Learning in times of organisational change

August 26, 2010 | Manuel Flury | SDC Experiences |


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The need for a trustful (learning) culture that is open for emerging patterns of collaboration

Manuel picture for sdclanBy Manuel Flury
SDC experiences a period of far reaching organisational change. The management informs the collaborators via the SDC-Intraweb and exchanges with the middle cadre. Collaborators share their questions in the cafeteria, chatting around filing cabinets and walking through the corridors:
“What thematic policies are still valid?” – “Is poverty alleviation now just one of several aims of SDC or still the main “raison d’être”?” – “Nobody knows exactly how thematic experts may bring in their concerns!” – “There is lacking information, and the interfaces are not clear.” – “The service level agreement  with the newly created support at Ministry level was elaborated without even consulting us.” – “The new regulations and guidelines for elaborating credit proposals are nowhere to be found on the Intraweb.” – “The guidelines for the office management report are just approved, there is no scope for any adjustments now.”

For two years SDC collaborators experience waves of change. Thematic and multilateral specialists are shifted to regional operational divisions. Support services are centralised on the level of the Ministry. Operational responsibility is being delegated to the country offices. Development cooperation is integrated into the Swiss foreign policy.

Ability to function and institutional trust

Reorganisation is a time of crisis that alienates collaborators and the organisation from the known and creates the opportunity to learn from the past in order to do things differently. It is based on assumptions and hypotheses that acting and doing things in a different way would bring about higher quality and better results. It is necessarily a period of passing from the “hard rock” of the known through times of the “foggy and muddy” unknown, of lacking clarities and, thus, uncertainties to a new “firm ground” of the known. In such social change processes one may talk about “defreezing” conventional practices and “freezing” new and improved ways. Most important throughout the process: the organisation keeps its ability to function. Its rules and regulations can be trusted. For this to happen it is crucial that the organistion can maintain its trustworthiness. Trust is a fundamental prerogative for sharing and learning. It includes both trust at the individual and at the institutional levels. The level of “institutional trust” is a crucial factor for continued operations and, not least, for the motivation of the collaborators and partners. The “institutional trust” relates to the fundamental aims of the organisation and its activities, to its strategies, its business processes, its leadership and management and, not least, its learning culture.


Organisations such as SDC cannot be (re-)organised as a blue print. E.g. changing the division of labour between head quarters and country offices may affect renumeration schemes, new decision taking authorities may require formulating new duty profiles of support functions. The full consequences of reorganised practices are rarely known in advance, assumptions and impact hypotheses might turn out to be irrelevant or wrong. Both managers and collaborators are confronted with emerging constellations and solutions that were often not anticipated. Complexity is the key word for such (social) systems. Elements and interactions are highly dynamic and causes and effects cannot be separated clearly. This contrasts with complicated systems. Interactions can be understood and described often using a formal language (see below (3)).

In a widely referred paper published in the Journal of Knowledge Management in 2002, David Snowden introduced the Cynefin model. This model distinguishes four domains of knowledge. Each domain relates to a different form of management and a different leadership style:
(1) That what is known: the domain of best practices and of standard knowledge; e.g. laws, regulations.
Action: Norms and standards give the responses to standard situations.
(2) That what can be known: the domain of good practices, of the expertise that is codified in expert language.
Action: Experts provide professional solutions.
(3) The complex domain: Causes and effects cannot be separated, solutions can not be based on past experiences, patterns of interactivity that emerge need to be identified.
Action: Probe, in order to stimulate the emergence of pattern, understand the pattern and stabilise the pattern wanted through appropriate action.
(4) The domain of the chaos: Assumptions on which expertise is based are disrupted, no patterns emerge. This might result from excessive structure or massive change.
Action: Crisis management comes first.
Humans, acting collectively, can make systems that might otherwise be complex or chaotic into known systems. A recent post (including videos) in the “Aid on the Edge of Chaos blog” looks into what development planners might learn from traffic planning: “Rather than legislating for driver behaviour, traffic planners are requiring drivers, pedestrians and cyclist to actually think about what they are doing. This approach fits many complexity principles, especially notions of emergence and self-organisation.”

Complexity is one of the main characteristics of many of our organisations. Organisational changes influence work arrangements between collaborators. New patterns of collaboration may emerge. New organisational units seek recognition. They as well develop new patterns of collaboration and alliance. Both individuals and organisational unit need to develop an own identity that responds to the changes imposed. Management in a complex situation needs to probe, to carefully select the most appropriate trigger to induce the changes intended, to observe and learn from the emerging patterns and to stabilise the ones most meaningful.

Early adopters and positive deviants

In many changing situations management would best identify the front runners, the early adopters, those who shape the future and make these practices known throughout the organisation. In many cases conventional wisdom of the majority is useless. The “deviants” provide interesting solutions: David Dorsey of fastcompany tells the story of the Sternins. This couple had the duty to reduce malnutrition of children in Vietnamese villages, with tangible results to be achieved within six months. They chose “amplifying positive deviance”: They observed, that conventional wisdom about malnutrition and how to improve the situation is useless. Instead they identified individuals whose exceptional behaviours or practices enable them to get better results than their neighbours with the same resources. Their approach: “Once you find deviant behaviours, don’t’ tell people about them. It is not a transfer of knowledge, it is not about importing best practices from somewhere else. Let the people who have discovered the deviations spread the word in their groups.”

