Mothers of reinvention

June 30, 1995

We live in a world characterised by rapid change. We all know that. One response is to recognise that learning has to form an integral part of our lives if we wish to avoid being shipped on to the local equivalent of Jurassic Park with the rest of the dinosaurs. "Life-long learning" has become a key phrase in the design of curricula to equip students with skills needed to cope with this new world.

Peter Senge, an academic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written a bestseller called The Fifth Discipline in which he describes the characteristics of "a learning organisation" necessary to organisations to avoid being sent to the scrapheap. But it is not only technology and its associated impact on our world that has brought about massive change but also what ordinary people want from the workplace. If learning is what keeps them employable they need to be given opportunities to learn and their unions will justifiably take up that cause. They are no longer accepted by managers who do not practise what they preach. They would prefer to be treated like thinking adults who can make a contribution to improving the way the organisation works.

There are a growing number of business and service organisations that are striving to become learning entities but we do not hear too much about universities doing the same. Indeed most universities are as hierarchical as ever with yawning chasms between so-called academic and non-academic staff, between the professoriate and the non-professoriate and endless gradations in between.

But this is not the tone for a new South Africa. While South Africa is a marvellous and exciting place to be, it is also a difficult place to be a manager or leader of any sort. Virtually every established way of "doing things" is being challenged as people and groups of people previously excluded from the system not only want to change the perceived power structures but are also determined to participate in building a truly "new South Africa". People across races, gender and other divides who have not previously worked closely together now have to find out enough about each other to forge productive working relationships. Unionspeak (and even proposed labour law) is about "co-determination" and "empowerment". Staff development is seen as a right. Students either do or want to participate actively in all levels of education management. All this is often labelled part of the "transformation" agenda but it is difficult to imagine a more fertile climate for "learning" as well. Clearly borne of the determination to learn is fuelled by a lack of trust in the old system. Leaders and managers have an unusual opportunity to build something truly unique. Leaders of tertiary education institutions have a special responsibility here deriving from the fact that the universities of tomorrow, if they are to survive at all, will have to be very different.

University staff seem really to believe that. The university as an organisation, together with the church, is one of the oldest surviving organisations in existence and those who would put obstacles in the way of change derive great comfort from this. Cold comfort in my view. Technology (the Internet et al) has taken away one of universities' competitive advantages - their traditional role as the repositories of knowledge. One look at the conference business is enough to convince anybody that when most people seek to upgrade their skills or knowledge they do not head straight for the nearest university. Funding is no longer generous and there is even scepticism about what some universities achieve. Universities need " to reinvent themselves" as The Economist put it (February 7, 1994).

It is in this reinvention that the commonsense of the "learning organisation" becomes evident. "Co-determination" and "empowerment" are not events that can happen in an organisation without some shared aspirations, values and vision. lf you want to capture the energy and potential inherent in "empowerment" then you will have to invest time in building the first of Senge's disciplines and that is shared vision "developing shared intakes of the future we seek to create, and the principles and guiding practices by which we hope to get there". Building shared vision is not possible among people who have not learned to understand their own "mental models" and those of the people among whom they now live and work in a less divided South Africa.

Senge described the second of his disciplines (mental models) as "talking coherently about attitudes and beliefs, to allow others to point them out, to hear comment about them with involvement but without rancour, and to look more clearly at the sources of our own actions . . ." South Africans are being particularly challenged in this respect.

"Personal mastery" is the third discipline, one with which academics would find affinity. We know that people learn best when they are studying something in which they have a deep interest. Staff development and training must take place in an "organisational environment which encourages all its members to develop themselves toward the goals and purposes they choose" and individuals in the organisation must learn to expand their personal capacity to create the results they most desire. This discipline probably challenges the leadership and the people who presently hold key positions in the hierarchy. It may well mean abandoning a personal style of management - it is clearly fundamental to the process of learning and may hold some unpleasant surprises for people who have leaned on the bureaucracy for support.

"Team learning" is a fourth discipline. It places enormous value on listening and conversational skills in the belief that "groups of people can reliably develop intelligence and ability greater than the sum of individual members' talents". Universities, in part by their very nature, reward individual efforts but also understand the importance of a good research team, for example. The average academic does not often see management and non-academic support staff, much less outside communities, as part of the team. Enormous potential is lost in the process. Universities must be seen to be of value to the communities they purport to serve (and indeed which sustain them). Having open relationships with community groups of various sorts and being in a productive dialogue with these communities might be an important key to their survival.

Finally and importantly, the fifth discipline: systems thinking. Senge describes this as a way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding, the forces and interrelationships that shape the behaviour of systems. We have become adept at breaking down problems into component parts, at labelling close parts (sometimes as academic disciplines) and we forget the interdependencies between them and the need for collaboration. Nowhere is this more evident than in development work where health and education and housing and other disciplines all have to work together. There may well be other ways of describing how to manage in the world of change. But the learning organisation is one which does not simply cope with change but indeed embraces it, is proactive rather than reactive. That is the kind of oganisation that I want to work in and that is the kind of organisation that the staff and students and communities that support the University of Natal have committed themselves to build. Watch this space.

Brenda Gourley is vice chancellor of the University of Natal in South Africa.

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