In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge details his model of a “learning organization,” which he defines as “an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.” A learning organization excels at both adaptive learning–also known as survival learning–and generative learning.
Senge’s learning organization model consists of the following five disciplines:
- Systems thinking–Senge attests that we must look at the patterns that connect the larger system. Systems thinkers cure headaches by removing the cause, rather than simply ingesting aspirin. They pay careful attention to how different tasks and functions interact. Systems thinkers believe that by examining these patterns of interplay, we can better pinpoint the important issues.
- Personal mastery–Senge stresses the significance of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, focusing our energies, developing patience, and seeing reality objectively.
- Shared vision–Senge defines this discipline as the “picture of the future.” A shared vision is intuitive and instinctive; it’s not something that’s learned by rote. A shared vision is also a collective experience–it’s the cumulative total of each participant’s personal vision.
- Team learning–Senge’s fourth discipline states that any group’s collective IQ will always be much higher than an individual’s IQ. The only way to begin building group IQ is to open the channels of communication within the group and start talking to one another.
- Mental models–Senge defines mental models as the deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, and even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world. Since how we act is based on our impressions of our surrounding environment, it’s imperative that we recognize and re-evaluate our mental models and preconceived assumptions.
Senge’s five components of a learning organization are all interrelated. Personal mastery, shared vision, team learning, and mental models make up the foundation of the organization. And systems thinking is the cement that holds it all together. In order for the learning organization to work, each of the five disciplines must be developed simultaneously and integrated with one another.
Applying Senge’s model to the typical corporate mission of “increasing shareholder value” is insightful. The Fifth Discipline calls this vision shortsighted, since it does not consider what leads up to the increase in shareholder value. The typical corporate mission limits the organization’s thinking to only one aspect of a problem. As an example, Senge states that a more “enlightened” corporate mission would include customer service and treatment of employees in its focus.
Senge further delineates his model of a learning organization through his 11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline:
- Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.
- The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
- Behavior grows better before it grows worse.
- The easy way out usually leads back in.
- The cure can be worse than the disease.
- Faster is slower.
- Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
- Small changes can produce big results–but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.
- You can have your cake and eat it too–but not all at once.
- Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.
- There is no blame.
The Fifth Discipline is a tough book to get through–many people start it, but few finish. If you manage to make it to the end, you will gain ideas you can apply over and over again. It will probably take at least two readings for all the material covered to sink in. While the Senge doesn’t present any quick fixes, he provides new language and tools that can help turn your organization into a learning organization.