Organizational and Societal Learning:
Groupware for a Small Planet

Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz

Keynote Address:
Groupware Frontiers Conference
Tomorrow's Organisation Event
London, England

May 1994

© 1994 Awakening Technology

Discovering Our Future Together

]Conversations are the way knowledge workers discover what they know, share it with their colleagues, and in the process create new knowledge for the organization. The panoply of modern information and communications technologies -- for example, computers, faxes, e-mail -- can help knowledge workers in this process. But all depends on the quality of the conversations that such technologies support . -- Alan Webber, "What’s So New About the New Economy?," Harvard Business Review, January-February 1993[

Our overarching purpose at this critical time in history is to create a sustainable future for our species and planet. Our collective survival depends on learning to act for the common good and taking responsibility for the whole. To do this we must discover how to tap our collective intelligence, learn together, and sift and weave our knowledge into the meta-patterns of wisdom.

The personal key is the intent to learn from what we discover when we listen to others and listen deeply within. The collective key is transforming our organizations into communities that evoke and support the deepest learnings of which we are capable. Both conversation and reflection are essential. We need to take time to tap our inner knowing and to make sense of and integrate the challenging complexity of multiple perspectives. Each of us sees a part of the truth. When we share our truths with each other we can see more deeply, like two eyes see in three dimensions. Tomorrow’s organizations that learn how to do this will thrive well into the next century.

The Great Turning

The very same skills of separation, analysis, and control that gave us the power to shape our environment are producing ecological and social crises in our outer world, and psychological and spiritual crises in our inner world. Both these crises grow out of our success in separating ourselves from the larger fabric of life. -- Fred Kofman & Peter Senge, "Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations," Organizational Dynamics, Autumn 1993

In the beginning was the web of life.


After billions of years, human culture emerged from the earth.


During the scientific and industrial revolutions we differentiated ourselves from nature and developed our technological power to understand and manipulate the physical environment.


The rise of the scientific method and rationalism in Western culture was fueled by the separation of our logical and spiritual lives as we learned to observe the cosmos objectively, rather than participate in it. To develop Western culture fully, we had to "forget" our essential relatedness to ourselves, each other, nature, and the Mystery of creation.

Now, according to cultural theorists Charles Johnston and Duane Elgin, we are roughly at the halfway point in our evolution. Our technological capacity is highly developed, but our environment is stretched to its limits, and we are more alienated from each other than we will ever be.

Great Turning

Our collective survival depends on what Craig Schindler and Gary Lapid call the Great Turning. We are beginning to "re-member" our essential connection with all Life.

Reconnection and Integration

Our challenge is to simultaneously awaken the participative, holistic consciousness we have "forgotten" and hold it in creative relationship with our vast scientific and technological powers. The process of creation involves both differentiation and integration, distinction and wholeness. We need analysis as well as awe.

Process of Creation

To navigate the Great Turning we need both the linking/thinking power of our emerging planetary neural network/global brain and the transformative grace of a profound global mind change.

Global Brain, Global Mind

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely lights and wires in a box. -- Edward R. Murrow, about television

We are now laying the foundation of a new social architecture made of fiber-optic cable, silicon chips, high-speed switches, display screens, and software through which digital information travels as energy and light. It is one embodiment of interconnectedness. "Reach out and touch someone," "the information superhighway," and "we bring the world to you," are literally becoming true. Every day millions of people worldwide use the Internet, an early version of the electronic global brain that connects our small planet.

Global Brain: Information and Connection

The advent of "information at your fingertips" may give it to us instantly, but we already suffer from too many disconnected facts, words, and images; too many phone calls, faxes, messages; too many demands on our time and attention. Information out of context only confuses. As futurist Robert Theobald says, as information doubles, knowledge is halved, and wisdom is quartered. We must choose what we want, with whom we connect, and for what purposes. To really use our global brain, we need a global mind change.

Global Mind: Interdependence and Community

The emerging electronic planetary nervous system is an expression of nature’s impulse to ever-greater complexity and intelligence. Through it we may become smart enough together to respond quickly, wisely, and resiliently to the profound challenges of our time. But this silicon and fiber-optic "brain" will not realize its potential without healthy organizational and community life breathing the spirit of interdependence, partnership, and collaboration throughout it.

