Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Fourth Discipline

The Fourth Discipline: Team Learning

Aligning personal vision with organizational vision isn’t a matter of chance, or even simply a matter of good hiring practices (though hiring personnel with compatible visions would be a start)—it is a matter of practice and process. Senge calls this process “team learning” (p. 236), and describes it as a discipline marked by “three critical dimensions:

● the ability to think insightfully about complex issues
● the ability to act in innovative and coordinated ways
● the ability to play different roles on different teams” (p. 236).

The importance of teamwork in business communications has not been ignored by the field of business communication. Our textbooks acknowledge its importance, and many of us integrate group assignments and collaborative projects into the curriculum. It is also an important subject of research in the field, (Mescon, Bovée and Thill, 1999; Wambeam and Kramer, 1996; Ede and Lunsford, 1994; Lay and Karis, 1991; Bosley, 1991; among others).

“Despite its importance, team learning remains poorly understood” (Senge, p. 238). We are a nation of rugged individualists, and many of my students resist working in teams, often expressing a concern that they will lose control over their individual grades. The traditional nature of the university, with its “Dean’s Lists” and emphasis on individual scholarship, individual achievement, and individual grades is a powerful force working against the kind of team learning experience so important to success in business. When I began teaching in my institution, I was given a copy of McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, a handbook for college teachers now in its eleventh edition. It certainly encourages collaboration, but only devotes two pages of a 371- page text to “Team Learning,” while devoting entire chapters to subjects such as “lecturing” and “teaching large classes.” Unfortunately, preaching the importance of collaboration does little to develop the discipline of team learning. The discipline is only developed through practice.

Team Learning in the Classroom

One way I have encouraged team learning in the classroom is through the use of a “learning history assignment.” The learning history is an emerging business report genre which was developed by Art Kleiner and George Roth of MIT’s Center for Organizational Learning, which Senge directed. The genre is a kind of analytical report which typically has been used to analyze a recent event, or series of events, in an organization’s history, and to learn from that experience. However, it is a genre that goes well beyond the kind of “lessons learned” reports which organizations have traditionally used for this type of activity.

One thing that makes the learning history unique, is that it is a report that is written in many voices. Kleiner and Roth like to use the metaphor of a tribe gathered around a campfire, telling a story. In this “jointly-told tale,” “managers, factory line workers, secretaries, and outsiders such as customers, advertising copy writers, or suppliers, tell their part of the tale” (Kleiner and Roth, p.2).

Another unique feature of the learning history is its format. A learning history typically consists of three parts: single column text which briefly describes the events being discussed, and transitions from event to event. This part of the text is typically written by a single team member, but revised by taking into account comments from the entire team. The right hand column consists of the jointly told tale: the rich mix of individual voices telling their versions of “what happened.” Each participant gives their own range of thoughts, observations, and emotional reactions to the events which occurred. The left hand column consists of the analysis. Typically, analysis of the material is performed by a team which includes both constituents and outside consultants, who code the rich verbal data from the right hand column, and distill it into information which can be used to make the organization better.

In my assignment, the subject of the learning history is our own classroom. Four times during the semester, each student will submit their individual contributions to the jointly told tale describing what occurred in the classroom. I make this a “low-stakes,” un-graded assignment, and take steps to give students the anonymity they need to honestly respond to classroom events. During another four sessions, students are assigned to teams which must do the analytical work of the left-hand column. In these teams they are asked, at different times, to engage in reflection, inquiry, and dialogue, three completely different processes. Thus this assignment asks students to engage in each of the three critical dimensions of team learning which Senge describes.

Team Learning in Research

At its very core, the learning history is a research genre, and it has been used by Kleiner and Roth to research complex business problems at Fortune 500 companies such as Ford and IBM. However, it is the kind of research genre which potentially could be a major component of academic research into business communication.


Bosley, D.S. (1991). Designing effective technical communication teams. Technical
38:4 (pp. 504-512).

Ede, L.A., & Lunsford, A.A. (1994). "Collaborative authorship and the teaching of
writing." In M. Woodmansee & P. Jaszi (Eds.). The construction of authorship:
Textual appropriation in law and literature.
Durham: Duke University Press
(pp. 417-438).

Gay, G., Sturgil, A., Martin, W., & Huttenlocher, D. (1999). "Document-centered peer
collaborations: An exploration of the educational uses of networked
communication technologies." Journal of Computer Mediated Communication,

Kleiner, A., & Roth, G. (1997). "Learning histories: A new tool for turning
organizational experience into action. New 21st Century Working Papers Series.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Coordination Science"

Lay, M.M., & Karis, W.M. (Eds). (1991). Collaborative writing in industry:
Investigations in theory and practice.
Amityville, NY: Baywood.

McKeachie, W.J. (2002). McKeachie’s teaching tips (11th ed.). Boston: Houghton-

Mescon, M.H., Bovée, C.L., & Thill, J.V. (1999). Business today. Upper Saddle River,
NJ: Prentice Hall.

Senge, P.M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning
organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Shah, R. (2001). Relational praxis in transition towards sustainability: Business-NGO
collaboration and participatory action research. Doctoral dissertation.
University of Bath, UK. (

Wambeam, C.A., & Kramer, R. (1996). "Design teams and the web: A collaborative
model for the workplace." Technical Communication 43:4 (pp. 349-356).


Blogger Dawn said...

I've had one professor who has had the class write a one page report on the our response to how the team effort flowed, developed, and who 'seemed' to lack in effort and why we believed so. It seems that these little reports kept most team members in line and helped tally our grade. It is a good idea, but how knows who is lying if it isn't a large group? Get three people together and you may have two on one. Another thing that bothered me is if someone was out for revenge against another. But I guess that's where reading between the lines come in handy (and even making sure that everyone has a individual project as well).
I never feared group projects until a few semesters ago. Two of us pulled the weight while the one made excuses of having a full time job. I know it is hard, but if you can't pull your weight, drop it, give up something else, do something so the rest of us don't get hurt. The two of us that did pull the weight did speak to the professor. I don't know what happened.

8:44 AM  

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