Learning As Transformation

Learning is the evolution of consciousness,
and organizations are learning communities that foster that evolution

One of the articles in The Learning Revolution (IC#27)
Originally published in Winter 1991 on page 16
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

Harrison Owen, author of Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations and Leadership Is, has been involved in learning-as-transformation for many years. A long-time student of the nature and function of myth, ritual, and culture, he has served as an organizational consultant to a wide variety of organizations. In the 1960s and 1970s he worked with such diverse entities as the National Institutes of Health, the Veterans Administration, and several West African villages.

Since forming H.H. Owen & Co. in 1977, his client list has ranged from Procter and Gamble to India’s Taj Hotel Group, and from U.S. West to the U.S. Army. This list might seem rather unlikely after reading this essay on learning and the evolution of spirit – but such is the transformational nature of our times. Contact H.H. Owen & Co. at 7808 River Falls Drive, Potomac, MD 20854, 301/469-9269.

At a conference I once attended, V.S. Mahesh, an Indian colleague, reported on a survey he had done with over 5,000 people. He asked them to remember their moment of greatest learning, and then to recall the feelings associated with that moment. The responses were remarkably consistent. People reported that, at the onset of the moment, there were feelings ranging from discomfiture to outright terror. This was followed by a sense of emptiness, which was at once awful and full of awe. At the conclusion – after the moment/event – the feeling shifted to joy, celebration, release.

My presentation immediately following concerned the process of transformation as experienced in organizations: the passage of one way of doing business, entry into the void (where it seems that there is no way of doing business), and on to whatever it is that comes next. From my experience, the way stations of this passage replicate the stages of Griefwork as usually described in the individual encounter with death – either one’s own, or the death of a significant other.

The stages are, in my version, 1) Shock/Anger; 2) Denial; 3) Memories; 4) Open Space – which begins as despair and ends as hope; 5) Imagination; and 6) Vision, experienced as triumph and resolution. I think these stark words communicate enough of the realities to make the point that what Mahesh saw as learning, I saw as transformation – and in fact, we were both looking at the same thing. Which brings me to the starting point of this piece: Transformation is real learning, and real learning is Transformation.

Learning, at its root, is nothing more nor less than the evolution of consciousness. From that it would seem the central role of the organization, as a learning community, is to facilitate that growth in consciousness, both in the individuals involved and in its collective manifestation – what we might call "organization consciousness." None of this is to suggest that the bits and pieces of learning as ordinarily talked about (bodies of knowledge, skills and attitudes) are unimportant. Rather, all of these require a context, and that context is the state or level of consciousness achieved by the organization and the individuals involved.

Thomas Kuhn, in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, helps us to understand that the growth of science did not take place in the nice linear, developmental way many of us have taken for fact. Rather, the major growth occurred in non-linear, quantum jumps with the emergence and passage of what Kuhn calls "paradigms," or ways of looking at things.

There was, for example, a time when the world was understood to be a flat dish under a dome of velvet, with the stars dangling as diamonds from the firmament. That was the paradigm of Babylon, and there emerged a body of knowledge (Babylonian Astronomy) and set of skills and attitudes appropriate to that paradigm. It all worked very well until some discrepancies were noted that could not be fitted into the standard view. For a time, exceptions to the rule were allowed, until it became clear that the exceptions were greater than the rule. At that moment, the paradigm shifted, and a new paradigm emerged – call it Copernican. The good news was that things made more sense. The bad news was that the bodies of knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the old paradigm were no longer functional. Even worse, folks were none too happy to make the switch. Indeed some of them were downright resistant, not to say rebellious. The shift in paradigms may be exciting, but it is also exceedingly painful.

And so things have progressed from Copernicus to Galileo, to Newton, to Einstein (roughly speaking). With each new paradigm came a new set of knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs). The old KSAs, of course, would continue to work, but only in their context.