Global Brain/Mind

Tomorrow’s Organization

Liberated thinking comes from the team approach, which transcends traditional corporate boundaries. The future for enlightened, pioneering corporations must be based on partnerships between different business leaders, different corporations and different cultures, in short, the teamnet approach. -- Anita Roddick

The metaphor for corporations is shifting from the tightly coupled, tightly bounded organism to the loosely coupled, loosely bounded ecosystem. -- Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization

The fundamental organizing principles of corporations and institutions are changing. The old hierarchical patterns no longer work. We used to think of our organizations as independently operating, well-oiled, efficient engines of profit, reflecting the Newtonian mechanical clockworks worldview which gave birth to the industrial era. As the new living systems worldview develops and matures, we are learning to use its metaphors to understand and create new organizational patterns that reflect our essential interdependence.

In The TeamNet Factor, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps describe the teamnet approach: ever-shifting networks of teams that cross traditional, formerly forbidden boundaries, linking once-competing organizations into ecosystems of cooperation. As Lipnack and Stamps explain:

While teamnet means "network of teams," the two ideas are complementary; each brings a unique element to the other. "Teams" imply small, in the same place, and tightly coordinated; "networks" have a sense of large, spread out, and loosely linked. "Teamnet" brings the best of both together.... In an ideal teamnet, people work in high-performing teams at every level, and the network as a whole functions as though it were a highly skilled and motivated team.

Teamnets create bridges within organizations and bridge boundaries outside with customers, suppliers, and competitors. Teams are the foundational unit of these new patterns of interconnection and interdependence. Telecommunications technology is the nervous systems that holds these networks together. Groupware is the collaboration support technology that shapes and holds the activity of teams within those networks.


Popular ‘Groupware’ Networks Flatten Corporate Hierarchies, Altering Culture of Work -- The Wall Street Journal, December 9, 1993

Instead of asking, "What is the information that matters and how do we most effectively manage it?" companies must start asking, "What are the relationships that matter and how can the technology most effectively support them?" -- Michael Schrage, "In Information Technology, the Key Is Good Relationships," The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 1990

Corporations and organizations are using groupware to become more responsive by increasing their ability to think collectively and to act quickly and coherently. In 1978, we coined the term to refer to the potent combination of intentionally chosen group process and software to support it. Today most people use it to mean any multi-user software that supports group work, coordination, information exchange, and learning. Groupware comes in diverse forms.

People meeting at the same time in the same place may augment their conversation with groupware. It can be a simple aid to discussion, such as using keypads to indicate individual opinions or preferences while the computer graphically displays the whole group’s responses. It can be a sophisticated electronic meeting system where everyone uses networked personal computers and a facilitator guides the group through cycles of generating, organizing, and evaluating ideas.

Other groupware supports teams meeting at different times and places over local area networks, the telephone system, or over the Internet. It can be a simple electronic bulletin board for posting news; a network of computer conferences where diverse stakeholders in virtual corporations discuss projects, clients, and markets across different time zones; or a global corporate memory system spread over several continents, with multi-media "maps" of organizational issues and knowledge in text, graphics, voice, and video, continually accessed and updated by knowledge workers, customers, and suppliers working together. Lotus Notes is the most widely used different time/different place groupware system.

Since groupware is an electronic embodiment of collaboration, introducing it is a process of orchestrating both technological and cultural change. Organizations expecting a technological "fix" have learned this the hard way. Some companies threw out early versions of The Coordinator, a groupware system for workflow coordination, because it was more suited to a culture with well-established procedures than the more open-ended information exchange they needed. Another rejected IBM’s TeamFocus, a popular electronic meeting support system, even though it saved time and money, because it allowed more democratic involvement in decision-making than this traditional command-and-control organization was ready for.

Just as word processing does not make good writing, even with spelling- and grammar-checkers, groupware by itself, no matter how sophisticated, will not create good collaboration. Groupware introductions fail or backfire when they are not supported by participatory planning, pilot projects, team-oriented culture, and plenty of training.

Appropriate groupware technology ("brain") and collaborative team culture ("mind") working together are the patterning forces of tomorrow’s organization.

