The learning organization

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This chapter uses the story of Peter Senge’s The Learning Organization (TLO) and talks about "learning organizations” to illustrate how management fads and fashions affect the spread of knowledge. Some commentators labeled Senge’s successful TLO work a “fad.” Implicit in such labeling is derision and suggestion that association with TLO lacks benefit. New management techniques often provoke skepticism and when miracles do not occur, receive the same derogatory “fad” label. Is the negativism associated with management fads and fashions warranted? Analysis of the Senge TLO phenomena portrays fads and fashions as social processes, intrinsic to social change. They erupt from latency periods and may have brief or long lives. In retrospect, their consequences may be beneficial or harmful and may be short-term or long-term. Even brief fads may produce lasting benefits. TLO's story shows the complexity of social change and reveals the fluidity of knowledge, as ever-evolving fads and fashions weave older ideas into new beliefs and ways of problem solving.


An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.Jack Welch

Peter Senge's 1990 book “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” presented a compelling frame for a collection of ideas and gave structure to a “new” TLO concept. Senge explained that people need to conceive of the world as systems on which humans have imposed structures that both serve purposes and impose constraints. Senge explained TLO as a process of understanding and continually working to master five important disciplines. Each discipline has at its core a critical truth about a learning organization and adds to the total meaning of TLO. Senge’s rich book was highly successful and attracted enthusiasts. Yet, now 20 years later, many commentators were dismissing TLO as a fad. This chapter evaluates Senge’s TLO story and uses it to consider the contribution of fads and fashions to knowledge creation.

TLO is more than just a set of ideas promoted by a specific individual. Although TLO gained much impetus from its active champion, its emergence followed a latency period. Senge did not invent his concept of TLO out of nothing. He pulled together ideas that had originated separately in various places over several decades. Even the specific term "the learning organization" had appeared in print earlier (Garratt, 1987; Korten, 1980). The success of Senge's book was partly a result of its timing. Senge spotted a developing societal trend, identified some relevant concepts, placed these concepts into a frame, and made the concepts accessible by retelling familiar stories and presenting interesting examples. Sales of Senge's books, public accolades, and formation of at least two societies testify that growing acceptance of TLO as valuable knowledge had widespread social support. Some consultants have promoted efforts to apply Senge's prescriptions, and some organizations may have benefited from trying to apply them.

This chapter describes the history of TLO and Senge’s role in its emergence as a mainstream concept. This history suggests two questions. Why did Senge’s book become popular and retain this popularity through two editions and two decades? Was the popularity of this book a consequence of its inherent properties or of its societal context? The chapter addresses these questions by drawing upon research into fads and fashions in business techniques. This research suggests that suppliers of management techniques – academics, consultants – promote them as efficient means to effective ends and also as novel and improved. By framing reactions to TLO in terms of prior research about fads and fashions, the chapter also raises questions about the nature of knowledge and what "learning" means.

The Success of Senge’s TLO

Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline drew millions of readers and popularized the TLO concept. The book presented five techniques or “disciplines” that Senge said “must be studied and mastered to be put into practice” within a TLO (1990: 10). Senge defined TLOs as

organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.

The book sold over 2.5 million copies, a result that encouraged Senge to say more about TLO. Over the following decade, he provided examples of the application of TLO principles in different contexts. In 1994, he and colleagues published The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. It has sold over 400,000 copies. A second fieldbook came out in 1999 under the title The Dance of Change: The Challenges to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations. In 2000, Senge co-authored schools that learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents and Everyone Who Cares about Education. A revised version of the original Fifth Discipline book appeared in 2006.

Senge created a compelling vision. Jackson (2000: 207) claimed the TLO concept had dramatic qualities and inspired “followers to see themselves actively engaged in building a learning organization.” As popularity of TLO concept quickly grew, Senge founded a Center for Organizational Learning at MIT in 1991. Emerald Group Publishing launched a journal named The Learning Organization in 1994. Several prominent business magazines, including Business Week and Fortune, published articles about TLO. In 1997, Harvard Business Review named The Fifth Discipline as one of the most influential management books in the last 75 years. Also in 1997, Senge formed the Society for Organizational Learning, which subsequently spawned a journal entitled Reflections: The SoL Journal and which has developed consulting, coaching, conference and publishing initiatives for its members. In 1999, the Journal of Business Strategy included Senge among the 24 people who had exerted the greatest influence on business strategy during the twentieth century. In 2000 and 2001, the Financial Times and Business Week called him one of the world's "top management gurus."