It appears then that learning comes in two forms: what we might call High Learning and Normal Learning (to borrow and modify Kuhn’s High Science and Normal Science). High Learning is what occurs in those moments of quantum leap, when the paradigm shifts. Normal Learning is what happens in between as we refine and make further sense out of the new and different point of view. Both sorts of learning are essential; but they can never be confused, nor are they interchangeable.

If we accept the notion that learning is transformation (and vice versa), and further that the primal role of the learning community is the facilitation of that transformation – i.e., the evolution of consciousness – it would seem that we need to talk further, and with some precision, about the stages of consciousness and the learning process.


Borrowing from some of my earlier work (Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations, Abbott, 1987) and the work of many others, allow me to offer a structure within which we might think. This structure is certainly not the only one, nor the best, but it is a place to start.

What is "it" that evolves? Up to this point, I have used the word "consciousness," and then in the section heading above, I introduced the word "Spirit." In a traditional Indian setting, a more usual word would be "mind." Each of these (Spirit, Mind and Consciousness) has its own special contribution; but they all, I think, point to that ineffable essence from which we have come, and to which we return, whatever and whenever that may be.

My preferred word is Spirit because it spans a range of applications, from "Team Spirit" to "Cosmic Spirit." Consciousness may be more precise, but in the workplace it is hard to generate a great deal of enthusiasm for the notion of "Team Consciousness," even though that may be very important. As for "mind," I have a special use for that one (see below) so I wish to reserve it for that application. The bottom line is that I prefer to use the word Spirit, but please use any word that works for you.

Building upon the very ancient understanding of how Spirit evolves, it seems that we go from a state of inchoate Spirit, down progressively into concreteness, on to individuation, and emerge finally as the fulfillment of that which we really are – Spirit. The stages along the way may be identified and represented as follows (reading from the bottom up):


When Spirit first appears in the world, it is manifest as Body. The good news is that it is really there, but there are limitations. Operating at the level of Body, our awareness (consciousness) is restricted to basic needs. Some folks spend their whole lives here and never move beyond. But there is a Beyond, which I call Mind.

Mind is the manifestation of Spirit in which we have the right words to define and differentiate reality, so that we can begin to think about it. We may not understand what it is all about, and that is a limitation, but we are definitely beyond the bodily restrictions of elemental needs. There is more to life than breathing, procreation and eating. However, it would be nice if we could understand, and become critically aware of the quality of our thinking. Intellect does the job.

Intellect is the manifestation of Spirit as a rational, reflective being, existing in a body, having thoughts, and possessing the capacity to move beyond the thoughts of the moment into an imagined (reasoned) future. The good news of Spirit-as-Intellect is that self-awareness is present. The bad news is that we tend to get locked into that self, understood as Intellect. In a word, we are "too much in our heads," to the detriment of our relationship with our body and the appreciation of our mind. Indeed we tend to split the two (body and mind), and having made that split, it is very hard to get it all back together again (the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome).

Spirit as Soul gets it all together. My use of the word Soul corresponds to the Hebrew word Nephesh – which may be translated either as "corps," as in "Samuel slew 10,000 Nepheshes," or as something much more etherial, as in, "My Soul (Nephesh) cries out…". The street usage is just about right – when we say that "he/she’s got Soul," what we mean is that "they have it all together." Soul is Spirit manifest as the integration of Body, Mind and Intellect. The good news is that we have finally gotten it together. But it would be very nice to soar above "it" all.

Spirit is Spirit manifest as itself. It doesn’t happen very often (except for the illuminati – and most of us aren’t there yet). But we all have those momentary glimpses beyond time and space, when Spirit is no longer limited to the here and now. Call it inspiration ("being in the spirit"), enthusiasm (literally, "being in God"), or something else, but we perceive it as being everything we can be – which is Spirit.


