of commitment: the heart of learning organizations
Fred Kofman, Peter M.Senge
The Center for Organizational Learning based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been studying the phenomenon of the learning organization as a management goal and process since 1990. A learning organization is one that continuously adapts to a changing and interdependent environment. The Center's research shows that building learning organizations requires basic changes in thinking and behavior that overturn conventional and reactionary beliefs. Shifting from a fragmented, competitive and reactive organization to one that is systemic, cooperative and creative also requires a 'Galilean shift' toward building 'communities of commitment.' In this regard, commitment goes beyond personal loyalty to include a commitment to societal changes through one's organization. Through its ground-breaking research, the Center continues to transform management by focusing on the need to develop leadership communities that foster learning organizations.
Currently, two types of "practice field" projects are underway: dialogue projects and learning laboratory projects. Dialogue projects focus directly on the deeper patterns of communication that underlie whatever issues are being confronted by a management team.
Learning laboratory projects focus on specific areas such as new product development, management accounting and control systems, and services management. Here are some examples.
A team at Ford, responsible for creating the next generation Work at the MIT Center for Organizational Learning shows that developing new organizational capabilities requires deep reflection and testing.
Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder? Why do we derive our self-esteem from knowing as opposed to learning? Why do we criticize before we even understand? Why do we create controlling bureaucracies when we attempt to form visionary enterprises? And why do we persist in fragmentation and piecemeal analysis as the world becomes more and more interconnected?
Such questions have been the heart of our work for many years. They
led to the theories and methods presented in The Fifth Discipline. They
are the driving force behind a new vision of organizations, capable
of thriving in a world of interdependence and change--what we have come
The Fifth Discipline generated significant interest, but a book is only one step toward bringing a new set of ideas and practices into the mainstream of management. Shortly after the book appeared, a group of us at MIT established the Center for Organizational Learning. The center now involves many organizations--including Ford, Harley Davidson, Electronic Data Systems, Federal Express, AT&T, Philips North America, Herman Miller, Armco Steel, and Intel--seeking major breakthroughs via partnership between researchers and practitioners.
Two years of intense practice and reflection have gone by. Some pilot projects are beginning to produce striking results. But we also have learned that it is crucial to address the opening questions. We have not found any definitive answers--nor were we looking for them--but, dwelling in the questions, we have found guiding principles for action.
Building learning organizations, we are discovering, requires basic
shifts in how we think and interact. The changes go beyond individual
corporate cultures, or even the culture of Western management; they
penetrate to the bedrock assumptions and habits of our culture as a
whole. We are also discovering that moving forward is an exercise in
personal commitment and community building. As Dr. W. Edwards Deming
says, nothing happens without "personal transformation." And
So, we are coming to see our efforts as building "communities
of commitment." Without commitment, the hard work required will
never be done. People will just keep asking for "examples of learning
BUT COMMITMENT TO WHAT?
In this paper we will explore basic shifts in the guiding ideas of contemporary management. We argue that the main dysfunctions in our institutions--fragmentation, competition, and reactiveness--are actually byproducts of our success over thousands of years in conquering the physical world and in developing our scientific, industrial culture. So, it should come as no surprise that these dysfunctions are deeply rooted. Nor should it surprise us that our first response, "to overcome these problems" is part of the very mindset that generated them. Fragmentation, competition, and reactiveness are not problems to be solved--they are frozen patterns of thought to be dissolved.
The solvent we propose is a new way of thinking, feeling, and being: a culture of systems. Fragmentary thinking becomes systemic when we recover "the memory of the whole," the awareness that wholes actually precede parts. Competition becomes cooperation when we discover the "community nature of the self" and realize our role as challengers to help each other excel. Reactiveness becomes creating when we see the "generative power of language," how language brings forth distinctions from the undivided flow of life.
Together these changes represent a new "Galilean Shift."
Galileo's heliocentric revolution moved us from looking at the earth
as the center around which all else revolved to seeing our place in
Thus the nature of the commitment required to build learning organizations
goes beyond people's typical "commitment to their organizations."
