Designing and Building Real-Time Learning Systems

Sections of this topic

    Marv Weisbord’s Model – Two Critical Paths to Change

    Marv Weisbord’s model “Two Critical Paths for Improving Organizations” suggests, that when it comes to improving our organizations, the first question is, “Who is going to be involved? The second question is, “What is it they are to go about improving?”

    The answer to the first question is on the one hand, “experts,” and on the other hand, “everyone.” The response to the second question is on the one hand, “isolated problems,” and on the other hand, “whole systems.”

    Historically We Used “Experts” to Guide Change

    As he points out, historically we have thrown “experts” at isolated problems. We have brought in outside consultants to provide recommendations and prescriptions about the problems that plague us. Experts have advised us how to improve productivity and how to improve communications.

    This is dealing with problems as “technocratic challenges.” We believe that these decisions and solutions are made visible to us by expertise. Functional specialists determine what needs to be done, by other people who have to implement.

    We need to be astute in locating and gaining this expertise, setting the conditions where they can analyze the problems, and making sure people do what they are told to do to solve the problem. This is the way we tend to go after our problems and we have a lot of them.

    Historical Approaches Weren’t Integrated

    During the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the Quality Circle movement took root and managers tried to get everybody to address these isolated problems. The problems still were not integrated into a meaningful perspective, because most managers had many demands and problems, and no real sense of how all their efforts tied together.

    Without thinking systemically, most people were trying to do the best they could within their areas of influence. The idea was to mobilize everybody’s focus and energy to try to improve. This got reduced into trivia; people spent hours discussing the quality and color of hand towels in the rest rooms.

    The movement was abandoned after awhile and lost credibility, although more than a few local improvements were made although the quality movement has contributed immensely in statistical process analysis and many other tools.

    Advent of a Whole Systems Perspective

    At the same time, a few reflective scholarly consulting practitioners were experimenting with ways to improve whole systems. (Starting with the work of Emery and Trist and others in the socio-technical approach to organization development, consultants were being influenced by the “systems view” espoused by Bertalanffy, C.W. Churchman, Kenneth Boulding and Katz and Kahn to name a few.)

    Systems’ thinking was taking hold in the academic and consulting community — today it is a well-grounded perspective. Everyone in organizations talks about systems, and new hires into organizations can go on at length about the theories and concepts. The problem has been getting this knowledge used in highly functional organizations.

    The early specialists were not just interested in elegant industrial designs. They were aware that organization effectiveness is a function of technical and social systems integration, and that true performance was the joint optimization of both variables in the design of work. Thirty years of research and collective wisdom has produced the insight that performance change can only be achieved when everyone is involved in improving the whole system.

    So What’s Next for Guiding Change?

    The trick is how to make that happen.

    • How do we get everyone involved in improving whole systems?
    • How does change happen without a “hand off” or a “roll out”?
    • How do leaders make it happen in “real time” not just talk about it, but do it in the process of learning how to do it.

    These questions have been central in Organization Development for the last few years and certainly will be thought about for a long time to come.

    What do you think?


    For more resources, see the Library topics Consulting and Organizational Development.

    Jim Smith has over 40 years of organization development experience in a wide range of organizations.