Peter Senge and the Learning Organization
© Mark K. Smith
M. Senge (1947- ) was named a ‘Strategist of the Century’ by the Journal of Business
Strategy, one of 24 men and women who have ‘had the greatest impact on
the way we conduct business today’ (September/October 1999). While he has
studied how firms and organizations develop adaptive capabilities for many
years at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), it was Peter Senge’s
1990 book The Fifth Discipline that brought him firmly into the
limelight and popularized the concept of the ‘learning organization'. Since
its publication, more than 750,000 copies have been sold and in 1997, Harvard
Business Review identified it as one of the seminal management books of
the past 75 years.
Born in 1947, Peter Senge graduated with an engineering degree
from Stanford and then went on to undertake a masters degree in social systems
modeling at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) before completing his
PhD in Management. Said to be a rather unassuming man, he is now the director
of the Center for Organizational Learning at the Sloan School of Management,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [Editors note: In 1991, the Center for
Organizational Learning (OLC) was founded at MIT by Peter Senge. The Society
for Organizational Learning (SoL) was founded in April of 1997 as the
successor to MIT's Center for Organizational Learning.] He also spends a
considerable amount of time lecturing and working with managers and executives
in companies, not-for-profit organizations, schools and government
Senge describes himself as an 'idealistic pragmatist'. This orientation has
allowed him to explore and advocate some quite ‘utopian’ and abstract
ideas (especially around systems theory and the necessity of bringing human
values to the workplace). At the same time he has been able to mediate these
so that they can be worked on and applied by people in very different forms of
organization. His areas of special interest are said to focus on
decentralizing the role of leadership in organizations so as to enhance the
capacity of all people to work productively toward common goals. One aspect of
this is Senge’s involvement in the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL),
a Cambridge-based, non-profit membership organization. Peter Senge is its
chair and co-founder. SoL is part of a ‘global community of corporations,
researchers, and consultants’ dedicated to discovering, integrating, and
implementing ‘theories and practices for the interdependent development of
people and their institutions’. One of the interesting aspects of the Center
(and linked to the theme of idealistic pragmatism) has been its ability to
attract corporate sponsorship to fund pilot programs that carry within them
relatively idealistic concerns.
Aside from writing The Fifth
Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization (1990),
Peter Senge has also co-authored a number of other books linked to the themes
first developed in The Fifth Discipline. These include The Fifth
Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning
Organization (1994); The Dance of Change: The Challenges to Sustaining
Momentum in Learning Organizations (1999) and Schools That Learn (2000).
According to Peter
Senge (1990: 3) learning organizations are:
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
to see the whole together.
The basic rationale
for such organizations is that in situations of rapid change only those that
are flexible, adaptive and productive will excel. For this to happen, it is
argued, organizations need to ‘discover how to tap people’s commitment and
capacity to learn at all levels’ (ibid.: 4).
While all people
have the capacity to learn, the structures in which they have to function are
often not conducive to reflection and engagement. Furthermore, people may lack
the tools and guiding ideas to make sense of the situations they face.
Organizations that are continually expanding their capacity to create their
future require a fundamental shift of mind among their members.
you ask people about what it is like being part of a great team, what is most
striking is the meaningfulness of the experience. People talk about being part
of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative.
It become quite clear that, for many, their experiences as part of truly great
teams stand out as singular periods of life lived to the fullest. Some spend
the rest of their lives looking for ways to recapture that spirit. (Senge
For Peter Senge,
real learning gets to the heart of what it is to be human. We become able to
re-create ourselves. This applies to both individuals and organizations. Thus,
for a ‘learning organization it is not enough 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’ (Senge 1990:14).
