The Bahá'í Community as a Learning Organisation
by Roy Steinerpublished in Bahá'í Studies Review, 6
London: Association for Bahá'í Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1996
In view of the fact that at the present time such fully developed and comprehensively learned individuals are hard to come by, and the government and people are in dire need of order and direction, it is essential to establish a body of scholars the various groups of whose membership would each be expert in one of the aforementioned branches of knowledge. This body should with the greatest energy and vigour deliberate as to all present and future requirements, and bring about equilibrium and order. -Abdu'l-Bahá (1)
Almost all large, international organisations ranging from PepsiCo to the United Nations to the Catholic Church, are struggling with the challenge of generating, managing and sharing truly useful knowledge. In the field of organisational development, the ability to capture, organise and distribute experiential knowledge is seen as one of the critical foundations for a learning organisation.(2) This challenge is certainly being felt in the Bahá'í community, where the diffuse network of Bahá'í communities is linked only through administrative organisations. Nobody has access to all the knowledge available, yet each believer needs and wants to know what has already been done, which parts are causing problems, and what successes can be replicated. In order for knowledge sharing and generation to take place more easily, some sort of knowledge management system that is easily accessible is vital.
This paper will attempt to lay out some ideas about a knowledge management system focussed on assisting individuals, communities and institutions in generating and sharing experiences and insights that will help them be more successful in their activities. My focus is on experiential and practical knowledge rather than academic scholarship.
Knowledge in the Bahá'í community
The reason for this situation is understandable. The mechanisms for widespread knowledge dispersal occur primarily at selected conferences and in national publications. At present there are few places or institutions that systematically capture knowledge except on an individual basis. The knowledge that is collected is rarely systematically organised and even when it is organised it can rarely be accessed by more than a handful of individuals. As a result there is limited awareness about the knowledge resources that are available in the Bahá'í community.
The technology for knowledge generation and sharing, however, is becoming increasingly available as the electronic networking explodes and computers lower their costs. Just as computerisation of the Bahá'í Writings revolutionised the way Bahá'ís could access the Writings, the Internet (or a Bahá'í Intranet) could revolutionise the way knowledge is generated and shared in the Faith.
Existing knowledge systems
The factors associated with the success of this and other knowledge management systems include:
In order to develop its own knowledge management system the Bahá'í community must tackle four related issues:
Although there are a number of potential coordinators of this knowledge management system, an obvious choice is the Institution of the Learned. Members of this institution are continually called on to bring knowledge and understanding to bear on local situations. They are also the ones who have the greatest access to the knowledge being generated at the community level. Just think of the power of having all Auxiliary Board members (ABMs) linked together via the Internet and developing an evolving database of experience that is easily accessible. The World Centre and various NSAs could also be "owners" of this management system. Whoever the coordinators are, high priority must be given to the vexing issues of security, access, and review protocols to ensure quality.
Possible classification systems
A possible set of axes for a Bahá'í knowledge matrix (certainly not a mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive list) include:
Teaching (Axes: Activity by target segment)
Social and Economic Development (Axes: Area of discipline by function)
Community Life (Axes = Activity by resource/process)
Many organisations have found that the power of knowledge management is only harnessed by creating informal networks of people who do the same or similar kinds of work--people who are often in different or geographically dispersed organisational units. These informal networks have been called the "community of practice." The human ties among such a community are often the part of the formula that is missed or misunderstood by simple knowledge management solutions, since practitioners who are exposed to the same class of problem often develop a sense of mutual obligation to help one another.(4)
Knowledge and experience often do not fit neatly into data warehouses. The challenge for the system is to implement new flexible technologies that can adapt to different forms of data as well as to support and enable those communities of practice. The rush to various technological solutions (networking, groupware, video, data conferencing) have often been disappointing and more often than not, have generated endless unused discussion databases and minimally valuable internal Web sites.
Information technologies must provide a way to form communities, not simply to provide communications. These communities will form and share knowledge on the basis of pull by individual members, not centralised push of information. However, in order to do this they must have the necessary tools to form, evolve, and develop as freely as possible. The primary purpose of the matrix structure proposed earlier would not just be to organise knowledge but, more fundamentally, to create "communities of practice" among the believers or the Institution of the Learned, who would then ensure that relevant knowledge was created and shared.
Access and dissemination
After more discussion, a web-based pilot project to explore various
system concepts may be viable. However, it the long term it will require
significant resources and guidance. Ultimately it is up to the institutions
of the Faith to decide whether this is an area in which the community needs
to invest resources and energy.
2. Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: the Art & Practice of The Learning Organisation (New York: Doubleday Currency, 1990); Peter Kline and Bernard Saunders, Ten Steps to a Learning Organisation (Virginia: Great Ocean Publishers, 1993).
