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Conversational Proficiency:  The Emergence of the Sixth Discipline
by Alan Sieler

The January/February edition of Management Today, included an article by David Synan entitled "The Talking Organisation". In this article he wrote:

"The American management thinker Peter M. Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, popularised the idea that organisations can be seen as systems with their own internal logic. Find the right way to deal with the system and it can become a ‘learning organisation’.
"Organisations do not learn; people learn. It may be useful to ask ‘What do people do in organisations?’ One of their main activities is talking. Managers spend 63-69 percent of their time in conversation. If we could develop a foundation discipline based on conversation, it might become the much sought-after sixth discipline." (Italics added)

Based on the pioneering work of Chilean Fernando Flores in language and conversations, such a discipline now exists. The twin hallmarks of this discipline are that it is solidly grounded in substantive theory, and yet at the same time, is practical and readily assimilated into everyday life in the workplace.

Gaining an understanding of the basics of this discipline can be organised around four key questions.

  1. What is the critical dimension of organisational activity?
  2. What is at the heart of all organisational work?
  3. What is an organisation?
  4. What fundamental skill is required of all organisational personnel?

What is the critical dimension of organisational activity?

The impact of powerful and rapidly changing technology and more intense global competition have become permanent features of the business landscape. These two forces place continual relentless pressure on organisations to be able to adapt, transform and improve in reduced time frames.

As a result of these imperatives, daily activity within an organisation needs to be such that it remains competitive. But what is the nature of this activity? Traditionally it has been regarded as the completion of tasks, the movement of materials, and the flow of information. Whilst not denying their importance, they are underpinned by an even more crucial element, which is expressed in the following quotation.

"Every organised human activity - from the making of pots to the placing of man on the moon - gives rise to two fundamental and opposing requirements: the division of labor into various tasks to be performed and the coordination of these tasks to accomplish the activity. The structure of an organisation can be defined simply as the sum total of the ways in which it divides its labor into distinct tasks and then achieves coordination among them."
H. Mintzberg, The Structure of Organisations

The fundamental feature of organisational activity is the human coordination of action, and this is the foundation for all elements in the business process.

A business enterprise consists of individuals with highly specialised skills, who rely on each others’ specialist knowledge to get their work done. The performance of individuals is not done in isolation from one another, as specialist tasks include serving others so that they may fulfil their work requirements.

What is the at the heart of all organisational work?

The coordination of specialised efforts, as the critical dimension of business activity, cannot occur without people continually interacting with each other. A business consists of a complex web of interactions among highly skilled workers. The effectiveness of these interactions is a major determinant of business productivity, customer satisfaction, competitiveness and survival.

Fernando Flores has stated that business still comes down to people making contact with each other. The heart of organisational work is interaction between people with highly specialised skills.

The basic unit of human interaction is conversation, which can be both spoken and unspoken. Humans are fundamentally linguistic beings, using language in a variety of ways to engage in conversations with each other. It is through conversations that the myriad of tasks which are so essential for the successful operation of an organisation are accomplished.

Conversations are the central feature of organisational work. But much more than speaking is involved when people are conversing with each other. At least three elements are always present in a conversations: listening, speaking and emotions.

Listening is a linguistic phenomenon, as it involves the listener in an almost continuous series of internal conversations, which are the means by which he or she makes their own sense of what others are saying. Listening is an active process by which the listener derives their own unique meaning from what is being spoken. That is, he or she generates an interpretation of the words and actions of others, translating these into his or her own frame of reference.

Listening is the pre-eminent factor in communication, because even before someone speaks, they already have a listening, an existing interpretation, from which they speak. What shapes the way someone listens? Everyone listens from their concerns, that is, what matters most to them. Effective communication is speaking to address the concerns of others.

Speaking is much more than uttering a string of words. Recent developments in understanding the nature of human language have shown that the act of speaking always contains within it a series of actions. These actions are called "linguistic acts" and they have the potential to generate actions in others so that tasks can be completed and objectives reached.

A daily occurrence in organisations is the action making a request, in which one person asks another person to cooperate in some way and do something for them. Requests are an indispensable linguistic action for the integration of specialised skills and knowledge.

Finally, listening and speaking always occur from a background of emotions. Humans are always in some mood or emotion, which is a core part of their frame of mind. Their mood or emotion has a major bearing on how they listen and the manner in which they speak. This is because emotions are regarded as predispositions for action. Depending on their mood, an individual is predisposed to listen and speak in certain ways, but not others. Shifting their mood changes how they will both speak and listen, and also be listened to.

What is an organisation?

In order to successfully coordinate actions with each other, organisational personnel are in a continual process of relating with each other through conversations. Above all else, an organisation is a network of conversations and relationships. The quality of the conversations and relationships has a major impact on the performance of individuals and teams, as well as productivity.

Productive and constructive conversations build quality relationships, providing the context for further invaluable conversations to occur, which, in turn, contribute substantially to developing the indispensable mind set of continuous improvement.

However, it is not simply a matter of having conversations and relationships. It is what happens within them that determines whether action is successfully coordinated. A vital component of effective conversations and constructive relationships is the continual making and managing of commitments between people. In addition to being a network of conversations and relationships, an organisation is also a network of commitments.

A commitment is a promise to take action, very commonly in response to another person’s request. According to Flores, "people make enterprises, and they do so by how well they make and keep commitments with each other." Effectiveness in making and responding to requests is central to managing commitments, and this can be seen as a major factor in the successful integration of human and machine effort and the success of the organisation.

The quality of the conversations and relationships of an organisation define its practices and its culture. Improving organisational culture and performance revolves around a willingness to develop more productive conversations and constructive relationships. In other words, to be attentive to, and act upon, the impact of emotions on listening and speaking, to speak to concerns, and become more effective in the management of commitments.

What fundamental skill is required of all organisational personnel?

Flores claims that the two major problems in organisations are insensitive listening and the poor managing of commitments. A central element of the sixth discipline is the development of the skill of conversational proficiency. The more proficient people become in their workplace conversations, the more they will be able to generate and meet commitments which result in the coordination of action and excellence in individual and team performance, and the attainment of organisational objectives.

The conversational proficiency of leaders and managers acts as a model and sets the tone and the mood for the rest of the organisation. The ability of managers to manage their moods, to listen to concerns, and speak so that others will listen, and to make and manage their commitments, impacts on the emotions of others.

There is also another key aspect of conversational proficiency for managers and leaders. This is the ability to influence those who report to them to be continually making and managing commitments amongst each other. In this way they empower others to be willing participants in taking greater responsibility for the effective operation of their work unit.

Conversational proficiency develops the trust that is necessary to enable the continuing development of positive workplace relationships. Trust is always a potentially fragile feature of relationships and needs continual attention and nurturing. When there is a high degree of trust, the almost "seamless" coordination of action is the delightful consequence.

Becoming more conversationally proficient is not just a matter of mechanically learning a set of procedures and techniques. Because people relate to each other through conversations, becoming more conversationally proficient is above all else a relationship issue. It involves a holistic approach to observing ways of being in the workplace, and a willingness of managers and leaders to continually observe how their listening, their moods, their manner of speaking impacts upon others, and how they may shift these to be more influential. In short, it is about being a learner.

Four key words form the kernel of the sixth discipline: coordination, conversations, concerns and commitments. They are at the heart of developing trust and more positive workplace relationships. In a business world of increasingly intense global competition, and the imperative to adapt to rapidly changing technology, the link between conversations, relationships and commitments, on the one hand, and business productivity and competitiveness, on the other hand, can no longer be taken for granted.

© Newfield Institute

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