dimension that distinguishes learning from more traditional organizations is
the mastery of certain basic disciplines or ‘component technologies’. The
five that Peter Senge identifies are said to be converging to innovate
learning organizations. They are:
Building shared vision
adds to this recognition that people are agents, able to act upon the
structures and systems of which they are a part. All the disciplines are, in
this way, ‘concerned with a shift of mind from seeing parts to seeing
wholes, from seeing people as helpless reactors to seeing them as active
participants in shaping their reality, from reacting to the present to
creating the future’ (Senge 1990: 69). It is to the disciplines that we will
great virtue of Peter Senge’s work is the way in which he puts systems
theory to work. The Fifth Discipline provides a good introduction to
the basics and uses of such theory – and the way in which it can be brought
together with other theoretical devices in order to make sense of
organizational questions and issues. Systemic thinking is the conceptual
cornerstone (‘The Fifth Discipline’) of his approach. It is the discipline
that integrates the others, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and
practice (ibid.: 12). Systems theory’s ability to comprehend and
address the whole, and to examine the interrelationship between the parts
provides, for Peter Senge, both the incentive and the means to integrate the
Here is not the
place to go into a detailed exploration of Senge’s presentation of systems
theory. However, it is necessary to highlight one or two elements of his
argument. First, while the basic tools of systems theory are fairly
straightforward they can build into sophisticated models. Peter Senge argues
that one of the key problems with much that is written about, and done in the
name of management, is that rather simplistic frameworks are applied to what
are complex systems. We tend to focus on the parts rather than seeing the
whole, and to fail to see organization as a dynamic process. Thus, the
argument runs, a better appreciation of systems will lead to more appropriate
"We learn best
from our experience, but we never directly experience the consequences of many
of our most important decisions", Peter Senge (1990: 23) argues with
regard to organizations. We tend to think that cause and effect will be
relatively near to one another. Thus when faced with a problem, it is the ‘solutions’
that are close by that we focus upon. Classically we look to actions that
produce improvements in a relatively short time span. However, when viewed in
systems terms short-term improvements often involve very significant long-term
costs. For example, cutting back on research and design can bring very quick
cost savings, but can severely damage the long-term viability of an
organization. Part of the problem is the nature of the feedback we receive.
Some of the feedback will be reinforcing (or amplifying) – with small
changes building on themselves. "Whatever movement occurs is amplified,
producing more movement in the same direction. A small action snowballs, with
more and more and still more of the same, resembling compound interest" (Senge
1990: 81). Thus, we may cut our advertising budgets, see the benefits in terms
of cost savings, and in turn further trim spending in this area. In the short
run there may be little impact on people’s demands for our goods and
services, but longer term the decline in visibility may have severe penalties.
An appreciation of systems will lead to recognition of the use of, and
problems with, such reinforcing feedback, and also an understanding of the
place of balancing (or stabilizing) feedback. A further key aspect of systems
is the extent to which they inevitably involve delays – "interruptions
in the flow of influence which make the consequences of an action occur
gradually" (ibid.: 90). Peter Senge (1990: 92) concludes:
systems viewpoint is generally oriented toward the long-term view. That’s
why delays and feedback loops are so important. In the short term, you can
often ignore them; they’re inconsequential. They only come back to haunt you
in the long term.
advocates the use of ‘systems maps’ – diagrams that show the key
elements of systems and how they connect. However, people often have a problem
‘seeing’ systems, and it takes work to acquire the basic building blocks
of systems theory, and to apply them to your organization. On the other hand,
failure to understand system dynamics can lead us into "cycles of blaming
and self-defense: the enemy is always out there, and problems are always
caused by someone else" Bolman and Deal 1997: 27; see, also, Senge 1990:
Alongside systems thinking, there stand four other ‘component
technologies’ or disciplines. A ‘discipline’ is viewed by Peter Senge as
a series of principles and practices that we study, master and integrate into
our lives. The five disciplines can be approached at one of three levels:
Practices: what you do.