3. Seena Fazel and John Danesh, "Bahá'í Scholarship: an examination using citation analysis," The Bahá'í Studies Review 5.1 (1995): 13-26.
4. Brook Manville, "Harvest Your Workers' Knowledge," in Management Science (Oct. 1995): 70-75.
COMMENTARY on Roy Steiner's "The Bahá'í community as a learning organisation"
Commentator: Kambiz Maani
In the article entitled "The Bahá'í community as a learning organisation," Roy Steiner deals with the notion of "knowledge management systems" and its implications for the Bahá'í community. He proposes a framework based on McKinsey's professional development model where industry groups and key business functions are laid out in a matrix format. In this model each cell of the matrix is assigned to a "practice leadership group" who will take an ownership for collecting, co-ordinating, and assimilating existing knowledge in that area. Steiner proposes an insightful application of this model for the Bahá'í community where dispersed experiences and practices of Bahá'í communities could be collected and made available through electronic media for use by other Bahá'í communities, institutions and individuals.
While the article provides useful concepts and insights, it does not reach the depth of "The Learning Organisation;" a concept popularised by Peter Senge, a systems scientist and management educator, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who in his best-seller The Fifth Discipline,(1) provides a model for a transformation process rooted in a holistic approach. The precepts of a learning organisation, while have a much narrower scope, having much in common with Bahá'í teachings.
According to Senge, there are five "core disciplines" that collectively form the bedrock of a learning organisation (see the diagram on next page). These disciplines are linked to a "deeper learning cycle" comprising three elements : (1) awareness and sensibilities, (2) attitudes and beliefs, and (3) skills and capabilities. This deep learning cycle, in turn, emanates from an "implicate order" or a "new notion of order" where "everything is enfolded into everything".(2) Below, I briefly describe the five disciplines of a learning organisation and attempt to draw parallels with Bahá'í teachings.
Personal mastery is the spiritual dimension of a learning organisation. It rests on the eternal truth that lasting change starts from within. This is the core of the transformation paradigm: that personal transformation precedes social transformation, that trust in a society is built upon truthfulness and trustworthiness of its individual members. Personal mastery calls for integration of reason and intuition (i.e. science and religion), compassion, commitment to truth, and a personal sense of interconnectedness. This inner transformation paradigm has seen a renewed attention by contemporary management and personal development gurus (e.g. Covey, Dyer, Chopra) and has created a "thought revolution" in management and leadership in the post-modern organisation of the western world.
The second discipline - shared vision
The third discipline - mental models
The fourth discipline - dialogue (team learning)
The fifth discipline - systems thinking
Viewed in this light, Bahá'í teachings are essentially systemic in nature. The view of humanity as an indivisible whole is paramount in Bahá'í teachings. Yet individual parts are not subdued for the primacy of the whole. On the contrary, the whole and its constituent parts interact harmoniously in what Ackoff calls a "social system."(4) A social system not only has a purpose of its own, each part of the system has its own purpose (e.g. spiritual growth) which cannot be achieved independent of the purpose of the whole (i.e. transformation of human society, ever advancing civilisation). This is in contrast to a mechanistic (Newtonian) system or an organic system, in which parts of the system while having individual functions do not have independent purposes (e.g. while the human body has a purpose, the heart or the lungs do not have a purpose of their own).
At the societal level too, Bahá'í teachings are the embodiment of systemic view as they operate in interaction with each other. Stated differently, none of the social teachings of the Faith can singly, and in isolation from other teachings, provide a complete solution on its own. For example, without "independent investigation of truth" and "elimination of prejudices," the goal of "equality of men and women" is unachievable.
Steiner's knowledge management system can be further differentiated from a learning organisation by making a distinction between knowledge and learning. Russell Ackoff, a leading systems scientist, defines a progression from data to information, to knowledge, to understanding, and to wisdom. "Knowledge," he asserts, "consists of know-how, .... knowing how a system works or how to make it work in a desired way."(5) Understanding, on the other hand, comes from the answer to "why." Wisdom, however, "is the ability to perceive and evaluate the long-term consequences of behaviour. Wisdom normally associated with a willingness to make short-term sacrifices for the sake of long-term gains".(6) Given this perspective, an organisation requires a lot more than a knowledge acquisition and management system to become a learning organisation. Therefore one can suggest that the Bahá'í community (or any religious system for that matter) can be viewed as a learning organisation, based on its fundamental emphasis on Ackoff's premise of understanding and wisdom, namely, a focus on why and a fundamental belief in the long-term (i.e. the continuity of history in this world, and the progression of life in other worlds).
