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.

Resources from the CCL on the Future of Leadership

The Center for Creative Leadership is a US-based international leadership development organization and think tank. 

In exploring various aspects of futures literature, I have discovered a number of interesting resources related to their views on the future of leadership.   Have not found a lot of literature on this topic – so this was of interest to me.   Full disclosure – I have participated in CCL’s leadership programs in the past – though I have no affiliation with them now.    I have found them helpful (though often involve a need to adjust to a social work frame) – but want to be clear I’m not offering an endorsement.   I share these in the spirit of surfacing and sharing good information to be used in our work where appropriate.    While these resources are not “social work specific” they provide a window, in short, to leading through increasing complexity and more dynamic change than perhaps any prior era in history.  These dynamics ultimately impact social work leadership at unprecedented levels as well.  Our challenge is always to retain and adhere to our social work values as we navigate an increasingly challenging practice and leadership ecosystems.  

Please share your thoughts or other ideas about “leadership for the future” resources you’ve discovered!  Join the conversation! 

White paper on the future of leadership (from 2014)

Brief piece on “vertical leadership” (2017)

Video on Leadership Development – Transformations model (2017)

White paper on vertical leadership development – part one (2014)

White paper on vertical leadership development – part two (2015)

Leadership and the Future

Thinking about this this morning…these creative ideas from author Bob Johansen really inspire me.   

I like the start of them…but I’m the process of doing some gentle editing based on my social work sensibilities.   I’d love to hear what folks in my social work community think of these and how they might enhance them…? Hive mind!  More to come as this project evolves!!  


Leaders Make the Future Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World
Bob Johansen


1. Maker Instinct. Ability to exploit your inner drive to build and grow things, as well as connect with others in the making. Leaders need this basic skill to make and remake organizations.

2. Clarity. Ability to see through messes and contradictions to a future that others cannot yet see. Leaders must be clear about what they are making but flexible about how it gets made.

3. Dilemma Flipping. Ability to turn dilemmas – which, unlike problems, cannot be solved into advantages and opportunities.

4. Bio-Empathy. Ability to see things from nature’s point of view, to understand, respect, and learn from its patterns. Nature has it’s own clarity, if only we humans can understand and engage with it.

5. Constructive De-Polarizing. Ability to calm tense situations where differences dominate and communication has broken down – and bring people from divergent cultures toward positive engagement.

6. Quiet Transparency. Ability to be open and authentic about what matters – without being overly self-promoting. If you advertise yourself, you will become a big target.

7. Immersive Learning Ability. Ability to immerse yourself in unfamiliar environment, to learn from them in a first-person way.

8. Rapid Prototyping. Ability to create quick early versions of innovations with the expectation that later success will require early failures. Leaders will need to learn from early setbacks and learn to fail in interesting ways.

9. Smart-Mob Organizing. Ability to create, engage with, and nurture purposeful business or social change networks through intelligent use of electronic media and in-person communication.

10. Commons Creating. Ability to seed, nurture, and grow shared assets that can benefit all players – and allow competition at a higher level. This is the most important future leadership skill and it grows from all the others.
The ability to flip from the frightening VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) to a hopeful VUCA (vision, understanding, clarity and agility) will be the ultimate dilemma for leaders in the future.