Gardening in organisations: how to cultivate expertise and make it blossom


It’s almost summer and the nature is at its most luxuriant, even in Holland – so famous for its Dutch summer (rain, rain and more rain). The case of Holland (and by Holland I actually mean what it is: the Western provinces of the Netherlands) is quite interesting because it is an area that has been very much claimed from the sea through the ages (see the maps). One of the consequences is that Holland cultivates its landscapes and this engineering leaves mixed feelings of dismay (for such an artificial result) and awe (for the masterful work of organising one’s own land).

The Netherlands around 1000 AD

The Netherlands around 1000 AD

The Netherlands now (and their underwater lands)

The Netherlands now (and their underwater lands)

When it comes to organisational capabilities, is the Dutch example good to follow? Should we also cultivate those capabilities or let them grow wildly in the confidence that mother nature and father open space will anyway bring the best out of everyone – or the best purpose anyhow – ?

I’m rather pro-nature and open space, but on the other hand, learning doesn’t come by itself, and in order to boost organisational capabilities (let’s say the business processes and thematic expertise that an organisation possesses through its staff), a tad of capacity gardening could really turn a wild bush into a beautiful self and cross-fertilising garden…

In an organisation like IRC, where chaos is at times a matter of pride because it allows the best ideas to come naturally to the fore, a wee bit of cultivating expertise could also be a welcome move. With a high emphasis on innovation and a low staff base (50 people!), it is difficult to avoid relying on one person pooling some expertise around one theme. And I bet the case of IRC is not isolated…

So what can our organisational learning gardeners propose to make us and our organisations blossom?

  • How about coming up with a good encyclopaedia of the plants or at least an idea of what plants you want in your garden? Having a sense of the capabilities and being able to define these areas of expertise would be a good first step. The framework provided by ECDPM and Peter Morgan (see my stock-taking post on capacity development) offers some avenues.
  • Once you know what you want in your garden, you can read some more on the specifics of each plant to let them grow the best way: knowing who you work with, realising their added value to the organisation and the specific touch that they bring. A good recruitment policy looks carefully at a) the competencies that a person brings and b) the kind of working environment that could allow those competencies to come to the fore and flourish.
  • Then how about planting those flowers and trees that you want in your garden and watering them on a regular basis? ‘Planting’ workers (inviting them to the organisational environment when they start working) requires a dedicated and adapted introduction programme that helps their own roots find their ways through the organisation. The watering comes with shared vision, communication, reassurance, giving feedback (see this interesting post on giving feedback) etc.
  • And while at that, how about looking at the natural alliances between certain plants and trees: some like the shadow, others the warmth, others the protection from the wind, so pair them and get the most out of it. This is where you can organise teams according to the individual styles. I don’t have a final answer on this one, but I believe that recognising team roles such as Belbin’s is not necessarily bad; we all have our hunches, we all have our styles and putting up teams of clones doesn’t help (even though it makes it easier) – a nice link to the forthcoming post on dissent as a driver.
  • Every now and then, they may need a bit of pruning and trimming to make sure they keep beautiful and can reach out to the sun without having to fight for it with one another: a good personal development strategy and regular training or other capacity development activities would help to keep your staff interested and able to adapt to changing circumstances.
  • But the real deal is to get the cross-pollination to multiply your plants, grow taller trees, stronger bushes and more beautiful flowers. There are lots of examples of approaches and tools enabling cross-pollination from exchange visits to peer coaches, to communities of practice, joint missions, on-site training, job rotation etc. just find what your bees and butterflies enjoy most, where they thrive, and keep experimenting…
The real proof of the blossoming is in the pollinating

The real proof of the pollinating is in the blossoming

So while the Spring and Summer months are exhibiting the lush nature of nature itself, let’s see what we can do to keep our gardens beautiful and strong, self-regenerating and yes, also wild – because a French style garden is prone to wither and die when the only entitled gardener goes away.

And you know what? Having green fingers comes with touching earth, so come down from that cloud and meddle through the dirt and mud… mother nature knows how to gratify its children.

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