Soma Integral
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Soma Integral

The Role of Regenerative Education in Organizations

Photograph: Long awaited bloom 2018 © Bryan Ungard

Originally published on LinkedIn on April 19, 2018.

Despite many decades, thousands of books, articles, seminars, and consultants focused on creating Learning Organizations[i], why do so few of them exist today?

A learning organization is defined as a group of people working together collectively to build capacities for achieving results they really care about[ii]. These organizations have five characteristics: 1) Systems thinking; 2) Personal Mastery; 3) Mental models; 4) Shared Vision; and 5) Team learning[iii]. While I might refine the meaning and purpose of these characteristics, they are overall good objectives. Still, the key question remains: why are these characteristics so seldom achieved and maintained over time in organizations?

For the past five years, I have been deeply engaged in developing my own capacity as a regenerative practitioner — my consulting practice Soma Integral focuses on helping organizations and place-based communities become more regenerative using an approach developed by a long lineage of teachers, the most recent ones being Carol Sanford and The Regenesis Group. Through my learning, I’ve come to the insight that while the Learning Organization’s framework provides a good map of what to strive for, the achievement of these characteristics needs an effective developmental approach that organizations can use. I believe the regenerative method and its technology provide this deliberate developmental system for organizations to become learning organizations in a way that is transformative and delivers lasting results.

The regenerative approach my colleagues and I practice is based on a Developmental Organization Science grounded in a scientific hierarchy of thoughts, namely: epistemology (sources of knowing), cosmology (paradigm we use), ontology (science of being), and technology (application of science to life) and techniques (tools and methods)[iv]. I’m not going to provide details of this organizing hierarchy in this blog. What is important now is the awareness of some of the key premises established at each level of the hierarchy in order to understand the nature of regenerative and developmental education and the benefits to human systems.

Epistemological Premises of a Developmental Approach

  • The examination of multiple levels of reality — inner and outer, observable and non-observable, objective and subjective — is integral to a developmental science.
  • The exploration of how we are thinking about something is as critical as focusing on what we are thinking about.
  • Deep learning only occurs through personal experiences. Self-observation and self-reflection are essential to the process of self-knowing.
  • Development of individuals’ and groups’ capabilities takes place within the context of the work that needs to be performed and the challenges that need to be addressed in a “nothing extra” way (i.e., not in training sessions, workshops, or retreats).

Cosmological Premises of a Developmental Approach

  • Human systems such as businesses, organizations, and society are alive and evolving; they need a science that deals with living systems.
  • All living systems are unique and distinctive, with a given essence and specific potential to be realized.
  • Living systems are non-reducible wholes that can only be understood in their whole complexity — that is, by considering the dynamic relationships and interactions between their components and imaging the system working within its context.
  • Living systems are open systems that interact and engage in reciprocal exchanges with their environment. They use value-adding processes to benefit the larger systems within which they are nested.

Ontological Premises of a Developmental Approach

  • An evolutionary perspective focuses on facilitating the becoming of living systems or human systems by evolving their capacity and unleashing their potential.
  • Developing a whole system means addressing simultaneously three aspects of the system: its level of will, its state of being, and its thinking and behavior.
  • Human capacity for consciousness can be developed.

Technological Premises of a Developmental Approach

  • Dynamic systemic frameworks are used to support systems thinking and to explore the dynamic interrelatedness and connectedness of living systems, at different scales of complexity.
  • Differentiation and integration are brought together in a way that respects the essence of each individual system and ensures each engages in value-adding processes.
  • Semantic language is used in order to reflect the dynamic aspects of living systems and explore values and meaning.

Techniques of a Developmental Approach

Regenerative techniques are grounded in these premises with an aim to develop the ‘whole person’ and free individuals from long-term dependencies on external guidance. As a regenerative practitioner, education or, more accurately, the value-adding process of educating, is the overarching technique I use with clients. The Latin origin of ‘educate’ is educare, meaning ‘drawing out.’ It is also related to educere, that is, ‘to develop something latent, some potential.’ Educating from this perspective means engaging individuals and groups in deep learning and development using a transformative change process that is experiential, creative, reflective, and participative.

What does regenerative education involve and require from myself and my clients?

Regenerative education involves resourcing a client using the Socratic Method of inquiry and the use of living systems frameworks. ‘Resourcing’ literary means ‘reconnecting people to their deeper source of insights’. Using this intuitive form of knowing, people are able to uncover their unique potential, which ignites their will and enables them to act on their own from a place of higher consciousness. The role of the Resource, in contrast to that of a facilitator, is to ask questions sourced from the lenses of systemic frameworks that enhance the quality of the thinking, stimulate reflections, and build the capacity for self-management; this results in growing people’s ability to engage in rigorous systemic thinking, with a focus on what is essential, and at an increasingly higher level of complexity.

The regenerative process engages a client in an experiential learning journey that aims to:

1. Create a shared image of the business/organizational system operating within its environment and identifying what makes the organization unique and distinctive, in other words, revealing its essence;

2. Uncover the inherent potential within the client’s system and its environment — the gap between where the organization is and where it could be if it fully realized its purpose;

3. Gain a deeper understanding of the organizational context, challenges, and opportunities by using systemic frameworks explicitly;

4. Challenge old ways of thinking or being to create openings for the emergence of new insights; and

5. Encourage self-observations and self-reflections to generate ‘true’ understanding beyond surface phenomena; this allows each individual to fully integrate the learning and grow the capacity to apply it to new situations independently.

