Empathic-organisational co-creation is a working term that I have chosen for my field because it best describes the inner attitude and self-conception of learning designers and learning & development coaches concerning our daily work. The concept of an empathic-organisational design of social spaces refers to two fundamental competencies of our work that are inseparable from each other: (a) the competence of empowering people and (b) the competence of system design.
The Pragmatic Component: Action, Meaning and Experience
As a philosophical movement, pragmatism goes back to representatives such as Charles Sanders Peirce, George Herbert Mead and John Dewey and shares the following intuitions:
In social contexts, people realise themselves through their interactions, their social actions, and especially their linguistic actions. The concept of action also includes the omission, the conscious refusal or renunciation of action, according to Paul Watzlawick’s first axiom that we cannot not communicate. Our interest focuses on the practical effects and consequences of actions and non-actions, such as the direct and indirect effects of interventions or social design.
It is the intentionally acting human being who generates informative feedback loops through his or her interaction with the world and with others. What is crucial here is the meaning that emerges from the action-initiated loops of experience: We act because we ascribe certain meanings to experiences, which in turn constitute our motivational bases. This particularly concerns the experience of personal relationships, the experience of community, the experience of working and learning in systems, and the integration of autobiographical and organisational lifeworlds.
Insofar as actions have practical consequences (e.g. perceived as failure, success or progress), these are empirically measurable, i.e. a pragmatic, social practice-oriented, action-oriented attitude is scientifically justifiable, e.g. in the qualitatively-quantitatively measurable difference of the process phases before and after an intervention in a pre-post design. Close to pragmatism is the Marxist intuition that it is not so much a matter of explaining the world, but of changing it. As beings capable of action, we are potential ‘agents of change’, analogous to Kant’s understanding of humans as rational beings through their destiny to freedom.
The logical path from pragmatism to constructivism
Insofar as experiences condense into inner attitudes and mindsets as latent dispositions for action and orientation, it becomes clear at this point at the latest that a purely pragmatic approach cannot function and is not conceivable without the prerequisite of constructing new mental models. Understanding pure practice loops alone is not enough to explain and understand change processes. Because to generate change in a process, new (reflected) information, new courageous perspectives, new or previously unheard voices, new knowledge, new methodological approaches and new attitudes are needed.
Identity patterns and rituals, for example, are passed on interfamilial and intergenerationally. They do not appear directly as actions and consequences of actions. As a constructive and not only reproductive cultural achievement, be it as a collective effort, investment or imposition, potential development must be actively developed and supported. The given-experienced world (‘Deal with it!’), the newly constructed world and the final desired world have to be reconciled again and again in this development process. Therefore we ask questions like: What is whose reality? What are our priorities to achieve short and long-term goals? What are our evaluation criteria? etc. etc.
We can conclude: the practice loops of pragmatism inform the mental feedback loops of constructivism because the consequences of an action cannot be separated from their justification and justifiability. Wilfrid Sellars called this the ‘space of reasons’. But since reasons and justifications require argumentative negotiation, it follows that a discursive or dialogical approach is necessary. Epistemology is thus not only determined by the attribution of meaning to social and historical experiences (in ‘pragmatic space’) but at the same time grounded in their evolved cultural identities, autobiographically situated patterns of location and intentionality, mental models and social attitudes (in ‘constructivist space’).
A pragmatist perspective on a constructivist framework asks: what kind of construction is necessary to achieve positive outcomes? A constructivist perspective on a pragmatist framework, on the other hand, asks: What is the social justification for the underlying goals, methods and their consequences?
The only way out of resolving this dichotomy dialectically is to take both perspectives mutually and weigh them against each other until we reach a point in our process development where constructivist social resonance (Hartmut Rosa) and methodological pragmatism come together in a creative flow, i.e. both perspectives no longer hinder each other. Flow in this context means that conceptual-constitutive and practical-intentional guard rails could be set together to cognitively relieve the participants in their solution development. Communication in all its dimensions (Schulz von Thun) can thus flow without major barriers and negotiation processes.
Simplified, it can be said that our intention for successful action-related social transformations is to be able to integrate reasoning contexts and constitutional processes. This competence is a meta-competence that takes in the development process from a coach’s perspective. It is an outside perspective on the process. The special ability of coaches and learning designers is to empathically take the perspective of the coachee or learner, i.e. to switch to an inside process perspective. Our professional field is characterised by the meta-competence of being able to maintain such multiple changes of perspective (inside-process, outside-process) throughout the entire development process with coachees, co-designers and learners.
The new game in the culture of digitality
Nature is analogue. Human body and brain are analogue. Personal social resonance is physical. Before we go into depth, it is helpful to consider the relationship between our nature and the technosphere. Every technology we develop as homo faber within the framework of instrumental reason, from Mesopotamian irrigation systems to machine learning, entails social, economic and political empowerment (the pragmatic side) at the price of social alienation and distance. That is, critical technology assessment always keeps an eye on the desirability and prioritisation of social goals (the constructivist side).