It encompasses commitment to changes needed in the
This is a theoretical paper for practitioners. Contradictory as it
may sound, there is nothing more practical than a good theory. The problem
with "seven step methods to success," "keys to successful
Herein lies a core leadership paradox: Action is critical, but the action we need can spring only from a reflective territory that includes not only cognition but body, emotions, and spirit as well.
AREAS OF CULTURAL DYSFUNCTION
Organizations are microcosms of the larger society. Thus, at the heart of any serious effort to alter how organizations operate lies a concern with addressing the basic dysfunctions of our larger culture. We believe that there are three fundamental problems with our current paradigm: fragmentation, competition, and reactiveness.
We continually fragment problems into pieces; yet the major challenges we face in our organizations and beyond are increasingly systemic. The analytic way to address a complex situation is to break it into components, study each component in isolation, and then synthesize the components back into a whole. For a wide range of issues, there is little loss in assuming a mechanical structure and ignoring systemic interactions. But for our most important problems, linear thinking is ineffective. Problems like runaway costs in our health care system or the decline of a corporation's vitality and innovativeness resist piecemeal, analytic approaches. We live in a world that is more like Humpty Dumpty than a jigsaw puzzle: All the king's horses and all the king's men can't put the system together again.
Our enchantment with fragmentation starts in early childhood. Since our first school days, we learn to break the world apart and disconnect ourselves from it. We memorize isolated facts, read static accounts of history, study abstract theories, and acquire ideas unrelated to our life experience and personal aspirations. Economics is separate from psychology, which is separate from biology, which has little connection with art. We eventually become convinced that knowledge is accumulated bits of information and that learning has little to do with our capacity for effective action, our sense of self, and how we exist in our world.
Today, fragmentation is the cornerstone of what it means to be a professional,
so much so that we call ourselves "specialists." Accountants
worry about the books, operations managers worry about
The word health has the same roots as "whole" (the old English
hal, as in "hale and hearty"). Like people, organizations
can get sick and die.
In business, fragmentation results in "walls" or "chimneys"
that separate different functions into independent and often warring
fiefdoms. Product designers, for instance, disregard marketing surveys
In public affairs, fragmentation is making our society increasingly ungovernable. We know the problem as the dominance of "special interest groups" and political lobbies.
Pointing fingers at each other is now a favorite national sport, but
recently a new variant has appeared: pointing fingers at the walls.
Academics, consultants, and managers unite in blaming the barbed-wire
fences separating organizational functions for poor-quality, high-cost
products. In response, many companies are trying to "reengineer"
themselves away from stovepipe structures and toward horizontal business
processes that cut across traditional functions and power hierarchies.
The reason is that the walls that exist in the physical world are
reflections of our mental walls. The separation between the different
functions is not just geographic, it lives in the way we think.
We have become overdependent on competition, to the extent that it is our only model for change and learning.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with competition. It can be great fun. It can promote invention and daring. The problem is that we have lost the balance between competition and cooperation precisely at a time when we most need to work together.
In the United States, we tend to see competition among individuals
as the ultimate mechanism for change and improvement in human affairs.
We continually think in terms of war and sports analogies when we interpret
management challenges. We need to "beat the competition,"
Fascinated with competition, we often find ourselves competing with
the very people with whom we need to collaborate. Members of a management
team compete with one another to show who is right, who knows more,
or who is more articulate or persuasive. Divisions compete with one
Our overemphasis on competition makes looking good more important than being good. The resulting fear of not looking good is one of the greatest enemies of learning. To learn, we need to acknowledge that there is something we don't know and to perform activities that we're not good at. But in most corporations, ignorance is a sign of weakness; temporary incompetence is a character flaw.
How impossible it would be for a child to learn to walk if she were afraid of falling and looking foolish. Yet, that is exactly what happened in schools that made us feel foolish when we made mistakes, and continues in organizations that rank our performance on the basis of management-by-objectives.
