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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Presence: A Book Review

Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future. Cambridge: MA. Society for Organizational Learning (SoL), 2004. 266 pages, paperback, $40.

Reviewed by Surinder Deol

Presence is not an easy book to describe in few words. At one level it is a book about learning and change, at another it reads like a philosophical discourse on human condition at the start of the 21st century. It is also a dialogue among the four coauthors in the grand Platonic tradition with no major disagreements on the basics but many subtle differences on how each contributor views reality from his or her perspective.

Presence is also a book of stories. There are many stories and there are also stories within stories. It is like the authors are taking a long walk on a beach while pointing their fingers at gems and stones spattered all over. They walk fast some time, but meander most of the time. They take digressions and detours but there is hardly a dull moment for the reader who is just observing and wondering where these kindred spirits would end up going.

Presence could have been written in a racy promotional style in which most business books are written these days, but delightfully for the reader the authors made a better choice—to convey their message in a thoughtful and highly interactive manner. The choice of style, however, is not without its cost. Style impacts substance and at times obfuscates it, renders it incomprehensible, just words without any clear or definite meaning.

The basic idea of the book is well captured in a statement attributed to Bill O’Brien, former CEO of an insurance company: “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” This raises a broader question: where does action come from? Does it come from within oneself, or is it the result of our past learning as many thinkers like Dewey postulated and several concepts of adult learning like the Kolb Learning Cycle incorporated the same insight into what we have come to label as experiential or action learning. It is here that the authors break a new ground and shatter the myth of “past learning” or what they call as Type I Learning.

The myth of past learning as guide for future action has already been under pressure due to unprecedented advances in information technology, advent of globalization, and business and political realities of post-9/11 world in which we live. Yesterday’s insights are valuable but are not a reliable guide to the future success. Since change happens at multiple levels, the individual actor given the responsibility of decision-making has to use his or her deepest Source (not only seeing from the deepest source but becoming a vehicle for the source). This is the level of Presencing, where sensing meets with our presence, where we suspend judgment about what we have observed and we redirect our attention to the Big Picture without holding on to it for too long, and letting it go in order for our deepest source of knowing (Presencing) to assist us in envisioning a future, enacting and embodying it.

When we are “presencing” we are liberating ourselves from the burdens of the past, we are trying to free ourselves from the established ways of thinking, and in many ways we are focusing on our highest possibilities to create the kind of future that we dream about. This reminds me of the Buddhist saying that all dharmas are like dreams which is true because emptiness is the only enduring reality, but at the same time emptiness is also form, which means we have to lead our life in a real world with real challenges and real constraints.

The book does not offer sufficient guidance on how some die-hard, ground-smelling workaholics could acquire the capacity of “inner knowing.” In fact, in certain subtle ways the book delivers the message that going to retreats, undertaking nature walks, or exposing oneself to the wisdom of native societies could achieve this. It is only toward the end of the book that Peter tells the harsh truth about personal transformation: “It’s not just a matter of belief or wanting to be an instrument. You must develop the capacity. That’s why I was saying the Buddhist notion is about the process of cultivation. There are three areas in which you must work. First, you must meditate or ‘practice’—you must have a discipline of quieting the mind. Second, you must study—the sutras, the Koran, the Torah, the Bible—whatever helps to develop a theoretical understanding. And you must be committed to service, what the Buddhists would call ‘vow.’ Your cultivation grows out of all three.” I’m so glad that Peter said this, though this statement could have had greater impact in one of the early chapters.

Based on the model of OD practice in vogue today there is too much of “been there, done that” mentality, which means that if you want to learn anything new you must go to a workshop, an activity or an event and once you have done that you are fully enlightened as far as that topic is concerned. There is no deep shift of perception; learning stays at the surface from where people operate most of the time. This surface learning is useful but it is fundamentally “translational” and not “transformational” in terms of an important distinction mentioned by Ken Wilber in his writings.

Economist Brian Arthur, according to the story narrated in the book, epitomizes new learning (Type II Learning) because he left his job and went to Hong Kong to work with a Taoist teacher on a daily basis. How many corporate leaders would be willing to make this kind of commitment? Or how many of them would respond to Peter’s suggestion of deep change through meditation and study of scriptures and service, or follow an Integral Transformative Practice (ITP) recommended by Michael Murphy, author of The Future of the Body? Not many I suppose. The challenge, as mentioned by Betty, is to find the connection between the spiritual and the professional, If people within today’s organizations do not make a sincere effort to find this connection, they would continue to operate within the translational mode without any real transformation. And without real transformation our dream of creating a better world could die.

What is the special value and significance of Presence to global organizations? I see three areas where these organizations can benefit substantially. First, most of these organizations are caught in a dilemma, namely, whether they should carry solutions to their clients based on institution’s own understanding of issues, or they should listen to the clients and work with them to translate latter’s expectations into projects or policies. Although the second approach is the most favored one at present, the correct answer is not one or the other but a creative mergence of the two approaches. What the client needs or says is the data that has to be downloaded and it is really important for any meaningful outcome, but the decision maker has to be a deep sensor of reality; he or she should not only get in touch with the realm of possibilities but cocreate reality where provider and the beneficiary are not two separate entities but they are cocreators in a boundaryless dance of being and doing, transcending dualities of political exigencies and personal motivations to designing solutions for tomorrow’s problems. Tomorrow’s solutions are little hard to cocreate when institutions are caught up in “listening to the client” or “lessons of experience” modes.

Second, as the book points out, “ … the basic problem with the new species of global institutions is that they have not yet become aware of themselves as living” systems and as a consequence there is an old machine-age mentality to keep everything under centralized control and not letting the whole organism to grow more freely. This means reduced effectiveness because the organization at the top is always adjusting to changes in the environment thinking that environment is out there somewhere, but as Maturana and Varela have pointed out, living systems are autopoietic and that they have the capacity for self-production; meaning change in one part of the system means simultaneous change in every part of the system, and more importantly a system’s interaction with its environment is really a part of its own organization. There is no environment out there. Everything is self-referential. Peter sums up the same insight in the following words: “What is most systemic is most local. The deepest systems we enact are woven into the fabric of everyday life, down to the most minute detail.”

Third, although the book uses cocreation as a key concept, there is very little written about it as an institutional practice. Global institutions like their national counterparts are almost in the dark on how to turn this concept into a tool for daily practice. Words like client orientation, alliance or coalition-building, shared strategic agenda etc. are used but they are not about cocreation. Cocreation occurs at the confluence of physics, biology, psychology, and spirit. It is not this or that; it is a total experience of being. I hope the promised Workbook will address this need for clarity on one of the key pillars of Presencing hypothesis.

Presence is a breakthrough work. It is a book that would deeply impact the way we think about ourselves, our relationship with organizations and their decision-making processes. Whether you are an executive or a midlevel manager, a staffer, or a trainer this book will challenge some of your fundamental beliefs. Written in poetic language, it unfolds like a symphony and when the melody ends, the reader is left struggling with words or concepts like the field of the future, seeing our seeing, the eye of the needle, the power of intention, or the mind of wisdom. These concepts may not mean much when we read them, but these are the seeds of radical change in the ways we think about our future. It will take sometime for these ideas to take root in the organizational soil or find a place in the organizational psyche, but with the publication of this book a major theoretical threshold has been crossed.

[First published in the KOSMOS Magazine Summer 2004]


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12:47 PM  

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