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The Club of Rome: A Learning Organization?

by Dr. Jim Botkin


The Club of Rome is an international think tank which became well-known in the early 1970s for its report entitled The Limits to Growth. Limits, translated into nearly 30 languages and over 4 million copies sold, was part of the fledgling environmental movement. Since its publication in 1972, the Club of Rome has commissioned more than a dozen reports - among them No Limits to Learning - but none attracted attention so widespread as its first one did. People not familiar with the Club assumed it had ceased functioning, particularly after the death of its charismatic founder Aurelio Peccei in 1984.

Not so. Organizations, once founded and successful, seldom wither away, and the Club of Rome is no exception. Still limited to one hundred members and buttressed by national associations in many countries, the Club continues to commission reports on global issues and hold annual meetings at the invitation of members or more likely invited by interested governments all over the world.

The most recent reports in progress concern the world unemployment dilemma, the problems of governability (or lack thereof) of most of the world's nations and societies, and the global warming problem. Interim reports on these three subjects were presented at the last annual meeting, which was held in Puerto Rico November 29-December 1, 1996.

Authors of the unemployment report told us the world needed a new concept of work where everyone would have a part time job to assure basic necessities and that the balance of a person's work day would be optional.

Authors of the governability study reported that no country was governable anymore -- the Clinton - Gingrich stalemates are occurring in nearly all democracies; low voter turnout is low everywhere; and we need a more modern concept of democracy to give life to the ebbing power and influence of nation-states.

The author of the global warming work created a stir when he said in understated tones that we may be in for a surprise sometime in the next decade or two. Umberto Colombo, head of Italy's IRI (National Energy Agency), said that if his studies of data of past weather patterns repeat themselves -- which they seem to be doing -- than we can expect that emissions of carbon dioxide will result in raising sea levels by an average of 10 feet. This will be of particular interest to people living in port cities, and to whole populations of countries like Bangladesh, substantially all of which is at 10 feet or below sea level!

Provocative as this and the other reports in progress were, some of us at the meeting were addressing an internal issue, namely whether the process of issuing reports in the hopes of stirring debates, was becoming outmoded. "A definition of stupidity or insanity," according to one of our more outspoken and highly respected members from Chile, "is continuing to do the same thing and expect a different result."

Dr. Jim Botkin, a member of the Club or Rome since 1980 when he delivered the No Limits to Learning report, and an advisor to New Horizons for Learning, was one of those at the Puerto Rico meeting who felt that the Club's global mission would benefit by changes in process.

Botkin said in his note to Dee Dickinson: "The 1997 meeting will be held in Washington DC for the first time ever in the continental U.S. The topic is Multimedia and Society. The meeting will be chaired by Vice President Al Gore. This will be a good opportunity for our members to review how we operate, and whether books are still the best way -- not to provide answers but to ask the right questions."

Below are Jim's remarks to the Club of Rome at the Puerto Rico meeting, in which he asks "What would it take to make the Club of Rome a learning organization?"

Remarks by Dr. Jim Botkin
Club of Rome Meeting, Puerto Rico
November 29 - December 1, 1996

Jay Forrester, the MIT professor, is a name known to most Club of Rome members. Most of you are also familiar with the name of one of his students, Dennis Meadows, who wrote Limits to Growth. What you may be less familiar with is Jay's other famous student: Peter Senge and his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization, which has been nearly as influential as was Limits to Growth.

With a few brief remarks, I'd like to summarize some new developments in the field of learning organizations; to alert interested members to the World Bank's efforts to become a learning organization; and to ask what it would take to make The Club of Rome a learning organization?

When Mircea Malitza and I wrote No Limits to Learning with Mahdi Elmandjra nearly twenty years ago, people still confused learning with students and young people. Today, thanks largely to Senge's work, we have come to see learning in a much broader context, where schools are the place where the least learning occurs and the private business sector as the largest initiator of the art and practice of learning.

Corporate universities in Europe and North America now appropriate more funds to support learning than all the world's universities combined. They are growing 100 times faster than the university world, and the lifelong adult learning they support is 25 times larger than the traditional university student market. If you wonder about the quality, global reach, and intent of this free-market education, you should. This is the one of the single most powerful movements sweeping the world today which many smart people fail to believe, or even see, and it will have major impacts both for better and for worse.

By the mid 1980s, business became interested in the subject of learning, and I was invited to speak at IBM, AT&T, and General Motors in America and Volvo, Skandia Insurance, and others in Europe. Based on this interest, I cofounded InterClass - the International Corporate Learning Association, a consortium composed of major private and public organizations to help them become learning organizations.

The World Bank is one of the most active members of our consortium. This gives me a rare inside view of how transformation can rejuvenate an important international organization.

The World Bank will sponsor its first-ever global conference on learning called "Knowledge for Development: Building the Global Knowledge Partnership." It will be held June 22-25, 1997 in Toronto Canada. It is envisioned to recur every year in a different part of the world. The one in Toronto is expected to draw from one to two thousand participants, invited through 180 Ministries of Finance throughout the world. The InterClass consortium is the outside Design Team, volunteering its collective know-how in learning as it does for all its members.

I would urge any of you who are interested to pick up the documentation on the conference which I have appended to excerpts from my remarks and my book (in process) on Networked Intelligence. I would also invite the Club of Rome and its officers to consider making a presentation in this important global forum.

This brings me to my third and final point: What would it take to make The Club of Rome a learning organization? Some of you might ask, well, what is exactly a learning organization? Others might think, well, we already promote lots of learning - we even did a report on that subject. And others of us, especially the smartest, might think, "No way. We are into science and debate, not the art and dialogue of so-called learning organizations." So I shall conclude my remarks, not with answers, but by repeating the question: What would it take to make The Club of Rome a learning organization?

More about The Club of Rome:

In response to these remarks and its question on how to become a learning organization, Bertrand Schneider, Secretary General, and Ricardo Diez, President, both noted that the initial charter of the Club of Rome was learning. It was a way for individual members to learn more about the four central themes of the Club: Long range thinking, global thinking, holistic thinking, and whatever it takes to start understanding the know of interrelated global problems such as food, energy, poverty, and basic needs.

To learn more about the Club and its activities, visit, where you can offer your comments to its main office.

About the Author

Dr. Jim Botkin
President, InterClass
30 JFK Street, Third Floor
Harvard Square
Cambridge, MA 02138-4909 USA
Tel: (617) 864-5300
Fax: (617) 864-7902

© January 1997

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