The alienation of people from their work and relationships is evident in many facets of digital life. The redistribution from physical to symbolic labour (Mitscherlich) initially means a gain in efficiency but at the price of ghostliness. For the digital is not immediately graspable, not tangible and appears in principle unfinishable in the form of binary streams: Homo Faber becomes digital Sisyphus. Projects and deadlines line up seamlessly. The permanent flood of information overwhelms many people. This is not, as is usual with analogue overload, about temporary efforts and subsequent rest phases. It is about crossing a threshold of permanent, continuous exposure. The virtuality of the social has further paradoxical consequences: Despite maximum social networking and technological options, many young people in particular feel lonely and left alone.
Although the digital sphere initially means an enormous expansion of human possibilities for action, in the balance of pragmatic and constructive-constitutive factors there is a Goldilocks Zone (Su-Shu Huang), i.e. a narrow, habitable zone in which human development is promoted and not hindered or destroyed. The technosphere, as we recognise, is not infinitely scalable, either at the expense of its ecological base or in terms of developmental psychology.
At this point, it is worth taking a closer look at empowerment and its implications. With human empowerment, we associate the development of autonomy. But how autonomous can we be in the digital world?
Aspects of Human Empowerment and ‘Human Agency’ (Bandura)
With the emergence of commercial social networks, analogue personal autonomy has been reconfigured on a new level, in which the social autonomy of the network community functions as a constantly verifiable guarantor for the validation of personal autonomy. At the same time, both social and personal autonomy, the medially visible and the algorithmically invisible are subject to the rules of the underlying networks. In this respect, digital networks represent an indispensable, shared lifeworld resource for the constitution of personal and social autonomy.
On the personal level, this affects authentic identity as a representation of personal autonomy. The boundaries between the analogue self and the digital alter ego in networks are blurring. The permeability between the two influences the competence to rationalise oneself, i.e. the way people realise autobiographically located meaning and significance in their life plans (in constructivist space). Typically, autobiographical, professional, economic and political motives are mixed in the entries of social blogs.
At the same time, networks provide their users with cognitively mediated, practical options for action or shaping their lives (as ‘practical agency’, in pragmatic space). This assignment is problematic insofar as the participants are offered options for action that are decoupled from social goals so that as a result the users are largely relieved of the need to compare moral and ethical perspectives. The space of reasons is replaced by a space of opportunities. This technological-epistemological shift can at least partially explain the erosion of personal and social responsibility as ‘moral disengagement’ (Bandura): The opting out of social and political responsibility, the radicalising denunciation of social ties, indeed of the social contract, has never been easier than on the internet. This describes as attitude and ability the dimensions of a ‘moral and moral-executive agency’ (Habermas).
What does this mean for us as a professional challenge? A sensible approach is to look for isolable factors that act as levers to address several problems simultaneously. In essence, it is about restoring or repairing freedom of action and social resonance, which, if it is to be developed sustainably, relates to a Space of Reasons, a personal-organisational context of justification.
For example, it makes little sense to preach ‘resilience’ to participants in repressive or deeply dysfunctional organisations without addressing the underlying systemic mechanisms and communication patterns. Similarly, it would not be promising to accompany participants who are personally committed but lack commitment, role models, social rules and goals.
It follows that in social learning processes, we interweave autobiographical horizons of experience, personal attributions of meaning, life situations, mindsets and autonomy structures as constructivist realities with systemic design competence. The difference to systemic coaching is that personal access is upstream of systemic designing in terms of individual psychology (Adler): to get into the house, you need a door. Only after the dissolution of psychological obstacles and barriers do we gain organisational design freedom, can we fully develop our innovation potential.
The aim is to develop and strengthen the intrinsic self-organisational capacity of the participants. This is the local counter-design to external social networks. The development of self-organisation addresses several problems at the same time: diffusion of responsibility, lack of motivation due to social distance, addressing personal blockages, finding new meaning, more adequate professional exchange as well as regaining freedom of action by inviting people into psychologically safe spaces (Timothy Clark).
The prerequisite for this new approach is the provision of appropriate resources for innovative learning and development programmes as well as the trust in an increasingly heterogeneous staff to be able to design cross-cutting L&D programmes in co-creation. The person-organisation interface, our learning design-coaching interface, has become pluralistically differentiated and can therefore only partly be mapped in a traditional way as a pure role description: People want to be perceived as people, not merely as ‘human capital’.
On the keyword resources: Carl Roger’s ‘On Becoming A Person‘ is interwoven in the culture of digitality with access to and dependence on socialised technological resources. Social actors project themselves into the world through social networks. The global analogue self and the digital alter ego are in a multi-layered exchange of interpretations of possibility. Private and social autonomy is constituted in this light in a highly permeable way.
Empathic-organisational social design means picking up people in their autobiographical development paths and life situations to invite and integrate them into highly dynamic organisational structures. In doing so, the intersection between individual needs and systemic requirements is negotiated. This implies the removal of the alienation created by purely functional role descriptions and externally determined, extrinsic pay-offs. At the same time, the digitalised technosphere plays an ambivalent role. It connects and depersonalises at the same time and thus evokes new cultural techniques, a new ars vivendi.