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The Fifth Discipline – the Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation

The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge

Peter Senge, founder of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, experienced an epiphany in the fall of 1987. That was when he first saw the possibilities of a “learning organization” that used “systems thinking” as the primary tenet of a revolutionary management philosophy.

Senge developed the concept into his landmark book: The Fifth Discipline. Originally released in 1990, this book was written for those interested in integrating his philosophy into their corporate culture. Ever since, there has been a lively debate about the nature of a learning organisation.

The concept of a learning organisation remains a hot topic but “The Fifth Discipline” is an excellent place to start. If you are interested in how organisations learn then The Fifth Discipline is not to be missed.

In writing about his approach to developing learning organisations, Senge built on ideas from different disciplines. The result is a classic book, structured around five of those disciplines:

1 Personal mastery – clarifying personal vision, focusing energy, holding creative tension and seeing reality.

2 Mental models – unearthing internal pictures (how we see things) and understanding how they shape actions, balancing advocacy with inquiry.

3 Shared vision – encouraging personal vision, moving from this to shared vision, spreading this vision and anchoring vision within a set of governing ideas.

4 Team learning – the potential wisdom of teams, dialogue and discussion.

5 Systems thinking – the reason for the title of the book, systems thinking integrates the four learning disciplines – from seeing the parts to seeing the whole.

The debate about whether organisations can really learn is still in full flow. However, Senge’s book sets outs his belief in such a concept with convincing clarity and persuasiveness.

Now some 18 years old, The Fifth Discipline still contains ideas which capture the attention. Written to help organisations understand how they can learn effectively, it’s also an excellent source of guidance and insight for any individual seeking personal development.

The latest version of the book has been revised and updated to take into account 15 years of practice since the original book was published. With an extra 100 new pages, the latest edition is worth reading, even for those who are already familiar with the book.

The press release for the new edition summarises the importance of Senge’s work:

“In The Fifth Discipline, Senge describes how companies can rid themselves of the learning “disabilities” that threaten their productivity and success by adopting the strategies of learning organizations — ones in which new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, collective aspiration is set free, and people are continually learning how to create results they truly desire.

The updated and revised edition of this business classic contains over one hundred pages of new material based on interviews with dozens of practitioners at companies like BP, Unilever, Intel, Ford, HP, Saudi Aramco, and organizations like Roca, Oxfam, and The World Bank. It features a new Foreword about the success Peter Senge has achieved with learning organizations since the book’s inception, as well as new chapters on Impetus (getting started), Strategies, Leaders’ New Work, Systems Citizens, and Frontiers for the Future.”

Senge’s view of leadership still challenges our thinking. For Senge, the leaders of a learning organisation

are designers, stewards, and teachers. They are responsible for building organisations where people continually expand their abilities to understadn complexity, clarify vision, and improve shared mental modles – that is, they are responsible for learning.

The Fifth Discipline – Breathing Life into the Learning Organisation

The disciplines of a learning organisation are not easy. Senge stresses that only when leaders see themselves as responsible for learning will there be any real hope of transformation. In this respect, he foresaw many of the difficulties experienced by organisations in their efforts to make the ideas work.

“When all is said and done, learning organisations will remain a “good idea”, an intriguing but distant vision until people take a stand for building such organisations. Taking this stand is the first leadership act, the start of inspiring (literally “to breathe life into”) the vision of learning organisations. In the absence of this stand, the learning disciplines remain mere collections of tools and techniques – means of solving problems rather than creating something genuinely new.”

Peter Senge ends his book by stressing that it’s our choice whether or not we create learning organisations. That choice is as relevant now as it was when Senge first wrote the book!

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