Friday, May 01, 2009

Learning Organization

According to Peter Senge (1990: 3) learning organizations are:

…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.

The basic rationale for such organizations is that in situations of rapid change only those that are flexible, adaptive and productive will excel. For this to happen, it is argued, organizations need to ‘discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels’ (ibid.: 4).

While all people have the capacity to learn, the structures in which they have to function are often not conducive to reflection and engagement. Furthermore, people may lack the tools and guiding ideas to make sense of the situations they face. Organizations that are continually expanding their capacity to create their future require a fundamental shift of mind among their members.

When you ask people about what it is like being part of a great team, what is most striking is the meaningfulness of the experience. People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative. It become quite clear that, for many, their experiences as part of truly great teams stand out as singular periods of life lived to the fullest. Some spend the rest of their lives looking for ways to recapture that spirit. (Senge 1990: 13)

For Peter Senge, real learning gets to the heart of what it is to be human. We become able to re-create ourselves. This applies to both individuals and organizations. Thus, for a ‘learning organization it is not enough to survive. ‘”Survival learning” or what is more often termed “adaptive learning” is important – indeed it is necessary. But for a learning organization, “adaptive learning” must be joined by “generative learning”, learning that enhances our capacity to create’ (Senge 1990:14).

The dimension that distinguishes learning from more traditional organizations is the mastery of certain basic disciplines or ‘component technologies’. The five that Peter Senge identifies are said to be converging to innovate learning organizations. They are:

Systems thinking

Personal mastery

Mental models

Building shared vision

Team learning

Systems thinking – the corner stone of the learning organization

A great virtue of Peter Senge’s work is the way in which he puts systems theory to work. The Fifth Discipline provides a good introduction to the basics and uses of such theory – and the way in which it can be brought together with other theoretical devices in order to make sense of organizational questions and issues. Systemic thinking is the conceptual cornerstone (‘The Fifth Discipline’) of his approach. It is the discipline that integrates the others, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice (ibid.: 12). Systems theory’s ability to comprehend and address the whole, and to examine the interrelationship between the parts provides, for Peter Senge, both the incentive and the means to integrate the disciplines.

The core disciplines

Alongside systems thinking, there stand four other ‘component technologies’ or disciplines. A ‘discipline’ is viewed by Peter Senge as a series of principles and practices that we study, master and integrate into our lives. The five disciplines can be approached at one of three levels:

Practices: what you do.

Principles: guiding ideas and insights.

Essences: the state of being those with high levels of mastery in the discipline (Senge 1990: 373).

Each discipline provides a vital dimension. Each is necessary to the others if organizations are to ‘learn’.

Personal mastery.‘Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs’ (Senge 1990: 139). Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively’ (ibid.: 7). It goes beyond competence and skills, although it involves them. It goes beyond spiritual opening, although it involves spiritual growth (ibid.: 141). Mastery is seen as a special kind of proficiency. It is not about dominance, but rather about calling. Vision is vocation rather than simply just a good idea.

Mental models. If organizations are to develop a capacity to work with mental models then it will be necessary for people to learn new skills and develop new orientations, and for their to be institutional changes that foster such change.

Building shared vision. Peter Senge starts from the position that if any one idea about leadership has inspired organizations for thousands of years, ‘it’s the capacity to hold a share picture of the future we seek to create’ (1990: 9). Such a vision has the power to be uplifting – and to encourage experimentation and innovation. Crucially, it is argued, it can also foster a sense of the long-term, something that is fundamental to the ‘fifth discipline’.

Team learning. Such learning is viewed as ‘the process of aligning and developing the capacities of a team to create the results its members truly desire’ (Senge 1990: 236). It builds on personal mastery and shared vision – but these are not enough. People need to be able to act together. When teams learn together, Peter Senge suggests, not only can there be good results for the organization, members will grow more rapidly than could have occurred otherwise.

Leading the learning organization

Peter Senge argues that learning organizations require a new view of leadership. He sees the traditional view of leaders (as special people who set the direction, make key decisions and energize the troops as deriving from a deeply individualistic and non-systemic worldview (1990: 340). At its centre the traditional view of leadership, ‘is based on assumptions of people’s powerlessness, their lack of personal vision and inability to master the forces of change, deficits which can be remedied only by a few great leaders’ (op. cit.). Against this traditional view he sets a ‘new’ view of leadership that centres on ‘subtler and more important tasks’.

In a learning organization, leaders are designers, stewards and teachers. They are responsible for building organizations were people continually expand their capabilities to understand complexity, clarify vision, and improve shared mental models – that is they are responsible for learning…. Learning organizations will remain a ‘good idea’… until people take a stand for building such organizations. Taking this stand is the first leadership act, the start of inspiring (literally ‘to breathe life into’) the vision of the learning organization. (Senge 1990: 340)


John van Maurik (2001: 201) has suggested that Peter Senge has been ahead of his time and that his arguments are insightful and revolutionary. He goes on to say that it is a matter of regret ‘that more organizations have not taken his advice and have remained geared to the quick fix’. As we have seen there are very deep-seated reasons why this may have been the case. Beyond this, though, there is the questions of whether Senge’s vision of the learning organization and the disciplines it requires has contributed to more informed and committed action with regard to organizational life? Here we have little concrete evidence to go on. However, we can make some judgements about the possibilities of his theories and proposed practices. We could say that while there are some issues and problems with his conceptualization, at least it does carry within it some questions around what might make for human flourishing. The emphases on building a shared vision, team working, personal mastery and the development of more sophisticated mental models and the way he runs the notion of dialogue through these does have the potential of allowing workplaces to be more convivial and creative. The drawing together of the elements via the Fifth Discipline of systemic thinking, while not being to everyone’s taste, also allows us to approach a more holistic understanding of organizational life (although Peter Senge does himself stop short of asking some important questions in this respect). These are still substantial achievements – and when linked to his popularizing of the notion of the ‘learning organization’ – it is understandable why Peter Senge has been recognized as a key thinker.


Senge, P. et. al. (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization

Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N. Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J. and Kleiner, A. (2000) Schools That Learn. A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education, New York: Doubleday/Currency

Van Maurik, J. (2001) Writers on Leadership, London: Penguin.

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