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Networks of learning and leadership in organizations
Article Type: Guest editorial From: The Learning Organization, Volume 17, Issue 1
In organizations, real power and energy is generated through relationships. The patterns of relationships and the capacities to form them are more important than tasks, functions, roles, and positions (Margaret Wheatley).
As irony would have it, I realized early one morning that the idea for this special issue (SI) and several of the papers in this SI came about and is based on my own network of dear colleagues who are as committed and involved in both leadership and learning. So, it is very appropriate and extremely special that I acknowledge both the synchronicity of it all coming together with that deep affirming network as a foundation and for the wonderful, highly professional and intriguing research and case examples you are about to read.
How I came about focusing on this special topic is due to my deep interest and belief in systems thinking over the years, and especially within the last couple of years, I have been asking myself, “What is the essence of systems?” and the more I worked with organizations, read the literature, and reflected, I am coming to the realization that it is all about the networks that we form. And I believe that the real work that gets done in our respective organizations comes about due to the leadership that emerges and the vast amount of learning that happens. Hence, the confluence of all three areas of focus.
I came across this description of “network” that I wanted to share with all of you that I think really captures the essence of a network. “The essential structure of any network is horizontal, not hierarchical, and ad hoc, not unified” (Wheatley, 2007).
Paper 1 highlights Christine van Winkelen's work entitled, “Deriving value from inter-organizational learning collaborations.” This research has studied inter-organizational collaborations in which learning is an explicit objective. Multiple forms of value were evidently being generated from the collaborations (individual capacity building, operational value, affirmation, reputation and relationship building, and learning about how to collaborate more effectively). It was found that subject-specific organizational capability building was rarely achieved. This was because of two main factors: individuals not translating the implications of the learning back to their organization, and the organizations not having systems and processes to transfer and amplify the learning that was brought back. This finding raises wonderful opportunities for further research, discussion, and operational application.
There are two theme's from Christine van Winkelen's work that have further discussion and focus in the other research in this SI:
Christine van Winkelen's work references governance mechanisms of inter-organizational learning collaborations to derive more value. Governance mechanisms, as you will see in Marko Kohtamäki's work below, is also the cornerstone of Marko Kohtamäki's quantitative research.
In Christine van Winkelen's conclusions section, she mentions the importance of identifying committed leadership. Alice MacGillivray's work is on “Leadership in a network of communities: a phenomenographic study” as is the case study from Monash University in Australia.
Paper 2 focuses on Alice MacGillivary's phenomenographic study, “Leadership in a network of communities: a phenomenographic study.” Her findings support the theoretical propositions that leadership in complex, knowledge-rich environments is fundamentally different than leadership models commonly presented through academic, business and development forums. According to the members in her study, strong leadership includes comfort with complexity, a passion for supporting other community participants without positional authority, the infusion of energy, humility, social network stimulation, multifaceted approaches to enabling knowledge creation and flow, encouragement of diversity, and strategic shifts in roles and identities.
Paper 3 features the research undertaken by Marko Kohtamäki, entitled, “Relationship governance and learning in partnerships.” This study is one of the first to empirically show that relationship learning is best facilitated by using various relationship governance mechanisms simultaneously. This present study suggests that the partnership governance structure should be balanced, utilizing both hierarchical and social governance mechanisms. Even though the quote above by Dr Margaret Wheatley, and in Christine van Winkelen's paper, does not rely on hierarchy nor “hierarchical mechanisms of control” in partnerships, Marko Kohtamäki's behavioral manifestations of this variable that are delineated in this study in Appendix 1 are worthy of note in interpreting and applying “hierarchical mechanisms.”
Marko Kohtamäki also states that, “Since learning is context dependent, it needs to be studied in both partnerships and networks.” He argues that the level of organizational integration, i.e. trust, between the organizational members affects learning; hence, learning is different in teams than it is in inter-organizational networks or partnerships. The emphasis on team learning will be the focal point in the next paper by Sandra Fisser and Marie-Joëlle Browaeys.
Paper 4, “Team learning on the edge of chaos,” is authored by Sandra Fisser and Marie-Joëlle Browaeys. The focal point of this work is to provide an alternative perspective to current organizational challenges by considering team learning as a key factor for surviving the turbulent environment we find ourselves in at this time. Their findings encourage management to reconsider traditional ways of thinking. Teams as networks of learning are a valuable corporate asset that an organization needs to foster when aiming to survive. Measures like minimal interaction rules, individual autonomy and a flexible organization structure demand a new perspective in which subjectivity, non-linear methods, and understanding replace attempts for objectivity, linear thinking, and control.
Paper 5, “Between exchange and development: organizational learning in schools through inter-organizational networks,” by Klaus-Peter Schulz and Silke Geithner, is based on both quantitative and qualitative empirical research carried out during a specific time frame in 13 school networks in Germany. The authors discuss how communication and cooperation in inter-organizational networks may bring about organizational learning. They will distinguish between two levels of consideration: the learning platform where representatives of the schools regularly meet and the single schools. A portfolio representing learning at the platform level in relation to the development processes in the schools has been developed. The empirical results show the different stages of learning and development and provide insights into the success factors.
Paper 6, “The key roles in the informal organization: a network analysis perspective,” is authored by Alberto F. de Toni and Fabio Nonino. The authors identify and characterize the key informal roles (i.e. opinion leaders, central connectors, bottlenecks, experts, consultants, or helpful people) and identify a new role, which they are calling “pilus prior” (first lancer) which has the characteristics of eliciting a synthesis of problem solving, expertise, and accessibility. The authors propose a general framework for the analysis of informal networks and provide some suggestions to enhance knowledge sharing flows and to align the formal organizational processes to the informal one.
Paper 7 is a case study, entitled “Leadership in network learning: business action research at Monash University” (Australia) authored by Tim Haslett, John Barton, John Stephens, Liz Schell, and Jane Olsen. The heart of this case revolves around the cohort model at Monash that encompasses significant links to organizations, other university action research groups, teaching, publishing and the proliferation of action research cohort 2. Interwoven in these linkages are the critical capacities of leadership, learning, reflection, and application. One very interesting statement from this case actually connects very nicely to the research and the new role that was identified in Alberto F. de Toni and Fabio Nonino's paper mentioned above. It states, “Traditional notions of leadership do not adequately describe the leadership that has evolved in this cohort.” Tim Haslett, the leader in this example, exhibits the characteristics of the pilus prior (first lancer). (Tim, do not you just love that new title, Dr Tim Haslett, First Lancer ).
These papers represent significant research from all the individual authors and serve as a very noteworthy contribution as a synthesis to new knowledge. A very special thank you to all of the authors; the reviewers; Peter A.C. Smith, the Managing Editor; and to Nancy Rolph, the Publisher.
Carol Ann Zulauf ShariczGuest Editor
Wheatley, M. (2007), “Leadership of self-organized networks: lessons from the war on terror”, Performance Improvement Quarterly, Vol. 20 No. 2, pp. 59–66