In response, many of us have developed defenses that have become second nature--like working out our problems in isolation, always displaying our best face in public, and never saying "I don't know." The price we pay is enormous. In fact, we become masters of what Chris Argyris calls "skilled incompetence," skillful at protecting ourselves from the threat and pain that come with learning, but also remaining incompetent and blinded to our incompetence.
Overemphasis on competition also reinforces our fixation on short-term measurable results. Consequently, we lack the discipline needed for steady practice and deeper learning, which often produces few manifest consequences for long periods of time.
The quick-fix mentality also makes us "system blind." Many
of today's problems come from yesterday's solutions, and many of today's
solutions will be tomorrow's problems. What is most perplexing is that
many quick fixes, from cost cutting to marketing promotions, are implemented
We have grown accustomed to changing only in reaction to outside forces, yet the wellspring of real learning is aspiration, imagination, and experimentation.
As children, we accomplish some of our most astounding learning without
any external motivation. We learn to walk, we learn to talk, we learn
to be human not because we have to but because we want to. Eventually,
however, we become conditioned to reacting to others' directions, to
For most of us, reactiveness was reinforced on a daily basis in school. We solved problems identified by others, read what was assigned, wrote what was required. Gradually, reactiveness became a way of life. Fitting in, being accepted, became more important than being ourselves. We learned that the way to succeed was to focus on the teachers' questions as opposed to our own.
Reactiveness is a double bane of continuous learning. First, the attitude,
"if it ain't broke don't fix it," prevents the steady improvement
of products and processes. Moreover, when something is broken, the immediate
reaction is to call an expert--a specialist--to fix it. Regardless of
the specialist's success, his intervention will create a black-box mentality
that prevents the organization from
The pervasiveness of a reactive stance in management is evident in the fixation on problem solving. Many managers think that management is problem solving. But problem solving is fundamentally different from creating. The problem solver tries to make something go away. A creator tries to bring something new into being. The impetus for change in problem solving lies outside ourselves--in some undesired external condition we seek to eliminate. The impetus for change in the creating mode comes from within. Only the creating mode leads to a genuine sense of individual and collective power, because only in the creating mode do people orient themselves to their intrinsic desires. It is a testament to how reactive we are that many leaders see the absence of vision as a "problem" to be solved in their company and set about writing and disseminating vision and mission statements as the solution.
It is a small step from the problem-solving orientation to a system of management that is dominated by fear, the ultimate external motivator. This is evident today in the simple fact that most leaders believe that people are willing to change only in times of crisis. This leads to the most pervasive leadership strategy in America--create a crisis, or at least a perception of crisis. Crises can produce episodes of change. But they produce little learning.
Moreover, management by fear and crisis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because it does produce short-term results, managers see their crisis orientation as vindicated, people in the organization grow accustomed to "waiting for the next crisis," managers' belief in the apathy of the troops is reinforced, and they become more predisposed to generate the next crisis.
ROOTS OF OUR CULTURAL CRISISThese problems are deeply rooted. They are not just mistakes we keep repeating--they spring directly from our past successes. The triumph of reductionism and mechanical thinking has given rise to a set of conditions for which they are no longer suited.
Humankind has achieved unimaginable successes in controlling its physical
and social environment. We have come a long way since the days in which
our ancestors had to defend themselves from other animals, work continually
to secure food, and survive in extreme weather conditions.
But this progress has not been without consequence. The very same skills of separation, analysis, and control that gave us the power to shape our environment are producing ecological and social crises in our outer world, and psychological and spiritual crises in our inner world. Both these crises grow out of our success in separating ourselves from the larger fabric of life. When we begin to understand the origins of our problems, we begin to see that the "existential crisis" of early 20th century philosophy and the "environmental crisis" of late 20th century ecology are inseparable--caused by the co-evolution of fragmentary world views, social structures, lifestyles, and technology.
There are two aspects to the story: one evolutionary and one cultural.
The first concerns deep patterns of behavior established in the human organism over millions of years. The second concerns deep cultural beliefs that probably started with the agricultural revolution.
