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The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization

Book Review

Thomas M. Supel - Vice President

Published June 1, 1993  |  June 1993 issue

By Peter M. Senge
Doubleday Currency
424 pages

One of the first questions faced in filtering through the mass of current day "modern management" literature is: So what is new? In The Fifth Discipline, Senge argues that what is new is the concept of 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."

On its surface, there does not seem to he much new here. After all, haven't we generated large numbers of diplomas, BAs, MSs and Ph.D.s? And haven't most of these learned citizens been turned loose into the corporate world to learn and grow? Apparently not. That is, while many are called into the corporate world, Senge seems to argue there is evidence that the learning process does not typically continue in a meaningful way. As an organizational alternative to the traditional management structure and culture, Senge presents the paradigm of a learning organization.

This is fundamentally a theoretical presentation, but Senge does a superb job of interweaving a wide variety of business cases into the discussion including the rise of Digital Equipment Corp. and the rise and fall of People Express Airline. And the theory is developed along the general lines of the scientific method. Empirical evidence showing learning disabilities in organizations is used to motivate the concept of a learning organization. Senge then develops the concept using as building blocks the five learning disciplines. Finally, the theory is subjected to a set of empirical tests by confronting a variety of management problems that might be found in a prototype learning organization.

Learning Disabilities

Senge argues that most organizations learn poorly, but that is no accident. The way we have been taught to think and act, the way jobs are defined, and the way firms are managed tend to create learning disabilities. The learning disabilities that are described in detail include:

  • The fixation on events: This is what I would describe as Aesop's Fables management wherein today's events are explained by a newly created story rather than an appeal to a systemic or structural management strategy.
  • The delusion of learning from experience: The effect of today's actions may be spread across space and time in ways that can distort our interpretation of the consequences of our decisions.
  • The myth of the management team: Senge observes that teams in business all too frequently tend to spend their time fighting for turf, avoiding anything that will make them look bad personally, and pretending that everyone is behind the team's collective strategy.

Especially enlightening, since it helps explain the American automobile industry in the 1960s and Britain's position on America in the mid-1700s, is The Parable of the Boiled Frog. Apparently, with apologies to the experimental frog, a frog that is placed in a pot of room temperature water will not attempt to jump out of the pot as the temperature is slowly raised. Some (non-learning) organizations, like the frog, are sensitive to sudden changes in the environment, but not to gradual changes.

Learning Disciplines

A learning organization is built upon five learning disciplines; each is a body of theory and technique that must be studied and mastered to be usefully put into practice and provides a developmental path for acquiring certain skills or competencies.

Individual learning is not a sufficient condition for organizational learning, but it is necessary. Individuals who practice the discipline of Personal Mastery engage in the process of continually focusing and refocusing on their personal vision. They constructively use the creative tension generated by the gap between their vision and reality to enhance their personal development. Certain ethical principles are woven into his discussion at times; in this case, Senge describes the importance of the principle of autonomy (freedom) to the discipline of personal mastery.

The discipline of Mental Models entails abstract thinking of the deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that frequently limit us to thinking and acting in familiar ways. Managing mental models involves identifying, testing and improving our internal picture of how the world works.

Developing a common perception of, and commitment to, what the organization wants to create describes the discipline of Shared Vision. Within this discipline, it is important to distinguish commitment from compliance. Senge describes how the creation in 1981 of a shared vision of "wiring up the corporation" goes a long way to explaining Digital's enormously successful strategy of developing networked systems.

The discipline of Team Learning is a process of aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire. Distinguishing the difference between discussion and dialogue is important within this discipline. The more common discussion typically has a purpose of winning or having one's views accepted by the group. The purpose of the less common dialogue is to go beyond any one individual's understanding.

Finally, the fifth, and most important, discipline is System Thinking. The essence of this discipline is a shift of mind to see interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains, and seeing processes of change rather than snapshots. System thinking leads to multiple levels of explanation of complex phenomena and tends to focus on the systemic or structural rather than the reactive event-driven explanations. (Note the clear reference to the learning disability of fixation on events.) Senge's focus on systems thinking and its resulting non-linear view of the world has an element of commonality with the chaos theoreticians, who have shown that traditional linear approximations to many real world phenomena are, in many cases, simply inadequate. (For further reading of the current literature on management science, see the Harvard Business Review, November-December 1992, "Is Management Still a Science?" by David H. Freeman; also, for a fascinating discussion of the mathematical evolution of chaos theory, I recommend the book Making a New Science, by James Gleick.

Prototypes

From the scientific perspective, the test of the theory lies in confronting the data. Senge is careful to point out that the organizations that constitute his prototypes are not to be interpreted as "best practice" models, but simply as examples of how learning organizations attack these issues. Among the issues examined are:

  • Openness: How can the internal politics and game playing that dominate traditional organizations be transcended?
  • Localness: How do you achieve control without controlling?
  • Ending the war between work and family: How can personal mastery and learning flourish at work and at home?
  • The leader's new work: What does it take to lead a learning organization?

While the rise and fall of People is an extremely complex event that deserves mention in several places throughout the book, Senge's closing comments are directed at the leadership's apparent focus on visions and events at the expense of system thinking. "One of the failings of People Express was the very absence of policies that controlled growth to a rate commensurate with assimilating new people into its innovative work system... People experienced being jerked continually from one crisis to another; [breeding] deep cynicism about the vision, and visions in general."

Conclusion

The paradigm of a learning organization appears to fare well in its confrontation with a variety of business issues. The problem with drawing a firm conclusion, though, is the absence of data for a representative set of non-learning firms. This issue is generic to the modern day business literature; for example, there is little evidence that firms with intense "quality" programs have commensurately better financial results than those that do not. However, Senge's focus on system thinking means that he is already a step ahead of many other modern day business gurus who face the fundamental criticism of picking out only a piece of the organizational puzzle. The odds of The Fifth Discipline enduring as a substantive organization paradigm seem quite high. And that is only one of many good reasons to read this thought-provoking book.

Reviewer Tom Supel's interest in systematic management policies derives from his responsibilities in the bank's personnel department. His interest in systematic approaches to problem solving was honed in his earlier career as a research economist, when he developed a concern for the importance of systematic economic policies.

In addition to learning about solutions to management problems, Tom enjoys reading about the evolution of mathematics. Fishing trips (as frequently as possible) and listening to a Twins game while riding his lawn tractor provide relaxing breaks.

Tom has a doctorate in economics from the University of Minnesota.

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