Ingredients of Futures Agility – Learning Organizations and Communities of Practice. Are we ready to take our collective learning to new heights? Can we afford not to?

It has been said, that we might as well be “starving at the banquet” of the information age.

So much to know, to decide, to act upon…with the stakes increasingly high to GET IT RIGHT. And yet…how are we doing learning together in our organizational contexts to prepare for these endeavors? How do we integrate good information, new trends, results of signal scanning and mapping? How do we calibrate a changing basis for the way we determine cause and effect in the increasingly complex world around us?

As often as not, so many report feeling mostly overwhelmed – with data, with information, with ideas…. How do we keep up with all there is to know for now, let alone how to prepare for what is next? How do we make sure that our plans and actions are not merely “reactions” to what is happening around us, or the result of our fears, but rather the result of the collective learning that we are each engaged in? How can this knowledge we are generating be better pooled, organized, and focused for the good of all? Does this result in both power and agility? I would strongly suggest that it does. And commitment to boosting our organizational learning, as well as our commitment to communities of practice, can help us get there.

Along the way of learning about, and working with groups and organizations about future readiness, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the loosely related topics of “learning organizations” and “communities of practice” are essential concepts and frameworks for our success moving forward. Yet surprisingly, there is an absence of urgency in the way we talk about it – almost as if these ideas are luxuries rather than keys to competitive advantage or successful community building (depending on your perspective).

The truth is the way we learn together needs to be revised to afford us the kind of capacity, creativity and energy that is needed to result in the necessary agility required by the future and what’s required to succeed in the “VUCA” world.

This is true of both of the organizational settings I’m most connected to – social work practice in both private and public settings, as well as across higher education.

Yet because of our level of “busy-ness” our shared learning doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. I look with fascination at organizations that have committed deeply to this idea by positioning a “chief learning officer” whose literal job it is to assure that a) learning is happening that is strategic and intentional and b) that this learning is shared and focused and directly embedded into larger strategies of the organization. I’m sad to say, these kinds of positions don’t often show up in the places where I’ve worked – this role is often earnestly distributed among many and prioritized by almost no one. Without a deeper commitment, this gap inhibits the kind of ideas, energy and potential that we need right now. I believe learning together is our most vital investment for the future – and that it should be prioritized.

There is truly pressure on everyone to “plan strategically” for what comes next. I would suggest that every bit as important as planning can be – equally important is to focus, amplify, reinforce and strengthen the ways that we seek, consume, share and apply what we are learning. This includes “sharing the learning load” and “cognitive overwhelm” we are all experiencing by organizing ourselves better not just as an “implementation team” as so often happens in busy organizations, but as “learning teams” to make sure that our implementation is regularly, indeed inherently, well-informed along the way. This isn’t about just “learning more effectively” in episodes, but rather changing up what we do so that work and learning are so deeply intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable.

The concept of the “learning organization” was first introduced in 1970 by Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline.” He defines this as the organizational quality of continually seeking new information by the members, and using this knowledge to intentionally evolve and transform. Senge suggests that there are five qualities including systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning. There have been numerous iterations, variations and evolutionary versions and applications since the introduction of this durable model – and it was prescient in terms of implicitly anticipating how the complications of the coming years, would require new ways of operating.

Futures thinking and evolving towards future readiness – combines these ideas in ways that keep a keen eye on what lays ahead. Futures thinking is a practice that requires learning- not just a philosophy. Increasingly, I look at boosting our “organizational learning quotient” as among the most important organizational survival skills for whatever comes next.

Can we really afford NOT to be a learning organization at this point in history? In my estimation – our ability to learn effectively as well as collectively, and evolve accordingly based on our learning – is among the most important ingredients of the agility much discussed as a hallmark of “future readiness.”

Additionally, I’d suggest that understanding “communities of practice” is a way to understand broader and evolved ways of thinking about how within-organizational learning, as well as trans-organizational learning occurs in the modern world. While definitions vary somewhat, most definitions of a community of practice is a collection of people who intentionally learn together – whether in a shared organizational space or, generating even more bandwidth, beyond it. This is aided by technological reinforcements and connections that boost intelligent networks among interested learning partners whether near or global. I believe that these complex learning networks are increasingly demonstrating new ways of solving problems collectively (think about the new to our decade term “crowd sourced” as a cursory example), and that we’ve only begun to see what they will accomplish in the years to come.

Futures readiness means getting serious, disciplined and intentional about engaging in reflection and committed restoration about our organizational learning capacity and beyond.

To advance dialogue on these concepts, I did a search and put this list together for study and conversation. As always, it is in process and more will be added. For my own practice, getting clear about these ideas was essential.

Let’s keep learning together – and let’s help our organizations and learning networks greet the future with a new capacity for embedded and focused learning.

Examples of Universities Doing Futures Work

(This list will likely evolve with time! Not intended to be an exhaustive inventory – just good to have some ideas about how different schools approach this topic. Check back if you’re interested to see updates.)

Pleased to share work conducted at my own university this past year in what we named the Portland State University Futures Collaboratory.

