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Ontological Coaching and Organisational Transformation 
by Alan Sieler

The demand for transformation

What sort of a business world have we been dealing with in the last 10-15 years? Increasingly it seems to be one of accelerating change, brought about by more intense global competition and the impact of technological change. Doing business these days has become more complex, in a world which can seem increasingly chaotic, characterised by turbulence, unpredictability, uncertainty and confusion. Many commentators observe these to be permanent features of the business landscape, which are part of a larger cultural shift western civilisation is going through. The explanation for this shift is that we are in transition from one major historical era to another, and that part of this shift is the development of a new form of human consciousness. There is a continual need to not simply cope with change, but to adapt. This requires continual transformation.

How many people anticipate that the above scenario will not continue for the next 10-15 years? Very few. In fact, many believe that it will only intensify. It is becoming clear that long run competitiveness in the world of business demands the development of a different mindset or consciousness: the emergence of more insightful ways of observing and acting upon what is occurring in the world economy and society at large. This may well be the major challenge facing business leaders, if their organisations are going to be able to transform, i.e. to reshape their structure and processes in ways that are congruent with the changes demanded from the larger economic and social environment in which they operate.

Transformation, adaptation and change all point to the crucial importance of learning. Before considering learning, let’s look first at what is meant by change and transformation. In business, and in life, different events and developments, over which we have no control, are continually occurring. Their impact changes circumstances in our personal and professional lives. In the current cultural shift of western civilisation, many of these changes are random and unpredictable, obliging us to make swift and often novel responses if we are to cope and to adapt. If we are to adapt, we must transform, which means altering ourselves in some way so that we can be competent in dealing with different circumstances.

In organisational settings the traditional view of dealing with change, and of transforming, is one of developing different workplace skills and practices that are consistent with the changing demands for improved organisational performance. The development of different and relevant practical competences is a key element of organisational transformation. How does this come about? The obvious answer is through learning.

Organisational Learning I

Earlier this decade Peter Senge popularised the expression the "learning organisation". In the process of remaining competitive, an organisation needs to be continually learning. Of course, as organisations consist of people, Senge was referring to organisational personnel continually learning. This is all very well, but there are two key questions that need to be addressed? (i) "What sort of learning?" and (ii) "How is that learning going to happen?" We want to explore these two questions by looking at an interpretation of learning that is crucial and indispensable for long-term organisational competitiveness.

On the surface it would appear that the type of learning required to deal effectively with change is the development of what we might call "relevant skills and practices". Our response to this is "Yes", but also to say that this way of thinking about organisational learning in no longer sufficient to adequately deal with the ongoing demand for transformation. Why is this? Firstly, the development of different skills and practices is going to be both an expression of organisational transformation, and also a contributor to that transformation. Although important, focusing on this form of learning can inadvertently lead to an in-built pre-disposition to irrelevance and obsolescence. It is no longer sufficient to limit our approach to learning as one of skills and practices. This is because the skill set deemed relevant for today may eventually become a handicap for coping and adapting with different requirements for remaining competitive.

We need to go to a deeper level of learning, to look at more fundamental competences which underpin the functioning of any organisation. This will be done firstly by exploring the idea of generic organisational competences. Mastering these competences is essential for the continual effective initiation and management of change.

Generic Organisational Competences

In looking at generic competences we again pose some questions, which we will address.

  1. "What is an organisation?"
  2. "What is the critical underlying dimension which permeates all organisational activity"?
  3. "What is the fundamental nature of all organisational work?"

Addressing these questions allows us to advance an interpretation of some indispensable generic competences that are crucial for organisational survival and growth.

  1. What is an organisation? A typical response to this question might point to an organisation consisting of assets, capital, knowledge and people, to which we say, "Yes" but also reply, "This could well be an obsolete way of defining an organisation." The interpretation we prefer is that an organisation is a network of conversations and relationships (both internally between organisational personnel and externally with customers and suppliers). The acquisition of assets, capital, knowledge and people happens through conversations, and the effectiveness with which these are "put to work" also depends on conversations and relationships between people. What is accomplished and how well things are done (including satisfactory time frames), is heavily dependent on the quality of these relationships and conversations. It is superficial to say that it is people who make organisations that work. It is the interactions between people which are indispensable for the completion of organisational objectives.

