Posted on

Peter Senge: Learning Organisation

If business strategy is the search for competitive advantage, then the Journal of Business Strategy would seemed to have endorsed one strategy above all others. In naming Peter Senge as their ‘Strategist of the Century’ they implicitly set his concept of The Learning Organisation on a strategic pedestal. Indeed, they described Senge as someone who ‘had the greatest impact on the way we conduct business today’.

Peter Senge

Short Biography

Peter Senge was born in California, in 1947. He attended his local university, Stanford, where he earned a BS in Engineering. He moved to MIT where he studied Social Systems Modelling for his MS, followed by a move to the MIT Sloan School of Management in 1970, where he gained a PhD in management that he completed in 1978. He stayed on, continuing his research into how we learn, within organisations.

His research culminated in his best-selling synthesis of these ideas, ‘The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization‘. This book has been rated by Harvard Business Review as one of the seminal management books.

His subsequent work has built on this theme:

What is The Learning Organisation?

The learning organisation is one that encourages continued learning for both groups and individuals, as a source of competitive advantage. People at all levels from shop floor to senior management will be continually developing their skill levels, knowledge and experience. It is like building an institutional ‘growth mindset’ by increasing the creative capacity.

When Senge published The Fifth Discipline in 1990, the ideas were not new. Indeed, Senge acknowledges his debts, especially to Chris Argyris, and his 1978 book ‘On Organizational Learning‘; and to Arie de Geus. The term “Learning Organization’, which Senge has made his own, was coined in 1987 by Bob Garratt, in his book ‘The Learning Organization and the Need for Directors Who Think‘.

In The Fifth Discipline, Senge describes five core components of personal development. This book is often viewed as highly theoretical, so his follow-up Fifth Discipline Fieldbook set out practical answers to the questions he received about ‘how’ to implement these ideas.

The five means of development, that create a Learning Organization, are:

  1. Personal Mastery
    Individual, continuous, life-long learning. Senge also emphasises the importance of spiritual development. This, he argues, allows us to understand the tension between reality and vision. He suggests this is the source of creativity.
  2. Mental Models
    Senge suggests that we carry implicit mental models of our world and our organizations. We need to understand and challenge them. In the Fieldbook, he offers the tool of a ladder of inference, that climbs up from observation of data, to selection of the data, to applying meanings to them, to making assumptions, from which we draw conclusions, from which we adopt beliefs, that drive our choices of actions. This process helps us to analyse our values, beliefs and actions.
  3. Shared Vision
    When team members create a vision that they share and jointly own, this brings them together, serves as a basis for creativity, and readies them for change.
  4. Team Learning
    Senge believes that group development will outpace individual development in driving team performance. He also distinguishes between dialogue (an exploratory process) and discussion (a process for narrowing and selecting from options).
  5. Systems Thinking
    This is the ‘fifth discipline’. It requires us to see an organization as an inter-connected whole, with a complex set of inter-relationships. Processes do not work as simple chains of cause and effect, but as complex interacting feedback loops that reinforce or counteract each other.

Two Videos of Dr Senge Describing his Central Ideas

Introduction to Organizational Learning

Introduction to Systems Thinking

Share this:
Posted on

Chris Argyris: Organisational Learning

In last week’s Pocketblog, we met a thinker, Roselinde Torres, who compels leaders to ask difficult questions of themselves. Chris Argyris was another thinker – an academic this time – who demands we ask difficult questions.

Chris Argyris

 

Brief Biography

Argyris’ early academic career brought him into contact with the great psychologist, Kurt Lewin, and culminated in academic posts, first at Yale (1951-1971) and then at Harvard.  He was a behavioural scientist who devoted much of his research  to understanding organisational behaviour and learning, noting that:

‘individual learning is a necessary but insufficient condition for organisational learning’

His Ideas

His early work focused on the practice and development of T Groups; a form of training (the T of T Group) in which managers are able to learn through social interaction. These were popular in the 1960s and 70s for the success they had in shifting interpersonal behaviours of participants. However, Argyris and others became disenchanted as evidence grew that the impact of these interventions was not sustained back in the workplace.

This led Argyris to theorise that the way we behave within organisations is different from the ideas we claim to profess. He labelled the two sides of this distinction: ‘theories in use’ for what we do, and ‘espoused theories’ for what we say. Our behaviours – theories in use – are driven only partially by espoused theories, and to a greater extent by fears, pride, entrenched patterns and the need to conform. Indeed, he suggested that we don’t just behave as we do, rather than as we profess; but we are often unaware of the gap.

His most famous single contribution, articulated in his book, co-written with Donald Schön, called ‘Organisational Learning‘, was the idea of  ‘double loop learning’.

Argyris argued that reasoning needs to take pride of place as the basis for decision-making. However, the prevailing model of learning that he and Schön defined as ‘single loop learning’ is an impoverished approach.

In Single Loop learning, we look at the results of our actions and re-think the strategies we chose.

Single-loop learning

 

The flaw in this, they argued, is that our chosen approach comes from a deep seated set of interpretations, assumptions, values and models. What we should be prepared to do is to challenge those and search for better, more reliable assumptions and models. This is Double-Loop learning.

Double-loop learning

 

Argyris further pointed out that learning comes from either a match or a mis-match.  If our actions produce the desired result, then we can learn from the well-selected behaviours. If they do not, then we can learn from the mis-match either by correcting our actions (single-loop learning) or by revising the governing variables (assumptions) that led to our choice of actions (double-loop learning).

You can learn more about Argyris and Double Loop Learning on the excellent infed website.

You may also be interested in the following pocketbooks:

Share this: