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Learning Organization: Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline”


In his influential book on the learning organization concept, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization (1990), Peter Senge establishes the basis from which businesses have the opportunity to develop and flourish. Peter Senge, argues that in the contemporary complex world, organizations have to be able to learn to cope with the continuous change in order to be successful: that is, they have to become learning organizations.

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However, Peter Senge notes that it is not easy for organizations or businesses to learn because they are affected by what he termed as learning disabilities. Learning disabilities are responsible for organization failure. To be able to survive in this era of globalization, various organizations are reexamining their management systems in order to attain competitive capacities to survive and remain relevant in their areas of operations. The Learning Organization (LO) since its inception at the beginning of the 1990s has received overwhelming attention as managers realize that they need to build an organization that can remain relevant in the ever changing business environment.

Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino (106 paras. 1) argue that it is vital that companies should become learning organizations due the tougher competition, and shifting customer preferences. The authors argue that in learning organizations employees continually acquire, create, and transfer knowledge; consequently, helping their organizations acclimatize to the volatile business environment faster than their competitors.

The learning organization is applicable to business organizations in general and to the service sector in particular-academic, hospital organizations, or hotels (Senge 101). Garvin in an article published in the Harvard Business Review describes a learning organization as “an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge and modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge insight and insights” (Garvin et al. 106 par. 2).

Senge further argues that most organizations have difficulty in learning; therefore, to address the problem he identifies the seven learning disabilities:

I am in my position

According to this perspective, most employees view themselves as part of the system in which they have little or no influence at all. In this scenario employees are ho are expected to be loyal to their jobs, tend to confuse them with their own identity. Consequently, the employees are inclined to view their responsibilities as limited to the borders of their position. Senge argues that when people tend to focus only on their position, they lose the sense of collective responsibility and outcomes that result when all positions interact.

Moreover, such views by employees can lead to assumptions that a particular individual made the mistake, particularly when the outcomes are disappointing. Individuals must be able to learn, grow and analyze the process that interacts within the systems in order to improve the delivery of goods and services otherwise the organization of which they are part is bound to fail (Senge 106; Catron 5).

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The enemy is out there

Senge argues that employees often tend to blame others particularly when something goes wrong in the organization. Humans have the inclination to find someone or something to lay blame on each time something thing goes wrong. The ‘enemy is out’ there syndrome essentially is a by-product of ‘I am my position’ perspective and the non-systematic ways through which employees look at the world. As argued in the first learning disability, when individuals focus on their position, they are often blinded and cannot see beyond the boundary of their positions and how their actions go beyond these perceived boundaries.

As a matter of fact, when the actions taken by individuals have negative consequences the doer of such actions often misperceive these problems as caused by others. When an organization has employees who are being swift in blaming others for their own mistakes, the organizations can not be able to address the cause of the problem. Therefore, employees must be able to take full responsibility for their actions and avoid blaming others if the organization is to succeed in changing what it is doing wrong.

The narrow role specifications make people to shift blame other people or departments. Unless individuals in the various departments see their place within the larger system, it will remain a challenge for organizations to address the problems within their spheres of operation ultimately leading to organization failure. The failure can only be adequately addressed by employees’ painful realization and recognition that they are the cause of their negative outcomes and not others (Senge 107).

The illusion of taking charge

Workplaces require managers who are proactive-those who make decisions and take actions to make things happen in the organization. Senge however argues that proactive leadership can also be very reactive in disguise. According to Senge true pro-activeness emanates from the worker’s and managers’ capability to realize their contribution to the problems facing them, that is, it is not an emotional state but a product of the individual’s way of thinking. Therefore, by managers becoming more aggressive combating ‘the enemy out there’ thinking that they are being pro-active, they are reacting. In their reactions to problems, the managers create an avenue for the problems to persist which if not urgently addressed may eventually cause organization failure (Senge 108).

The fixation of events

This disability conditions people to focus on the current ‘urgent’ day to day events that grab the attention of everyone in the organization, yet the real threats to the survival of the organization are the ones that are often ignored basically because they are slow and gradual in nature. This makes people think that for every even there is one obvious cause, thus people tend to adopt the short term way of thinking as opposed to the long term way of thinking.

Addressing the current problems creates distractions that prevent individuals from seeing the long term patterns that underlie the causes of these patterns. Therefore, according to Senge’s arguments, generative learning is impossible to be achieved in organizations where employees’ thinking are dominated by short term events (Senge 109). In addition, the best thing to do when we focus on events is to predict the events before they occur this allows time for the best possible reaction.

Moreover, focusing on single events only allows for the prediction and possible preventive measure, however, when the focus is to create a permanent change, then a long term solution is attainable. For example, when a crisis occurs in an organization, such as a fire event, people tend to focus immediate cause by putting out the fire rather than the long term underlying cause. Systems thinking shows that the cause and events in organizations are often separated by a substantial distance in both time and space, and what might be acknowledged as the cause often may not be the cause (Catron 6).

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The parable of the boiled frog

People react to change in all aspects of their activities. The parable state that when you place a frog in hot boiling water, it will jump out immediately. However, if you place the same frog in the water at room temperature the frog will stay put. When you start to gradually heat the water, the frog will remain in the water; in fact, at temperatures of about 70 to 80 degrees F, the frog will display signs of enjoyment.

As the temperature continues to raise the frog will grow groggier and groggier, until it is unable to jump out thus it will boil to death (Senge 110). The persistent nature of mal-adaptation of organizations that causes system failures led to the formulation of the parable of the ‘boiled frog.’ Even though nothing is straining the frog from jumping out from the pot when the temperatures begin to rise, it stays in the pot and boils to death.