Principles: guiding ideas and
Essences: the state of being those
with high levels of mastery in the discipline (Senge 1990: 373).
provides a vital dimension. Each is necessary to the others if organizations
are to ‘learn’.
learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not
guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning
occurs" (Senge 1990: 139). 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’ (ibid.:
7). It goes beyond competence and skills, although it involves them. It goes
beyond spiritual opening, although it involves spiritual growth (ibid.:
141). Mastery is seen as a special kind of proficiency. It is not about
dominance, but rather about calling. Vision is vocation rather than simply
just a good idea.
with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They
never ‘arrive’. Sometimes, language, such as the term ‘personal mastery’
creates a misleading sense of definiteness, of black and white. But personal
mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong
discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of
their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas. And they are deeply
self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see the ‘journey is
the reward’. (Senge 1990: 142)
In writing such as
this we can see the appeal of Peter Senge’s vision. It has deep echoes in
the concerns of writers such as M. Scott Peck (1990) and Erich Fromm (1979).
The discipline entails developing personal vision; holding creative tension
(managing the gap between our vision and reality); recognizing structural
tensions and constraints, and our own power (or lack of it) with regard to
them; a commitment to truth; and using the sub-conscious (ibid.:
Mental models. These
are "deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures and
images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action"
(Senge 1990: 8). As such they resemble what Donald A Schön talked about as a
professional’s ‘repertoire’. We are often not that aware of the impact
of such assumptions etc. on our behavior – and, thus, a fundamental part of
our task (as Schön would put it) is to develop the ability to reflect-in- and
–on-action. Peter Senge is also influenced here by Schön’s collaborator
on a number of projects, Chris Argyris.
discipline of 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. (Senge
are to develop a capacity to work with mental models then it will be necessary
for people to learn new skills and develop new orientations, and for their to
be institutional changes that foster such change. ‘Entrenched mental models…
thwart changes that could come from systems thinking’ (ibid.: 203).
Moving the organization in the right direction entails working to transcend
the sorts of internal politics and game playing that dominates traditional
organizations. In other words it means fostering openness (Senge 1990:
273-286). It also involves seeking to distribute business responsibly far more
widely while retaining coordination and control. Learning organizations are
localized organizations (ibid.: 287-301).
vision. Peter Senge
starts from the position that if any one idea about leadership has inspired
organizations for thousands of years, ‘it’s the capacity to hold a shared
picture of the future we seek to create’ (1990: 9). Such a vision has the
power to be uplifting – and to encourage experimentation and innovation.
Crucially, it is argued, it can also foster a sense of the long-term,
something that is fundamental to the ‘fifth discipline’.
there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-to-familiar ‘vision
statement’), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but
because they want to. But many leaders have personal visions that never get
translated into shared visions that galvanize an organization… What has been
lacking is a discipline for translating vision into shared vision - not a ‘cookbook’
but a set of principles and guiding practices.
practice of shared vision involves the skills of unearthing shared ‘pictures
of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrolment rather than
compliance. In mastering this discipline, leaders learn the
counter-productiveness of trying to dictate a vision, no matter how heartfelt.
(Senge 1990: 9)
because of a reinforcing process. Increased clarity, enthusiasm and commitment
rub off on others in the organization. "As people talk, the vision grows
clearer. As it gets clearer, enthusiasm for its benefits grow" (ibid.:
227). There are ‘limits to growth’ in this respect, but developing the
sorts of mental models outlined above can significantly improve matters. Where
organizations can transcend linear and grasp system thinking, there is the
possibility of bringing vision to fruition.
learning. Such learning
is viewed as "the process of aligning and developing the capacities of a
team to create the results its members truly desire" (Senge 1990: 236).
It builds on personal mastery and shared vision – but these are not enough.