Throughout our history as a species, the primary threats to our survival came as sudden dramatic events: saber-tooth tigers, floods, earthquakes, attacks by rival tribes. Today, the primary threats to our survival are slow, gradual processes--environmental destruction, the global arms race (which continues unabated by the breakup of the Soviet Union), and decay of our nation's educational system and its family and community structure.
We are poorly prepared for a world of slowly developing threats. We
have a nervous system focused on external dramatic events. A loud noise
or a sharp change in our visual field brings us immediately to alert.
Our adrenaline system heightens our awareness and strength. In extreme
cases, our nervous system produces a state of shock that filters signals
of physical pain, allowing continued reasoning and decision making.
The irony is that all of these capabilities become potentially
This conflict between the nature of our most important problems and
our instinctive ways of thinking and acting is no less catastrophic
in organizations. Most of the primary threats to survival and vitality
in organizations develop slowly, and they are not caused externally.
The problems of General Motors and IBM, for instance, did not arise
overnight. Arrogance, insulation, and rigidification developed over
decades of success. At IBM, even as the symptoms of decline became more
and more apparent, the sustained profitability of the core mainframe
products allowed managers and investors to ignore growing signals of
trouble. Only when an overwhelming crisis (record losses) occurred was
Thus our evolutionary programming predisposes us to seeing external
threats and to reactiveness. Layered onto it is a culture of fragmentation
and competition, and together they hold us captive. But
Joseph Campbell spoke of the ancient Indo-European myth of the Goddess who "teaches compassion for all living beings. There also you come to appreciate the real sanctity of the earth itself, because it is the body of the Goddess." Recent advances in archeological research are suggesting that the myth of the Goddess may have predominated throughout central Europe in the late Paleolithic and early Neolithic cultures.
These cultures may have been neither warlike nor male dominated, as
long assumed. Riane Eisler claims that the period from approximately
5000 BC to 1500 BC was a "remarkably peaceful time," with
little evidence of fortifications or implements of warfare. Men and
women shared power, and
The classic Greek culture and the emerging Christian era mark crucial crossroads that lead directly to the contemporary Western scientific and religious world views.
In ancient Greece, the world was a "cosmos," not an inert
environment ruled by the abstract laws of physics. The earth was the
space where gods and mortals shared their passion, wisdom, and folly.
The Greeks walked with the gods. But classical Greek thought also established
the foundation for the "scientific" view--the view that later
set man as an observer apart from the world. Two-thousand years later,
building on Aristotle's classical category theory, Descartes propounded
If classic Greece laid the foundation for justifying the split of
man and nature, the Catholic Church institutionalized the split between
man and God. According to Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton,
the split lay at the very heart of the foundation of the church--in
fact, it was the strategy used to differentiate the sect that eventually
became the church from other early Christian sects that had very different
interpretations of Jesus' teachings. "What we call Christianity
(today) actually represents only a small selection of specific sources,
chosen from among dozens," according to Pagels.
Thus were sown the seeds of the fragmentation evident today. Their
fruit has grown steadily. "The belief that man was separate from
nature," writes Krishnamurti, "evolved into the idea that
nature was a resource for man's benefit. Nature became a "resource,"
a "standing in reserve."
A GALILEAN SHIFT
The analytic model assigns a primary status to the parts and assumes
that they exist independent from a whole. This view generates deep inconsistencies
that lie behind many of our most pressing social and
As we move forward, we can use three fundamental theses to shift our understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. Just as Galileo proposed that the earth was not the center of the universe, we are proposing here that parts, ego, and reality are not the center of a more meaningful way of life. Each reflects the fragmented world view we have come to accept. Each needs to be reexamined.
1. The Primacy of the Whole
The analytic perspective involves a three-part process: (1) break the system into its component parts, (2) study each part in isolation, and (3) assemble an understanding of the whole from an understanding of the parts. The implicit assumption is that systems are aggregates of parts that interact relatively weakly and in a linear fashion. In this notion of systems, one can restrict attention to the parts and trust that optimizing each one amounts to optimizing the whole.