Purpose and Intent

The real value of a medium lies less in the information ... it carries than in the community it creates.... Technology surfaces previously concealed organizational conflicts. -- Michael Schrage, "The Culture of Camelware," GroupWare ’93

Groupware can have different results, depending on the group’s intentions and commitments, purposes, processes, and style. The same system can be used for deeply reflective dialogue or acrimonious argument. Electronic mail can contain messages of encouragement and coaching or standardized bureaucratic memos. Electronic meeting systems can support fuller conversations that consider all voices and viewpoints or march a group through an agenda to reach a quick decision.

Like any technology, groupware is an extension of our faculties and capabilities, a tool that accelerates, amplifies, and magnifies the interactions and behaviors it supports. If our purpose is security and control, it will amplify that. If we intend to learn and discover, it will help us do that, too.

In some organizations electronic mail is routinely sent to large numbers of people "for your information only" and to create electronic paper trails. The result is clogged mail boxes and information overload. On some public systems, people have devised "bozo filters" to screen out communications (private and group) from those who are vicious, obnoxious, or otherwise annoying. Michael Schrage reports on software "agents" in groupware systems that act on one’s behalf, such as making appointments, scheduling resources, collecting information, and the like. These agents may be programmed to act deceptively, just as human assistants might make excuses or withhold information for the benefit of their bosses rather than the whole organization.

Learning depends on trust and mutually respectful behavior. If e-mail becomes junk mail, bozos are filtered, and software agents deceive, trust in the system and the on-line organization seriously erodes.

Individuating and Teaming Dynamics

The future belongs to teams. No one person has the capacity to see all the aspects of today’s complex world and it is only as groups learn to work together that an institution, a professional group, or a geographical community can hope to flourish. -- Robert Theobald

Small groups and teams are at the heart of every organization. Group intelligence is greatest when everyone brings everything s/he knows to the table. This requires that people be themselves -- unique and differentiated. It also requires that the group respectfully hold that diversity of individuals in creative relationship so that something greater can emerge. Group learning requires both differentiation and integration.

Groupware is a new organizational and architectural medium. Just as physical architecture influences the dynamics of what people do within its spaces, virtual architecture shapes the dynamics of virtual community. Groupware for organizational learning, intelligence, and action needs to support both differentiation and integration, action and reflection, the parts and the whole which is greater than any of them.

Groupware for Organizational Intelligence

Unfortunately, in our highly individualistic society, many groupware systems have only a strong individuating (differentiating) dynamic. A few have a teaming (integrating) dynamic. For a simple example, a list showing the last item each person has read in a conference gives everyone a sense of the team -- who is there and whether s/he is up to date with its activity. Very few systems have this feature.

Individuating dynamics:

Interactive databases, electronic mail, and most bulletin board systems have strong individuating dynamics. A graphic user interface that allows you to do anything you want, in several places at once, and view things in any order, is individuating. There is little "sense of the whole" or real collective activity.

Range of Dynamics

In contrast, teaming dynamics:
Computer conferencing and new groupware tools that support group learning have teaming dynamics. Their architectures shape and focus the flow of attention and conversation into coherent patterns that generate knowledge.

Group Thinking and Learning

Regardless of the electronic tools we use, the processes of working, thinking, and learning together involve a rich interplay of individuating and teaming dynamics. Each of us must be in touch with what we are thinking, feeling, and experiencing in order to know what we know -- and what we don’t. Then we take the risk to express what we know (and what we don’t) which adds to the intelligence of the group. Next we listen to everyone else’s expressions in order to better understand them and learn where we agree, disagree, or aren’t sure. Finally, we do our best to hold all the viewpoints in creative relationship with each other so something more can emerge that is in the best interests of everyone.

Undifferentiated Group: Groupthink

An undifferentiated group -- where individuals are not contributing their knowledge and experience -- only engages in "groupthink." The Abilene Paradox tells the story: At the peak of summer, a family finds itself on vacation in Abilene, Kansas having a hot, sweaty, and miserable time, only to discover that no one wanted to go there in the first place, but each assumed everyone else did!