Figure 1 shows the numbers of documents that cited The Fifth Discipline from 1990 through 2005. The graph terminates in 2005 because more recent data are less and less complete, so trends tend to appear to indicate that citations are leveling off or declining near the time of data gathering. Very likely, citations have continued to increase since 2005. Three fields account for 98% of the documents that cited The Fifth Discipline. Documents classified by Google as "social science," which accounted for 49% of the citations, have mainly discussed educational organizations. Documents classified as "business" have generated an additional 41% of the citations. Documents classified as "engineering," which supplied an additional 8% of the citations, have mainly discussed information systems.

Citations to the journal named The Learning Organization have also continued to increase. Indeed, articles published by this journal have had surprisingly long citation lives. A typical article from the early issues received less than half of its total citations during the first nine years following publication, and the articles published in the journal's first year were still receiving approximately one citation a piece per year, sixteen years later.

TLO's Latency Period

Research indicates that fads and fashions in business techniques typically have latency periods during which the techniques have little popularity (Abrahamson and Eisenman, 2008). Latency may give way to sudden upswings in techniques’ popularity followed by equally sudden downswings, resulting in waves of diverse amplitudes and durations (Carson, Lanier, Carson, and Guidry, 2000). Some ideas may achieve wide acceptance and popularity; other ideas fail to gain much attention.

Both academic and nonacademic writers had been discussing components of Senge's TLO for several decades, an emergence and sudden surge in popularity could have occurred earlier. They did not. Senge’s book could have been yet another incremental contribution to a continuing latency period. It was not. Instead, Senge brought TLO to prominence. Why Senge? Why his book? Why in 1990?

TLO and its five component disciplines build on a wide range of prior conceptual developments. Predecessor thinking concerns organizational learning, organizational rigidity, learning systems, systems thinking and even prior discussions of similarly described “learning organizations.” Senge devoted large portions of The Fifth Discipline to the ideas of other people. Table 1 shows the antecedents on whom Senge relied most strongly; they include both academics and practitioners.

Insert Table 1 here.

Although Senge gave credit to the works listed in Table 1, he did not mention much of the research that had preceded his book. Even without attribution, current knowledge builds on prior knowledge. Sometimes similar ideas develop in different camps from a common pool of information, then proceed along different trajectories. Invention races and first-to-invent claims made by individuals in different parts of the world occur often. Senge’s TLO draws from a wide range of prior knowledge concerning systems and organizational learning. Many other thinkers were on tangent paths. For instance, Senge did not report that, fifteen years earlier, Hedberg, Nystrom and Starbuck (1976: 43) had written about how to keep organizations from rigidifying over time and how to foster continuing development. They argued, “Designs can themselves be conceived as processes – as generators of dynamic sequences of solutions, in which attempted solutions induce new solutions and attempted designs trigger new designs.”

Academic studies of organizational learning. As early as 1936, engineers and economists noticed that the costs of producing aircraft grew less as workers produced more aircraft (Argote, 1999). By the early 1950s, academic economists and management scholars were debating the possible influence of evolutionary selection on decision making in populations of business firms (Salgado, Starbuck, and Mezias, 2002). A decade later, Cyert and March (1963) wrote about adaptive learning by individual organizations. They characterized organizational learning as adapting decision rules to circumstances, changing goals and forecasts to reflect experience and updated perceptions, modifying goals to make them more realistic, and searching where previous searches have brought success. Such ideas have subsequently spawned many research studies and generated considerable debate. These studies indicate that organizational learning is deceptively treacherous and very likely to disappoint the learners.

Research studies indicate that the efforts of individual organizations to adapt to their environments are generally inadequate and frequently erroneous. Lessons that prove valuable in the short run tend to prove harmful in the long run (Hedberg et al., 1976). Unpredictable environmental changes may reward organizations that have acted incompetently or ineffectively (Starbuck and Pant, 1996). Intra organizational politics and careerism may suppress evidence of poor performance and create false evidence of success (Baumard and Starbuck , 2005). Because organizations imitate each other, gains that organizations make vis-à-vis their competitors disappear rather rapidly (Simon and Bonini, 1958). Thus, some researchers have pursued the hypothesis that organizational learning is primarily a population-level phenomenon: evolutionary variation and selection might change the kinds of organizations that exist even if individual organizations change very little. However, over a decade of empirical studies showed that changes in organizational populations look very like random walks (Carroll, 1983; Levinthal, 1991). After more than fifty years of thought and study about organizational learning, March (2010: 114) surmised: "Much of organizational and managerial life will produce vividly compelling experiences from which individuals and organizations will learn with considerable confidence, but the lessons they learn are likely to be incomplete, superstitious, self-confirming, or mythic."

Nonacademic writing about organizational learning. Some of the people who have been working to facilitate organizational learning give credit to Revans, who wrote about “The enterprise as a learning system” (1982). In parallel with Bohm, Argyris and Schön, on whom Senge relies heavily, Revans argued that organizations should not rely on "experts" for advice and that groups of organization members should discuss their own actions and experiences in a process he called Action Learning.

