Organizational Consultation: An Appreciative Approach–II. First and Second Order Change
In an entirely different field, experimental psychology, a similar problem was confronted in the 1940s and 1950s. Animals which were being run through a maze not only learned how to execute this particular maze more rapidly and with fewer errors over time, they also were able to run through a new maze more rapidly and with fewer errors. Apparently, these animals learned not only how to run a specific maze, but also learned how to run mazes in general. This same phenomenon has been observed in the learning of many other types of tasks and puzzles by human as well as nonhuman subjects. This phenomenon has been labeled “the establishment of a learning set” or, more simply, “learning how to learn.”
A short, but insightful statement about multi-level learning is provided by Gregory Bateson, A more traditional and expanded account is to be found in the work of Ernest Hilgard and in the case of both meta-language and “learning how to learn”, two levels of activity seem to be taking place simultaneously. On the one level, people are using language and are learning how to perform certain tasks. On the second level, they are talking about language and learning about how they learn to perform certain tasks. Similarly, there are two levels at which change seems to be taking place.
First and Second Order
At one level, the function of any planned change effort can be conceived as the acceleration (facilitation) of a desired transition or deceleration (blocking) of an undesirable transition that has already begun in an organization. A first-order change effort, for example, might involve increasing the efficiency of an accounting system that is already in place or extending the length of a training workshop from three to four days. This type of change requires only that a person or organization do more or less of something than now is the case. Such a change can usually be measured in quantitative terms. It is rather easily observed and understood. First-order change occurs frequently in the life of individuals and organizations. Often it is hardly even noticed if the quantity of change is minimal.
At a second level, planned change can be conceived as the transformation of some structure, process or attitude in the organization. A transformation process involves a qualitative shift. Something is altered in form, such that the old ways of measuring it no longer hold. An organization, for instance, installs a new accounting system rather than seeking to improve the current system. The training program is abandoned, in favor of structural-technical consultation, rather than being lengthened.