    A central feature of organisational transformation is the improvement of the quality of working relationships and conversations, which result in demonstrated improvements in performance, productivity and customer satisfaction.

  2. What is the critical underlying dimension which permeates all organisational activity? No single person in an organisation can perform adequately in their role(s) in isolation from others. Peter Drucker speaks of the rise of "knowledge workers". The increasing complexity of skills and knowledge mean that to run a business people rely on each other to get their work done. The sharing of information and skills, and the performance of tasks for each other, has become more prominent with the increasing importance of specialised information. And we should not forget that machines don’t run themselves, they still require humans interacting with each other for their continued smooth operation. The cooperative nature of work has become even more essential, especially in light of two key requirements of personnel that have emerged. Firstly, to be more entrepreneurial in their orientation and to continually take initiatives that lead to improvements in the operation of units or sections; this will often require tapping into the knowledge and wisdom of others. Secondly, to continually work in teams of different types and to be flexible in quickly forming an effective team with different specialists who see a project through to completion in minimum time.

    With an increasing emphasis on the importance of cooperative effort, a generic practical competence for competitiveness is to be able to repeatedly and effectively coordinate actions with a range of other people. 
    The coordination of action is the basic business process which underpins all other business processes and strategies. Genuine and sustainable organisational transformation requires a recognition and utilisation of this core business process. Without the effective coordination of action, procedures, rules, strategies and plans do not get put into action. Many efforts at coping with change have relied on organisational restructuring, which solid research evidence is now showing has had very mixed results. Changes in organisational structure may be doomed to failure if this core business process, which underlies all structural arrangements, is not improved and transformed.

  3. What is the fundamental nature of all organisational work? In other words, what is necessary to ensure the development of the above competence? Here we can draw on what we said in response to the first question. In order to cooperate with each other, humans must interact with each other. This can be face-to-face, by phone, fax, email, or videoconference. How does this occur? Obviously we might say through communication, but we prefer another interpretation. The fundamental unit of human interaction is conversation, and the fundamental nature of all organisational work is conversational labour.

    The quality and effectiveness of conversations is at the heart of organisational transformation. Why is this? Let’s look at the origin of the word "conversation", which is Latin for "turn together". Turning implies change, and a conversation is a "changing together". If the quality and effectiveness of conversations changes so do the processes by which people connect with each other, coordinate action and get their work done. Engaging in different conversations also provides enormous scope for the flourishing of creativity, innovation and a willingness to take initiative.

    Therefore, another generic competence is the development of conversational proficiency. In other words, conversations which repeatedly generate new insights, effective actions, constructive relationships and positive results. Such conversations generate the potential for the reinvention of work habits and practices and the more effective internal and external coordination of action.

Organisational Learning II

Having said all this, we are now left with the question of "What sort of learning will facilitate the development of these generic competences?" Our response to this is "Learning that is generative". In other words, learning that has a momentum and sustains itself in the continual generation of new learning. The orientation of personnel within the organisation to learning is one where they do not rely on outsiders to be their primary sources of learning. However, in saying all this, the question still hasn’t been answered, so let’s be more precise.

People in the workplace do not leave the self they are - their ways of being, of observing, of interacting, of responding - in the car park. The self, the being we are, is always present at work, which includes our predominant moods, dispositions, orientations and attitudes in life. The way personnel interact with each other, and customers (i.e. their conversations and relationships), is an expression of their ways of being. Transforming the attitude, morale, work practices, and structure of an organisation requires transformation in the ways of being of the humans who constitute the organisation. In advancing this interpretation it needs to be emphasised, that this does not mean that people need to undergo some sort of personality transfusion and be someone who they are not.