Decomposition is a time honored way of dealing with complex problems, but it has big limitations in a world of tight couplings and nonlinear feedbacks. The defining characteristic of a system is that it cannot be understood as a function of its isolated components. First, the behavior of the system doesn't depend on what each part is doing but on how each part is interacting with the rest. A car's engine may be working just fine, but if the transmission column is detached from it, the car won't move.
Second, to understand a system we need to understand how it fits into the larger system of which it is a part. To use an example of Russell Ackoff's, we will never understand why standard cars have seats for four or five if we look at the physical properties of its elements. Human beings create teleological systems, systems with purpose. To understand the car design, we need to see how it fits into a society of families who travel together.
Third, and most important, what we call the parts need not be taken as primary. In fact, how we define the parts is fundamentally a matter of perspective and purpose, not intrinsic in the nature of the "real thing" we are looking at.
For example, consider an airplane. We might say that it is made of the fuselage, the wings, the tail, and a cockpit. But we might also say it is made of metal parts and plastic parts. We might also say it is made of a right half and a left half, and so on. What makes an airplane cannot be found in the parts--after all, a submarine also has a fuselage and a tail--but in how the parts emerge as distinctions from a coherent whole.
Rather than being objective, what we call the parts is highly subjective.
No set of categories is natural or inherent to a system.
Rather than thinking of a world of "parts" that form "wholes," we start by recognizing that we live in a world of wholes within wholes. Rather than trying to "put the pieces together" to make the whole, we recognize that the world is already whole.
At the same time, the systems view recognizes that distinctions enable the observer to draw forth operational worlds. The whole may be more fundamental, but it is unmanageable. For example, the division of labor enabled societies to achieve levels of material well-being that would have otherwise been impossible. Henry Ford would have never been able to build as many cars as fast and as economically as he did had he not divided operations according to Frederick Taylor's principles.
But, once the workers become "workers" and the supervisors
became "supervisors," rigidity sets in. To reestablish fluidity,
the capacity for learning and change, we must remember the contingent
nature of the
2. The Community Nature of the Self
Newtonian physicists were startled to discover that at the core of
the atom, at the center of matter there is ... nothing, no thing, pure
energy. When they reached into the most fundamental building block of
By the same token, we are startled to discover that at the core of
the person, at the center of selfhood there is ... nothing, pure energy.
When we reach into the most fundamental basis of our being we find a
We normally think that the individual has a primordial origin and
that selfhood is given to each one independent of the cultural or group
practices in which that person happens to grow up. But, as Clifford
When we forget about the social milieu in which we exist as people,
we attain a spurious security and stability. We identify our egos with
our selves. We take the contingent features of our current character
and reify them into a substantive personality. Thus, we assign a primordial
value to our ego (part) and see the community (whole) as secondary.
We see the community as nothing but a network of contractual commitments
in symbolic and economic exchanges. We think that encounters with others
But the constitution of the self happens only in a community. The community supports certain ways of being and constrains the expressions of individuality to certain patterns of behavior--whatever we regard as acting "crazy" or inappropriate expresses our community of origin and upbringing much more than our intrinsic predispositions.
As with all deep cultural assumptions, the assumed primacy of the
ego-self hides its contingent status, until we discover a different
culture. For example, in many indigenous cultures of southern Africa
But a systems view of life suggests that the self is never "given" and is always in the process of transformation. Whenever we do not take the other as an object for use, whenever we see the other as a legitimate fellow human being with which we can learn and change--a "Thou"--we engage in a passionate interaction that can open new possibilities for our being.
3. Language as Generative Practice
In our everyday sense of the world, we see reality as "out there" and ourselves as observers "in here." Our Western tradition compels us to "figure out" how nature works so that we can achieve what we want. But what if what shows up for us as "reality" is inseparable from our language and actions? What if we are part of not apart from the world? What if our crisis is, at least in part, a crisis of perception and meaning, springing from a "naive realist" perspective of the observer as one who describes an external reality? What if observation itself is the beginning of the fragmentation?