Differentiated Group: Diversity

Expressing one’s knowledge and preferences is an essential step in group learning and action. But it may not lead to collective activity. The same family may want to go entirely different places on vacation: the ocean, backpacking in the mountains, to visit family, to experience a new part of the world.

Group Mirroring: Listening

The next step is active listening and respectful speaking for greater understanding. It involves reflecting and mirroring what one hears and sees to find the assumptions, commonalities, and differences underlying particular preferences. After some dialogue, the family may discover that even though their ideas of locale may differ, they all agree on some characteristics of their preferred vacation: adventure, lots of time outdoors, beautiful scenery, experiencing something new, spending time together and with family.

Integrated Group: Unity and Diversity

Finally, as each of us can experience the different viewpoints within ourselves as well as between ourselves and others, and import others’ frames of reference into our own, there is an opportunity for creative integration. Each of us then holds an image of the whole, even as we are unique and individual. The family may discover some entirely new vacation possibility that appeals to all of them, such as participating in an archeological study dig near the ocean in Baja California and inviting two of their favorite cousins along.

Group Thinking and Memory Tools

Fragmentary thinking becomes systemic whenever we recover "the memory of the whole," the awareness that wholes actually precede parts. -- Fred Kofman & Peter Senge, "Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations," Organizational Dynamics, Autumn 1993

Two kinds of groupware tools with teaming dynamics are particularly useful for supporting knowledge-generating conversation within organizations. Group thinking tools augment a group’s ability to generate and evaluate ideas. Group memory tools organize and hold the knowledge that is created.

Tools for group thinking are part of electronic meeting support systems. In addition to face-to-face conversation, people use networked personal computers to generate, organize, evaluate, and communicate ideas together. Because everyone can enter ideas into the collective group mind at once ("parallel processing"), many more comments are generated. Each person has much more air time than in a regular meeting. The option of making comments anonymously encourages everyone to contribute, challenge assumptions, and try out "risky" ideas. Tools for evaluating and prioritizing provide quick feedback about group preferences. A facilitator guides the group through its process, mixing conversation, computer tools, and other methods as appropriate. Overall, computer-augmented meetings are faster, and participants are generally more satisfied with the quality of the decisions.

Flow of Group Thinking

Memory is essential for learning. Otherwise issues continue to be revisited and rehashed, and new people involved later in a project may be unaware of assumptions and rationales for choices and decisions. Groupware tools for group and organizational memory:
Newer systems such as CM/1 from Corporate Memory Systems Inc. offer graphic hypertext environments for creating, organizing, and displaying an organization’s remembered conversations, issues, and decisions. This is ongoing, dynamic, living knowledge.

Computer-supported memory can transform the nature of conversation from adversarial discussion to collaborative learning. It is common in meetings for someone to hold and push for a position again and again. In contrast, when the point is electronically displayed for all to see, complete with detailed arguments, that person may feel heard and step back from his position enough to enter into a dialogue to learn with others.

Issue Map (Organizational Memory)

Other Tools for Teaming

Group drawing and modeling tools allow a group to team up and draw on a shared electronic surface, even when members may be miles (or continents) apart. They augment text-only communication. People can collaborate on issue maps, mental models, shared visions, planning diagrams, and more, either in one shared drawing space or in separate layers that each person controls. Group drawing tools also allow people to visually compare alternatives under consideration.

"Weaver" is the term coined by Leif Smith for a person who "sees patterns and makes connections." Weaving is an integrative process that transforms conversation into knowledge. Groupware weaving tools include keywords, thesauri, indices, "smart" menus, outliners, and hypertext systems. Weaving is particularly powerful when done by a team so that different perspectives are reflected in the content organization of the material and links within it.

In our groupware research, we have also experimented with a variety of teaming tools for:

As mentioned earlier, few systems maintain a list showing the last item each member of a conference has read. This allows any conference member, and especially a facilitator, to see where each person is in the conversation. In addition, our research system also displayed for each group member the last item created (written) and the total number of items created in the conference. This makes it easy to spot "lurkers" as well as those dominating the conversation and to track levels of participation. If someone has been quite active and then only reads for awhile, the facilitator may want to see if there is a problem.

Our research system also displayed the names of a group in a circle (up to 23) each time a member entered the group activity space, reminding members of who was there and visually providing a sense of the whole.

