Friday, November 10, 2006

The Fifth Discipline

Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday Currency, 1995)

For more information, my source is:

In the early 1970s, Peter Senge was a graduate student in the systems dynamics program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Systems dynamics is an academic discipline which focuses on understanding all systems as entities with consistent, even predictable patterns of behavior. Such systemic behavior occurs throughout our world: the human body is such a system, so are corporations, governments, cities, markets.

Has anyone ever seen or played the computer games “The Sims?, or “Sim City.”

These games are examples of systems thinking—if you take an action in the game it has consequences which cause things to happen, which leads you to make decisions which causes other changes to occur.

After graduating and joining the faculty at MIT, Senge began building a consulting business with a man named Charles Kiefer. This consulting firm, Innovation Associates was based upon the idea of applying systems understanding to business. By the mid-1980s, Innovation Associates had developed a set of “systems archetypes”—diagrams of replicable situations that business people could use as starting points for talking through the far-flung patterns of cause and effect in their businesses.

While meeting with business people in his consulting work, Senge and his colleagues began to realize that in an information society, the real assets of businesses were in the knowledge they possessed: not just their patents, their industrial processes, the copyrights they owned, but also the knowledge and skills of their individual employees. If companies and other organizations were to achieve the results they wanted, they needed to embed a variety of “lifelong bodies of study and practice” into their day-to-day work. Senge sought out to identify these practices which became the core of his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline, which after reaching the NYT bestseller list, still sells over 40,000 copies a year nationwide. There are now close to a million copies in print. (Cover says 400,000).

The same year, MITs Center for Organizational Learning Opened, with Senge as its director. 20 major corporations became partners in this effort. Senge, and teams from MIT, Innovation Associates, and a number of other consulting companies began to put the ideas behind organizational learning into practice. Shell, Ford, IBM, to name just a few companies which are using or have incorporated organizational learning in their business and management models.

So what is this movement really all about? Our reading of The Fifth Discipline will answer that question in one way, but it is a dense, theoretical book, and now over 14 years old. Its not always easy to figure out where these ideas fit, and where they come from. So let me give it a try.

Epistemological Principles in Organizational Learning:

Knowledge is socially constructed. Knowledge is not facts or figures, or even procedures which you learn. Historically, education has been seen as a process which transmits ideas from one generation to the next, the elders (that would be me) transmitting their knowledge to the new generation (that would be you). This view assumes that society will pretty much remain the same from generation to generation, and that the knowledge can be packaged and packed on. Social constructivists disagree and argue that knowledge actually comes from ones experience working within social groups-in the school, in the family, and in the corporation.

Knowledge is non-foundational. There are no absolute or universal answers. What is right for your company may not be right for my company. Knowledge is not universal, it develops and belongs to specific communities which develop that knowledge using their own language, symbols, and artifacts.

Knowledge is lifelong, and omnipresent. (It fills space and time). It doesn’t just occur in schools. This has consequences: it is an everyday occurrence, and something we should pay attention to. Are our employees are learning things (i.e. this company doesn’t care about me) which are ultimately damaging to the organization’s performance?

Knowledge belongs to everyone. We all have knowledge, things we have learned. Yet schools have trained us to see knowledge as something given to us by “teachers” in our schools or “managers” at our work. People need to trust their own ability to learn, yet often our schools and our businesses instead teach people to learn passively, to “take in” information.
Process knowledge is more important than content knowledge. Learning “how to” is more important than learning “what.” Learning how to learn, to research, to write, and to trust your own ability to do so, is critical.

Wisdom is more important than expertise.
Expertise: I think, relying on what I’ve been taught, and I act.
Wisdom: I act based upon my thinking, upon my reflections about my experiences, based upon my body and its knowledge, based upon my emotions, and upon my spirit.


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