The puzzle of the "ultimate ground" for knowing has confronted
philosophers for a long time. There is a story of the humble novice
who asks the great sage what it is that keeps the world from falling
The alternative to naive "realism" is not solipsism, a view
that there is "nothing out there," and therefore nothing to
be learned, nothing to be valued. The alternative, we propose, is recognizing
We invent structures and distinctions to organize the otherwise unmanageable
flow of life. That organization allows us to operate effectively, but
it can become a tranquilizing barrier to exploration
The map is not the territory, but we can only guide ourselves with
As philosopher Hubert Dreyfus says, "It is interpretation all the way down." The issue is deeper than recognizing that the map is not the territory. We have to face the possibility that we have no access beyond our culture to such a thing as a territory. We only have provisional maps permanently open to revision and recreation.
This may sound nihilistic. If there is no ultimate ground for values,
why choose one system over another? Why is democracy better than totalitarianism?
Why is anything better than anything else? Why even bother to care?
The solution to the nihilistic dilemma comes from a self-reflective
principle: Those contexts that display their precarious nature, those
contexts that invite revision and recreation are
When we fail to recognize this principle, we lose the capacity to
understand others. We become rigid. We lose the ability to learn. We
lose the child within us who lives in awe and who understands what
As we endeavor to embody these theses in our work at the MIT Learning Center, several operating principles are emerging. These "principles" are neither rigid nor all encompassing. In effect, each grows out of a question, and in many ways the questions themselves may be the keys to moving forward--questions such as, "What do we mean when we speak of a learning organization?"
There is No Such Thing as a "Learning Organization"
Along with "total quality management" and "process reengineering," "organizational learning" has become the latest buzzword. Just as there is no such thing as a "smart kid," however, there is no such thing as a "learning organization." "Learning organization" is a category that we create in language. Like every linguistic creation, this category is a double-edged sword that can be empowering or tranquilizing. The difference lies in whether we see language as a set of labels that describe a preexisting reality, or as a medium in which we can articulate new models for living together.
When we speak of a "learning organization," we are not describing
an external phenomenon or labeling an independent reality. We are articulating
a view that involves us--the observers--as much as the
It is not what the vision is, but what the vision does that matters.
In the early 1970s, Alan Kay led the researchers at Xerox PARC who developed
the first true precursors to the personal computer. In fact,
What, then, are the types of changes we are seeking to encourage through pursuing the "learning organization" vision?
The Learning Organization Embodies New Capabilities Beyond Traditional Organizations
We believe a learning organization must be grounded in three foundations (1) a culture based on transcendent human values of love, wonder, humility, and compassion; (2) a set of practices for generative conversation and coordinated action; and (3) a capacity to see and work with the flow of life as a system.
In learning organizations, cultural norms defy our business tradition.
blame (wonder). People understand that life is not condensable, that any model is an operational simplification always ready for improvement (humility). And when they encounter behaviors that they neither understand nor condone, people are able to appreciate that such actions arise from viewpoints and forces that are, in some sense, as valid as the viewpoints and forces that influence their own behaviors (compassion).
Learning organizations are spaces for generative conversations and
concerted action. In them, language functions as a device for connection,
invention, and coordination. People can talk from their hearts and connect
with one another in the spirit of dialogue (from the Greek dia + logos--moving
through). Their dialogue weaves a common ongoing fabric and connects
them at a deep level of being. When people
In learning organizations, people are always inquiring into the systemic
consequences of their actions, rather than just focusing on local consequences.
They can understand the interdependencies underlying
As a result of these capabilities, learning organizations are both more generative and more adaptive than traditional organizations. Because of their commitment, openness, and ability to deal with complexity, people find security not in stability but in the dynamic equilibrium between holding on and letting go--holding on and letting go of beliefs, assumptions, and certainties. What they know takes a second place to what they can learn, and simplistic answers are always less important than penetrating questions.
Developing such organizational capabilities will obviously require vision, patience, and courage. What is the nature of the leadership that will be required to move forward?
Learning Organizations Are Built by Communities of Servant Leaders
Leadership takes on important new meanings in learning organizations.
