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Are Senge’s 5 Disciplines Still Relevant?

by Kevin Wheeler on June 28, 2011


Part 1-Systems Thinking

In 1990 Peter Senge published a book called The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. This book summed up his thinking about how organizations can more effectively function based on his systems thinking background at MIT. He had come to the belief that there were five core disciplines or elements that would ensure that an organization could continuously learn, adapt and thrive. He defined a learning organization as one that has a culture and the appropriate processes to shape the future it wants.

CEOs and other business leaders are frequently heard complaining about their organizations’ lack of innovation, their inability to find great talent, and the difficulty they have in producing products and services that are distinguished from the competition.  This may be the result of having failed to create this learning organization Senge wrote about.

The five disciplines remain basic to the success of the 21st century organization. In reality, they may be more appropriate to the emerging organization than they were to the traditional firms of the 20th century.  Attitudes about work have changed significantly, younger workers are seeking more flexibility and control over how they work and over what they do. The challenges of operating in a global context, overcoming cultural and economic barriers, and creating products with universal appeal and relevance are increasingly difficult.

Companies that understand the power of the five disciplines, that create deliberate processes to embed them and who follow them with rigor are frequently more successful and better able to cope in the confusing, rapidly changing, global business environment.  Senge’s disciplines have weathered the 20 years well and, while perhaps couched in different terminology today, remain relevant and core to success.

Systems Thinking
The first and perhaps most important discipline is systems thinking. Systems thinking is the ability to integrate the critical elements of an organization and to understand how each impacts the other.  A good example of a system is an automobile.  All of its parts must work together and if any one of the critical parts is removed, say the alternator or radiator, it ceases to work.

Companies are the sum of many sub-systems such as production, sales, human resources, and so on.  If these functions are not working in harmony and do not have an integrated view of what they are doing, the organization will operate at a lower level than it could if it had integrated these functions.

Most organizations have failed to achieve tight functional integration or even integration within a function.  For example, human resource functions routinely split recruitment from training and development and both of those from performance management.  This leads to an organization that hires people it may not need or who may not fit the culture while, on the other hand, losing people who feel they are not learning or are not being challenged or promoted.  Behavioral issues and competency deficiencies are not fed back into the hiring or development process and it is hard to make any progress to achieving a highly trained and engaged workforce.

In a learning organization these functions would be integrated and each would receive input and feedback from the other to better balance talent needs. Better hiring and development would lead to fewer performance issues and better development would raise the overall competency level.   IBM is an example of a firm that has integrated these functions and has a competent, engaged and long-serving workforce. Employees have been cross-trained and often perform many diverse functions.

When CEOs complain about not being able to find the right talent, it may be at least partly a case of not having a high performing, integrated talent management function to anticipate and prepare for whatever talent needs are and will be needed.

Some organizations have made good progress toward becoming learning organizations. A frequently cited example is Apple.  They are practicing many of Senge’s disciplines and are evolving a culture that embraces all of them.


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