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Studying King Arthur's Round Table
An Interview with Professor David Perkins

Harvard Graduate School of Education
November 1, 2003

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HGSE Professor David Perkins discusses his latest book, King Arthur's Round Table, an exploration of organizational intelligence and the transformative power of collaboration.

Professor David Perkins
Professor David Perkins (photo: Benjamin Messinger)

Q: What is organizational intelligence? What conditions are necessary to foster it?

A: Organizational intelligence concerns how well people put their heads together in a group, team, organization, or community. Do the people collectively "think smart?" Do good solutions to problems, wise decisions for the long term, productive plans result from the way people interact? On the social and emotional side, do the people cohere in a positive, productive spirit?

As a generalization, pooling physical effort is easy, but pooling mental effort is hard. It's a lot easier for 10 people to collaborate on mowing a large lawn than for 10 people to collaborate on designing a lawnmower—what King Arthur's Round Table calls the lawnmower paradox. We've all had experiences where the group doesn't seem as smart even as any one of its members! That's organizational intelligence at its worst. The book tries to get at organizational intelligence at its best.

“The simple separateness of the educational enterprise—each teacher in his or her own classroom—stands in the way of an intelligent organization.”

So what fosters organizational intelligence? King Arthur's Round Table talks about different sides of this: leadership, collaboration, giving and getting feedback, managing conflict, and more. At the top, top level, organizational intelligence depends on ways of interacting with one another that show good knowledge processing and positive symbolic conduct. Good knowledge processing means ways of interacting that explore problems seriously, look for unexpected solutions, and so on—in other words, smart collective thinking. Positive symbolic conduct means ways of acting that broadcast positive attitudes and expectations.

One example among many of how things can go wrong is authoritarian leadership. Authoritarian leaders don't trust others to think with them, so they don't take advantage of the minds in the group—not good knowledge processing. And authoritarian leaders send implicit messages through their high-handed actions, like "you are here to serve my agenda" and "your views don't count for much"—not positive symbolic conduct. In contrast, a facilitative and collaborative leader harvests the power of the many minds in the group in a positive spirit.

Q: What is the difference between collaboration and "coblaboration"? How would a conference facilitator steer away from the latter towards the former?

A: I coined the term "coblaboration" out of exasperation with a number of frustrating meetings I've attended. We've all experienced coblaboration—just think of a meeting that seemed to last forever and accomplish nothing. King Arthur's Round Table mentions three earmarks of coblaboration:

  • a chaotic pattern of conversation that does not advance much
  • huge time wasted on minor issues
  • and groupthink (i.e., when people agree too easily and thoughtlessly on something).

So what can be done? One part of the solution to coblaboration is simply good facilitation skills—define the topic, keep it in view, keep the conversation orderly, watch the time, and so on. But another part is reserving group conversations for matters where they work best. For example, a group conversation is great for brainstorming ideas but not very good for working out details of an idea. A group conversation is fine for critiquing a complex plan but not nearly as good for crafting the plan in the first place. Often people fall into talking everything through together. But a good pattern of collaboration involves a kind of rhythm between getting together for some things and spreading out as individuals or pairs for other kinds of things.

Q: Do you believe it is possible for most organizations to utilize the round table concept in order to improve their operations? Why?

“A group conversation is fine for critiquing a complex plan but not nearly as good for crafting the plan in the first place.”

A: Almost any organization can do better than it does. The book argues that several forces tend to drag interactions down, to push them toward less effective knowledge processing and neutral or negative symbolic conduct. The forces range from a broad human tendency to oversimplify things cognitive and emotionally to certain power advantages in controlling information. Thus, we see almost everywhere a lot of coblaboration, authoritarianism, and other pathologies, as the book calls them, of working together.

Many factors can help in doing better. One of the most important is developmental leaders. These are individuals, often in the middle of an organization rather than at the top, often without much authority in the political sense, who show through their conduct what it is to think and work well with others, and who guide and coach others informally in patterns of collaboration. Developmental leaders sprinkled throughout an organization are a transformative force. Where do they come from? Some, of course, are "naturals." But training can help people to cultivate the attitudes and skills of a developmental leader. And developmental leaders inspire more developmental leaders.

Q: Which of your book's recommendations are most relevant to education professionals?

A: Schools are organizations; universities are organizations. As such, they tend to suffer from the typical patterns of coblaboration, authoritarianism, and so on, at various levels in various ways. To offer something more specific about school settings, the simple separateness of the educational enterprise—each teacher in his or her own classroom—stands in the way of an intelligent organization. To truly tap the potential intelligence of school folks, one needs to foster richer patterns of contact and collaboration.

Another important area is feedback. The question of feedback to teachers about their professional craft is extremely sensitive—whom does it come from, what hangs on it, how formal is it, and so on. The notions in the book might help there. Finally, developmental leaders in the form of proactive innovators ready to share their ideas can do much to energize and transform the practices of their teaching colleagues.

For More Information
More information about David Perkins is available in the Faculty Profiles.

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