People need to be able to act together. When teams learn together, Peter Senge
suggests, not only can there be good results for the organization, members
will grow more rapidly than could have occurred otherwise.
discipline of team learning starts with ‘dialogue’, the capacity of
members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine ‘thinking
together’. To the Greeks dia-logos meant a free flowing of meaning
through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable
individually…. [It] also involves learning how to recognize the patterns of
interaction in teams that undermine learning. (Senge 1990: 10)
The notion of
dialogue that flows through The Fifth Discipline is very heavily
dependent on the work of the physicist, David Bohm (where a group ‘becomes
open to the flow of a larger intelligence’, and thought is approached
largely as collective phenomenon). When dialogue is joined with systems
thinking, Senge argues, there is the possibility of creating a language more
suited for dealing with complexity, and of focusing on deep-seated structural
issues and forces rather than being diverted by questions of personality and
leadership style. Indeed, such is the emphasis on dialogue in his work that it
could almost be put alongside systems thinking as a central feature of his
Peter Senge argues
that learning organizations require a new view of leadership. He sees the
traditional view of leaders (as special people who set the direction,
make key decisions and energize the troops as deriving from a deeply
individualistic and non-systemic worldview (1990: 340).
At its center the traditional view of leadership, ‘is based on
assumptions of people’s powerlessness, their lack of personal vision and
inability to master the forces of change, deficits which can be remedied only
by a few great leaders’ (op. cit.). Against this traditional view he
sets a ‘new’ view of leadership that centers on ‘subtler and more
In a learning organization, leaders are designers, stewards and
teachers. They are responsible for building organizations where people
continually expand their capabilities to understand complexity, clarify
vision, and improve shared mental models – that is, they are responsible for
learning…. Learning organizations will remain a ‘good idea’… until
people take a stand for building such organizations. Taking this stand is the
first leadership act, the start of inspiring (literally ‘to breathe
life into’) the vision of the learning organization. (Senge 1990: 340)
Many of the
qualities that Peter Senge discusses with regard to leading the learning
organization can be found in the shared leadership model (discussed
elsewhere in this article). For example, what Senge approaches as inspiration,
can be approached as animation. Here we will look at the three aspects of
leadership that he identifies – and link his discussion with some other
writers on leadership.
as designer. The
functions of design are rarely visible, Peter Senge argues, yet no one has a
more sweeping influence than the designer (1990: 341). The organization’s
policies, strategies and ‘systems’ are key areas of design, but leadership
goes beyond this. Integrating the five component technologies is fundamental.
However, the first task entails designing the governing ideas – the purpose,
vision and core values by which people should live. Building a shared vision
is crucial early on as it ‘fosters a long-term orientation and an imperative
for learning’ (ibid.: 344). Other disciplines also need to be
attended to, but just how they are to be approached is dependent upon the
situation faced. In essence, "the leaders’ task is designing the
learning processes whereby people throughout the organization can deal
productively with the critical issues they face, and develop their mastery in
the learning disciplines" (ibid.: 345).
as steward. While the
notion of leader as steward is, perhaps, most commonly associated with writers
such as Peter Block (1993), Peter Senge has some interesting insights on this
strand. His starting point was the ‘purpose stories’ that the managers he
interviewed told about their organization.
He came to realize that the managers were doing more than telling
stories, they were relating the story: "the overarching
explanation of why they do what they do, how their organization needs to
evolve, and how that evolution is part of something larger" (Senge 1990:
346). Such purpose stories
provide a single set of integrating ideas that give meaning to all aspects of
the leader’s work – and not unexpectedly "the leader develops a
unique relationship to his or her own personal vision.
He or she becomes a steward of the vision" (op. cit.).
One of the important things to grasp here is that stewardship involves
a commitment to, and responsibility for the vision, but it does not mean that
the leader owns it. It is not
their possession. Leaders are
stewards of the vision; their task is to manage it for the benefit of others
(hence the subtitle of Block’s book – ‘Choosing service over
self-interest’). Leaders learn
to see their vision as part of something larger. Purpose stories evolve as
they are being told, ‘in fact, they are as a result of being told’
(Senge 1990: 351). Leaders have
to learn to listen to other people’s vision and to change their own where
necessary. Telling the story in
this way allows others to be involved and to help develop a vision that is
both individual and shared.
teacher. Peter Senge
starts here with Max de Pree’s (1990) injunction that the first
responsibility of a leader is to define reality.
