Creating a Learning Society: What have Organisational Psychologists to Offer?

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(Creating a Learning Society: What Have Organisational Psychologists to Offer?

(Open-Ended “Virtual lab Workshop”)

Version date: 30 March 2008


Some Preliminary Background

This discussion began with an open-ended workshop at the annual conference of the Division of Occupational Psychology of the British Psychological Society, 2008. At that meeting, it became clear that there were two agendas: (i) How to design a learning society and (ii) How to promote a movement toward such a society. These are addressed in two separate websites. These are, respectively, and

As used here, the term “learning society” refers to the, at first sight absurd, notion of a society that innovates and learns without anyone within it having to know anything very much: ie a society without centralised, hierarchical, command and control structures. It specifically does not imply a society characterised by pervasive life-long learning arrangements of the kind that dominate our so-called educational institutions.

Although our aim is to solicit diverse inputs and perspectives, and, most importantly, to identify important research that we have so far overlooked, one way of putting what we would like to do would be to say that we wish to build on, extend, or change the insights that have already published in two books, namely: Raven, J. (1995). The New Wealth of Nations: A New Enquiry into the Nature and Origins of the Wealth of Nations and the Societal Learning Arrangements Needed for a Sustainable Society. Unionville, New York: Royal Fireworks Press; Sudbury, Suffolk: Bloomfield Books; and Raven, J., & Stephenson, J. (Eds.). (2001). Competence in the Learning Society. New York: Peter Lang.

Progressing the Discussion. At the time of writing, it is not entirely clear how the editors of the PsychWiki propose to advance their objective of holding “Virtual Lab Meetings”.

Whereas the main Wikipediaspecifically discourages original research and personal points of view, a “Lab meeting” typically starts precisely with one of these and attracts comments like “No. That’s not the correct way to think about it. Try this ….”. Or “You mean, you’ve never heard of XYZ’s outstanding work …”. Such comments provoke lateral thinking even though one disagrees with them.

So how to organise a similar conversation on the Web? Our suggestion is that readers leave this lead page much as it is but copy it into the “Discussion” page and then enter their comments at the precise places where they belong in the text. Subsequent readers can then enter new comments of their own or agree or disagree with the entries of earlier commentators.

Introduction, Objectives, Preliminary Comments

The Committee on the Political Economy of the Good Society (PEGS) [1] has come together around “the realization that many of the major problems facing today's societies …. cannot be resolved without significant changes to ... underlying institutional arrangements … Nevertheless, institutional analysis and reform currently receive little attention”. PEGS is seeking to promote such analysis through its journal The Good Society”.

But, while the statement is true, its phraseology is somewhat low key and does really draw attention to the urgency of the problem or the difficulties involved in addressing it

As is made clear in the entry on Sustainability in the main Wikipedia (if it has not been modified out of recognition by the time you read this) and, in more detail, in publications by eg Wackernagel & Rees (1996) and Marks et al (2006), if we are to survive as a species we need to radically change the way we live.

The urgency and difficulty of doing this has been further underlined by Bookchin’s (2005) demonstration that our societal drift toward hierarchy, centralisation, regulation, and command and control (which lies at the heart of our problems) has been proceeding, at an ever accelerating rate, over millennia. From this it follows that there can be no easy, common-sense based, solution. Even the cries and proposals of the most outstanding thinkers of all ages have regularly been, not just been undermined, but corrupted into their opposites through some, as yet poorly understood, social process. Professional input of a quality previously unheard of in the social sciences is urgently required.

The challenge for organisational psychologists is: “What have we to say about the public management arrangements and citizenship behaviours that are required if we are to do this?” More pointedly: “What have we to say about the organisational arrangements, job descriptions, and staff appraisal systems that are needed to run society, as an organisation, in the long term public interest instead of the short term interest of dominators?” And, perhaps more basically, “What insights can we offer into the sociocybernetic forces that control the operation of society and how these are to be harnessed?”

Although we would like to encourage participants in this discussion to treat these as open questions, a number of remarks may be made by way of setting the stage.

One of the perhaps most basic has to do with why we have chosen to define a learning society as one which innovates and learns without centralised direction.

The current widespread dissatisfaction with current forms of public management, whether envisaged as via current forms of democracy and bureaucracy or via the so-called “market” process, is perhaps best depicted in films like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11 and “Lions for Lambs”.

But, in fact, both John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith long since derided centralised hierarchical forms of management as leading to “government by committees of ignoramuses”, pointing out that such decisions almost invariably had opposite effects to those intended.

And it was essentially this problem that led Smith and Hayek to advocate “The market mechanism”.

It is worth pursuing this.

Smith began by noting that there cannot be any such thing as a wise man or wise woman, let alone a committee of wise men and women. This follows from the fact that the most important information required to take wise decisions cannot be available. If A initiates a course of action in location X, and, unknown to him, B initiates another course of action in location Y, it is impossible to know what will happen as these two courses of action come together.

