Six Enablers of Emergent Learning: Part 2 – Sensing, Generating, and Collaborating

By Sahana Chattopadhyay and originally published as a single article on 

Part 1 of this article is here. Part 3 of this article is here.

What are the enabling conditions for emergent learning?

There are some inherent conditions and practices that can nurture and support emergent learning in organizations. I have described these briefly below:

Sensing and Sensemaking:

In a complex, deeply connected, and constantly changing world, sensemaking is an important capacity. It is a combination of seeing the specifics as well as the larger picture, and connecting the dots to see the overarching patterns.

Organizations that allow information to flow freely irrespective of positions and power, naturally create the conditions for sensemaking. Information is the energy that fuels sensemaking.

Traditionally, information has been seen as a currency of power; the more powerful has access to more information. This naturally restricts all decision making to the top of the organization. Information gets increasingly filtered and censored as it travels down the pyramid losing its overall meaning and context.

This not only creates a lacunae in the understanding of employees working at the lower levels, it is also a sad loss for the organization. The organization loses the insight of those closer to the challenges, becomes less responsive, and runs the risk of eventually becoming obsolete.

In a VUCA world, sensemaking is what keeps an organization alive and thriving. When everyone in the organization has access to freely flowing information, they can interpret, respond, and build shared awareness of the context and the ecosystem.

Collective sensemaking automatically helps people to filter out unnecessary information, which would otherwise have derailed the organization. Moreover, being trusted with information builds loyalty, responsibility, and engagement. Most organizations struggle with the latter.

IMHO, it happens when people are fully and unconditionally involved, and are part of a shared and meaningful journey. This shared meaning becomes the North Star that people use to guide their decisions, actions, and responses to emerging situations.

Sensemaking is foundational to emergent learning. As individuals and teams begin to see the larger patterns, new insights and breakthroughs occur leading to transformative learning.

When this kind of learning becomes the norm, an organization cannot stagnate. It stays in a state of constant communication with its ecosystem — adapting and evolving to its next level. Just like any other living system.

Generative Conversations:

The importance of this cannot be stressed enough. I have written about this in my article Reinventing Organizational Learning, where I first proposed the idea of shifting from intended learning to emergent learning to thrive in the VUCA world.

Otto Scharmer explains Generative Conversations in his Four Levels of Listening framework that leads to the Four Levels of Conversation. I am expanding on his thoughts. Organizations need to build the capacity to have such conversations where individuals and teams “hold space for something new to be born.”

This requires completely shifting away from all preconceived ideas, old solutions, yesterday’s logic, and past patterns. Suspending everything we thought we knew.

Only from a place of listening to each other, to the context, and to the information flowing in the ecosystem with an open Mind, open Heart, and an open Will, can we learn what wants to emerge. IMHO, in the VUCA world, this is an ability that organizations and individuals ignore at their peril.

This is closely linked to sensing and sensemaking which occurs as an outcome of such conversations. Organizations need to create the culture and the facilitative leadership required for generative conversations to take place.

Collaborating across Diversity:

Unfortunately, human beings have an affinity for homophily — a fancy word for the human equivalent of “birds of a feather flock together”. This has become increasingly easier with ubiquitous technology where we happily reside in our echo chambers and comfort bubbles.

And this is also one of the biggest obstacles to emergent learning, sensemaking, and staying responsive, and resilient. While Diversity and Inclusion are on all orgs “must do” list, the kind of collaboration I am talking about is different.

It is about deliberately and consciously bringing together different voices, diverse opinions, varied perspectives, and cross-cultural worldviews.

It is about holding space for and welcoming paradoxes, embracing cognitive dissonance, discarding the notion of “one right solution,” and exploring the varied dimensions of any challenge or situation.

It is about facilitative leadership that doesn’t get swayed by the loudest voice in the room or the majority opinion but pays equal heed to that one quiet voice expressing a different view.

Technology, if used sensitively and empathetically, can be a great bridge connecting diverse people across the globe of far-flung organizations. Platforms like Zoom support building of communities as well as small group breakout sessions, but I won’t write about technology here. I will keep it for my next post.

The important part is to truly respect and embrace diversity — not as a parameter to fulfill but as an organizational necessity in order to evolve and thrive. Collaboration also has nuances. It is not only about coming together to follow an already laid out plan. Collaboration is about coming together, holding space for all the diverse perspectives, and then moving toward the best that emerges in the most inclusive, focused, and alive way possible.

Part 3 of this article is here.

Republished with permission.

Featured image, some block quoting and some paragraph spacing added by Enlivening Edge Magazine. Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay