Learning To Learn
The Fifth Discipline

Learning To Learn

When this seminal work appeared in 1990, it was ahead of its time in identifying and describing the learning organization.

Peter M. Senge was a pioneer when he first offered these crucial, applicable lessons for individuals and organizations seeking to learn and evolve. Senge – a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management – broke new theoretical ground about learning organizations in this 1990 classic. It applies advanced systems thinking about learning to concrete practices that businesses can and should embrace today. Anyone working in the corporate world will gain practical insight from Senge’s seminal text.

The “Learning Organization”

As employees evolve into knowledge workers, companies must keep pace by becoming learning organizations in which employees learn and grow collectively to realize their personal and organizational potential. Learning organizations work with vision, values and integrity. They encourage dialogue among employees and vest in systems thinking by focusing on the big picture. Learning organizations encourage people to reexamine their pre-existing assumptions and worldviews.

Senge urges organizations to incorporate these principles into their corporate cultures.

True pro-activeness comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems.Peter M. Senge

He cautions that reacting immediately to events without reflecting on them can produce inadvertent consequences that worsen as they move through an organizational system. Instead, companies should consider longer-term trends and evaluate their likely consequences. Seek explanations based on “systemic structures” that focus on the causes of behavior patterns. Understanding these causes helps leaders generate broader, more enduring and more powerful solutions.

To recognize these underlying systems, people must apply systems thinking, which means examining whole entities instead of mere elements. Stop viewing people as powerless “reactors” and recognize them as the active creators of their own realities. This viewpoint compels organizations to stop focusing solely on the present and start paving a path for the future.

Dynamic Complexity

To switch to systems thinking, acknowledge that many situations manifest “dynamic complexity.” An action may have an immediate effect on one aspect of a system, but a different and perhaps more gradual effect on other aspects. It may also produce one set of localized consequences and another completely different set of consequences in a distant part of the system. For example, dynamically complex challenges include balancing market growth and capacity expansion, and determining the best combinations of “price, product, quality, design and availability” for each target market.

A learning organization is an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.Peter M. Senge

A company grows rapidly when it is small, providing everyone with opportunities for promotion, thus sustaining high employee motivation. But as the organization develops, its products or services may saturate the market. It may become more bureaucratic, which damages individual morale and limits further growth. Pushing greater growth is not the solution to this problem. Instead, jettison factors that curb growth and seek ways to achieve leverage – slight but well-targeted actions that lead to significant and long-term changes.

Mastery and Mental Modeling

A learning organization depends on individual learning; consequently, all employees must build personal mastery. This requires going beyond developing routine competence and skills. Mastery calls for approaching your life as an ongoing act of creation. With this mind-set, Senge maintains, you can respond to situations resourcefully, rather than reactively. This innovative, creative mind-set empowers everyone in an organization.

Achieving personal mastery means nurturing the individual vision that gives you direction and purpose and fuels your commitment to your organization, its vision and its goals.

Effective learning includes developing accurate mental models that shape what you see and how you react to events. Your mental models include your assumptions, values, beliefs and worldview. If you hold inaccurate convictions – as an individual or as an organization – and don’t correct them, you will commit grievous errors. To make more effective choices, align your beliefs with how the world functions.

A Shared Vision

An organization must promote a shared vision to its employees. Such a vision nurtures understanding of the company’s purposes, ideals and values. A common goal provides focus and energy for working and learning.

Systems thinking shows us that there is no outside; that you and the cause of your problems are part of a single system.Peter M. Senge

Such a vision should be positive and intrinsic to the organization’s purpose and nature in order to inspire the organization’s people. They need to know they are working toward a larger purpose. Ideally, employees shouldn’t feel they work for “the” company – some distant entity; instead, you want the organization to become “their” company. As firms become learning organizations, people need this kind of inspiration to work toward a shared goal.

A common vision also motivates people to become better team players. Team members – and teams – must share insights into complicated issues, using the output of many minds working collaboratively. This always outguns a single mind. Teams must collaborate to produce innovative action, much as sports teams achieve greatness when all their players work as one.

Senge makes the crucial distinction that team members should engage in dialogue as well as discussion. In dialogue, group members consider complex issues from various points of view; in discussions, individual members present and seek support for their own positions. Each team should enable its members to work with other groups. This means a learning organization ends up with a range of teams learning and working together toward a common goal.

Contrary to popular belief, a clash of ideas signifies that team members are learning together. Conflict proves that the group is generating new ideas that no lone individual could have produced.

Fundamental Wisdom

Peter M. Senge offered his wisdom to the business world more than 30 years ago. Remarkably, it doesn’t seem to have aged a day. Other books – indeed, other author’s empires – have emerged from Senge’s perceptive approach, but none have supplanted it. Few authors prove as valuable or their advice as directly applicable. Given the myriad technological revolutions since Fifth Discipline‘s publication, its continued utility proves that Senge’s thought is trend-proof and vested in human emotions, interactions and self-directed development.

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