While leaders may draw inspiration and spiritual reserves from their
sense of stewardship, ‘much of the leverage leaders can actually exert lies
in helping people achieve more accurate, more insightful and more empowering
views of reality (Senge 1990: 353). Building
on an existing ‘hierarchy of explanation’ leaders, Peter Senge argues, can
influence people’s view of reality at four levels: events, patterns of
behaviour, systemic structures and the ‘purpose story’.
By and large most managers and leaders tend to focus on the first two
of these levels (and under their influence organizations do likewise).
Leaders in learning organizations attend to all four, ‘but focus
predominantly on purpose and systemic structure.
Moreover they “teach” people throughout the organization to do
likewise’ (Senge 1993: 353). This
allows them to see ‘the big picture’ and to appreciate the structural
forces that condition behavior. By
attending to purpose, leaders can cultivate an understanding of what the
organization (and its members) are seeking to become.
One of the issues here is that leaders often have strengths in one or
two of the areas but are unable, for example, to develop systemic
understanding. A key to success
is being able to conceptualize insights so that they become public knowledge,
‘open to challenge and further improvement’ (ibid.: 356).
as teacher” is not about “teaching” people how to achieve their vision.
It is about fostering learning, for everyone. Such leaders help people
throughout the organization develop systemic understandings. Accepting this
responsibility is the antidote to one of the most common downfalls of
otherwise gifted teachers – losing their commitment to the truth. (Senge
Leaders have to
create and manage creative tension – especially around the gap between
vision and reality. Mastery of such tension allows for a fundamental shift. It
enables the leader to see the truth in changing situations.
judgments about Peter Senge’s work, and the ideas he promotes, we need to
place his contribution in context. His
is not meant to be a definitive addition to the ‘academic’ literature of
organizational learning. Peter Senge writes for practicing and aspiring
managers and leaders. The concern
is to identify how interventions can be made to turn organizations into ‘learning
organizations’. Much of his,
and similar theorists’ efforts, have been ‘devoted to identifying
templates, which real organizations could attempt to emulate’ (Easterby-Smith
and Araujo 1999: 2). In this
field some of the significant contributions have been based around studies of
organizational practice, others have ‘relied more on theoretical principles,
such as systems dynamics or psychological learning theory, from which
implications for design and implementation have been derived’ (op. cit.).
Peter Senge, while making use of individual case studies, tends to the latter
appropriate question in respect of this contribution would seem to be whether
it fosters praxis – informed, committed action on the part of
those it is aimed at? This is an
especially pertinent question as Peter Senge looks to promote a more holistic
vision of organizations and the lives of people within them.
Here we focus on three aspects. We start with the organization.
imperatives. Here the
case against Peter Senge is fairly simple. We can find very few organizations
that come close to the combination of characteristics that he identifies with
the learning organization. Within a capitalist system his vision of companies
and organizations turning wholehearted to the cultivation of the learning of
their members can only come into fruition in a limited number of instances.
While those in charge of organizations will usually look in some way to the
long-term growth and sustainability of their enterprise, they may not focus on
developing the human resources that the organization houses. The focus may
well be on enhancing brand recognition and status (Klein 2001); developing
intellectual capital and knowledge (Leadbeater 2000); delivering product
innovation; and ensuring that production and distribution costs are kept down.
As Will Hutton (1995: 8) has argued, British companies’ priorities are
overwhelmingly financial. What is more, ‘the targets for profit are too high
and time horizons too short’ (1995: xi). Such conditions are hardly
conducive to building the sort of organization that Peter Senge proposes. Here
the case against Senge is that within capitalist organizations, where the
bottom line is profit, a fundamental concern with the learning and development
of employees and associates is simply too idealistic.