At least two authors used the exact term "the learning organization" before Senge did, and David Korten (1980) used it a full decade earlier. Korten described five development projects in the Third World, and then argued that such projects should not adhere to plans that were designed top-down but should develop bottom-up through participation by people who understand events at first-hand. There will always be errors, and a learning organization should welcome evidence about errors as guidance about how to perform better. A learning organization also involves local people, takes advantage of what they know, and uses resources that are readily available. A learning organization integrates research, planning, and implementation. However, Korten was clearly talking about development projects that had rather specific goals and rather temporary lifespans rather than learning that might go on indefinitely.

In a book titled The Learning Organization, Bob Garratt (1987) argued that business organizations typically have too little open discussion of issues, with one result being too little reflection about policies and strategies, and another result being too little information input from business environments. Garratt saw organizational learning as being the special responsibility of senior managers, and he proposed that senior executives ought to devote more effort to their personal learning and they should try to guide their organizations' continuing development.

In a third work titled The Learning Company, Pedler, Burgoyne, and Boydell (1988) sought to identify properties of "an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and consciously transforms itself and its context." They pointed to eleven properties that would enable such learning. These properties included strategizing as a learning process, wide participation by organization members and stakeholders, a culture that encourages continuous learning, and helpful accounting and information systems.

Clearly, both the term "the learning organization" and the ideas echoed in The Fifth Discipline were well-known in the 1980s, especially the late 1980s. Yet, it was Senge’s interpretation of TLO that caught on and began to spread (Jackson, 2000).

Senge's Focus

Although Senge acknowledged that he was not the first person to write about organizational learning, his presentation seems to imply that his ideas have broader relevance than prior perspectives. Of course, he may have been unaware of the earlier research about organizational learning. He could have used the prior research he ignored to bolster his case for the need to approach organizational learning differently. The very fact that most organizational learning is ineffective or eventually causes problems gives reason for readers to pay attention to new ideas. At the same time, Senge's lessons do not focus on the kinds of organizational learning that typically do occur. He is not naïve and he recognizes that human behavior often impedes learning and that much organizational learning goes amiss. He is proposing that a more effective kind of learning could be occurring. He is a visionary who is trying to describe an idealized organizational form that does not exist today but, he says, could exist in the future.

What Senge Said, How He Said It

The Fifth Discipline has unusual properties. This fact should surprise no one, of course, because the book has had extreme success far beyond that of almost all other books. Even if the book's success is partly due to its timing and environment, it is unlikely to look exactly like less successful books. However, the book has properties that make it both attractive and unattractive to readers. Some evidence suggests that The Fifth Discipline is both easy to read and yet unread, that its popularity derives in part from its appeal for readers who see themselves as unusual, that its ideas have rarely been implemented and implementation has yielded unclear results. Does The Fifth Discipline afford a prototype for other books that aim at societal influence? Or, has The Fifth Discipline succeeded because of its timing and despite its idiosyncrasies?

Much of The Fifth Discipline is very easy to understand, down-to-earth, and practical. Within the general themes, the text is fragmented and episodic. This fragmentation of text allows readers to read and digest segments. One need not read an entire chapter, sometimes not even an entire page, in order to extract a distinct point. Many of the segments tell great stories about human behavior, restate truisms, or contain quotable phrases. Although these segments fit into Senge's broader themes, they also stand alone as epigrams or illustrations of specific lessons (Ortenblad, 2007). For example, time delay in physiological reactions to ingesting food causes people to eat too much; trying to swim against a strong current may sap a swimmer's strength without producing progress toward shore. Such illustrations let readers draw useful lessons whether or not they buy into Senge's broader themes, and they make the lessons easy to remember. At the same time, the broader themes give the book some coherence and create an impression of communicating a message of grand significance.

However, the book also forwards ideas that are so abstract that many people do not see their value and the ideas are difficult and expensive to implement (Smith, 2008). The book offers rhapsodic discussion of interlinked systems, their importance and prevalence. It recognizes the complexity of organizational and behavioral challenges. It advocates holistic and dynamic appreciation of social systems (including organizations), and it criticizes much management practice as misguided efforts to apply simplistic mental frameworks to complex situations. Effective management, it says, requires "systems thinking" – appreciation for interdependencies and change over time. It (1990:14) asserts that effective organizational learning involves creativity as well as adaptation: "it is not enough to survive. ‘Survival learning' or what is more often termed 'adaptive learning' is important – indeed it is necessary. But for a learning organization, 'adaptive learning' must be joined by 'generative learning', learning that enhances our capacity to create". Indeed, Senge concluded The Fifth Discipline with titillating predictions about a “sixth discipline.” In an obscure manner, he suggested that an intellectual sequel awaits once the first five disciplines reach critical mass. Senge (1990: 363) predicted, “there will be other innovations in the future” and “perhaps one or two developments emerging from seemingly unlikely places, will lead to a wholly new discipline that we cannot even grasp today.”