Group roles, responsibilities, and permissions also support teaming dynamics, especially when they can be easily modified as tasks change. For example, different people may be readers, writers, editors, facilitators, weavers, gatekeepers, etc. Lotus Notes has a system of access levels, although they cannot be flexibly named nor easily reconfigured.

"Smart" boundaries also support teaming dynamics by focusing everyone’s energy and attention on what is happening inside the virtual container of a group meeting space. With event driven scripts, any time a member enters or leaves a group activity, a facilitator agent can check the agenda, activity markers, or other group procedures and require or remind that some particular action be taken. For example, before someone can participate in a new activity, an agent may require that s/he read the group guidelines and commitments or suggest that background information is available and ask if s/he wants to see it. This is especially useful for orientation, but we also used these tools for in-process evaluations, when the option to respond to a brief questionnaire was presented each time a member entered the activity until s/he completed it.

Ever since our early work in the late ’70s on the Electronic Information Exchange System we have carefully chosen the names of on-line spaces and activities. The names and metaphors used to describe computer-augmented processes influence how people perceive them and act within them. Unfortunately, while newer systems with graphic user interfaces are easier to learn and use, the metaphors do not evoke a sense of teamwork and collaboration. For example, does it really make sense to conduct a dialogue circle inside a file folder or a database? Is a bulletin board a good environment for collaborative learning?

To support the teaming dynamics that will be mission critical to tomorrow’s organization, these and other tools will need to become standard in groupware. Most of these tools can be found in one or more current systems, but no system on the market has them all. Fortunately that may change in the next few years as major vendors enter the groupware market with sophisticated systems, and existing systems evolve to include more of these tools for teaming.

In the future we expect to see systems with powerful, graphically based tools that allow facilitators (and interested members) to see a group’s living process unfold within the virtual form that contains it, supporting the natural ebb and flow of its creative rhythms, and defined by appropriately permeable boundaries. These tools will allow us to sketch images of a group’s process as we plan its next steps. In response, the computer will suggest useful patterns and tools. With a few mouse clicks, we will be able to open new containers, rearrange activities, summarize results, create agents to act in our behalf, put important events in the group’s flow where members will be sure to encounter them, and much more.

As Michael Schrage points out, the increasing number of choices in the groupware domain is going to be one of the major sources of friction in an organization, unless it knows what its values are. Organizations that value relationships, teamnets, community, collective intelligence, and organizational learning will seek out and use groupware with tools that evoke teaming dynamics.

But even with the best tools such values will not have much influence without a widely shared intention to learn.

Intent to Learn

To create trusting relationships, we need to communicate with the aim of learning, or mutual understanding, not control.... When you trust that whatever life deals to you, you can handle it, then you can let go of your need to control the events of your life. -- Susan Campbell, Survival Strategies for the New Workplace

Most of what happens is beyond our personal control. However, with practice, we can learn to control how we respond. Susan Campbell says this shift in mindset from Security/Control to Learning/Discovery is the key to organizational learning.

Developing the self-mastery to be truly open to learning from whatever happens requires facing our fears of failure and loss of control, rather than avoiding them. It always seems easier to salve our symptoms by working longer, using the latest management techniques, trying a new and improved groupware system, or whatever. And yet, even though we may get short-term results, we always pay the price each time we avoid grappling with the deeper issues. Peter Senge calls this archetypal systems pattern "shifting the burden."

To move toward a more sustainable future we must stop shifting the burden and instead provide for our current needs without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs.

Learning Through Reflection

The intent to learn involves listening with respect, telling one’s truth, and having the courage to face our fears in order to learn what gifts they may hold. When we listen to prepare a strong defense, to be "right" and to control the flow of the conversation, we close down creative avenues in ourselves as well as in others. When we really listen to another, we open a safe place in which his or her truth can be freely given to the group, thus increasing the range of thinking. Increasingly the issues before us are too complex for any one person or small group. This kind of group learning is essential for tomorrow’s organization.

