Why aren’t we all working for learning organisations?

This paper by Professor John Seddon and Brendan O’Donovan is a great read. An excerpt is below.

In Peter Senge’s best-seller The Fifth Discipline (Senge, 1990), he popularised the idea of the ‘learning organization’. In the book, Senge defined learning organisations as

…organisations 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.

Learning in this context has a specific meaning for Senge, which he terms ‘metanoia’, a Greek word meaning ‘a shift of mind’. A learning organisation is therefore

… an organisation that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.
For such an organisation, it is not enough merely 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.

Getting organisations to ‘shift their minds’ in order to produce both adaptive and generative learning was the intent of Senge’s work twenty years ago. Fortune magazine went as far as predicting that

…the most successful corporation of the 1990s will be something called a learning organization, a consummately adaptive enterprise.

So why is it that these predictions do not appear to have materialised in 2010? Why do we not see examples of learning organisations all around us?

We believe that the biggest clue as to why we are not all ‘learning organizations’ was given by W Edwards Deming, one of the original reviewers of the book back in 1990. As Senge commented after reading Deming’s review, he

…slowly started to realize (Deming) had unveiled a deeper layer of connections, and a bigger task, than I (Senge) had previously understood

Deming’s review said

Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers – a prize for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars – and on up through the university.
On the job people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by Objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.

It is our contention that Senge’s work did not tell managers how to tackle this “deeper layer of connections” that was necessary before they could become a ‘learning organisation’.
However, a combination of the works of Chris Argyris (Argyris 1999) on intervention theory and Deming’s own systems perspective on management can provide us with a way forward.


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