Shifting our ways of being involves gradual changes in the way we view situations (the perspectives we have), which includes the moods we bring to the workplace and how we engage in conversations with others. For example, simply learning how to make an effective request in a mood and tone of voice that is not likely to offend others represents a small shift in our way of being. And small shifts are the nature of human learning. Unfortunately, the word transformation often conjures up the notion of a "huge overnight shift", as if someone has been injected with a syringe of "attitude adjustment" and they are magically a different person. Everyone has a lot at stake in their existing ways of being and attempts to shift that too quickly are regarded as too threatening and will be resisted.

Continually making small shifts in ways of perceiving, observing, responding, acting and interacting to situations and each other, i.e. in ways of being, is an indispensable and integral feature of the learning required for organisational transformation.

Therefore it is vital for an organisation to develop a learning environment which fosters, supports and encourages people to make these gradual shifts. Part of this occurring will be those required to make these shifts will need to have a clear sense of why it is in their interest to do. And here we come to the pivotal role of leaders, managers and supervisors who have the responsibility to lead and manage change. They are key influencers in the workplace. The nature of their role has continually been expanding to one of being facilitators of learning. As we have seen, learning about different ways of being is a crucial learning that underpins the development of generic competences.

Ontological Coaching

Increasingly, leaders, managers and supervisors are required to be coaches. What is a coach? A coach works with people to engage them as learners in order to enhance their performance in a specific area of life. We are familiar with the role of sports coaches, but the importance of an organisation being a learning organisation has meant that the issue of learning must be high on its agenda. We have made the claim that generative learning from within the organisation, learning that continually generates different and more effective ways of being, is an indispensable feature of organisational learning.

What sort of coaches facilitate learning about ways of being? Ontological coaches. Ontology is the study of being, and an ontological coach is an astute and acute observer of their own and others’ ways of being. This especially includes their conversational behaviour in working relationships, and the impact of these on individual, and team, performance and productivity. Because he or she is an alert observer of conversations and relationships, a coach can detect the subtle nuances that interfere with the development of constructive conversations and productive relationships. An ontological coach is also someone who is influential in engaging others as learners, and in generating a momentum for a continuous desire to learn. A central part of having this influence is to be able to work respectfully with people, to take care of their dignity, and enable them to see the benefits to be gained from shifts in their mood and associated conversational behaviour.

Apart from maintaining their position in the organisation, and/or improving their chances for promotion, what else is "in it" for people to gradually alter their ways of being? We want to point to something which may seem so simple, yet is crucial for people. We refer to our desire to live a life that has meaning and fulfilment for us, one in which we have a very positive assessment about the quality of our existence. This comment may seem a bit philosophical and esoteric in discussions of organisational performance, productivity and profit. However, what we contend is that uncertainty and anxiety have become prevalent in people’s working lives, and that increasingly the quality of people’s workplace existence is less than what they desire. Because so much of our life is geared around work, the impact on the rest of our life, especially family life, cannot be underestimated.

We claim that many people are yearning for a more satisfactory, meaningful and fulfilling workplace existence, but they have not been supported to see the pivotal role of learning how to shift their ways of being to bring this about. A more meaningful and fulfilling life at work can be closely associated with performance and productivity improvements. As the saying goes, the greatest potential competitive advantage an organisation has is its people. However, it is not only their specialist knowledge and skills and work ethic, but also the way they go about interacting with each other, with customers and with suppliers.

We do not see a coach as being a new designated role within organisations. Rather, we see that people in key positions of responsibility and influence be supported in their expanded role to be able to utilise the perspective and competence of being an ontological coach. This will enhance their effectiveness for influencing the workplace behaviour and practices of others. One of the major challenges in the development of harmonious and productive workplaces is being able to co-exist with others in ways that enable the essential cooperative nature of organisational work to occur efficiently and effectively. As keen observers and avid learners of how the quality of conversations and relationships is both a reflection of, and impacts on, people’s ways of being and the quality of their lives, ontological coaches are key catalysts for learning that generates genuine organisational transformation.

© Newfield Institute

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