We can also understand organizations as an evolving "quantum of consciousness," or Spirit. We certainly have no problem talking about the Spirit of an organization, and even have much to say about its qualities – as in "great Spirit," "lousy Spirit," "powerful Spirit," "weak Spirit." I believe it possible to talk about the manifestations of Organizational Spirit, and that it is necessary to do that if we are going to make any sense out of the notion of "Organizational Learning as the Evolution of Consciousness." The organizational analogues to the Individual stages or states of consciousness (Spirit) are as follows (again reading from the bottom up):


Organizational Spirit appears first as Re-Active. This is the world of the Entrepreneur – great ideas, lots of energy, but prone to reinvention of the wheel. Things are very primal. The good news is that finally we are doing something. The bad news is that unless we can figure a way to do it smarter, we will quickly become exhausted. The first day of business may well be the last.

Getting smarter has a lot to do with putting things and actions into appropriate boxes, and giving them all names. We need words to define what we do, and with those words, it is possible to become Responsive. The Responsive organization is like the Mom and Pop Store – everything is in its proper place on the shelf, and when you walk in and ask for beans, the folks can be responsive to your needs by taking the can from the appropriate shelf. They may not understand where the beans came from, or what you are going to do with them, but they certainly can get you the beans. Everything works fine so long as the words and reality coincide, but when there is a shift, understanding is necessary. It is necessary to go beyond the words to their roots (history) and to their potential application (future).

Pro-Active Organizations can do both. They are intensely rational, and have the capacity to plan (i.e., deal with an imagined future). They analyze to understand what things mean. This is the world of the rational manager, the MBA. It is filled with strategic plans, numbers, and structure. There is a logic for everything and everything is logical – or at least that is the story. And indeed, the power manifest here is awesome, for this is what we used to know as the "well-run corporation." But the power present here continues only so long as the world is as it was understood to be. Change the shape of that world, and suddenly the logic does not apply.

At that point, the Pro-Active Organization will typically seek to re-rationalize (reorganize, restructure), presuming that it must be doing something the wrong way, when the reality is that it is doing the wrong thing. Buggy whips are out. The world has changed, and while the Strategic Plan of Old Buggy Whip Inc. may be the model of rationality, that rationale no longer works. And here is the rub: the Pro-Active Organization usually gets stuck in its rationality. When that doesn’t work, it sees few other alternatives, for it has lived so long in its abstracted version of the world that it no longer relates to the world as it is. This is known as forgetting the customer, and presuming you created the world. The possibilities here are dissolution, or evolution to a higher level.

The higher level is Inter-Active. This is the manifestation of Spirit which does not simply live in the world of rationality and abstraction, but rather continuously interacts with the world at large, and playfully invents and destroys structure to correlate with that world. It is not that structure is no longer important, but rather that structure must be appropriate. No longer is there "one right way" but a multiplicity of ways which may be chosen, or invented, to inter-relate with the world. The good news is that the organizational form (structure) is now at the service of the business, and the business is no longer prisoner to the form. But still, it is form/structure related, and sometime it would be wonderful to go beyond all that. And that is what the Inspired Organization does.

We don’t see too many Inspired Organizations at the moment, but we all have had the experience of being part of such a thing, if only for a moment. When clocks are no longer important and performance exceeds technical capacity – that is inspired. We may have experienced this in the performance of a symphony orchestra, when technical skill passes into pure music, or when a research team breaks through the expected and the traditional to fly in the midst of ideas and realities that have never been thought of before. At such a moment we know, in ways that rational knowledge can never allow, that this is the way it was supposed to be. Perhaps there will be a day when the momentary experience is the NOW of everyday reality.


The relationship between the Individual and the Organizational manifestations of Spirit is more than analogous. It is correlative. We are, and we become what we are, in relationship to the organizations of which we are a part. By the same token, our organizations reflect the evolutionary state of the individuals of which they consist.

The correlation between the Individual and Organizational manifestations of Spirit would appear as follows:

5) Inspired – Spirit
4) Inter-Active – Soul
3) Pro-Active – Intellect
2) Responsive – Mind
1) Re-Active – Body

An organization existing at the Pro-Active level is the natural home for individuals existing at the level of Intellect. Everybody is an MBA. That same organization will be challenged by an individual manifesting Soul, and retarded and held back by Body and Mind-level folks. Turning this around, individuals existing at the level of Intellect will find themselves challenged to reach their potential should they be fortunate to find themselves in an Inter-Active Organization.

