By Peter M. Senge
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
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.
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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.
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
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."
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.