Peter Senge (1947 – ) is an American management author and speaker who studied first at Stanford University, then Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1970s, where he was mentored by Jay Forrester (1918-), the founder of system dynamics. Senge went on to lecture at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and became ‘enormously influential’ (The Economist 2008). He developed his conception of the learning organisation after putting together a series of training seminars on the subject of leadership and mastery. These seminars were intended to train senior managers in issues of systems dynamics, personal mastery and shared vision. This work formed the basis of Senge’s work with colleagues in the consultancy Innovation Associates.
Senge acknowledges his work was strongly influenced by the work of others, such as the aforementioned systems thinker Jay Forrester, Chris Argyris and Donald Schön’s ideas of organisational learning, W Edwards Deming’s views on systems thinking, the quantum physicist David Bohm’s emphasis on the importance of dialogue, and the Royal Dutch/Shell Oil head of planning Arie de Geus, who had developed the idea of scenario planning. Senge quotes De Geus’s statement that:
the ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.
De Geus 1988 p71
Senge came to international prominence when his book ‘The Fifth Discipline’ was published in 1990. It has since sold over a million copies worldwide, and in 1997 was rated as one of the seminal management books of the 20th century by the Harvard Business Review. Senge’s conception of the learning organisation is one 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 live together.
Senge 1990 p3
The book was intended to be a collaborative project with Forrester, Bohm, Argyris and Schön as well as others, but Senge said:
one by one the others dropped out and I found myself standing alone on the playing field.
Galagan 1991 p39
Senge described the five essential disciplines of the learning organisation as being:
1. Personal mastery – continuous learning by each individual, ‘expanding the ability to produce the results we truly want in life’.
2. Mental models – to develop awareness of the acquired patterns of thinking within organisations, and to constantly challenge them.
3. Shared vision – creating ‘pictures of the future’ that all members of a group can identify as their own.
4. Team learning – learning together through dialogue and discussion so that the members of a team are more effective than they would be as solitary individuals.
5. The ‘fifth’ discipline, the ability to see the organisation as a whole, as something with its own behaviour patterns separate from those of the individuals who are its constituent parts. On this subject, he said:
You can only understand the system of a rainstorm by contemplating the whole, not any individual part of the pattern … business and other human endeavours are also systems … systems thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools, that has been developed over the past 50 years to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively.
Senge 1990 p5
Senge’s argument is that organisations work as a set of interconnected sub-systems, so decisions made in one part of the business have implications for the other parts. Managers have been taught to break problems down and solve them piecemeal, and by so doing, they run the risk of missing the significant interconnections between the parts and the whole. Senge argues that managers should embrace complexity in the world, rather than resorting to their normal reductionalist perspectives, where simple answers to complex questions are always sought. He says that a non-threatening dialogue needs to be carried out among the employees of an organisation in which some sort of consensus is reached as each employee comes to see the points of view of all the others, and begins to learn from them.
Senge represented many of his ideas in a series of what he called systems archetypes, saying that:
the template shows the basic structural form of the archetype but lets managers fill in the variables of their own situation.
Senge 1990 p17
Senge explored these systems archetypes and documented the most common set of patterns of behaviour in organisations that have the tendency of reoccurring. The eight most frequently occurring are:
1. Fixes that Fail —A solution is rapidly implemented to address the symptoms of an urgent problem. This quick fix sets into motion unintended consequences that are not evident at first but end-up adding to the symptoms.
2. Shifting the Burden – A problem symptom is addressed by a short term and a fundamental solution. The short term solution produces side effects affecting the fundamental solution. As this occurs, the system’s attention shifts to the short term solution or to the side effects.
3. Limits to Success —A given effort initially generates positive performance. However, over time the effort reaches a constraint that slows down the overall performance no matter how much energy is applied.
4. Drifting Goals—As a gap between goal and actual performance is realized, the conscious decision is to lower the goal. The effect of this decision is a gradual decline in the system performance.
5. Growth and Underinvestment—Growth approaches a limit potentially avoidable with investments in capacity. However, a decision is made to not invest resulting in performance degradation which results in the decline in demand validating the decision not to invest.
6. Success to the Successful—Two or more efforts compete for the same finite resources. The more successful effort gets a disproportionately larger allocation of the resources to the detriment of the others.
7. Escalation—Parties take mutually threatening actions which escalate their retaliation attempting to get ‘one-up’ on each other.
8. Tragedy of the Commons—Multiple parties enjoying the benefits of a common resource do not pay attention to the effects they are having on the common resource. Eventually, this resource is exhausted resulting in the shutdown of the activities of all parties in the system.
In an interview promoting the book, Senge said that:
it was only after the book was written that I understood a premise that lies behind it. The way organizations are is a product of how we think and interact; they cannot change in any fundamental way unless we can change our basic patterns of thinking and interacting.
Galagan 1991 p38
In the book itself, Senge defined learning organisations as:
… 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.
Senge 2006 p3
Learning in this context has a specific meaning for Senge, which he terms ‘metanoia’, a Greek word meaning ‘a shift of mind’. A learning organisation is therefore:
… an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future. For such an organization, it is not enough merely 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 2006 p14
Senge’s Zen Buddhism – he describes how:
it sort of hit me one morning while I was meditating that the learning organization was going to be a hot area in business
Galagan 1991 p37)
– and commitment to deep levels of personal and organisational change have led some of his ideas being criticised as:
utopian … the fruits of a man who spent the late 1960s at a university in California and who has dabbled subsequently in eastern philosophies.
The Economist 2008
However, his ideas continue to be particularly influential in the sphere of systems thinking and, in particular, its role in organisational learning.
The Economist 2008 ‘Guru: Peter Senge’ 14 Nov
Galagan P 1991 ‘The Learning Organization Made Plain: an interview with Peter Senge’ Training and Development October 1991 pp37-44
Jackson, M 2003 ‘Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers’ Wiley and Sons: Chichester
Ramage M and Shipp K 2009 ‘Systems Thinkers’ Open University: Milton Keynes
Senge, P 1990 ‘The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation’, Currency/Doubleday, New York; 2nd revised edition, Random House Business Books, 2006