Yet there are some
currents running in Peter Senge’s favor. The need to focus on knowledge
generation within an increasingly globalized economy does bring us back in
some important respects to the people who have to create intellectual capital.
and competitiveness are, by and large, a function of knowledge generation and
information processing: firms and territories are organized in networks of
production, management and distribution; the core economic activities are
global – that is they have the capacity to work as a unit in real time, or
chosen time, on a planetary scale. (Castells 2001: 52)
A failure to attend
to the learning of groups and individuals in the organization spells disaster
in this context. As Leadbeater (2000: 70) has argued, companies need to invest
not just in new machinery to make production more efficient, but in the flow
of know-how that will sustain their business. Organizations need to be good at
knowledge generation, appropriation and exploitation. This process is not that
that is visible tends to be explicit, teachable, independent, detachable; it
is also easy for competitors to imitate. Knowledge that is intangible, tacit,
less teachable, less observable, is more complex but more difficult to detach
from the person who created it or the context in which it is embedded.
Knowledge carried by an individual only realizes its commercial potential when
it is replicated by an organization and becomes organizational knowledge. (ibid.:
Here we have a very
significant pressure for the fostering of ‘learning organizations’. The
sort of know-how that Leadbeater is talking about here cannot be simply
transmitted. It has to be engaged with, talked about and embedded in
organizational structures and strategies. It has to become people’s own.
A question of sophistication and disposition.
One of the biggest problems with Peter Senge’s approach has nothing to do
with the theory, its rightness, nor the way it is presented. The issue here is
that the people to whom it is addressed do not have the disposition or
theoretical tools to follow it through. One clue lies in his choice of ‘disciplines’
to describe the core of his approach. As we saw, a discipline is a series of
principles and practices that we study, master and integrate into our lives.
In other words, the approach entails significant effort on the part of the
practitioner. It also entails developing quite complicated mental models, and
being able to apply and adapt these to different situations – often on the
hoof. Classically, the approach involves a shift from product to process (and
back again). The question then becomes whether many people in organizations
can handle this. All this has a direct parallel within formal education. One
of the reasons that product approaches to curriculum (as exemplified in the
concern for SAT tests, examination performance and school attendance) have
assumed such a dominance is that alternative process approaches are much more
difficult to do well. They may be superior – but many teachers lack the
sophistication to carry them forward. There are also psychological and social
barriers. As Lawrence Stenhouse put it some years ago: "The close
examination of one’s professional performance is personally threatening; and
the social climate in which teachers work generally offers little support to
those who might be disposed to face that threat" (1975: 159). We can make
the same case for people in most organizations.
process of exploring one’s performance, personality and fundamental aims in
life (and this is what Peter Senge is proposing) is a daunting task for most
people. To do it we need considerable support, and the motivation to carry the
task through some very uncomfortable periods. It calls for the integration of
different aspects of our lives and experiences. There is, here, a
straightforward question concerning the vision – will people want to sign up
to it? To make sense of the sorts of experiences generated and explored in a
fully functioning ‘learning organization’ there needs to be ‘spiritual
growth’ and the ability to locate these within some sort of framework of
commitment. Thus, as employees, we are not simply asked to do our jobs and to
get paid. We are also requested to join in something bigger. Many of us may
just want to earn a living!
vision. Here we need to
note two key problem areas. First, there is a question of how Peter Senge
applies systems theory. While he introduces all sorts of broader appreciations
and attends to values – his theory is not fully set in a political or moral
framework. There is not a consideration of questions of social justice,
democracy and exclusion. His approach largely operates at the level of
organizational interests. This would not be such a significant problem if
there was a more explicit vision of the sort of society that he would like to
see attained, and attention to this with regard to management and leadership.
As a contrast, we might turn to Peter Drucker’s (1977: 36) elegant
discussion of the dimensions of management. He argued that there are three
tasks – ‘equally important but essentially different’ – that face the
management of every organization. These are:
To think through and define the
specific purpose and mission of the institution, whether business enterprise,
hospital, or university.
