The basic meaning of a learning organization is an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.
The five "component technologies" to innovate learning organizations.
The ferment in management will continue until we build organizations that are more consistent with man’s higher aspirations beyond food, shelter and belonging.” Moreover, many who share these values are now in leadership positions. I find a growing number of organizational leaders who, while still a minority, feel they are part of a profound evolution in the nature of work as a social institution. “Why can’t we do good works at work?” asked Edward Simon, president of Herman Miller, recently.
Business is the only institution that has a chance, as far as I can see, to fundamentally improve the injustice that exists in the world. But first, we will have to move through the barriers that are keeping us from being truly vision-led and capable of learning.” Perhaps the most salient reason for building learning organizations is that we are only now starting to understand the capabilities such organizations must possess.
For a long time, efforts to build learning organizations were like groping in the dark until the skills, areas of knowledge, and paths for development of such organizations became known. What fundamentally will distinguish learning organizations from traditional authoritarian “controlling organizations” will be the mastery of certain basic disciplines. That is why the “disciplines of the learning organization” are vital.
Today, I believe, five new “component technologies” are gradually converging to innovate learning organizations. Though developed separately, each will, I believe, prove critical to the others’ success, just as occurs with any ensemble. Each provides a vital dimension in building organizations that can truly “learn,” that can continually enhance their capacity to realize their highest aspirations:
- Systems thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that has been developed over the past fifty years, to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively.
- Personal Mastery. People with a high level of personal mastery are able to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them— in effect, they approach their life as an artist would approach a work of art. They do that by becoming committed to their own lifelong learning. 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. As such, it is an essential cornerstone of the learning organization—the learning organization’s spiritual foundation. But surprisingly few organizations encourage the growth of their people in this manner. This results in vast untapped resources: “People enter business as bright, welleducated, high-energy people, full of energy and desire to make a difference,” says Hanover’s O’Brien. “By the time they are 30, a few are on the “fast track” and the rest ‘put in their time’ to do what matters to them on the weekend. They lose the commitment, the sense of mission, and the excitement with which they started their careers. We get damn little of their energy and almost none of their spirit.” And surprisingly few adults work to rigorously develop their own personal mastery. Here, I am most interested in the connections between personal learning and organizational learning, in the reciprocal commitments between individual and organization, and in the special spirit of an enterprise made up of learners.
- Mental Models. 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. It also includes the ability to carry on “learningful” conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others.
- Building Shared Vision. The practice of shared vision involves the skills of unearthing shared “pictures of the future” that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance. In mastering this discipline, leaders learn the counterproductiveness of trying to dictate a vision, no matter how heartfelt.
- Team Learning. How can a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63? The discipline of team learning confronts this paradox. We know that teams can learn; in sports, in the performing arts, in science, and even, occasionally, in business, there are striking examples where the intelligence of the 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. If a learning organization were an engineering innovation, such as the airplane or the personal computer, the components would be called “technologies.”
For an innovation in human behavior, the components need to be seen as disciplines. By “discipline,” I do not mean an “enforced order” or “means of punishment,” but a body of theory and technique that must be studied and mastered to be put into practice. A discipline is a developmental path for acquiring certain skills or competencies. As with any discipline, from playing the piano to electrical engineering, some people have an innate “gift,” but anyone can develop proficiency through practice.
System Thinking - The Fifth Discipline
It is vital that the five disciplines develop as an ensemble. This is why systems thinking is the fifth discipline. It is the discipline that integrates the disciplines, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice. It keeps them from being separate gimmicks or the latest organization change fads. Without a systemic orientation, there is no motivation to look at how the disciplines interrelate. By enhancing each of the other disciplines, it continually reminds us that the whole can exceed the sum of its parts.
But systems thinking also needs the disciplines of building shared vision, mental models, team learning, and personal mastery to realize its potential. Building shared vision fosters a commitment to the long term. Mental models focus on the openness needed to unearth shortcomings in our present ways of seeing the world. Team learning develops the skills of groups of people to look for the larger picture that lies beyond individual perspectives. And personal mastery fosters the personal motivation to continually learn how our actions affect our world. Without personal mastery, people are so steeped in the reactive mindset (“someone/something else is creating my problems”) that they are deeply threatened by the systems perspective.
At the heart of a learning organization is a shift of mind—from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems as caused by someone or something “out there” to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience. A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it. People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative.
The word is “metanoia” and it means a shift of mind. In the early (Gnostic) Christian tradition, it took on a special meaning of awakening shared intuition and direct knowing of the highest, of God.
To grasp the meaning of “metanoia” is to grasp the deeper meaning of “learning,” for learning also involves a fundamental shift or movement of mind.
Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.
This, then, is the basic meaning of a “learning organization”—an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future. For such an organization, it is not enough merely 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.
A few brave organizational pioneers are pointing the way, but the territory of building learning organizations is still largely unexplored. It is my fondest hope that this book can accelerate that exploration: The-Fifth-Discipline.
- The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practices of Learning Organizations. By Peter M. Senge – 1990
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