to talk about how we could learn from this approach.  I am interested in using self-organising learning systems to challenge our traditional approach to work.

Just as in the self-organised learning environment (SOLE) fundamental to the School in the Cloud is there a way to seed self-learning within a work environment which breaks the link between decision making and management?  If the role of management is to make decisions then the number of managers should be determined by the number of decisions that need to be made.  More decisions, more managers.  The number of decisions required is not something we record in a management role and so the logical conclusion to this approach would be to have one decision maker and everyone else reporting to them.  This doesn’t happen.

Instead the number of managers is usually determined by the number of people in the organisation.  More people, more managers and so their role must be people based, that is to create the environment in which the workers and the organisation flourish.  In a self-organising work environment decisions would be made by the people who are facing the problem.  Decisions would be made as close to the customer as is possible.

Using such techniques would allow:

  • Those who deal with issues on a day to day basis to draw on their collective experience to resolve problems and develop opportunities
  • Leaders and managers to set direction in line with customer and organisational needs
  • The removal of the need for traditional organisational structure and hierarchies.

Bob and I met the other day with James and Kate from the University to kick the idea around further.  We considered how we could assess what is going on in a SOLE environment in order to apply this to an adult world of work.  Within the SOLE individuals are assessed by their peers and not by a figure of seniority.  The teacher is there to tap into the student’s natural sense of curiosity by crafting and asking the beautiful questions and admitting that they don’t know the answer.  The environment empowers the students to show off their skills and gives them the freedom and encouragement to talk about the mechanisms they use to discover things which encourages learning across the team.

The answer lies in finding the right question.  As Albert Einstein said:  ‘If I had sixty minutes to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I’d spend fifty five minutes determining the right question to ask. Once I got the right question, I could easily answer it in five minutes.’

The quality of our answers is dependent upon the quality of our questions.  The more accurate and more specific our questions are, the more profitable and more beneficial the answers we get will be.  So forget about answers and focus on questions.

We agreed to have a think about it all and get together in a month or so.

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