To make work productive and the
To manage social impacts and social
responsibilities. (op. cit.)
of our institutions exists by itself and as an end in itself. Every one is an
organ of society and exists for the sake of society. Business is no exception.
‘Free enterprise’ cannot be justified as being good for business. It can
only be justified as being good for society. (Drucker 1977: 40)
If Peter Senge had attempted greater connection between the notion of the ‘learning organization’ and the ‘learning society’, and paid attention to the political and social impact of organizational activity then this area of criticism would be limited to the question of the particular vision of society and human flourishing involved.
Second, there is
some question with regard to political processes concerning his emphasis on
dialogue and shared vision. While Peter Senge clearly recognizes the political
dimensions of organizational life, there is sneaking suspicion that he may
want to transcend it. In some ways there is link here with the concerns and
interests of communitarian thinkers like Amitai Etzioni (1995, 1997).
As Richard Sennett (1998: 143) argues with regard to political
communitarianism, it ‘falsely emphasizes unity as the source of strength in
a community and mistakenly fears that when conflicts arise in a community,
social bonds are threatened’. Within it (and arguably aspects of Peter Senge’s
vision of the learning organization) there seems, at times, to be a dislike of
politics and a tendency to see danger in plurality and difference. Here there
is a tension between the concern for dialogue and the interest in building a
shared vision. An alternative reading is that difference is good for
democratic life (and organizational life) provided that we cultivate a sense
of reciprocity, and ways of working that encourage deliberation. The search is
not for the sort of common good that many communitarians seek (Guttman and
Thompson 1996: 92) but rather for ways in which people may share in a common
life. Moral disagreement will persist – the key is whether we can learn to
respect and engage with each other’s ideas, behaviors and beliefs.
John van Maurik
(2001: 201) has suggested that Peter Senge has been ahead of his time and that
his arguments are insightful and revolutionary. He goes on to say that it is a
matter of regret ‘that more organizations have not taken his advice and have
remained geared to the quick fix’. As we have seen there are very
deep-seated reasons why this may have been the case. Beyond this, though,
there are the questions of whether Senge’s vision of the learning
organization and the disciplines it requires has contributed to more informed
and committed action with regard to organizational life? Here we have little
concrete evidence to go on. However, we can make some judgments about the
possibilities of his theories and proposed practices. We could say that while
there are some issues and problems with his conceptualization, at least it
does carry within it some questions around what might make for human
flourishing. The emphases on building a shared vision, team working, personal
mastery and the development of more sophisticated mental models and the way he
runs the notion of dialogue through these does have the potential of allowing
workplaces to be more convivial and creative. The drawing together of the
elements via the Fifth Discipline of systemic thinking, while not being
to everyone’s taste, also allows us to approach a more holistic
understanding of organizational life (although Peter Senge does himself stop
short of asking some important questions in this respect). These are still
substantial achievements – and when linked to his popularizing of the notion
of the ‘learning organization’ – it is understandable why Peter Senge
has been recognized as a key thinker.
P. (1993) Stewardship. Choosing service over self-interest, San
Francisco: Berrett-Koehler. 264 + xxiv pages. Calls for a new way of thinking
about the workplace - arguing that notions of leadership and management need
replacing by that of 'stewardship'. Organizations should replace traditional
management tools of control and consistency with partnership and choice.
'Individuals who see themselves as stewards will choose responsibility over
entitlement and hold themselves accountable to those over whom they exercise
power'. There is a need to choose service over self-interest.
Heifetz, R. A.
