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Where can I find a learning organization?
on September 12, 2006
Since I read this book 15 years ago, the idea of the learning organization has embedded itself in my brain and not let go. I've been on a search to find or create the learning organization ever since. I've never been sure that it really exists in practice, so it's good to see that the revised edition adds the reflections of some successful practitioners, demonstrating that learning organizations have emerged, even if they are almost as rare as they were before the first edition of Senge's book was published.
But learning may be about to become less rare in our organizations. The 21st century brings a networked world of business -- and in this era only living, learning organizations will be able to adapt and survive. All companies will be linked in a global ecosystem. No company will know when and where the next competitor will emerge. To sustain themselves, all organizations will need to constantly innovate and learn.
Senge's book is worth having and keeping on your bookshelf because it gets to the essence of what's needed to create a learning organization. Senge describes five disciplines that must be mastered at all levels of the organization:
1. Personal mastery -- clarifying personal vision, focusing energy, and seeing reality
2. Shared vision -- transforming individual vision into shared vision
3. Mental models -- unearthing internal pictures and understanding how they shape actions
4. Team learning -- suspending judgments and creating dialogue
5. Systems thinking -- fusing the four learning disciplines; from seeing the parts to seeing wholes
As Senge explains, the fifth discipline is particularly important because it ties the others together and helps explain the complex behavior and outcomes that happen in organizations. It illuminates the feedback loops -- the growth cycles, control cycles, and delays that drive our organizational systems. Senge's book gives us a language for understanding these systems and explaining their dramatic successes and failures.-- the virtuous cycles and death spirals that are weekly reported in the news -- and shows us a way of thinking that can help us copy patterns of victory and avoid patterns of defeat.
Learning organizations are rare because the five disciplines are hard. It's self-evident that personal mastery, shared vision, self awareness, and team learning are essential components of a great company, but to master these disciplines in a large organization requires a level of communication, relationship-building, conflict resolution, and the attendant time and commitment, than most people have the capability or willingness to invest. Even in a small team this is hard: the changes we need are at odds with conventional wisdom and conventional management. Currently, it is only the exceptional leader who is able to defy conventional wisdoms and have the personal vision to build a learning organization.
This may be about to change. Business and society are experiencing a dramatic shift. Global business and global development are transforming everything. Organizations will have to adapt or they will not survive. Only vital, living organizations will manage to sustain themselves -- and the vitality they need will not be created by accident, it will have to come from mastery of the five disciplines of the learning organization.
Senge's work is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand how to design, build, and sustain -- or even work in -- a learning organization. It may not be the only answer, and the ideas are certainly hard to put into practice, but the experiments are encouraging. There is a better way of working, and the ideas in this book will help us find it.