And here’s a quick scan of additional university programs doing exemplary work in this space:

Stanford 2025: An exploration of undergraduate experiences of the future

Future Foresight: Dubai

Georgia Tech: Creating the Next in Education

Arizona State University: Center for the Study of Futures

University of Houston: Foresight Program

Envision UC Davis: A Forecasting Game

Hawaii Futures Studies: University of Hawaii at Manoa

Carnegie Mellon Design

Turku University/Finland

The Future of Higher Education: An open and evolving sector scan in 2019

Earlier in this blog, I noted the need for social work and social work educators to understand the past, present and future of higher education. My previous work included in this space was an indepth review of resources associated with the concept of neo-liberalism in higher education.

As a profession, new social workers and social work knowledge is produced in the academy. Our ethics and values dictate that this knowledge grows out of real world dynamics and partnerships in real communities. Social work knowledge has found its primary home in university and college spaces – and our “home” is undergoing some powerful evolution. Some of it is important and good – some of it is deeply challenging and concerning.

That said, there is a whole sector of futures practice that is focused on the future of higher education. Many challenge that it is in a particularly dynamic state of change, increasingly precarious, and at risk of growing instability as fiscal, legal, and labor issues continue to become more complex. Trend analysts describe plentiful signals regarding shifts in play and on the horizon – and most of these predict growing closures and/or mergers of colleges and universities. Change, they say, is coming.

I’ve been building this resource list for some time as I navigate my own futures journey. I have a particular affinity for emerging knowledge on the future of public higher education, and I’m not alone. If you haven’t become aware of it, there will be a national gathering this fall to explore the future of public higher education on the east coast.

THIS resource list is not specific to the public sector – it is a gathering of a broad array of items focused on both public and private higher education issues.

As with my other resource lists, this bibliography is ever in a state of evolution and revision. As is our strength as social workers – my aim is to prepare social work educator leaders to understand the deeply contextual nature of our work as generators, leaders and protectors of social work knowledge, emerging research and education.

If our goal is to thrive in the social work education practice environment of the future – we will need unprecidented levels of creativity, agility, collective intelligence and FORESIGHTFULNESS. We should resist the urge (and sometimes incentives) to compete, but rather seek pathways to elevate and collaborate for a greater good in the future of our knowledge and our professional workforce, even as we continue to innovate.

A special note, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I’d like to offer a reminder that this resource list is not, and is not intended to be, and indepth review of the literature. Rather, this is a horizon-based sector scan focused on relatively recent resources in the academic, practice, trade press, and popular press on the future of higher education. There are a couple of these that I find very valuable and may “agree” with in terms of my predispositions – others less so. The greater value is in scanning what is here and thinking through what these mentions reveal as a whole about what might be happening, what might be coming. Futures practice involves looking for and finding patterns that imply a trajectory we may yet have the power to influence.

To learn more, check out my bibliography/resource list called The Future of Higher Education – Selected New Resources here.

Neoliberalism and Higher Education – an Annotated Bibliography

In order for me to participate in futures work within higher education in a way that fits with my values – I needed to sharpen my tools and refresh my own thinking about the forces shaping the contemporary landscape of colleges and universities. As I aim for a better understanding, tools and strategies to be part of the preservation of our sector as it goes through (some needed) significant reforms and changes, as well as truly monumental challenges in the coming years, it is essential to understand neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is widely discussed as a huge factor in the evolution of higher education – and in largely destructive ways. In a VERY simplified definition, neoliberalism reflects a pervasive “marketization” of formerly non-market resources within community life.

Anyone who works in higher education (particularly public higher ed) understands this phenomenon at the “gut” level…we’ve all been dealing with a perpetual cycle of decreasing funding, increasing expectations regarding complex accountability and accreditation systems, increasing pressures to expand among other elements.

It is worth noting that I’m not at all against accountability – I’m an advocate for continuous quality improvement, revising and updating outmoded methods (where they might be appropriate) and finally, widening our relevance and success with all members of our communities. Most academics I know are very committed to the best quality, at the most reasonable cost possible for their students – and most are dismayed at the increasingly market-driven reality that higher education has become.

But many suggest that we’ve long since left the land of “earnest and quality public administration” and entered spaces of higher education that are increasingly (and some would say dangerously) neoliberal spaces. This reality is beyond the scope of any one institution – this is structural, it is deep, and it is happening in many if not most institutions of higher learning here in the U.S. and beyond.

What is neoliberalism in a fuller sense? This 2017 article from the Guardian provides a strong overview and provides a helpful historical context.

This is an excellent brief video – must watching for an accessible orientation to the concept of neoliberalism.

For a deeper academic analysis of neoliberalism in general and globally, there is a brand new edition of the journal Globalizations dedicated to the topic – the introductory essay is open access. Here’s one more general overview piece about the history, definition and current trajectory of neoliberalism.

I completed a literature review to do a deeper dive as it relates to neoliberalism and higher education to simply extend my own literacy on this topic – and this link will lead you to the work that I completed.

Can and should a neo-liberal lens, language and movement be stopped or interrupted? Can a lens of higher education (and all that both promises and delivered) be restored and reinforced for the future? I sincerely believe we can only get there if we continue to learn what we are up against, and join together (rather than compete) to make progress. The future I want to help create and protect has done exactly this.

Note: Neoliberalism has had a huge impact on social work practice throughout the U.S. (and beyond) as well, and that topic is worthy of its own discussion. This particular blog entry focuses on our “home” as social work educators.