(1994) Leadership Without Easy Answers, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap
Press. 348 + xi pages. Just about the best of the more recent books on
leadership. Looks to bring back ethical questions to the center of debates
around leadership, and turns to the leader as educator. A particular emphasis
on the exploration of leadership within authority and non-authority
relationships. Good on distinguishing between technical and adaptive
Senge, P. M. (1990)
The Fifth Discipline. The art and practice of the learning organization,
London: Random House. 424 + viii pages. A seminal and highly readable book in
which Senge sets out the five ‘competent technologies’ that build and
sustain learning organizations. His emphasis on systems thinking as the fifth,
and cornerstone discipline allows him to develop a more holistic appreciation
of organization (and the lives of people associated with them).
Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organizational learning: A
theory of action perspective, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.
Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1996) Organizational learning II:
Theory, method and practice, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.
Bolman, L. G. and Deal, T. E. (1997) Reframing Organizations.
Artistry, choice and leadership 2e, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 450
Castells, M. (2001) ‘Information technology and global capitalism’
in W. Hutton and A. Giddens (eds.) On the Edge. Living with global
capitalism, London: Vintage.
M. (1990) Leadership is an Art, New York: Dell.
P. (1977) Management, London: Pan.
M. and Araujo, L. ‘Current debates and opportunities’ in M. Easterby-Smith,
L. Araujo and J. Burgoyne (eds.) Organizational Learning and the Learning
Organization, London: Sage.
A. and Moingeon, B. (1999) ‘Learning, trust and organizational change’ in
M. Easterby-Smith, L. Araujo and J. Burgoyne (eds.) Organizational Learning
and the Learning Organization, London: Sage.
Etzioni, A. (1995) The Spirit of Community. Rights
responsibilities and the communitarian agenda, London: Fontana Press.
Etzioni, A. (1997) The New Golden Rule. Community and morality
in a democratic society, London: Profile Books.
M. and Brand, S. B. (1999) ‘The concept of the “learning organization”
applied to the transformation of the public sector’ in M. Easterby-Smith, L.
Araujo and J. Burgoyne (eds.) Organizational Learning and the Learning
Organization, London: Sage.
E. (1979) To Have or To Be? London: Abacus.
Guttman, A. and Thompson, D. (1996) Democracy and Disagreement,
Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.
W. (1995) The State We’re In, London: Jonathan Cape.
N. (2001) No Logo, London: Flamingo.
C. (2000) Living on Thin Air. The new economy, London: Penguin.
Maurik, J. (2001) Writers on Leadership, London: Penguin.
O’Neill, J. (1995) ‘On schools as learning organizations. An
interview with Peter Senge’ Educational Leadership, 52(7) http://www.ascd.org/readingroom/edlead/9504/oneil.html
M. S. (1990) The Road Less Traveled, London: Arrow.
Schultz, J. R. (1999) ‘Peter Senge: Master of change’ Executive
Update Online, http://www.gwsae.org/ExecutiveUpdate/1999/June_July/CoverStory2.htm
Senge, P. (1998) ‘The Practice of Innovation’, Leader to
Leader 9 http://pfdf.org/leaderbooks/l2l/summer98/senge.html
Senge, P. et. al. (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook:
Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization
Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R., Roth, G. and Smith,
B. (1999) The Dance of Change: The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in
Learning Organizations, New York: Doubleday/Currency).
Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N. Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J. and
Kleiner, A. (2000) Schools That Learn. A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for
Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education, New York:
Stenhouse, L. (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and
Development, London: Heinemann.
Sennett, R. (1998) The Corrosion of Character. The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism, New York: Norton.
K. Smith is the Rank Research Fellow and Tutor at the YMCA George Williams
College, London, and Visiting Professor in Community Education, University of
Strathclyde, Glasgow. Dr Smith specializes in the field of informal education
and lifelong learning. Among his publications are
Creators not Consumers (1982), Developing Youth Work (1988),
Local Education (1994) and Informal Education (1996, 1999 with
Tony Jeffs). He has also edited 13 collections. Now
working with the Rank Charities on a new book and web resource exploring
spirituality and education (with Michele Erina Doyle).
published June 2001.
Last update: July 14, 2002