In essence, the leaders are those building the new organization and
its capabilities. They are the ones "walking ahead," regardless
As the myth of the hero leader fades, a new myth of teams and communities
that can lead themselves is emerging. In 1983, successful grassroots
community organizers from around the world gathered for a
The emergence of collective leadership does not means that there are no "leadership positions" like CEO or general or president in learning organizations. Management hierarchies are often functional. But the clash of collective leadership and hierarchical leadership nonetheless poses a core dilemma for learning organizations. This dilemma cannot be reconciled given traditional notions of hierarchical leaders as the people "in control" or "in charge." For this, then, implies that those "below" are not in control. A hierarchical value system then arises that, as Analog Devices CEO Ray Stata puts it, "holds the person higher up the hierarchy as somehow a more important being."
Alternatively, the dilemma can become a source of energy and imagination through the idea of "servant leadership," people who lead because they chose to serve, both to serve one another and to serve a higher purpose. Servant leadership offers a unique mix of idealism and pragmatism. At one level, the concept is an ideal, appealing to deeply held beliefs in the dignity and self-worth of all people and the democratic principle that a leader's power flows from those led. But it is also highly practical. It has been proven again and again in military campaigns that the only leader whom soldiers will reliably follow when their lives are on the line is the leader who is both competent and who soldiers believe is committed to their well-being.
As such leadership communities begin to grow, how will learning begin to be integrated into work?
Learning Arises Through Performance and Practice
It was common in native American cultures to set aside sacred spaces for learning. So too in our organizations today, learning is too important to leave to chance. It will not be adequate to offer training and hope that people will be able to apply new insights and methods. Nor will help from consultants be sufficient to bring about the fundamental shifts in thinking and interacting and the new capabilities needed to sustain those shifts. It will be necessary to redesign work if the types of ideas developed above are to find their way into the mainstream of management practice.
We believe that a guiding idea for redesigning work will be virtual learning spaces, or what have come to be known at the Learning Center as "managerial practice fields." The learning that occurs in sports teams and the performing arts is embedded in continuous movement between a practice field and a performance field. It is impossible to imagine a chamber music ensemble or a theater troop learning without rehearsal, just as it is impossible to imagine a championship basketball team that never practices. Yet, that is exactly what happens in most organizations. People only perform. They rarely get to practice, especially together.
Several design principles come together in creating effective managerial practice fields:
(1) The learner learns what the learner wants to
learn, so focus on key managerial issues.
If learning becomes more integrated into how we work, where does "work" end and "learning" begin?
Process and Content Are Inseparable
Because our culture is so caught up in separation, we have been led, according to David Bohm, "to seek some fantasy of action...that would end the fragmentation in the content (of our thought) while leaving the fragmentation in the actual process of thinking untouched." So, for example, executives seek to improve fragmented policies and strategies without addressing the fragmented and competitive relationships among the managers who formulated the strategies and policies. Consultants propose new process-oriented organizational designs without addressing the modes of thinking and interacting that cause us to focus on things rather than processes in the first place. Management educators treat either "technical" issues like operations, marketing, or finance, or behavioral issues like organization culture, decision making, or change.
In our normal ways of looking at things, the content or issues we
are interested in are separate from the processes we might use to learn
about them. Yet, this very separation may be the primary obstacle to
If indeed it is possible to progress toward learning organizations, what are some of the reasons we might resist such changes?
Learning is Dangerous
Learning occurs between a fear and a need. On the one hand, we feel the need to change if we are to accomplish our goals. On the other hand, we feel the anxiety of facing the unknown and unfamiliar. To learn significant things, we must suspend some basic notions about our worlds and our selves. That is one of the most frightening propositions for the ego.
The conventional notion of learning is transactional. There is a learner who has a certain way of operating and a certain knowledge. If this
knowledge proves to be incomplete or ineffective, the learner has the ability to drop part of it, change some of it, or add some new ideas to it. This may be an accurate description of how we learn to find better bargains or make better investments, but it fails to get to the heart of the type of learning involved when we are questioning deep beliefs and mental models.
