Peter Senge (1990) is an enthusiastic advocate, and a prominent one, of the learning organisation. In his influential book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Senge offers five disciplines that build a learning organisation:
1. Systems thinking;
2. Personal mastery;
3. Mental models;
4. Building a shared vision; and
5. Team building.
In what follows, these five disciplines – which are the components of a learning organisation – are briefly discussed for greater clarity, starting with mental models.
Mental models in learning organisations
One thing that all managers know is that many of the best ideas never get put into practice. Brilliant strategies fail to get translated into action; systemic insight never finds its way into operating policies. A pilot experiment may prove to everyone’s satisfaction that a new approach leads to better results, but widespread adoption of this approach never occurs.
We are increasingly led now to believe that this is not due to weak intentions, wavering will or even non-systemic understanding but stems from mental models. More specifically, new insights fail to get put into practice because they conflict with deeply-held internal images of how the world works. These images limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. That is why the discipline of managing mental models works – testing and improving our internal pictures of how the world works – promises to be a major breakthrough for building learning organisations.
None of us can carry an organisation or a family or a community in our minds; what we carry in our own heads are images, assumptions and stories. In fact, philosophers have discussed mental models for centuries. Mental models can be simple generalisations or they can be complex theories. But what is most important to grasp is that mental models are active. They shape how we act. If we, for example, believe people are untrustworthy, we act differently from the way we would if we believed they were trustworthy. Why are mental models so powerful in affecting what we do? In part because they affect what we see. Two people with different mental models can observe the same event and describe it differently because they have looked at different details.
For example, in a crowded party, we take in the same basic sensory data, but we pick out different faces. As psychologists say, we observe selectively. This is no less true for supposedly “objective” observers such as scientists than for people in general. The way mental models shape our perceptions is important to management. For decades, the Big Three of Detroit, Michigan, namely, Ford, Chrysler and General Motors believed that people bought automobiles on the basis of styling, not for quality or reliability. Judging by the evidence they gathered, these automakers were right. Surveys and buying habits consistently suggested that American consumers cared about styling much more than about quality or reliability. These preferences gradually changed, however, as German and Japanese automakers slowly educated American consumers about the benefits of quality and style and increased their market share in the US from near zero to 38 per cent by 1986.
The problems with mental models lie not in whether they are right or wrong – by definition, all models are simplifications. However, the problem with mental models arises when they exist below the level of awareness. The Detroit automakers did not say, “We have mental models that all people care about is styling.” They said, “All people care about is styling.” Because they remained unaware of their mental models, the models remain unchanged. As the Detroit automakers demonstrated, entire industries can develop chronic misfits between mental models and reality. In some ways, closeknit industries are especially vulnerable because all the member companies look to each other for standard of best practices. Such outdated reinforcement of mental models existed in many basic US manufacturing industries, not just automobiles, throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
Shared vision in learning organisations
A shared vision is not an idea. Rather it is a force in people’s hearts, a form of impressive power. It may be inspired by an idea, but once it goes further – if it is compelling enough to acquire the support of more than one person – then it is no longer an abstraction. People begin to see it as if it exists. Few, if any forces, in human affairs are as powerful as a shared vision. At its simplest level, a shared vision is the answer to the question: what do we want to create?
Just as personal visions are pictures or images people carry in their heads, so too are shared visions pictures that people throughout the organisation carry. They create a sense of community that permeates the organisations and gives coherence to diverse activities. When people truly share a vision, they are connected and bound together by a common aspiration. Personal visions derive their power from common caring. In fact, one of the reasons people seek to build shared vision is their desire to be connected to an important undertaking. Shared vision is vital for the learning organisation because it provides the focus and energy for learning. While adaptive learning is possible without vision, generative learning occurs only when people are striving to accomplish something that matters deeply to them. In fact, the whole idea of generative learning seems abstract and meaningless until people become excited about some vision they truly want to accomplish.
Visions are exhilarating. They create the spark and the excitement that lifts an organisation out of the mundane. Shared vision compels courage so naturally that people do not even realise the extent of their courage. Courage is simply doing whatever is needed in pursuit of the vision. Shared vision fosters taking risks and experimentation. When you are immersed in a vision, you know what needs to be done, but you often don’t know how to do it. You run an experiment because you think it is going to get you there. You change directions and run another experiment if it does not work.
Team learning in a learning organisation
Team learning is the process of aligning the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire. It builds the discipline of developing shared vision. It also builds on personal mastery, for talented teams are made up of talented individuals. But shared vision and talent are not enough. In fact, the world is full of teams of talented individuals who shared a vision for a while, yet failed to learn.
Within organisations, team learning has three critical dimensions. First, there is the need to think insightfully about complex issues. Here, teams must learn how to tap the potential for many minds to be more intelligent than one mind (synergy). While easy to say, there are powerful forces at work: organisations tend to make the intelligence of the team less than, not greater than, the intelligence of individual team members. Many of these forces are within the direct control of the team members. Second, there is the need for innovative co-ordinated action. For example, championship sports teams and great jazz ensembles provide metaphors for acting in spontaneous, yet co-ordinated ways. Similarly, outstanding teams in organisations also develop that sort of relationship, that is, an operational trust where each team member remains conscious of other team members and can be counted on to act in ways that complement each other’s actions.
Third, there is the role of team members for other teams. For example, most of the actions of senior teams are actually carried out through other teams. Thus, a learning team continually fosters other learning teams through inculcating the practices and skills of team learning more broadly. Moreover, the discipline of team learning involves mastering the practices of dialogue and discussion, the two distinct ways that teams converse.
In dialogue, there is the free and creative exploration of subtle issues, deep “listening” to one another and suspending of one’s own views. By contrast, in discussion, different views are presented and defended and there is a search for the last view to support decisions that must be made at this time. Dialogue and discussion are potentially complementary, but most teams lack the ability to distinguish between the two. Moreover, team learning also involves learning how to deal creatively with the powerful forces opposing productive dialogue and discussion.
In working teams, chief among these are what Chris Argyris calls “defensive routines” or habitual ways of interacting that protect us and others from threat or embarrassment, but which also prevent us from learning. A team may resist seeing important problems more systematically. To do so would imply that the problems arise from our own policies and strategies – that is, “from us” – rather than from forces outside our control. Many situations are there where we will say, “We are already thinking systematically,” or simply hold steadfastly to the view that, “There is nothing we can do except cope with these problems.”
Dr Archan Mehta has a PhD in Management and is based in India. He has over 10 years of work experience in sectors like Media, Food Services, Hospitality, Education, and Security. He is currently a Consultant.
This article appeared in the January 2019 issue of HR Future