Observing emerging patterns of collaboration

Building institutional trust does not mean blueprinting new models and norms. It includes amplifying individuals initiatives in shaping their work environment – e.g. those colleagues who took the initiative to formulate standard answers to grant seekers or who coach less-experienced colleagues in management issues –  and even searching for the non-conventional, the deviant. A corresponding learning culture includes providing space and resources for collaborators to innovate and find new ways, tolerating failures and building a trustful work context. It requires a management that observes emerging patterns of decisions it took and stabilising those they find appropriate.

First reorganisation decisions by the SDC management in mid 2008 brought about the creation of eleven thematic learning networks. The overall responsibilities for each of the themes and the animation by so-called Focal Points are all placed in different regional operational divisions. It is interesting to observe what different ways of setting the agenda, of interacting and of collaborating these networks have developed since. Contrary to initial expectations, there is no unique mode of functioning emerging. For the SDC management it is crucial to observe and understand these emerging patterns, to provide space and resources for exchanging experiences among the thematic responsible persons, the Focal Points and the networks and to take the necessary decisions to stabilise meaningful ones.

To terminate: “Recherce-action-développement” is a well established methodology in the field of international development that is appropriate to act in complex social environments. Let us learn from these lessons.


Comments to“Learning in times of organisational change”

  1. Riff Fullan says:

    Dear Manuel,

    An interesting and engaging description of change at SDC! I fully agree that identifying the ‘positive deviants’ – or from a complexity perspective, reinforcing positive change (and discouraging the negative) – is critical to consolidating good practice as the organisation evolves.

    I was also happy to see your emphasis on trust…..this is always a challenging thing to cultivate, especially in large and dispersed organisations, but it is both particularly difficult and particularly important in a context of rapid change. When there is pressure to make large changes quickly, the dialogue and other interaction necessary for building or maintaining trust often falls by the wayside.

    The 2010-2011 period is a pivotal one in terms of the thematic networks at SDC. It is good to see that they are not being developed in a formulaic way, but are given the space to pursue their respective paths in diverse ways. I am convinced that this will lead not only to a great deal of learning, but also to the identification of good practice based on real experience. By this time next year, there should be enough collective experience to support a serious process of reflection on what is happening in the different networks – and why. This should also contribute to a positive adaptation to change, not only within the organisation, but also within the various environments SDC staff and partners find themselves.

  2. Ernst Bolliger says:

    Thanks, Manuel, for sharing your thoughts about SDC reorganization linked to the Cynefin framework. I found the comparison to the traffic roundabouts with a reduction of traffic rules to a strict minimum quite interesting. And I liked the post with the videos in the Aid on the Edge of Chaos blog.

    One important thing came to my mind while watching these videos: One important condition for the positive effect of the low-regulated roundabouts and crossroads is the general reduction of speed.
    Compared to SDC reorganization: Are the few rules clearly stated? Does the architecture of the organisation help in understanding the new (few) rules? Are SDC collaborators clear about the acceptable speed in the “crossroads of knowledge”? Do you have enough eye-contact (not only to let pass the other, but to share with and learn from each other)?

    About the principle stated by David Dorsey in his Sternin story: ” Let people who have discovered the deviations spread the word in their groups”.
    Who in SDC has discovered deviations (and who has developed them)? Is there space and do people use that space to tell each other what they developed, discovered, observed? It will be nice to hear a lot af encouraging stories from the “deviation developers” within SDC. I am courious to read about.

    Ernst Bolliger

  3. Glad to read that informal learning, learning in networks and via collaboration, is making inroads into organizations especially like yours. I would be curious to learn about the overall set of new media (communication and collaboration enablers, like your blog) play a role in the learning process, and who they are intertwined with the face-to-face learning processes. If there happens to be a report about this, I would appreciate to receive a link.
    Best regards, Prof. Dr. A. Back

  4. Manuel Flury says:

    Dear Prof. Back,
    we do not have a particular report. Even in our business electronic means of communication are getting more importance. This is particularly true in an organisations such as SDC with over 60 offices in as many countries all over the world. Electronic collaboration, however, develops rather slowly. There are many reasons, institutional ones but as well preferences of individuals for direct, face-to-face exchanges. Learning in groups understood as “developing shared belief structures through interaction among group members” implies a setting, that allows for trustfully reflecting own mental models and interpretation of realities. Such processes may involve electronic exchange. In principle, however, the face-to-face has to build zhr trust and confidence required.
    The latest blog about lessons to be learnt from face-to-face meetings of SDC networks illustrates the role of direct encounters. We are interested about experiences and practical approaches how face-to-face interactions may turn smothly into a vibrant electronic exchange and the role facilitation has to play in this respect.
    Best regards, Manuel Flury


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