The world seems to be changing faster and faster—from 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 problems—not only in our work lives but also in our families, communities, and schools?
We believe that organizations—groups of people who come together to accomplish a purpose—hold 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 survive—and 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:
• systems thinking
• team learning
• shared vision
• mental models
• personal mastery
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 system—rather than against it—to 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 respect—all 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 risks.
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 managers—and leaders at every level in an organization—can 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 permanently—and 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 planet.
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 lives—family, 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.