Peter Senge's learning organization: a critical view and the addition of some new concepts to actualize theory and practice.

Author:Fillion, Gerard


Since few decades we are living in a world characterized by a more and more accelerated shift of change. Indeed, "our environments are more and more complex, more and more interdependent, more and more fleeting, more and more unstable, and more and more unforeseeable. In addition, this shift of change of growing complexity is continually accelerating. Thus, this new context continually requires greater capabilities of adaptation, relegating to us the responsibility of our learning, and it is asking for the creation of a culture of continuous change and learning." (Lapointe, 1998, p. 2) In this changing mind of organizational learning culture, at the end of the 1980s, business management academics and senior managers began to discuss about the notion of "learning organization". Ray Stata, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at Analog Devices Inc., suddenly launched the following idea: "The pace at which people and organizations learn may become the only source of sustainable competitive advantage." (Stata, 1989; quoted in Senge, 1990a, p. 7) And, in the middle of 1990, in a conference organized at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) titled "Transforming Organizations" two questions were continually remaining: How can we build organizations in which continuous learning could be ubiquitous? What type of people is the most likely to become a leader in a learning organization? (Senge, 1990a)

In fact, since about twenty-five years, a team of researchers (Society for Organizational Learning, Sloan School of Management, MIT), leaded by Peter Senge, are actively thinking about the conception and development of a learning culture favouring the adaptation of our organizations and communities to a more and more changing environment. They propose a new organizational culture of continuous learning or, in other words, to build learning organizations (Lapointe, 1998), organizations which are capable to generate and share knowledge.

In a beautiful morning of fall 1987, Senge had a vision. During his morning meditation, he is suddenly becoming conscious that learning organization would become a new management "buzzword". So, all the developments which took place in the next four years (1987-1990) have pursued Senge's initial intuition to finally conduct him to write the book The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. Following the publication of this book in 1990, the learning organization, as imagined by Senge, became one of the more prominent management "buzzword" of the first half of 1990s. According to Senge, the major challenge in building a learning organization is related to the need of a sustained effort. It is relatively easy to attract people with new ideas, but it is harder to make such that people practice these new ideas in their daily life, says Senge. To that end, in 1991, Senge founded the Centre for Organizational Learning of the Sloan School of Management at MIT. This Centre is, in fact, a consortium of medium-large sized enterprises, including Ford, Harley-Davidson, Federal Express, EDS, Intel, Herman Miller, AT&T, Philips Display Components (a North American division of Philips Electronics), Merck Frosst, Shell Oil, US West, and GS Technologies (Senge, 1990b). It serves as the fundamentals to practice the five disciplines which are the essence of the learning organization.

Many consultants and organizations have recognized the commercial significance of organizational learning--and the notion of the learning organization has been a central orienting point in this (Smith, 2001a). Writers have sought to identify templates, or ideal forms, "which real organizations could attempt to emulate" (Esterby-Smith & Araujo, 1999, p. 2). In this sense the learning organization is an ideal "towards which organizations have to evolve in order to be able to respond to the various pressures" [they face] (Finger & Brand, 1999, p. 136). It is characterized by the recognition that "individual and collective learning are the key" (Finger & Brand, 1999, p. 136). Two important things are resulting from this: (1) while there has been a lot of talk about learning organizations it is very difficult to identify real-life examples. This might be because the vision of "too ideal" or because it is not relevant to the requirements and dynamics of organizations; and (2) the focus on creating a template and upon the need to present it in a form that is commercially attractive to the consultants and writers has led to a significant under-powering of the theoretical framework for the learning organization (Smith, 2001a). There is a distinct contrast with the study of organizational learning.

"Although theorists of learning organizations have often drawn on ideas from organizational learning, there has been little traffic in the reverse direction. Moreover, since the central concerns have been somewhat different, the two literatures have developed along divergent tracks. The literature on organizational learning has concentrated on the detached collection and analysis of the processes involved in individual and collective learning inside organizations; whereas the learning organizations literature has an action orientation, and is geared towards using specific diagnostic and evaluative methodological tools which can help to identify, promote, and evaluate the quality of learning processes inside organizations." (Esterby-Smith & Araujo, 1999, p. 2; see also Tsang, 1997)

So we could argue that organizational learning is the "activity and the process by which organizations eventually reach the ideal of a learning organization" (Finger & Brand, 1999, p. 136). Our aim in this paper is to discuss about the learning organization and the organizational learning, to bring a critical view of the learning organization, as suggested by Peter Senge, and to propose the addition of two new concepts (e.g., knowledge generation and sharing, as well as organizational behavior) to the five core disciplines of a learning organization in order to help actualize the learning organization theory and practice, and to perform a better management of the individual and organizational knowledge and the organizational behavior of people. The paper is structured as follows: first, we present the learning organization rationale; second, we discuss about the organizational learning as an integral part of the learning organization; third, we bring a critical view of the learning organization; and finally, we propose the addition of two new concepts to the five fundamental disciplines which are the essence of a learning organization.


The first section of the paper is devoted to present the basic rationale of the learning organization such as imagined by Peter Senge. The rationale is articulated around the following elements: the interest in learning organization, the definition of a learning organization, the five core disciplines of a learning organization (systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning) and their concepts, as well as the notion of "leadership" which is essential to a learning organization.

Why to Be Interested in Learning Organizations?

Basically, it is the search for the (unattainable) Holy Grail. Companies are seeking to improve existing products and services (continuous improvement), and innovation (breakthrough strategies). This has resulted in a plethora of initiatives such as Total Quality Management (TQM) and Business Process Reengineering (BPR). But companies are finding that such programs succeed or fail depending on human factors such as skills, attitudes, and organizational culture. It also appears that many implementations are geared to highly specified processes, defined for anticipated situations. The current interest in the learning organization stems from the recognition that these initiatives, by themselves, often do not work. Something more is needed to: (i) cope with rapid and unexpected changes where existing "programmed" responses are inadequate; (ii) provide flexibility to cope with dynamically changing situations; (iii) allow frontline staff to respond with initiative based on customer needs vs. being constrained by business processes established for different circumstances. (Farago & Skyrme, 1995) With the pace of change ever quickening, the need to develop mechanisms for continuous learning and innovation is greater than ever, argue these authors.

The emergence of the idea of the learning organization is wrapped up with notions such as "learning society" and "knowledge economy". Perhaps the greater defining contribution here was made by Donald Schon. He provided a theoretical framework linking the experience of living in a situation of an increasing change with the need for learning. (Smith, 2001a)

"The loss of the stable state means that our society and all of its institutions are in continuous processes of transformation. We cannot expect new stable states that will endure for our own lifetimes.

We must learn to understand, guide, influence, and manage these transformations. We must make the capacity for undertaking them integral to ourselves and to our institutions.

We must, in other words, become adept at learning. We must become able not only to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and requirements; we must invent and develop institutions which are 'learning systems', that is, systems able of bringing about their own continuing transformation." (Schon, 1973, p. 28)

One of Schon's great innovations was to explore the extent to which enterprises, social movements, and governments were learning systems--and how those systems could be enhanced (Smith, 2001a). He suggests that the movement towards learning systems is, of necessity, "a groping and inductive process for which there is no adequate theoretical basis" (Schon, 1973, p. 57]. In addition, Donald Schon went on with Chris...

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