Peter Senge's advocacy of the learning organisation helped begin a revolution in the workplace. And, says Trevor Merriden, the relevance of his message continues to grow.
When Peter Senge was young he wanted to be an astronaut. He even studied astronautics in college. But then, like most of us, he got a little side-tracked. He got hooked on applying the systems theories picked up during his studies to the distinctly less exciting world of management. Thus, as he later put it, 'a new earthbound career was born.' The result - one small career step for a man, but one very handy leap for management thinking.
By 1990, Senge, gave the world his classic text, 'The Fifth Discipline' with its more familiar subtitle 'The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation'. The book went beyond the standard advocation that we change the way we work by insisting that we also fundamentally change the way we think about the way we change our work. Senge warned us against conventional approaches to problem solving, in particular to the dangers of breaking down knotty managerial dilemmas into 'bite-size' chunks. Such an approach, he suggested, would exacerbate the problems it was intended to solve.
Instead, as managers, we need to focus on the system or organisation in which we work as a whole.
So far, so much grand vision. Other writers had gone down this path but had stumbled on the following: Knowing that everything affects everything else is all very well, but how to keep hold of the big picture when preoccupied with the drudgeries of daily tasks? Well, an honest recognition of our obvious but understandable small-mindedness in the workplace is where Senge's book truly comes into its own. It's so hard to see the whole pattern of change, he acknowledges, that instead 'we focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get solved'. In a triumph of psychological realism over guru idealism, he highlights the vast gap between what we know is right and what we actually do. Senge identifies and then addresses what he calls our 'workplace learning disabilities', some of which will sound a little familiar to many readers.
They include the natural inclination towards territoriality in the workplace and a tendency to blame absent third parties when things go wrong. Then there is the myth of the management team 'pulling together', when in reality individuals are fighting like alley cats over territory and avoiding anything that will make them look bad personally. With all this going on, Senge suggests, it's little wonder that so many managers fail to see bigger dangers such as a creeping paralysis within their organisation, decaying plant and machinery, ageing design processes or demoralisation of staff.
Senge delivers five disciplines as remedies. No sticking plaster solutions these, but neither are they an attempt to deliver some sort of universal theory of management action. The first discipline is the need for individuals to make a mental connection between personal and organisational learning.
Secondly, there is the need continually to reassess our mental models of the world, our deeply ingrained (often wrong) assumptions about how we understand what is going on around us. Third comes the ability to build a genuine shared vision of the future of the organisation that fosters genuine commitment rather than compliance. Fourth is the need for learning as a team rather than as individuals. There are striking examples of situations where the abilities of the team exceed the abilities of the individuals in the team and vice versa. Senge rightly points out that the discipline of 'thinking together' involves learning how to recognise the patterns of interaction in teams that undermine learning. The patterns of defensiveness, he adds, are often deeply ingrained in how a team operates. 'If unrecognised, they undermine learning. If recognised and surfaced creatively, they can accelerate learning,' he believes.
The fifth discipline is, of course, Senge's beloved systems thinking.
Business, just like everything else, is 'bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions', which often take years fully to play out their effects on each other. The fifth discipline is the recognition of the system and it is this discipline that underpins the others, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice.
The relevance of Senge's work is growing rather than diminishing over time. As more businesses go global, the need to overcome psychological barriers to necessary organisational change increases. Senge has no illusions about how difficult all this is to take, and keep, on board. But his masterstroke is his sympathy with human fallibility. He is true to his own words in his willingness in tackling and remedying contradictions in his own arguments.
You sense that he too is learning as he takes us through his arguments.
That he is willing to do so in his own book is a fascinating touch of humility so often lacking in the modern guru.