Of course, his conceptual framework implies that Senge's prescriptions are themselves interdependent and idealistic. He urges people to practice five "disciplines", which Table 2 summarizes. The disciplines deal with individuals, groups, and whole organizations, and they overlap each other to some degree. Indeed, this overlap contributes to making the book very dense and difficult to synthesize. For example, in his discussion of systems thinking, Senge explains that the mental models are in many ways the results of the structures people impose on systems. In their efforts to understand and manage systems, people break systems down into more manageable pieces, organize them into structures and then interpret them in these fragmented and organized forms. The structures may be literal but they are more often concepts about processes, procedures, or hierarchies. These imposed structures alter understandings of the entire system, often making the understandings less accurate. The structures also make systems more complex and hinder people's ability to learn. Thus, Senge prescribes awareness, reassessment of goals, and open exchange of ideas – individual and group actions – to improve system-wide learning.

Insert Table 2 here.

Much of The Fifth Discipline is bizarrely abstract, nearly impossible to decipher, and impossible to translate into practical actions. People who have tried to use Senge's ideas have raised questions about The Fifth Discipline's practical implications. Malone (1997: 72) pointed to three problems: (1) TLO had turned into training; (2) TLO had slipped into an MIS sinkhole; (3) “No one has yet figured out quite how an organization ‘learns’ the right things.” Smith (2001) suggested that Senge’s work was “simply too idealistic” and he observed that the self-reflection associated with the five disciplines daunts most people; many employees just want to earn a living and have no interest in the greater ideals of the organization. Ortenblad (2007) reported that managers do not read the book because it is so difficult to read and he complained that Senge provided no blueprint for implementation. Senge himself has expressed disappointment that companies “either paid no more than lip service to [The Fifth Discipline] or turned their backs on it altogether” (Senge and Crainer, 2008: 71). In 2008, The Learning Organization journal published a 15-year retrospective issue on both TLO concept and on the journal itself. The editor concluded that “although the learning organization concept is deemed narrow and out of date, it is judged to have significant positive influence on organizational thinking” (Smith, 2008: 441).

The foundation of TLO – systems analysis – may be its weakest component. The Fifth Discipline describes ten systems archetypes, which Senge characterized as tools to help managers learn systems thinking. The archetypes mix heterogeneous elements at different levels of abstraction – simplistic explanations involving phenomena such as delay and eroding goals alternate with complex theoretical descriptions such as the “tragedy of the commons” and “growth and underinvestment.” The conglomerate character of these archetypes underscores the substantial challenge of overcoming human nature and conditioning needed to achieve a broad, systemic mindset.

Senge clarified why people have trouble seeing the bigger picture and why systems thinking poses so many problems, but he nevertheless continued to insist that systems analysis should be the focal point of TLO. In doing so, Senge was attempting to override The Law of Requisite Variety, which says that for people to understand their environments, human comprehension abilities must be as complex and diverse as the environments (Ashby, 1958). However, human rationality is a rather crude and imperfect tool because humans need and demand simplicity. When Box and Draper (1969) attempted to use experiments to improve factory operations, they discovered that practical experiments have to alter no more than two or three variables at a time because the people who interpret experimental findings cannot make sense of interactions among four or more variables. Faust (1984) also observed that scientists have difficulties understanding interactions among more than three variables (Goldberg, 1970; Meehl, 1954). Faust remarked that the great theoretical contributions in the physical sciences have exhibited parsimony and simplicity rather than complexity, and he speculated that parsimonious theories have been very influential not because the physical universe is simple but because people find simple theories understandable.

A real-life example illustrates the constraints that human cognitive limitations place on systems analysis. In the summer of 2009, PA Consulting submitted a diagram to the officers who were in charge of US troops fighting in Afghanistan. The diagram, Figure 2, presented the consulting company's analysis of the relationships that the officers ought to consider in planning military and political strategies. According to Bumiller (2010), the officers reacted with laughter to this diagram's complexity.

However, the complexity and abstraction of Senge's analysis may enable some readers to feel proud that they perceive issues and solutions that other people cannot see, and so these properties contribute to the development of a collectivity of superior insiders who appreciate Senge's message. The support organization Senge created, The Society for Organizational Learning, has already drifted away from the ideas in The Fifth Discipline. The Society has recently been promoting "Theory U" which promises to teach us "to connect to our essential Self in the realm of presencing" and to use "principles and practices that allow everyone to participate fully in co-creating and bringing forth the desired future that is working to emerge through us". Similarly, much of Senge’s own recent writing and speaking has centered on the more trendy topic of sustainability.

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