Status Report

NASA Goddard CIO Blog: The Learning Organization: CIO as Paleontologist

By SpaceRef Editor
February 9, 2009
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Not too long ago, I experienced a personally upsetting but organizationally valuable workshop on Race, Power, and Privilege. Sometimes, I just can’t help thinking that many of today’s leaders think of diversity in the workplace as just about making someone like me, an African-American female, feel good. And we’ve all checked the box and understood what human resource specialists have been saying. That is, an organization’s competitiveness and success depends on its ability to embrace diversity. But, this is just one of the many attributes of Learning Organizations.

Most traditional organizations are designed for efficient performance. And this is fine during times of stability and certainty. However, during turbulent and uncertain times, where adaptability and fluidity are needed, the Learning Organization is more effective. As leaders and as citizens, we have certainly seen the evidence of turbulence and uncertainty. Furthermore, many have been asked about how to promote creativity and innovation in government – said another way, how do we create learning organizations in the federal government?

I’ll offer two thoughts for how leaders can do this in today’s environment and how CIOs can help. (1) Unleashing right-brained thinking in the workplace; and (2) using technology as a strategic asset that can promote collaboration.

Right Brain versus Left Brain.

The left part of our brain is usually associated with: facts, analytical thought, exact numerical calculation, verbal functions, vocabulary and grammar, and logic. The right part of our brain is usually associated with: big picture thinking, intuition, empathy, numerical approximation, verbal emphasis or intent. Gordon MacKenzie, in his book Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, writes about how to promote and nurture creativity and innovation in the workplace. In it, he says:

If we are to make ourselves more fully available to the unfathomable potential of our whole mind, we must unmuzzle the genius of the right [brain].

Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, wrote in his blog some thoughts about what seemed to be an inability to predict the recent financial crisis. In his blog piece Too Many Left Brains Spoil the Pot, he writes:

I have a theory that people who find themselves running major-league companies are real organization-management types who focus on what they are doing this quarter or this annual budget. They are somewhat impatient, and focused on the present. Seeing these things requires more people with a historical perspective who are more thoughtful and more right-brained — but we end up with an army of left-brained immediate doers.

IT as a Strategic Asset versus IT as a Commodity

It’s probably better said that we need to have information as a strategic asset and for IT to help enable people as strategic assets by promoting information sharing and collaboration. In traditional organizations, information is used a power. As the amount of complex information in an organization grows, formal systems are established that help detect deviations from standards and goals. In learning organizations, information helps promote an environment where employees have complete information so that they can act quickly. Information is used to promote open channels of communications and create opportunities for discussion.

Clearly the actions of an empowered workforce in touch with each other, their customers, their suppliers, and even their competitors help identify needs and solutions needed for success. Collaborating with our competitors can help us learn and adapt and thrive.

Here’s where Web 2.0 technologies thrive. The opportunities are immense. We can’t lose sight of the need to measure and comply, but we have to evolve past that and apply these technologies strategically.

I will conclude with an ironic situation that I was in. I met a person that was an advisor to one of my colleagues. He had fabulous ideas about implementation of Web 2.0, but here’s the irony – he was a Paleontologist. I thought of the dinosaurs, and how we can learn from them and their inability to learn and adapt and subsequent extinction. Such is the future of organizations that fail to do likewise.

Maybe government organizations don’t die, but worse things can happen, such as:

  • They fail to engender trust in stakeholders and constituents
  • They have a demoralized and devalued workforce and struggle to attract and retain talent
  • Worst of all, they become irrelevant

As government leaders, we can’t let this happen. We have to promote learning not only in our organizations, but in ourselves as individuals.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

SpaceRef staff editor.