The problem with this view is that the self is not separate from the
ideas and assumptions that form it. Our mental models are not like pieces
of clothing that we can put on or take off. They are basic
The learning required in becoming a learning organization is "transformational learning." Static notions of who we are must be checked at the door. In transformational learning, there are no problems "out there" to be solved independent of how we think and act in articulating these problems. Such learning is not ultimately about tools and techniques. It is about who we are. We often prefer to fail again and again rather than let go of some core belief or master assessment.
This explains the paradox of learning. Even when we claim we want
to learn, we normally mean that we want to acquire some new tool or
understanding. When we see that to learn, we must be willing to look
It is little coincidence that virtually all spiritual disciplines, regardless of culture or religious setting, are practiced in communities. Only with the support, insight, and fellowship of a community can we face the dangers of learning meaningful things.
THEORY IN PRACTICE: THE WORK OF THE ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING CENTER
The "liaison officers" of the MIT Learning Center are individuals
from each participating company who work together to reflect on what
we are learning and to translate these reflections into improved management
practices for the center. It was in this group that we first began to
realize that building learning organizations was grounded in developing
leadership communities. A core question has occupied us throughout this
year: "How do such communities form, grow, and become influential
Ford's Vic Leo has suggested a three-stage "architecture of engagement:" (1) finding those predisposed to this work, (2) core community-building activities, and (3) practical experimentation and testing.
It is easy to waste time attempting to bring about changes with people
who do not want, or are not ready for, such changes. When the liaison
officers reflected on how they became involved in systemic thinking
and organizational learning, we discovered that there were aspects of
each person's background that made that person predisposed. In some
cases, it was academic training. In others, particular work or life
experiences. In all cases, they were deeply drawn to the "systems
perspective." They needed no convincing that much problem solving
in organizations leaves deeper sources of problems untouched, and that
the roots of these difficulties lie in how we think and how we interact.
They were skeptical of conventional strategies for organizational improvement--reorganizations,
training, management programs, speeches from "on high." Predisposition
is important, especially in the early
Those not predisposed to systems thinking should not be excluded, but they may play less important roles at the outset. Over time, many people who are initially confused, threatened, or nonresponsive to systems thinking and learning often become the most enthusiastic supporters. If they are not included, because they raise difficult questions or disagree with certain ideas, what starts as a learning community can degenerate into a cult.
How those predisposed begin to know each other and to work together involves an ongoing cycle of community-building activities and practical experimentation. The former must be intense enough and open-ended enough to foster trusting personal relationships and to lay a foundation of knowledge and skills. The latter must offer realistic starting steps in applying new knowledge and skills to important issues.
For example, at the Learning Center, a five-day introductory course explores the tools, methods, and personal dimensions of the "Galilean Shift." There is practice with systems thinking tools and dialogue, and with reflecting on and articulating personal visions. Just as important, the course often results in what the liaison officers called a "piercing experience," where the systems perspective begins to take on a deeper meaning and the nature of the journey ahead becomes clearer.
Moreover, it is a journey that we are all taking together. There are no "teachers" with correct answers, only guides with different areas of expertise and experience that may help along the way. Each of us gives up our own certainty and recognizes our interdependency within the larger community of practitioners. The honest, humble, and purposeful "I don't know" grounds our vision for learning organizations. In this sense, the five-day introductory course begins to forge the vessel within which the learning center staff, and the company managers begin to operate as a community.
This vessel is reinforced and expanded through a variety of other
meetings and communications media, including electronic mail, bulletin
boards, and research documents. Especially important are semiannual
Remarkably, we are finding that the more we organize around dialogue, and the less we plan out elaborate agendas, the more we accomplish. (Note: For more information on dialogue, see subsequent articles by William Isaacs and Edgar Schein in this issue.)
Practical Experimentation and Testing
Ultimately, what nurtures the unfolding community most is serious,
active experimentation where people wrestle with crucial strategic and
operational issues. In our work at the center, we undertake learning