Smith and Hayek proposed the “market mechanism” as a solution to this problem. This was envisaged as a societal experimentation learning and management system which would act on information which was necessarily incomplete, dependent for its implications and effects on other changing information, and widely dispersed in the hearts, heads, and hands of billions of people. It would not only initiate action on the basis of such information but also learn from the effects of that action and take such further (corrective) action as necessary.

In the main, it would be the system which learned, not the individuals within it.

What “the market” offered was a mechanism whereby, if people liked what A was doing, they could purchase his goods or services or invest in his enterprise. So, if they were doing the right things, both A’s and B’s enterprises would prosper and, as the results came together, things that had previously been even unimaginable could (and did) happen.

Note that the market mechanism as proposed was quintessentially a societal experimentation, learning, and management system. It has no other raison d’être. It neither endorses riches nor lauds money. It does not endorse a divided society. It was a means of giving power to information and designed to create a ferment of innovation and learning.

In short, society would innovate, experiment, and learn without anyone involved in it having to know anything very much. It would be decentralized, organic (with many feedback loops and potentialities), nonauthoritarian, and, like evolution itself, grossly inefficient in bureaucratic terms. It was the ultimate in participative democracy: Everyone involved could “vote with their pennies” independently on a myriad of issues instead of voting every five years or so for a package of issues or “wise” governors. It did not depend on intellectuals or explicit verbal knowledge. People could attend to their feelings and vote accordingly.

Unfortunately, this solution to the problem does not and cannot work.

In the first place, it has turned out to be extremely difficult to get the market mechanism to take account of, and respond to, huge amounts of vitally important information, such as all the evidence indicating that, as a species, we are headed to our own extinction carrying the planet as we know it with us. Hardin’s (1968) “tragedy of the commons” has proved endemic and pervasive.

Second, to exert influence in the system, one has to be a “worker”. This has driven large numbers of people – especially women – to join the system despite the fact that doing so lowers their quality of life. Worse, being a “worker” in modern society actually means becoming someone who, as most people know in their souls, carries out useless work – worse, work which is both personally and socially destructive. In the end, it turns out that the function of market mythology is to create and legitimise the creation of useless work and to carry out that work as inefficiently as possible.

Third, market processes do not, in fact, deliver a high quality of life, that is to say, genuine wealth. Lane (1991) and Marks et al (2006) have drawn together a great deal of research showing that quality of life depends on such things as security, self-actualising work, networks of friends and support in one’s workplace, and low levels of stress. Such things are driven down by market processes.

Fourth, the marketplace does not reward (and therefore stimulate) the most important contributions to wealth-creation (however defined) because these come from the effects of actions taken by people who are long since dead and who got scarce rewards for their efforts, from collaborative research and planning activities carried out in the public sector, and from wives and husbands who provide love, psychotherapy, child-care, and other individual and social maintenance activity without being rewarded for their efforts.

In part because the quality of life depends primarily on public provision – on things which cannot be purchased individually – and on activities carried on outside the marketplace, the role of public management has continuously increased over the years until, at the present time (see Wikipedia entry on Public management or Raven, 1995) for the evidence) the spending of something of the order of 75% of the GNP of Western societies is controlled by their governments. In other words, we do not live in market economies at all: We live in managed economies. This has many important implications. Among them is the impossibility of any small group of elected representatives directing or overseeing the workings of the governmental machine in any effective way because there is just too much of it. Another is that prices are primarily determined by public servants, and not by the cost or efficiency of land, labour, management, or capital (which “costs” are all primarily determined by public servants).

Instead, therefore, of having a marketplace which in itself constitutes a societal management system, we live in a society in which the control of cash flows is used to orchestrate actions which have been decided through the political and bureaucratic process (which happens to be mainly under the control of the TNCs).

We do not live in a society driven by market forces. We live in a society mainly driven by the decisions of international bankers, managers of the TNCs, and public servants, but, most importantly, controlled by mythologies which are every bit as important as those which we can so easily see bind together, and control the operation of, “primitive” societies. What generally passes unnoticed is that most public servants’ decisions and the mythologies which control us are largely nurtured, selected, and perpetuated by a handful of capitalists who profit from them every bit as much as the leaders of the churches in the middle ages profited from the mythologies they developed and perpetuated.

Fifth, neither money nor prices mean what most people think they stand for. Prices are primarily determined by an accretion of expedient decisions taken by public servants’ – not only in relation to taxation, grants, subsidies and the creation of infrastructure, but also in relation to such things as which costs are to be loaded onto particular producers and distributors and which spread over the whole community. (When these costs are re-calculated it turns out that the supposed efficiency of centralized production is simply a myth.)

Sixth, and it follows from what has already been said, most customers are not individuals voting with their pennies but people purchasing on behalf of vast organizations like school systems, health care systems, and defense alliances.