The resourcing process demands some mastery from me as a Resource. First, deep care, respect, and honest curiosity are essential to appreciate my client. Second, to not impede my client’s learning, I must ensure I don’t project my own beliefs and desires on my client’s organization: the direction I think it should take or my predefined goals and objectives. The use of dynamic frameworks is very useful here as they provide a shared language and way to explore and ask questions that are fully transparent and free of predetermined solutions. Finally, I must believe in people’s capacity to find their own answers while managing my own bias and avoiding manipulating the organization toward a predetermined path; my focus should remain on assisting their developmental process by increasing their level of awareness of what’s limiting their own thinking.

Engaging in this process for the first time often feels intimidating and awkward for a client who might not have immediate answers to the resourcing questions. But silence and awkwardness are usually the signs that people are moving away from automatic thinking and becoming more conscious and reflective. Getting used to the new language of the frameworks can also take time; this new language, however, prevents people from falling back into old ways of thinking that would hinder the emergence of insights and new understanding. For the process to work, people must be willing to be disrupted in their thinking and able to manage their reactivity or ego-driven attitude. Patience and trust in the process and the Resource are key.

What is the value of the regenerative education approach to organizations?

A regenerative educational approach supports the development of the whole system because it influences the function, being and will at both the individual and organizational levels. It respects who people are and recognizes and trusts their own ability to uncover their own answers and determine their own path. The approach encourages individuals to take control of their own destiny, while increasing their discernment, critical thinking skills, and ability to generate innovative ideas. This helps them break away from their dependence on other people’s thinking or on pre-existing models that might not be relevant to their organizational context, hence increasing their self-esteem. This level of autonomy and agency, however, is achieved without generating chaos or anarchy because people learn to think for and by themselves about how to act in a given situation while maintaining alignment towards their organization’s strategic direction. As people gain confidence in their ability to achieve more than they previously thought they were able to, their level of will to contribute further to the organization is reinforced, as well as the desire to continue to learn and develop.

Learning and development at the individual level has deep repercussions on the whole organization. It’s important to remember that the educational process takes place within the context of group work and that it is done as the group focuses on the important work of the organization (i.e., development is fully integrated with the work of the organization). Through this process, individuals learn to become thinking partners to each other and the group increases its ability to think strategically and to address more challenging situations while building deeper relationships. As everyone begins to build the critical thinking muscle and new high quality ideas are generated, excitement and energy rise, regenerating the whole organization and fueling new will. The process, in other words, is life-giving.

What is the potential ripple effect on Society?

The impact of a regenerative education approach is not limited to the boundary of the organizations within which the development takes place. Indeed, the capabilities that are developed are pervasive and influence not only how people engage at work, but also how they behave with their families and interact in their communities. Genuine education creates citizens who can transfer their learning and who are able to play a value-adding role in any context that demands it. In her book The Responsible Business, Carol Sanford recalls working with Colgate South Africa in 1990’s at a time when racial animosity was raging and when “Nelson Mandela was calling for councils in each of the townships to develop dialogue, reduce intertribal conflict, and grow the capacity for self-governance.”[v]Understanding the need for Colgate to have a broader mandate than the success of the company in South Africa, Colgate executive Stelios Tsezos and Sanford initiated community-building processes within the company with a goal to enable workers to transfer their learning back into the townships. As Sanford notes, employees “no longer segmented their lives into home and work but began to see them as integrated wholes. These workers quickly grasped that for the township to become successful, the company needed to be successful, and vice versa.”

At a time when our society is divided and confused on which leader to follow, the possibility of educating citizens to be able to demonstrate the capabilities of discernment, systems thinking, and self-determination, within a regenerative paradigm, is to me a worthy pursuit — one in which I am wholeheartedly engaged.

Acknowledgements

The ideas and content for this blog were inspired by diverse people and groups working with a regenerative approach, including Carol Sanford; The Regenesis Group; Ashley Nielsen’s doctorate thesis titled “The Philosophy of Regenerative Education and Living Schools”; and a recent retreat of the Regenerative Education Alliance sponsored by my colleague Josie Plaut, Executive Director at CLEAR.

Notes

[i] The Learning Organization is a concept that originated from the work of Peter Senge and his colleagues at MIT in the 1990’s and popularized in Senge’s 1990 seminal book The Fifth Discipline.

[ii] Fulmer, Robert M., Keys, J. Bernard. (1998). A Conversation with Peter Senge: New Developments in Organizational Learning. Organizational Dynamics, 27 (2), 33–42.

[iii] As defined by Peter Senge in the The Fifth Discipline. Please refer to the book for further details of the five characteristics of a Learning Organization.

[iv] Carol Sanford, Science Into Technique: A Systems Research and Developmental Process for Organizational Science (unpublished).

[v] Carol Sanford (2011), The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success. Jossey-Bass.

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Beatrice Ungard

Beatrice Ungard

Facilitate the resolution of adaptive challenges and design purposeful and conscious organizations while focusing on the wellbeing of the whole ecosystem.