“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 others before we even understand them?”

It’s been 25 years since these questions opened the seminal paper Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations by Peter Senge and Fred Kofman.

These questions persist today.

I will devote two blog posts to the authors’ vision of a learning organization. This first blog details some of the elements and challenges. In my next blog, I will focus on the kind of leadership required to cultivate and sustain such an environment.

Commitment to Learning and Change

In their groundbreaking paper, Senge and Kofman envision a “Galilean shift” of mind that details challenges and changes in individual values and organizational culture.

The paper resulted from theories, models, and practices outlined in their 1990 management text, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, which presaged the 1994 release of The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization.

In 1997, Harvard Business Review identified The Fifth Discipline as “one of the seminal management books of the last 75 years.”

The inquiry into learning initiates a deep and messy journey into being human in an organizational context. The authors identify five disciplines for cultivating learning cultures and reveal three frozen thinking patterns we must dissolve rather than solve.

A genuine commitment to change questions the difference between changing a symptom and revealing a root cause. We open new inquiries, confront our ignorance, and question our assumptions. This view of learning ventures beyond problem-solving. Two of Senge’s 11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline alert us to the limits of reactive problem-solving.

  • Law #1: “today’s problems come from yesterday’s ‘solutions.’”
  • Law #4: “the easy way out usually leads back in.”

From this inquiry, we discover that learning isn’t a mystery, strategy or problem-solving technique. It begins with a commitment – a commitment to rediscovering what it means to be a learner.

Five Disciplines

These five disciplines serve to cultivate capabilities for creating a “learning organization,” as quoted briefly from the book:

1 – “Personal mastery is a discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision: focusing our energies, developing patience, and seeing reality objectively.”

For Senge, personal mastery is fundamental: it points to our capacity for self-awareness, to observe and listen well to express our needs and expectations. Generally, people with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. Personal mastery is not something you possess—it is a practice, a lifelong discipline.

2 – “Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.”

Senge speaks to the effect that mental models have on our behavior. With this discipline, we start turning the mirror inward, learning to reveal our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface, and hold them rigorously for scrutiny.

For Senge, mental models are essential to “focus on the openness needed to unearth shortcomings” in perceptions.

3 – “Building shared vision practices unearth shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.”

Senge’s word choices are significant: future, commitment, and enrollment.

  • The future is not certain, or even predictable. It is an openness that reveals possibilities that we cultivate with others in a field of alignment.
  • We enroll others into a future by encouraging and inviting them to share this possibility as their own, in their lives, in their desire for a future.
  • Commitment, in this case, is not an obligation, burden, or form of compliance. The authors discuss commitments “to changes needed in the larger world and to seeing our organizations as vehicles for bringing about such changes.” Ultimately, we generate a commitment to something bigger than ourselves.

A “shared vision” ventures beyond leaders telling or decreeing their vision to others. It is the capacity to hold a shared picture with others of the future we seek to create together. When cultivated through others, a shared vision has the power to be uplifting and to encourage experimentation and innovation.

4 – “Team learning starts with ‘dialogue,’ the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine ‘thinking together.'”

Senge posits how a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63. The discipline of team learning confronts this paradox. He points to “dialogue” as the context for genuine “thinking together.” To the Greeks, dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually.

Senge’s thinking is informed by David Bohm, who has written beautifully about the “need to be able to communicate freely in a creative movement in which no one permanently holds onto or otherwise defends his own ideas.”

5 – “Systems thinking is the Fifth Discipline that integrates the other four.”

Senge now suggests a new view: systems thinking discloses that there is no outside object – that the causes of your problems are part of a single system.

We tend to think that cause and effect will be relatively near one another. Thus, when faced with a problem, we focus on the “solutions” that are close by. When we fail to grasp the systemic source of problems, we are left to “push on” symptoms rather than dissolve the frozen thinking of the underlying cause.

Three Frozen Patterns

While Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations predicts a future that has largely unfolded, it also alerts us to three “frozen thinking patterns.”

Our immersion in technological change and focus on economic measures have blinded us to the very thinking patterns that keep us from adopting an interdependent view for learning together.

Specifically, the authors suggest the need to dissolve three programmed and entrenched Western worldviews—our reactive self, our competitive self, and our fragmented self—promulgated by our education system, trained by our professional development, and socialized by our cultural incentives.

