Memories (and mental models) of generic structures

Searching my hard disk for my notes on mental modeling I found fragments of my conversation with Peter Senge about it, in the late 80’s. Asking about how he sees the relationship of collective intelligence and team learning, he shared what follows.


Peter: David Bohm is going to be over here in a few weeks. We’re going to spend a fair amount of time talking about this… he’s got this theory that he’s been developing of a dialogue which is a very particular perspective on phenomena of group mind. He’s trying to develop a new theoretical perspective on what the hell really happens when people talk to each other. He says that Dialogue comes from Dia Logos which means passes through. Bohm has developed this out of all his work on the implicate order, and the absolute order and all that stuff. It does seem to me, there are some overlap. I don’t think these are completely separate notions.
George: Sure. One of the critical issues in learning is the continuity of the learning experience. As you said about the “learning laboratory,” it’s not a one shot thing. If we are looking at continuity, then we need a system which allows an ongoing accumulation of the community’s or the team’s insights. The best technology I found so far to do that job is hypermedia. I’m thinking of a hypermedia environment in which the lessons learned can be recorded, accessed, so for instance, new generations and new managers coming to the company can look up the lessons learned by previous mistakes. That’s just an example.
Peter: Yes, and something like that has to have some memory mechanisms. We’ve had a particular view on this point for many years that is one of the specific contributions of the systems dynamics field is the idea of what we call “generic structures”. Basically the idea is simply that nature tends to repeat certain patterns. Now, structure has a very particular meaning in our work. It does not mean a structure imposed on people or anything like that. It has to do with underlying patterns of human relationships that recur over and over again. For example, nature is full of systems that do something like that — where things grow for a while, and then collapse. There is a set of structures that underlie virtually all systems, whether it is a population, a company or a team that gets more and more aligned and then falls apart. It is the behavior of those structures, about which they need to accumulate memory.

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