In a word, Organizational Transformation (evolution) and Individual Transformation are never first-second but always "both together and all at once." To my mind, the discussion about whether we must transform as individuals before we can transform as organizations is to miss the point. Organizations and Individuals will transform together or not at all.


I believe American organizations are now between the Pro-Active and Inter-Active level – and we find that to be damned uncomfortable. We are increasingly aware that the Pro-Active Organization, as good as it may have been, is simply not up to the tasks the world has thrust upon it. In a similar fashion we, as individuals, are now finding that living exclusively in our Intellect may have been fine in a more ordered day, but we now desperately need to get Body, Mind, and Intellect all together. And that means evolving to the level of Soul.

The prospective passage is anything but appealing. For to make the journey, we must quite literally let go of our old way of being in order to assume the new way. It is rather like the trapeze artist, who must release the bar-in-hand in order to catch the one-coming-in. And for the moment, that means existing in Open Space with all the anxiety, not to say fear and trembling, that entails. Some of us just let the incoming bars come and go. Others keep looking for another way around. And some are about ready to climb off the platform, hoping for a better day when things get back to "normal." The truth of the matter is that what we experience is normal, and there is no easy way across.

Organizationally, as we perceive the inadequacies of the way our Pro-Active systems are at the moment, our first thought is that there must be something wrong with the system. It needs fixing, and Pro-Active Organizations are very good at fixing systems. So we restructure and reorganize, not just once, but again and again. But the System doesn’t work. At that point, we give in to the temptation to de-volve, reasoning that if we can’t make the system work, maybe we need to "Go Back to Basics" (thank you, Tom Peters), down to the Re-Active Level. We all must become Entrepreneurs again. For the moment, this seems to work, and at the very least it is exciting to be in the middle of all that primal energy (Spirit).

But then it becomes clear that the entrepreneur in our midst is essentially dis-organized, and we must get organized, so it is back up to the Rational Manager one more time. Thus it is, for example, that Steve Jobs is succeeded by John Scully at Apple. Again it seems that the "fix" is working, but only for a while. And that "while" turns out to be shorter and shorter. Question: Are we eternally condemned to vacillate between the Entrepreneur and Rational Manager? Must we always go from Pro-Active to Re-Active to Pro-Active – and around again? Or is there something else?

There is something else, and I believe we know what it is: The Inter-Active Organization. But getting there does not come free. The price may be paid in a number of currencies, some of which are denominated in degrees of loss of control. We have lived under the delusion that we were actually in control, and that good management was all about maintaining control, to the point that some of our most persistent discussions were all about "Span of Control" – what is it and how to do it.

But now I think the secret is out. Nobody is in control. At least, nobody is in control the way we used to think about being in control. Gone are the days when we had a nice, closed system, known as "our market," where we pulled all the levers. In its place is a global market which synergizes endlessly with all its parts. And when you play by closed system rules in a radically open system, you can only fail. And that is precisely what we are doing. Putting it bluntly, we are at a clear choice point – evolve or die.

Actually, it is worse than that. It is evolve and die. To the extent that we have grown to understand and define our lives (individually and collectively) in terms of the old rules of the closed, Pro-Active System, there is no choice but to die to that life when it turns out that our system is, in fact, open and interactive. Closed systems, we now know, exist only in our imaginations.

The passage of Spirit from one form to a new one is very much like the passage of a caterpillar to butterfly. There is no way through, except by way of the cocoon or chrysalis. And what we may not be aware of is that in chrysalis, the caterpillar literally dissolves to become apparently disassociated protoplasm. One must become nothing before becoming something. Dying turns out to be an essential part of the evolutionary process.

At this point, we may return to some of the thoughts enunciated at the beginning of this paper. When I described the process of transformation as being analogous to the process of Griefwork, it was more than analogue. I think that is the reality.