Like the frog, organizations’ reactions to changes are geared towards the sudden changes in the areas of operation as opposed to the slow but gradual changes. Moreover, learning how to recognize the subtle changes and survive them is probably the reason that some organizations are still in business (Catron 6). Therefore, peoples need to pay attention to both the dramatic and subtle changes in their areas of operation, or else they could ‘boil to death.’

The delusion of learning from experience

This learning disability is based on the notion that people best learn from direct experiences. However, in organizations, people do not learn the consequences of their direct actions or decisions. This is so because in most cases the critical decisions made in organizations bear system large consequences that span over long periods of time as such the consequences may appear when the person who made the decision is long gone. The other reason that prevents people from experiencing the consequences of their decision is the functional silos that exist in organizations. The silos slow down the flow of information among people. This further greatly weakens the organizations’ ability to analyze and solve complex problems (Senge 111).

The myth of the management team

this reflects the yearning of the management group to become out as cohesive and working towards achieving the same goal. The teams will avoid situations that can compromise their image and pretend that everyone in the management team has a collective strategy. However, when a situation arises which might be threatening to the existence of the organization itself, the ‘teams’ seem to meltdown (Senge 112). For the management team to uphold its image, the team must frown upon dissent and make joint decisions. Disagreements in such teams are often expressed in ways that basically lay fault and polarize judgments; but fails to reveal the underlying cause (Catron 7).

As Harvard’s Argyris Chris argues that most managers across different organizations have found that the collective strategy is intrinsically threatening (Garvin et al. 110 para. 3). Moreover, most organizations have been found to reward their employees who support the decisions of senior management, while those employees who question the decisions are penalized. Thus, even those employees who feel uncertain or ignorant avoid asking questions that might make them appear ignorant or uncertain as it might threaten their existence in the organizations.

The consequence of such as action is what Argyris Chris refers to as skilled incompetence-a group that is full of individuals who adept at keeping themselves from learning. These groups of individuals described by Argyris often display aggressive behavior since they lack the concepts on the processes under which certain functions occur. For instance, they make enquiries but fail to accept the explanation provided by the individual from whom they had sought explanation in the first place (Garvin et al. 111 para 4).

Impact of organizational culture and climate

Each and every organization often exhibit distinctive and unique organization structure that is shaped by the organizations’ goals. In advancing organizational learning, the that will help organizations avoid the learning disabilities, organizations are advised by Senge to adopt the five disciplines; systems thinking, mental models, personal mastery, shared vision, and team learning (Catron 8).

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From these perspective the organizational structure and culture plays a significant role in hindering as well as fostering learning in organizations. The organization structures are by products of evolutionary processes that occur in the organization as opposed to imposed designs. Lack of a learning culture in an organization, for example, has been cited as a factor that impedes learning in organizations. The lack of a learning culture leads to insufficient knowledge sharing between individuals in the organization.

It therefore, argued that it is a quite an uphill task to motivate people to engage in knowledge sharing or in the learning process if they are not used to such practices. Other factors associated with inhibiting learning in organizations are inappropriate organizational structures, work pressure, entrenched attitudes towards learning, and emphasis on meeting targets. Fear and resistance to change in organizations that are characterized by high levels of bureaucracy and inter-functional rivalry are the main reasons that impede learning in such organizations (Tyler 371).

On the other hand, organizations with a learning culture that embraces learning it is easier to change the practices that might hinder learning in the various departments through devolution of tasks and responsibilities to employees and managers, thus creating learning opportunities within the work activities. Related to changes in organizational structure are the changes in job design and new structures which provide the employees with an opportunity within the work activities. Moreover, organizations that exhibit flexibility in their organizational structure enables jobs to redesigned thus facilitating work based learning (Tyler 372).

Importance of organizational learning

A learning organization do engage in active process of learning through promotion of learning, facilitation, and rewarding collective learning since learning does not rely on ad hoc process with the hope that learning will occur through chance. Garvin, Edmondson and Gino in their article, “Is Yours a Learning Organization?” published in Harvard Business Review, March 2008, described three building blocks of the learning organization; a supportive learning environment, concrete learning processes, and practices leadership that reinforces learning. Garvin et al.,( 107-8 para. 2) argue that by using the diagnostic tools managers can assess the areas of the organization that require urgent improvement moving the company closer to an ideal learning organization.

The managers play a significant role in setting up the learning environment for their employees. As result, creating an effective learning environment will allow employees to draw upon resources, thus making sense out of things and construct consequential solution to business challenges. They are however quick to point out that the complexity lies in executing practices in an organization that augment performance and make a difference. Applying the concepts of a learning organization to an operating company is difficult for both academics and practitioners (Garvin et al. 109-11 par. 3).

In conclusion, it follows from the discussion that learning disabilities postulated by Peter Senge actually hinder organizational learning. In the contemporary world in which most organizations operate, the seven learning disabilities presented by Peter Senge persist along with their dire consequences. Peter Senge offers the five leadership disciplines which according to him are the antidotes for the seven learning disabilities discussed. Learning organizations are thus able to adopt and cope with dynamic spheres in which they operate as such they avoid failure.

Works Cited

Catron, Douglas. “The learning organization,” Adapted from The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. Hospital Materiel Management Quarterly; Feb 2000; 21, 3; ABI/INFORM Complete pg. 4, 2000. Print.

Garvin, A, Edmondson, A, and Gino, F. “Is Yours Learning Organization?” Harvard Business Review, 86.3 (2008):109-116. Print.

Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, New York: Currency Doubleday, 1990. Print.

Tyler, Sheila. The Manager’s Good Study Guide, USA: The Open University, 2007. Print.

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