Over the past two years, business academics and senior managers have begun talking about the notion of the learning organization. Ray Stata of Analog Devices put the idea succinctly in these pages last spring: “The rate at which organizations learn may become the only sustainable source of competitive advantage.” And in late May of this year, at an MIT-sponsored conference entitled “Transforming Organizations,” two questions arose again and again: How can we build organizations in which continuous learning occurs? and, What kind of person can best lead the learning organization? This article, based on Senge’s book, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization,” begins to chart this new territory, describing new roles, skills, and tools for leaders who wish to develop learning organizations.
1. P. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday/Currency, 1990).
2. A.P. de Geus, “Planning as Learning,” Harvard Business Review, March–April 1988, pp. 70–74.
3. B. Domain, Fortune, 3 July 1989, pp. 48–62.
4. The distinction between adaptive and generative learning has its roots in the distinction between what Argyris and Schon have called their “single-loop” learning, in which individuals or groups adjust their behavior relative to fixed goals, norms, and assumptions, and “double-loop” learning, in which goals, norms, and assumptions, as well as behavior, are open to change, e.g., see C. Argyris and D. Schon, Organizational Learning: A Theory-in-Action Perspective (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1978).
5. All unattributed quotes are from personal communications with the author.
6. G. Stalk, Jr., “Time: The Next Source of Competitive Advantage,” Harvard Business Review, July–August 1988, pp. 41–51.
7. Senge (1990).
8. The principle of creative tension comes from Robert Fritz’ work on creativity. See R. Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance (New York: Ballantine, 1989) and Creating (New York: Ballantine, 1990).
9. M.L. King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” American Visions, January–February 1986, pp. 52–59.
10. E. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985). Similar views have been expressed by many leadership theorists. For example, see: P. Selznick, Leadership in Administration (New York: Harper & Row, 1957); W. Bennis and B. Nanus, Leaders (New York: Harper & Row, 1985); and N.M. Tichy and M.A. Devanna, The Transformational Leader (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1986).
11. Selznick (1957).
12. J.W. Forrester, “A New Corporate Design,” Sloan Management Review (formerly Industrial Management Review), Fall 1965, pp. 5–17.
13. See, for example, H. Mintzberg, “Crafting Strategy,” Harvard Business Review, July–August 1987, pp. 66–75.
14. R. Mason and I. Mitroff, Challenging Strategic Planning Assumptions (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1981), p. 16.
15. P. Wack, “Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead,” Harvard Business Review, September–October 1985, pp. 73–89.
16. de Geus (1988).
17. M. de Pree, Leadership Is an Art (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 9.
18. For example, see T. Peters and N. Austin, A Passion for Excellence (New York: Random House, 1985) and J.M. Kouzes and B.Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987).
19. 1. Mitroff, Break-Away Thinking (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1988), pp. 66–67.
20. R.K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness(New York: Paulist Press, 1977).
21. L. Miller, American Spirit: Visions of a New Corporate Culture (New York: William Morrow, 1984), p 15.
22. These points are condensed from the practices of the five disciplines examined in Senge (1990).
23. The ideas below are based to a considerable extent on the work of Chris Argyris, Donald Schon, and their Action Science colleagues:
C. Argyris and D. Schon, Organizational Learning: a Theory-in-Action Perspective (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1978);
C. Argyris, R. Putnam, and D. Smith, Action Science (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985);
C. Argyris, Strategy, Change, and Defensive Routines (Boston: Pitman, 1985); and
C. Argyris, Overcoming Organizational Defenses (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1990).
24. I am indebted to Diana Smith for the summary points below.
25. The system archetypes are one of several systems diagramming and communication tools. See D.H. Kim, “Toward Learning Organizations: Integrating Total Quality Control and Systems Thinking” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Sloan School of Management, Working Paper No. 3037-89-BPS, June 1989).
26. This archetype is closely associated with the work of ecologist Garrett Hardin, who coined its label: “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, 13 December 1968.
27. These templates were originally developed by Jennifer Kemeny, Charles Kiefer, and Michael Goodman of Innovation Associates, Inc., Framingham, Massachusetts.
28. C. Hampden-Turner, Charting the Corporate Mind (New York: The Free Press, 1990).
29. M. Sashkin and W.W. Burke, “Organization Development in the 1980s” and “An End-of-the-Eighties Retrospective,” in Advances in Organization Development, ed. F. Masarik (Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex, 1990).
30. E. Schein (1985).