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How To Become a Learning Organization

FifthDisciplineCoverSince the publication in 1990 of Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization,” hundreds – perhaps thousands – of organizations, for-profit and nonprofit, have adopted the Learning Organization model, with powerful results. It is in many ways the most advanced, documented, supported form of organization available today. While not easy to attain, the Learning Organization is something you should know about because it indicates the future of organization form and structure in the 21st Century.

In recent years, Senge (pronounced SIN-gay) and his many colleagues have produced three other books, each loaded with practical applications, guides and exercises. First came “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook,” a guide for applying the Learning Organization concepts “in the field.” This was followed by “The Dance of Change: The Challenges To Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations.” And recently “Schools That Learn,” a fascinating account of how some innovative schools and classrooms have been transformed into Learning Organizations.

So what is a Learning Organization?

Both the Learning Organization and Complexity Science, which we discussed in our last issue, are based on the concept that you cannot understand the whole by breaking it into its parts. Western science has long practiced reductionism, sometimes with remarkable results: To understand something, you reduce it to its simplest components and analyze them in great detail. Molecular biology is a good example of a reductionist approach that led to understanding the DNA molecule and reproduction, and now is studying the human gene sequence in hopes of curing all sorts of diseases and improving human life.

But as Peter Senge says (Fifth D., pg. 3), “This (reductionism) apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.” When we abandon reductionism, “we can then build ‘learning organizations,’ 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 how to learn together.” Those words were not chosen accidentally but represent the five disciplines of the Learning Organization:

1. Systems Thinking. The weather is a good example of a complex system, caused by the interaction of the sun, the earth, moisture, temperature and other factors. It is all connected. But importantly you are a living system, as is every organization of human beings. Systems are everywhere, but when you are a part of one, it is “doubly hard to see the whole pattern of change. Instead, we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never get solved. Systems thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that has been developed over the past fifty years, to make full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively (pg. 7).” (Although Senge’s book places Systems Thinking first, that type of thinking is itself the “Fifth Discipline” for which the book is named–it is the newest discipline; others have been around longer, especially the next one.)

2. Personal Mastery. “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.”(7) “…An organization’s commitment to and capacity for learning can be no greater than that of its members. The roots of this discipline lie in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions, and in secular traditions as well. But surprisingly few organizations encourage the growth of their people in this manner.” Instead people are viewed as “cogs in the wheel,” as work-machines hired for their ability to perform. “This results in vast untapped resources” as well as a lot of unhappy people. The Learning Organization learns as its people learn and develop personal mastery.

3. Mental Models are “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.”(pg. 8) For example we might see an older man with a pocket protector full or different colored pens and think, “That guy must be an engineer.” Or a young woman driving a minivan and think, “Soccer mom.” As Senge notes, “Mental models of what can or cannot be done in different management settings are no less deeply entrenched.” They restrict our thinking and our behavior, and thwart organizational progress. “The discipline of working with mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny.” (pg. 9)

4. Building Shared Vision. “If any one idea about leadership has inspired organizations for thousands of years, it’s the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create.” (pg. 9) You’ve read about this in previous issues of The Managing-Leading Edge. Most of the great organizations of recent decades were focused on a shared vision. “IBM had ‘service’; Polaroid had instant photography; …Apple had computing power for the masses…. When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-too-familiar ‘vision statement’), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to.” Building shared vision “involves the skills of unearthing shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.”

5. Team Learning. Teams learn all the time in sports, but in business it is much rarer. Yet even in business and nonprofit organizations, “there are striking examples where the intelligence of a team exceeds the intelligence of the individuals in the team, and where teams develop extraordinary capacities for coordinated action. When teams are truly learning, not only are they producing extraordinary results but the individual members are growing more rapidly than could have occurred otherwise.” (pg. 10)

A key component of team learning is what Senge and many in complexity science call “dialogue, the capacity of its members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine ‘thinking together.’ To the Greeks dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually.” Team learning and especially dialogue are probably the hardest disciplines to master, because we are so used to “discussion,” in which we usually try to come out on top by arguing our viewpoint more skillfully than others do.

“To practice a discipline is to be a lifelong learner,” Senge says (pg. 11). “You ‘never arrive’; you spend your life mastering disciplines. You can never say, ‘We are a learning organization,’ any more than you can say, ‘I am an enlightened person.’ The more you learn, the more acutely aware you become of your ignorance.” Or as one of the complexity scientists puts it, we are all becoming, as individuals and organizations. The focus of the Learning Organization is not on being, in the here and now, but on becoming. It is a journey, not a destination. If you want to experience the highest form of organization.

As I mentioned last time, one of my client organizations is taking this journey, and I am going along as facilitator. We are working with the Fieldbook, as apparently do many others seeking the Learning Organization. If you are interested in exploring this new way of working and relating, I highly recommend it. Even if you cannot lead your organization into this much newness, you can gain a lot by reading its chapters on personal mastery, mental models and systems thinking. It will stretch your mind and help you stay on . . .

The Managing-Leading EDGE



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