Experience: Massive Collaborative Self-organised Learning with Theory U

From Ego to Eco: Transforming Business, Society, and Self

Recently I was among 15,000+ ‘change makers’ from 180 countries who participated in a large MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) learning experiment initiated by MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Professor Otto Scharmer, author of ‘Theory U and ‘Leading from the Emergent Future, From Ego-System to Eco-System Economics‘.

The course is heralding a new style of education, which I would call ‘the internet of learning‘, and which happens to also align well with our approach here at Caterfly. As it turns out, though not by design, the education style applies many of the principles of SOLE (Self Organised Learning Environments – that I have previously written about here) and Open Space Technology (which is a pillar of our work at Caterfly and our Open Smart Transformation model) to achieve something that so far has largely been lacking in most MOOCs: interactivity, intensive group work and peer learning.

Here is the course description for U.Lab: Transforming Business, Society, and Self:

Learn how to create profound innovation in a time of disruptive change by leading from the emerging future. This highly experiential course is based on Theory U, a framework, method, and way of connecting to the more authentic aspects of our self. It introduces the variable of consciousness into management and the social sciences, and proposes that the quality of the results that we create in any kind of social system is a function of the quality of awareness, attention or consciousness that the participants in the system operate from.

The course has operated as an experience on three levels:

1) Why isn’t fundamental change happening?
It addressed the issues of societal and business change and transformation currently in the Zeitgeist, exploring why it is that there is a sense of great changes in the air, yet in practice actually very little is changing. It explored the deeper source levels of disconnects, which could lead to catastrophic outcomes if not dealt with, and how these could be resolved in a more collaborative and harmonious manner. The fundamental premise is that all transformation has to start with the self.

2) Going round the curve: Theory U and mindful emergence
The course examined the U-Theory process itself. Theory U, as espoused by Otto Scharmer and colleagues, is a process of many steps that allows one and teams to build towards emerging futures through listening to deeper levels of inner wisdom and through co-sensing a new future trying to be born, while co-creating prototypes adaptable and responsive to the future that emerges. At first the 25 or so steps to achieve this appeared to me to be highly convoluted; however, this is why I joined the course, to learn more about this famous U-process without prejudice, and I must admit what I found was quite enlightening and encouraging (many of the steps are actually just refinements of five main processes), if only listening to one’s and others’ hearts with open mind and will.

3) Collaborative, self-organised, peer-learning
The third level was the learning process itself, the SOLE+Open Space-like aspect already alluded to above. The structure followed a similar MOOCs type of sequence commonly found in EdX, Coursera and Udacity courses, with video presentations, readings, assignments and a forum where one could engage in written posts, comments, questions etc, all in itself an interesting way of presenting new academic material. At the same time, however, the ULAB course had a unique interactive component which was developed at the authors’ own website at the Presencing Institute. This allowed the 15,000 participants (or at least those actively following the course) to form into local hubs which would meet, either in person or online, to discuss certain aspects of the course, and moreover to form ‘Coaching Circles’ about which I’ll talk more further on.

There were also three live presentations of 1.5 hours each with the whole ULAB team present and many of the 15,000 participants doing some journalling and deep listening exercises together at the same time. In many cases the hubs met in different cities around the world to view the live presentations together and to discuss the content afterwards, although because people were operating on different 24 hour time zones in many cases the hubs met at other times. There was also a real commitment and energy from the Ulab team. This was demonstrated in the second live broadcast which happened to be exactly on the day when Boston (where MIT is based) experienced one of the worst snow storms it has ever experienced, with all transportation and schools being closed; the team had to get special permission to stay overnight in the closed university to be able to run the live global broadcast the following morning.

The hubs and coaching circles were completely self-organised (with the assistance of the Presencing Institute website platform which enabled this) in terms of who joined which hub or circle, when and where they met, how they communicated and what they did. The Ulab team had provided some guidelines as to how the hubs might form and facilitate their meetings, but it was essentially completely self-initiated and self-organised.

I actually took part in several hubs, one for London which met several times, one for the UK which also met centrally in Leamington Spa, one for Europe, which was more informal, and I was also part of an international hub, which we called the Cloud Hub, which met online only. This Cloud Hub was the most active (of the four), had about 30 participants, from India, Finland, Holland, Spain, UK, Canada, USA, Brasil, Chile and Argentina. We communicated by email, WhatsApp chat, Skype, Google Hangouts, Facebook (we created a Facebook page) and Google Drive for sharing documents, and the Presencing Institute site itself has some communication tools which were useful for sharing things with the whole ULab community.

The ULab team had set an appropriate online environment and conditions for the hubs and coaching circles to form by themselves, and most of the learning happened from peer learning. The deepest learning occurred in the coaching circles. The coaching circles consisted of maximum 5 people who met weekly for 90 minutes, to go through one of our member’s ‘case’. This was a highly structured process which was self-managed using an instruction sheet and a time-keeper. Unlike traditional coaching, the emphasis in these peer-coaching exercises was on supporting the case-giver by holding back from reactions and advice, instead allowing deeper levels of understanding, empathy and wisdom to emerge for collective learning. The exercise engendered a deep form of listening and conversing, both individually and collectively, which enabled far richer conversations to occur than is normally the case. The coaching circles formed some deep conversations which I have otherwise only come across naturally in Open Space events.

Other group tasks included paying attention to the different levels of listening we operate at, journalling, empathy walks, collective mindfulness and later prototyping. The latter is really about going beyond the deep listening and collective wisdom towards co-creating or birthing a new world, by a process of trial and error or build, test out and reform. This process allows the collective to be responsive to changing circumstances. This is a very different type of transformation approach from the planned (based on the past) and enforced or rolled out change interventions usually applied by change makers, and which often cascade top-down through hierarchies. In the past the typical mode has been about making change (following a pre-planned blueprint), often without asking (with the ensuing natural resistance), rather than letting change happen (with a vision of the desired future) and constantly adapting this to the actually emergent future through a prototyping mind-set.

The key learnings I got from this course are: It demonstrated a prototype of a new kind of learning using online digital tools, which relies on and works on the principle of online SOLE – Self-Organised Learning Environments, with a particular focus on peer learning. Fundamentally the same principles are at work as in Open Space meetings – and indeed one of the key words Professor Otto Scharmer kept on referring to was, as change-makers, to “hold the space” to allow the deeper conversations to happen, without which any real organisational transformation is not possible – just as you cannot force people and organisations to learn, so you cannot coerce them to change!

I am not sure how easy it would be to scale the U-lab approach to whole organisations (businesses, government agencies, educational institutions) who are undergoing a transformation, but the one thing I am even more convinced of now is that it is absolutely paramount that the employees and affected personnel in any transformation must be involved in very deep conversations about the desired change at its initiation, in order to co-sense it and co-create it. Change is absolutely not something that can be imposed or mandated up or down as has traditionally been practiced in the past. Indeed change management itself needs to change. And the key to these deep conversations is enabling an environment, holding the space, so people can listen empathetically, mindfully and constructively to each other to co-create the change. The Open Space event format enables this space to be held, and is thus the easiest and most efficient way to invite large numbers of people into the process in the same space simultaneously, so that they can create the transformation together.

Further information

Theory U: Wikipedia, Otto Scharmer’s publications

Presencing Institute

From Ego to Eco:
– Future Considerations book review
– Otto Scharmer presentation at Wisdom 2.0 Business conference

List of available free MOOC courses at MOOC List

SOLE – Self-Organised Learning Environments

What is Open Space Technology?