Despite their distinctions, there is a dynamic link between knowledge and learning. This link is captured in the concept of the "learning community"(7) - an extension of Learning Organisation. In the Learning Community, three elements of knowledge, practice, and capacity-building interact dynamically toward an ever-advancing whole (i.e. community, society). There is a striking parallel between this concept and Daniel Jordan's "knowledge-volition-action" cycle. Another example of this dynamic cycle is apparent in a recent message of the Universal House of Justice. A close examination of that message in the context of the "institutes" reveals reinforcing dynamics between knowledge (i.e. human resource training and development), practice (i.e. teaching) and capacity building (entry by troops).
COMMENTARY on Roy Steiner's "The Bahá'í community as a learning organisation"
Commentator: Svenja Tams
In "The Bahá'í community as a learning organisation," Roy Steiner outlines the benefits of a system that manages practical knowledge available in the Bahá'í community. Citing the example of a system which was developed by a consulting firm, he suggests a conceptual design for a knowledge management system.
As I study how organisations learn and make sense of their environment, it was pleasing to see the first article of its kind in The Bahá'í Studies Review. Social science disciplines have so far been rarely applied to the study of the Bahá'í community itself. Steiner's article is refreshing, because it presents a pragmatic approach, grounded in current managerial practice, towards improving the functioning of our community. The author refrains from theorising on a topic on which explicit Bahá'í references are limited. In response to the author's objective of stimulating a discussion on the topic, my intent here is to unpack some of the underlying assumptions presented in the article. To this end I raise more questions than I answer. This will, I hope, contribute to a more comprehensive approach towards developing information environments within the community.
This commentary starts with a discussion on the nature and purpose of social knowledge. Unlike Steiner, I believe that the development of a knowledge system is not foremost a technology or database problem. I propose that the learning within the Bahá'í community is a consultative process rather than the accumulation of past experiences. Such a process perspective, furthermore, enables the community to be proactive and adaptable to unanticipated events.
The concept of knowledge
The relativism of truth is one of the core principles of the Bahá'í Faith where the authoritative interpretation of the sacred text is only granted to 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. The Universal House of Justice's powers are limited to the functions of legislation and implementation as well as elucidation of existing law.(11) The community does not have a law of precedence or of tradition, such as in Islam or in Judaism. Decision-making in the community is not based on a detailed canon of regulations or routines. It is based on a process of consultation as a means for bringing together a wide variety of viewpoints. The guiding objective is to achieve unity and action toward a goal, not an optimising solution. The social nature of decision-making makes it difficult to separate means from their ends and decisions result more often from comparison of a few feasible alternatives,(12) rather than from rational choice alone. Communities should still be informed about administrative procedures or benefit from relevant experiences in order to avoid "reinventing the wheel," as Steiner points out. Yet, the fact that the act of classifying and recording knowledge is an act of interpretation. When publishing past experiences, we select the stories we want to tell. Can we only learn from success stories which are highly context and culturally bound? Can a single person or group represent the historical and situational context of experiences adequately? Is it reasonable to expect that a shared knowledge system allows us to learn from past mistakes?
In fact, recent technology development may reduce some of the concerns related to classification. Advanced search engine technology(13) makes it possible to search vast amounts of information distributed around the globe. The two by two matrix structure sketched by Steiner models the old style of relational databases. At a time when the Internet emerges as the de facto communications infrastructure for public as well as private domains, it is unrealistic that the Bahá'í community would build a proprietary system. Thus, questions about how to centralise retrieval and who should "own" information are outdated. The Internet benefits from local ownership of information and public access where lack of access remains a temporary issue. A pre-defined classification system may limit the creation and sharing of new knowledge.
Notwithstanding, in an age when everyone owning a computer and a telephone line can publish information, the review capacity of Bahá'í institutions would need to grow exponentially which seems unfeasible. The most likely selection mechanism will be a market mechanism regulated by supply and demand and the moral code of conduct accepted at the individual level, i.e. the information publishers and consumers. It will be increasingly difficult for Bahá'í institutions to prevent "low quality" information from being published. The values and selection criteria of potential users will determine the currency of such information. Those publishers who can build up high credibility and reliability of information could be expected to attract a wider audience.
Steiner's ambitious title describing the Bahá'í community as a learning organisation is misleading as he emphasises the descriptive level of applied technology rather than the dynamics of a learning organisation. Steiner's information processing approach implies that by providing access to a broad scope of high-quality knowledge, learning will happen almost naturally. Peter Senge,(14) who is referenced by the author, emphasises the problems of learning from the past. Past experiences rarely match the needs of future, uncertain decision situations. Senge, hence, suggests that organisations should create room for simulated experimentation in what he calls "microworlds." The space of this commentary is too limited to discuss in detail the benefits and limitations of secured heuristic learning. What Senge brings to our attention, though, is that a holistic learning process should not separate analysis of information from its bodily experience and action.
