Church as a Learning Org LO1386

Mariann Jelinek (
Fri, 26 May 1995 13:12:51 +0100

[... Subject changed by your host.
was -> Re: Intro -- Robert (Bob) Plautz...]

Dear Bob,
We've done some visioning with a very liberal church here in
Williamsburg, VA (Unitarian Universalist) around the sort of church
building we wanted, and the sorts of needs (ours, community, etc.) the
building should fill. Our method was to gather small groups of members
into a series of potluck dinners (we scheduled enough of these in advance
that everybody could have at least one chance to go, then put out sign up
sheets; we also scheduled for different days of the week, different weeks,
and different times - weekend daytime, weekday evening, etc. - to insure
maximum likelihood that all could attend).
At the sessions, facilitators and some rules of engagement
(everybody got to speak in sequence, around the circle of 10 or so,
uninterrupted for a couple of minutes before we opened for response; we
took notes; we summarized; we fed back). We asked everybody to "Close your
eyes and imagine that you are walking up to the church. What do you see?
What character to the building is especially pleasing? We asked people to
spend time "walking around" both inside and out, and then to describe on
paper what they were seeing. Similarly, we asked people to close their
eyes and imagine that they were considering their church with satisfaction
and contentment, several years hence. What was it that pleased them,
satisfied them, and drew them to return, we asked? What actions of the
church - in their personal lives, among their friends, in the larger
non-church community around them - exemplified the church they wanted to
be part of? Again they took notes, and both notes and discussion and notes
of the discussion were collected.
The idea in these meetings was to encourage people to think of
what they needed and wanted in the church as a social entity and in the
building we were planning. We sought not so much to homogenize views as to
capture our own diversity and multiplicity. This is especially powerful
for us because UUs are the result of a marriage between two very different
groups. The Universalists, who tend to be emotionally resonant - "poets
and seers" are their heroes, and they respond to affective logic. The
Unitarians, by contrast, tend toward highly intellectual logic, and unless
their minds are engaged, they cannot accept. Our challenge is particularly
salient because we are a university community, and our members range from
PhDs in physics to artists and poets and housewives and others who would
run screaming from the epithet of "intellectual." What we share is a
conviction that pursuit of a moral life is worthwhile, and an equal
conviction that each of us is personally responsible for finding his or
her way to such a moral life, as no creed or dogma provides sufficient
guidance, while many provide important insight.
We began with some not at all sure that a church building was
possible or desirable, while others were positive it was essential. Today
our building is in process, the moneies have been raised (with some
difficulty, since we are a small congregation), and our different
perspectives center on an abiding commitment to one another in community,
despite and even because of our differences on many issues. It has been a
powerful experience, which has led me (I'm of the "intellectual"/Unitarian
tendency) to a much deeper appreciation of the affective,
emotional/Universalist members, and of parellel tendencies in myself.
Especially visible here, to my eye, is the importance of building
trust among the parties (we were just in the midst of deciding NOT to call
our then-interim minister, much to the distress of many of the affective
folk, and some of the others). Among the methods to build trust were
strenuous efforts to assure that everyone could speak and be heard; that
discourse was courteous and non-derogatory; that inputs could be made
anonymously, but that gratuitous interpretive content ("They only say that
because .") was minimized: "Speak for yourself and your beliefs and hopes,
not for those of others."
In a corporate setting, culture change is difficult because so
many cues reinforce it, ranging from performance assessment and who gets
ahead to the stories that get told. It seems to me that changing corporate
culture happens best (and at that, it remains difficult) where there is
substantial top-level support and commitment to it; where methods are
provided for opening up the information and discussion process while
providing safety for those whose opinions are sought (example: anonymous
"rumour mill" bulletin boards where every comment can be addressed by
senior management committed to change); where a track record is
established of honoring even (especially!) divergent opinions and using
the information they provide. It is important, for instance, that cynicism
exists in the culture such that people worry about their vision getting
out. How can their vision get out without them being endangered by that?
If a way can be found, then the culture can change.
My own research and consulting have centered on highly
technological firms and high performance cultures (two books:
Institutionalizing Innovation, 1979, now out of print; Innovation
Marathon, Jossey-Bass, 1993). These efforts have led me to serious
endeavors in understanding the cognitive side of organizations in current
work. Organizations consist above all not in the particular individuals of
a given instant (they change, over time), and certainly not in the
buildings and equipment; rather, it's the shared ideas and the
interactions that result. Ergo, to change the organization, you must
change the way people within it think, and along particular lines. This
line of inquiry directs attention to shared cognitions of organization
members: What do they do on a day to day basis, and why? What strategy
guides them, and how does it link to their daily activities? What sense do
people make of the information around them, on what basis, and how? How do
the structure and formal protocols of the organization affect that
sense-making? What myths and heroes (what horrible tales and villains) do
people reference in reaffirming to one another what it means to be a
member here (or how someone breached the norms of conduct, for good or
I wish you good luck in your efforts, and hope you'll continue to
converse with us, Bob.


Mariann Jelinek
Richard C. Kraemer Professor of Business
Graduate School of Business,
College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA 23185

Tel. (804) 221-2882 FAX: (804) 229-6135