Having laid out (all too briefly) some thoughts about the process of transformation and the attendant costs, I think we may be in a position to say something more precisely about the function of the learning community and some of the immediate tasks at hand.

If it is true that the essence of learning is the evolution of Spirit, the prime function of the Learning Community must be to facilitate that passage. More specifically, this would mean to do intentionally what we are all going to go through anyhow – the process of Grief. We must understand this process, and be ready to help ourselves and each other along the road. I would call this High Learning, for it is the sort of learning that takes place during those moments of quantum leap.

There will come a time for what I called Normal Learning, after the leap is made, when we are ready to explore and develop the new territory of Spirit. But that time is not now. Recognizing that fact could save us a lot of needless aggravation which I fear many of us are going through at the moment. There seems to be a lot of effort going into the improvement of our knowledge, skills and attitudes, and the associated education and training programs. But if it is actually true that knowledge and skills are always dependent upon context, and that context is ultimately determined by the level of consciousness (Spirit), then we must await the arrival of the new level and the new context. In the meantime, efforts devoted to the enhancement of Normal Learning can only be frustrating, for the Normal Learning we have (no matter how improved) can only be appropriate to a level of consciousness we are about to leave.

How long we will have to wait before we can get on with the business of preparing the curriculum for the new Normal Learning is an interesting question, but I don’t think the time will be long. The reason is quite simple: time is fast running out for the old level of Spirit. The immanence of environmental, social, political and financial disaster – caused by a perception of the human spirit which began and ended with control, rationality and intellect – all have set a very short time table. Whether the time is five years or fifty years, I have absolutely no idea. But I am clear that we will have the opportunity to experiment with the new Normal Learning much sooner than we might think.

Learning Communities
Thrive On Campus

by Barbara Leigh Smith

In the modern university, teaching and learning can sometimes be an isolating, lonely business. But newly developed "learning communities" are an effort to improve the situation by linking together several existing courses – or restructuring the curriculum entirely – so that students experience greater coherence and a sense of shared purpose in what they are studying, while also providing students more opportunities for interaction with peers and teachers.

The simplest learning community design involves linking two courses to give a context to skill courses – for example, linking general education classes in the sciences, social sciences, or humanities with skill courses in writing, speech, or mathematics. The reading and subject matter of the content course then becomes the major focus of the work in the skill course.

"Freshmen Interest Groups" (FIGs) – one form of learning community at the University of Washington – invite students to co-register for a cluster of three related courses with a senior student acting as a peer advisor to the group. As a result of being in three courses together and meeting with the peer advisor, the students develop a strong sense of community, develop friendships, and learn to navigate in their new collegiate setting. FIGs provide students with a sense of community in a large university environment. The FIG program – popular with students, faculty, and parents – is growing rapidly.

"Clusters" require relatively little change in the existing curriculum. Clusters are composed of three or four free-standing courses for which a particular group of students co-register. Usually there is a theme that ties the three classes together (some schools have had honors curricula designed around this model). The amount of faculty co-planning varies from extensive to none at all. Clusters often involve large-scale courses in which the cluster students are only a segment; nonetheless, they quickly become a vital and active small community.

"Coordinated studies programs" eliminate the notions of "courses" altogether. A number of colleges are designing fully integrated "programs" which are thematic and team-taught. For example, recent programs at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, include such titles as "The Paradox of Progress," "The Making of America," and "Society and the Computer."

Learning communities can accomplish many of the things called for in recent studies of higher education: cross-disciplinary perspectives, more coherence in the curriculum, collaboration among faculty, and more time spent on accomplishing tasks. The evidence from Washington State suggests that they are highly effective in terms of student retention and student motivation; they have a very positive impact on faculty morale; and they provide a promising, practical way of building community and revitalizing our institutions.

Barbara Leigh Smith is Director of the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Eduation, Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA 98505. For more information on this topic, see the book Learning Communities: Creating Connections Among Students, Faculty, and Disciplines, by Faith Gabelnick and Roberta Matthews, Jossey-Bass Publishers, May 1990.

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