  1. REACTIVENESS. For most people, reactiveness has been reinforced since childhood. We solved problems identified by others, read what was assigned, and wrote what was required. Being accepted became more important than being ourselves.
  2. COMPETITION. The overemphasis on looking good or achieving status enables extreme individualism that dismisses the value of learning with others. The resulting fear of mistakes or looking foolish is one of the greatest enemies of learning. Learning begins with saying “I don’t know.”
  3. FRAGMENTATION. Humankind has succeeded over time by conquering the physical world and developing scientific knowledge by adopting an analytical method—studying each component in isolation—to understand problems. We specialize in parts or content without appreciating the whole context.

Ideally, such a list provokes solutions, the very reaction that cements these patterns in place. In an almost Zen-like manner, the authors invite us to lean into and experience the patterns to reveal a dissolution rather than a resolution. They acknowledge “dissolution” as an unconventional strategy:

“We try to solve fragmentation by promoting systems thinking. To solve competition, we do team building and devise more sophisticated coordination mechanisms. To solve reactiveness, we apply preemptive strikes of proactive ‘leadership.’ However, our solutions don’t question the background assumptions that gave rise to these conditions. To address the roots of these problems we don’t need solutions but dissolutions.”

Dissolving Frozen Patterns

The iceberg model below reveals our view of reality that preserves our frozen thinking patterns.

Most of our lives occur at the tip, immediately observable and instantly solvable. “Dissolving” frozen thinking patterns requires slowing time and expanding space to observe and experience reality at the third “design” level (“underlying structures”).

image credit: Northwest Earth Institute

Adopting an interdependent view of reality (at the “design” level) allows us to cease reacting to or anticipating expectations, needs, and desires (at the “events” or “patterns” levels). Instead, we become aware of the underlying structures that influence our habitual patterns. Then we become conscious of our mental models – the beliefs and assumptions – that support those structures.

The solvent proposed by the authors is a new way of thinking, feeling, and being: an interdependent worldview accessible at this third level of reality.

  1. Reactiveness becomes creativity when we see the “poetic power of language,” and how “language as a generative practice” can invent structures and distinctions, beyond diagnosing “problems,” to bring forth an undivided flow of life. The authors invite a view beyond problem-solving: the problem solver tries to make something go away. A creator tries to bring something new into being.
  2. Competitiveness becomes cooperation when we discover the “community nature of the self” not as a thing, but as a point of view that unifies the flow of experience into a coherent narrative. The constitution of the self happens only in a community.
  3. Fragmentary thinking becomes systemic when we recover “the memory of the whole,” the awareness that wholes and parts operate in a circle of self-generation.

Dissolving these frozen thinking patterns cultivates three core learning capabilities that are desperately needed today: fostering aspiration, developing reflective (generative) conversation, and understanding complexity. These core learning capabilities interact with the five disciplines above, as described in this brief.

The Nature of Learning Communities: being human

Cultivating learning (and specifically, a learning organization) is most challenging precisely because its manifestation discloses what it means to be human and reveals our vulnerability.

Learning occurs between a need and a fear. Fulfilling our needs often means confronting our fears, which reveals our second nature as reactive and competitive, socialized from fragmented views.

Senge admits as much in his next masterpiece, appropriately titled The Dance of Change: The challenges to sustaining momentum in a learning organization (1999), which outlines the obstacles to dissolving those three frozen patterns.

I’ve come to realize two fundamental factors involved in cultivating a learning culture.

First, beyond mere knowledge-sharing or problem-solving exists a human impulse to learn. At its heart, being generative and expanding capabilities, ennobles our dignity as humans.

Second, a learning community must be culturally grown and purpose-driven, which requires commitment and leadership.

Organizational Learning Requires Leadership

Ultimately, leaders are called to generate the commitment that cultivates our learning impulse. That commitment required to develop a learning culture reveals a daunting challenge.

Learning competes against economic survival, expanding technologies, strategic direction, and hyped-up concerns about scaling—items that result from our frozen thinking patterns to survive. Dissolving these “survival” patterns requires a commitment to learning.

Peter Senge contends that the leadership to sustain this commitment is not about position or formal authority but about developing “the capacity of human communities to shape futures that people truly desire.”

As suggested by the authors, at the heart of a learning organization, we experience “communities of commitment.”

The next blog will explore Senge’s notion of leadership for cultivating learning organizations.

Reading Time: 8 min. Digest Time: 11 min

To join our Learning Community, CLICK HERE to receive our Wisdom Weekly Digest.

Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.