10 November 2011

Reflections on Creating a Degree Program: Conversation Café 2

Transformation and language—two key themes that came out of our second Conversation Café seeking ideas and inspirations for the development of our proposed Master’s Degree in Leadership and Organization Development, and Executive Coaching. Not unexpectedly, much of the language that I have been using to describe important, healing-oriented processes among organizations has already been co-opted by the managerialist discourse (according to some of our participants). In particular, the increasingly worn cliché of “change” seems to be giving way to “transformation” as a catch-all, synonymous euphemism for instrumental, mostly unwelcome, counter-inclusive processes. One participant even noted that in her practice, she has come across an organization that glibly uses the phrase “organization transformation” to refer to the heavy-handed, BAH layoffs practice formerly referred to as downsizing (or even worse – from the perspective of management clichés – “rightsizing”).

In what some might call a time-honoured practice, more-conventional consultancies often appropriate language that has been deliberately chosen to suggest new ground, context, and meaning. In doing so, those who cynically adhere to managerialist learning from as far back as the famous Hawthorne experiments of the late 1920s and early ’30s, have come to realize that workers can often be manipulated into compliance (possibly resulting in temporary increases in productivity) by introducing change that appears to be positive, including nominative changes in language. Thus, it is vitally important that as a school and faculty that will create its reputation on true transformative practices, we must first fully understand and appreciate what we mean by terms such as “transformation.”

Among the conversations, one simple yet profound aspect came through very clearly: Self is emergent not through deterministic, goal-oriented training, but from the assimilation of reflective learning of one’s experiences in the context of history, culture, and prior knowledge. Transformation in this sense occurs when the individual explicitly realizes, and can articulate, a fundamentally new context for their life in which prior (and future) experiences can be understood with new meaning. In turn, “emergent self” becomes an agent of similar transformation in other individuals, and among environments in which that individual participates. What this means for the development of our program is that specific skills for personal transformation must be encouraged and nurtured among all our members, including both students and faculty, in a suitably safe environment. These skills encompass an ability for self-awareness and mindful reflection; self-cultivation together with collective co-cultivation; realizing the resultant basho that is thereby created; creating a non-conventional self-plan that focuses on trajectory and navigating for effects, rather than necessarily attaining a specific objective or preconceived goal.

In a similar vein, commonly understood (which means that everyone understands them, but few people would unpack them the same way) terms such as “Leadership,” “Organization,” and “Executive” must be clearly and appropriately contextualized in our program in a way that will clearly delineate and differentiate what Adler’s future master’s degree offers that is distinct from any other institution. Likewise, words like “Development,” and “Coaching.”

Among aspects of our program’s tactility, we would strive for our participants – in-program students and especially graduates – to feel a calling to seed and effect transformations consistent with the values of the program. Such emergent dissemination among the various environments in which they participate would occur long after their direct participation in the program has finished. In this sense, the need being addressed by the program addresses the question: How will organizations redefine themselves and their processes given the complex manifestations of transformation that are now occurring throughout society? This suggests a direct, follow-on question: In what ways can our program demonstrate and offer unique guidance – via our students, faculty, and graduates – towards the answer(s) to that question of redefinition? And perhaps equally important for our sustainable success: How do we appropriately identify those individuals who want (and are prepared) to transform themselves in such a manner for this program to be appropriate for them? 

The short answer is that we would be seeking those people for whom earning this degree would be more than a simple, instrumental benefit, that is, more than a mere “academic exercise.” In traditional education and training, there is often a large gap between what is academically taught, and what is actually experienced (and becomes adaptively applicable) in practice. Pervading our entire curriculum – every course syllabus and practicum experience – “real life” must intersect with “real play” throughout the learning environments. In this way, we would strive to create transformative experiences that challenge the creativity, engagement, and commitment of all our participants. As those who participated in our Conversation Café expressed these ideas, I observe yet another expression of the principle of praxis in adult learning—experience recursively transforming into embodied knowledge that informs subsequent practice. Conversation Café participants identified the concept of “living labs” comprising intervention engagements with practicum clients that could sustain between courses as a possible way to create a vehicle that enables “life” and “play” to intersect in this context.

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