IS ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING?
world seems to be changing faster and fasterfrom the
technologies available to us, to the increasingly global scope
of our interactions. Moreover, the problems facing us as a
global community seem to be growing ever more complex and
serious. How do we navigate such change and address these
problemsnot only in our work lives but also in our families,
communities, and schools?
We believe that organizationsgroups of people who come
together to accomplish a purposehold an important key
to these questions. The field of organizational learning
explores ways to design organizations so that they fulfill
their function effectively, encourage people to reach their
full potential, and, at the same time, help the world to be
a better place.
This field is rooted in a set of powerful principles, values,
and disciplines. As Peter Senge wrote in his seminal book
The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning
Organization, an organization is learning when it can
bring about the future it most desires. In the business community,
learning is much more than just a way to create the future
you want; in today's fast-paced, highly competitive work world,
it may actually give your organization the edge it needs to
surviveand thereby keep fulfilling its purpose.
Organizational learning focused originally on the practice
of five core disciplines, or capacities, of which systems
thinking forms the cornerstone:
Let's take a closer look at these disciplines:
Systems thinking is the art of
seeing the world in terms of wholes, and the practice of focusing
on the relationships among the parts of a system. By looking
at reality through a systems thinking "lens," you
can work with a systemrather than against itto
create enduring solutions to stubborn problems in every arena
of your life. Practicing this discipline involves learning
to recognize "signature" systemic behaviors all
around you, and familiarizing yourself with some special terminology
and some powerful tools unique to this field.
Team learning is what happens when
a group of people working on something together experiences
that rare feeling of synergy and productiveness that happens
when you're "in the groove." When a team is truly
learning, the group as a whole becomes much more than just
the sum of its parts. Practicing this discipline involves
startlingly different kinds of conversations and a remarkable
degree of honesty and mutual respectall of which you
can learn to do through familiarizing yourself with specific
tools from this field.
Shared vision emerges when everyone
in an organization understands what the organization is trying
to do, is genuinely committed to achieving that vision, and
clearly grasps how his or her role in the organization can
contribute to making the vision real. Practicing this discipline
involves knowing how all the parts of the organization work
together and being clear about how your own personal goals
align with those of your organization.
Mental models are the deep beliefs
and assumptions we hold about how the world works. These models
shape the decisions we make in life, the actions we take in
response to events, and the ways in which we interpret others'
behavior. Practicing this discipline involves surfacing and
testing your deepest assumptions and beliefs, and helping
others do the same. Again, there are specific tools available
from this field that can help you with this practice.
Personal mastery is the art of
identifying what mark you want to leave on the world during
your lifetime. That is, what's your unique purpose in life,
and how do you want to go about fulfilling that purpose? Practicing
this discipline involves some honest exploration of your own
life experiences and desires and a willingness to take some
These five disciplines were originally outlined in 1990 in
The Fifth Discipline and are core to many organizational
learning efforts. We also believe there are many other disciplines
that support and expand on the above five, including:
Corporate culture is that intangible "something"
that influences the environments in which we work every day.
Technically, culture is an anthropological concept. But in
the field of organizational learning, it refers to the policies,
beliefs, activities, and rituals that determine an organization's
"personality." A company's culture can support or
hinder learning, encourage or stifle creativity, and so on.
Fortunately, we can shape our organizations' culture through
careful attention to how we do things and treat one another
in the workplace.
Corporate social responsibility addresses the question
of how the business community fits into the larger social
picture. Specifically, what responsibility do organizations
have beyond just their own industries and arenas of competition?
How do the actions of a particular organization or industry
affect neighborhoods, the public sector, educational institutions,
and families? It's tempting to compartmentalize these dimensions
of human life, but of course they all influence each other.
The discipline of corporate social responsibility focuses
specifically on these interconnections and ways in which businesses
can make the larger social world a better place for everyone.
Dialogue focuses on new communication forms that strengthen
a group's collective intelligence. This discipline offers
several intriguing tools and techniques that may seem strange
to you at first but that, with practice, will transform the
way you talk with others, stimulating questions and insights
that we often miss through traditional forms of conversation.
Leadership in the field of organizational learning
takes on a particular focus. Specifically, the discipline
of leadership explores how managersand leaders at every
level in an organizationcan unleash the full potential
of each and every employee in the organization. Often this
involves moving away from more traditional command-and-control
management structures and toward more fluid, self-organizing
leadership. This discipline is truly redefining the role of
management for businesspeople everywhere.
Sustainability, as a discipline, entails being thoughtful
stewards of the natural resources on which our organizations
depend. After all, if we use those resources without regard
to their limits, we may deplete them permanentlyand
our organizations can't survive that. Sustainable management
practices help us design organizations that respect and balance
human needs with the natural cycles and limitations of our
Work/life balance is another area receiving increasing
attention in the organizational learning field. More and more,
people are seeking to design their work so that they have
room for the other important dimensions of their livesfamily,
community, self-development, and so on. At the same time,
the boundaries between work and home life have blurred in
recent decades. The discipline of work/life balance seeks
to explore the ramifications of these changes and address
the question of how to set priorities and find meaning in
both our work and non-work lives.
Because everything really is structurally connected (systems
thinking again!), an organization committed to true learning
practices all of the above disciplines in some form, rather
than tackling them in isolation. After all, they each reinforce
one another, and when they come into alignment, the organization
truly soars! And as we move into the 21st century, we'll no
doubt see new disciplines emerge in this dynamic field.