Moreover, there remains scope for applied Bahá'í scholarship to investigate the benefits and limitations of two distinct learning processes. The first emphasises the stabilisation of action in routines. This type of learning contributes to the consolidation of the community. The second type of learning makes communities more resilient and able to anticipate and adapt to novel conditions. The latter type of learning, only, allows the community to guide future-oriented social development.
As much as learning develops our abilities to understand our world, there is no single way of making sense of reality. Consultation allows us to reveal the differences in perspective. Learning takes place when knowledge appears to be in contradiction, as expressed by 'Abdu'l-Bahá: "The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions."(15)
The emphasis in the Bahá'í writings on consultation, "unity in diversity," and individual search for truth shows that there are multiple valid ways of looking at the world and that outcomes will improve the more we become able to reveal these different perspectives. Having a unifying vision does not require convergence on a common culture or single systems of meaning which specifies the one best way of doing things. More important, and central to Bahá'í administration, is a decision-making framework which, in combination with an overarching vision, guides respectful and outcome-oriented interaction.
Foundations for the creation of knowledge
In conclusion, I join Steiner and hope to stimulate the discussion on how current organisational practices and technologies can best be applied to the development of the Bahá'í community. To prevent the unquestioned transfer of common practice, this discussion should be grounded in the spiritual principles of the Bahá'í teachings. It will benefit from diverse perspectives of Bahá'ís engaged in management practice and social sciences, including economics, sociology, anthropology, technology management, political sciences and education. Such an undertaking offers, moreover, access to Bahá'í studies for more pragmatic-oriented individuals. Learning as a dynamic process needs to facilitate both consolidation of shared meaning as well as questioning and doubt which comes from a variety of views in order to create adaptive and innovative communities.
Author's response to commentaries on "The Bahá'í community as a learning organisation"
It is with great pleasure that I read the commentaries on my article entitled "The Bahá'í community as a learning organisation". Our success as a community will depend to a large degree on how we practice the art of the learning organisation.
After reading both the Tams and Maani commentaries, it was clear to me that the title of my paper was inappropriate and should have been "A tool to assist Bahá'í communities in developing a learning organisation." As Maani points out, the concept of the learning organisation goes far deeper than the knowledge management system that I outlined and has deep philosophical and spiritual implications. The five disciplines he outlines are strong thematic threads within the Bahá'í writings and we would be well served by integrating them deeply into our community and spiritual life. In addition, I fully agree that an organisation requires a lot more than a knowledge management system to become a learning organisation. Wisdom, borne within the process of consultation, is the essential ingredient.
Nevertheless, there is a link between knowledge and learning, and the Bahá'í community would greatly benefit by developing a few considered knowledge management systems. Such systems can never substitute for learning that comes from the consultative process, as Tams points out, but they can be of significant help. I have lived in Bahá'í communities in three different continents and there are many similarities in the problems that these communities face and myriad opportunities for sharing experiences among these communities. In answer to Tams, I think that we can learn from success stories which are highly contextual and culturally bound as long as we recognize these constraints, and a shared knowledge system may enable us to learn from past mistakes.
Let me give a brief explanation of why I believe this. As a managing director of an Internet company in Africa (Africa Online), I am continually reminded of how much benefit could come from access to information and experiences from the rest of the world. For example, a local spiritual assembly here decided to promote children classes but had a difficult time tracking down suitable curricula for all age groups. They eventually had to develop some curricula from scratch, when in fact there were probably hundreds of communities that have already done this. A better use of time would have been to take an already existing curriculum and enhance it to fit the specific requirements of the African students. What I would like to see is a website that collects all curricula that have ever been created for Bahá'í classes. Thus with a suitable search engine, a Bahá'í teacher in Africa could review materials developed in Bolivia, Russia and Canada and choose those that were most appropriate for his or her purpose. This is a very simple example but very relevant to people in the field.
An even more powerful use of the Internet is in developing communities of interest around specific issues. If, for example, the African children's class teacher could not only review curricula from around the world but then also engage in discussion fora that focus on the use of such curricula in different settings, one could stimulate a learning process that would avoid the unquestioned transfer of common practices that Tams finds objectionable.
The explosion of interest in Intranets and the continuing development of technologies that allow diverse and geographically distant organisations to collaborate together cannot be ignored. These technologies should be used by the Bahá'í communities to enhance our capacity to learn and to further the work of the Bahá'í Faith. The beauty of many of these technologies is that they are available to anyone with a computer and the initiative to try something new.