Learning Through Conversation

Skills of Relationship

The skills of relationship are simple behaviors that embody the intent to learn. They correspond to the interplay of individuating and teaming dynamics in group thinking and learning described earlier in the story about the vacationing family. These skills are:

Presence and self-differentiation are individuating skills. We must differentiate and be fully ourselves before we can find the common ground between us. Active listening and capacitance are teaming/integrating skills. They help us join with others for mutual understanding and collective inquiry and learning.

Arts of Facilitation

Facilitation increases group and organizational intelligence by encouraging the process of differentiating and integrating individual knowledge into collective wisdom. The more at least one person takes responsibility for the whole through each of these roles, the more a group will learn, with or without the benefit of groupware:

An Organizational Learning System

How do these various pieces of the puzzle fit together: global brain, global mind, teamnets, groupware, individuating and teaming dynamics, tools for group thinking and memory, skills of relationship, arts of facilitation, and the intent to learn? Nobody really knows yet. As a culture, we have taken only a few baby steps into this new frontier, but we can be reasonably certain that these are some of the necessary parts of systems for organizational and societal learning.

One way of thinking about an organizational learning system is as a network of teams serving interconnected knowledge-processing roles. There are two tiers. The outer tier is a permanent organization-wide learning infrastructure within which teams form, act, and disband. Its individuating/differentiating dynamics allow individuals with similar or complementary interests, knowledge, and purposes to connect. It includes flexible tailoring tools for creating virtual forms to hold and focus group energy, adapt them to changing group patterns, and disappear when a team’s purpose is complete.

Complementing that is an inner tier of group process and software tools supporting continuous group learning. Its teaming/integrating dynamics hold diverse, potentially conflicting perspectives in patterns for creative interaction. It includes tools for group thinking and learning. Different types of teams support successive stages in the process of organizational learning and governance. Each type of team prepares knowledge for the work of the next team. The overall effect is a learning system that guides the organization toward the future it desires.

Organizational Learning System

Each time around the cycle, the organization gets smarter and wiser. Tomorrow’s organizations can use a system like this to help navigate the white water of rapid change and to help shape the technologies to augment their evolving collective intelligence.

Building Organizational Brain/Mind

While full realization of this vision or a better design we all discover together is still a few years away, now is the time to begin learning how to build organizational and community brain/minds to support the collective learning necessary to carry us into the future we desire.

A good way to begin is to use a collaborative learning process, just like the system you want to create. Bring together all the involved stakeholders in your organization. Develop a shared vision, goals, and strategies for the organizational learning system. Frame the issues broadly so that it is more than just an information system -- include diverse points of view, tools for deliberation, knowledge generation, and even organizational wisdom. Help those interested engage deeply with the issues and develop integrated knowledge and choices of what is possible. Educate people about the choices and develop support for the most promising ones. Take action based on the best thinking and available resources to date. Build in benchmarks to monitor progress and methods to learn from results, and make changes as you go.

To begin now, we suggest these five Ps:

Groupware for a Small Planet

As a species, our brains and nervous systems are designed to respond to sudden, dramatic changes in our environment -- imminent danger. But the greatest threats we now face are slow, gradual processes that don’t rivet our attention and move us to immediate action. Organizationally we are undermining long-term sustainability by emphasizing short-term profit. As a society we barely beginning to engage creatively with the difficult challenges of environmental degradation, increased violence, famine, nuclear weapons, AIDS, and the like. It is always easier in the short run to "shift the burden," deal with today’s crises and deadlines, and relegate the big issues to some far-off future time -- like the next millennium. But even that is coming faster than we think: January 1, 2001 is only 2426 days away (from May 11, 1994, the date of this keynote).

The next several decades may be the most challenging in our history on this planet. In Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future, researchers Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jørgen Randers conclude that we’ve already exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity and may have just enough resources to rebuild our infrastructure to support sustainable energy and economic patterns. Even if we are successful, there will be many challenges and difficulties.

To ease this transition, many, many people must be involved in leading and learning, rethinking and restructuring, considering tough tradeoffs, and making dramatic changes as compassionately as possible. We believe that groupware can play a critical role in the organizational and societal communications, learning, and knowledge systems to support this great work.

Our future depends on a creative, ethical, compassionate global mind supported by the planetwide reach of our electronic global brain. Groupware for a small planet begins with us.

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