So what is the alternative? What alternative image of an appropriate public management process (not an image of some kind of outcome, like a utopia) could guide people’s behaviour? This would seem to be the key thing that organisational psychologists (pace Lions for Lambs specifically not “political scientists”) might offer.

Toward a Way Forward

In our quest for an answer to this question, let us back up a bit.

A couple of examples may be taken to illustrate the problem of public management as it presents itself at one level.

Raven (1994) has shown that creating an educational system that would actually achieve the main goals that most people espouse for it depends on so many developments that they could not possibly be centrally envisaged. There is, for example, currently little formal understanding of (i) how to nurture the diverse talents (initiative, self confidence, ability to learn how to do very different things such as release the energies of others or understand and intervene in the network of social forces which control public behaviour) that are required for innovation and to promote cultures of enterprise or (ii) how to assess the development of such characteristics so that pupils and teachers can get recognition for their accomplishments in these areas whether for evaluation studies or so that they can negotiate for opportunities to develop and utilise them in their future careers. Yet these remain “technological” problems and, although they pose major problems for psychometric and developmental psychologists, they pale into insignificance in comparison with the task of evolving a management system that will encourage experimentation, diversity of public provision, comprehensive evaluation of, and informed choice between, multiple, and distinctively different, options.

The enormity of the task of evolving a societal management system which will experiment and evolve without central direction becomes even more apparent when one considers sustainability. Wackernagel and Rees (1996), among others, have shown that it would require five back up planets engaged in nothing but agriculture for everyone alive today to live as we do in the West. It cannot be done. There can, therefore, be little doubt that, to live in a sustainable way, we would need a society which would be as different from ours as agricultural society was from hunter gatherer society (see Raven, 1995 for more detail). But, just as no one in a hunter-gatherer society could envisage what an agricultural society would look like, so no one in our society can realistically envisage what a sustainable society will look like. There can be no blueprint.

What there can be is widespread experimentation with new ways of doing things, comprehensive evaluation of those experiments (which implies evaluation of both their short and long term, personal and social, desired and desirable, and undesired and undesirable consequences), public debate, and a form of management that encourages widely diffused action on the basis of what can be learned from those experiments in such a way as to facilitate evolution.

Such arrangements would be precisely the opposite of those most widely espoused at the present time … for these are grounded in centralised, command and control, images of management on the one hand and single factor evaluations derived from espousal of reductionist (as distinct from ecological or systemic) science on the other.

What emerges from these reflections is that the key task of our public servants is to create a pervasive climate of experimentation, comprehensive evaluation, public debate, and societal learning.

Such a role is very different from that most commonly envisaged for public servants at the present time.

Ensuring that they perform it demands arrangements that are markedly different from the hierarchical arrangements that are currently most commonly thought to be appropriate.

The task of “democracy” is, not to tell public servants what to do, but, as John Stuart Mill put it, to “make visible to everyone who did everything and by whose default anything was left undone”.

Supervising the public service in this way implies network-based supervision involving organisational arrangements and concepts of citizenship very different from the hierarchical arrangements grounded in assumptions about the ability of multi-purpose representative assemblies to supervise the public service that prevail at the present time.

Mapping Social forces.

But there is another side to this problem.

It is common experience that well-intentioned public and private action often fails to deliver the desired benefits. Most people find themselves driven every day to engage in dozens of actions which run counter to what they would do if they had the choice.

As has been shown in the two publications already cited, this stems from a network, or system, of mutually supportive and recursive social forces that few have sought to map, measure, and harness.

There seems to be a need for something like a Newtonian revolution in the social sciences. Prior to Newton, if things moved or changed direction, it was because of their internal properties. They were animated. After Newton it was mainly because they were acted upon by a network of external forces which could nevertheless be mapped, measured, and harnessed.

But how to think about, map, and measure the analogous social forces? Somewhat feeble attempts to answer this question are to be found among the publications of those working in the field of sociocybernetics.

But, to particularise the problem with a view to making a point: Where is our equivalent of Newton … or even those who generated the insights on which he built? Certainly not among the cadre of grant mongers that current beliefs about the function and functioning of the universities and research institutes have populated these institutions.

Peripheral as it may seem, therefore, rethinking arrangements for the funding, conduct, and evaluation of research seems to be fundamental to finding a way forward.

(It may be noted in passing that this way of thinking, like Newton’s reformulation of the problem he tackled, would have the effect of turning psychology inside out … of shifting our quest for the explanations of behaviour from a search for causes internal to the individual to efforts to identify external causes.)

Implications for public action.

It is clear from the work we have already done that pervasive public action is required if we are to avoid the catastrophe that confronts us. A pervasive climate of experimentation, innovation, and learning is required. But the individual actions that are required are quite other than those suggested by our current beliefs (theories about) society and how it works and our place in it. (The futility of these is poignantly portrayed in “Lions for Lambs”). They are quite other than those suggested by “common sense”. Yet they are, and must be, legion.


Quester67 01:42, 11 February 2008 (PST) Quester67 08:25, 30 March 2008 (PDT)

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