Juhani Anttila
Venture Knowledgist Quality Integration
Helsinki, Finland


- The foundation for a long term and consistent development of the quality integration within an organization


This text describes principles of organizational learning that can be used as the fundamental basis for the long term development of quality integration and business excellence in any organization. This was used e.g. as a background thinking in the case of Sonera Corporation. The text is a modified quotation from the following book: Senge P., Roberts C., Ross B., and Kleiner A. (1995). The Fifth Discipline Field book. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing Limited. The book itself includes an excellent collection of principles, tools, and examples for organizational development in a natural way of learning.

A comprehensive model for developing quality integration in an organization towards excellence of performance is described in the following diagram. Any organization's overall performance depends on how well organization's people understand the governing principles (or guiding ideas) relevant to that particular business, what kind of tool and methodology they have to respond to the needs and expectations, and what kind of infrastructure they have to to get the whole organization and its all people to strive for the objectives towards the goals.

In order to get better performance one should establish a process to change the existing guiding ideas, tools and methodologies, and the business management infrastructure. That particularly means to find new awareness, to change attitudes and beliefs, and to create new skills and competences within the organization.

Organizational learning is very well aligned with the recognized principles of good management. E.g. in the Malcolm Baldrige criteria there is an item "Organizational and personal learning" and correspondingly in the EFQM criteria "Continuous learning, innovation and improvement". Organizational learning is more challenging and positive approach than the traditional "Continual improvement".


How do you know what to do for the learning of an organisation toward business excellence? No simple recipe can tell you, because everyone's needs are different. Hence this text presents a strategic framework - a conceptual map to guide your own decisions about how to proceed.

It is easier to present initiatives than to bring enduring changes to fruition. At the early stages, excitement comes easily. Later, after you begin to make progress, opposition develops - which can actually mobilise your efforts. People see themselves fighting "a noble battle" against the entrenched forces preserving the status quo. A few small initial victories establish confidence that more progress is just around the corner. Eventually, the initiative is treated with respect: the "enemy outside" begins to espouse all the same goals, objectives, and ideals as those instigating the change. At this point, it is easy for people to think that the work is over. In fact, it may be just starting.

Today, there is groundswell of interest in learning organisations. But it becomes more important than ever to think and act strategically. Otherwise, all the talk about "learning organisation" will amount to little more than another management fad.

Thinking strategically starts with reflection on the deepest nature of an undertaking and on the central challenges it poses. It develops with understanding of focus and timing. Focus means knowing where to place one's attention. Timing means having a sense of an unfolding dynamic. Although every organisational setting is unique, all organisations develop learning capabilities according to the same generic patterns. Some changes are intrinsically long term; they cannot be achieved quickly, but only assume lasting importance in concert with slower-occurring changes. Some changes can be achieved directly; others occur as by-products of effort focused elsewhere. Understanding such issues is the essence of strategic thinking.

Strategic thinking also addresses core dilemmas. Inevitably, one of the factors that make significant change difficult is conflict among competing goals and norms: We want to distribute power and authority and yet we also want to improve control and co-ordination. We want organisations to be more responsive to changes in their environment and yet more stable and coherent in their sense of identity, purpose and vision. We want high productivity and high creativity. Good strategic thinking brings such dilemmas to the surface, and uses them to catalyse imagination and innovation.


At some time, most of us have been a member of a "great team". We probably remember the trust, the relationships, and the acceptance, the synergy - and the results that we achieved. But we often forget that great teams rarely start off as great. Usually, they start as a group of individuals. It takes time to develop the knowledge of working as a whole. Great teams are learning organisations - groups of people who, over time, enhance their capacity to create what they truly desire to create

Looking more closely at the development of such a team, you see that people are changed, often profoundly. There is a deep learning cycle. Team members develop new skills and capabilities which alter what they can do and understand. As new capabilities develop, so too do new awareness and sensibilities. Over time, as people start to see and experience the world differently, new beliefs and assumptions begin to form, which enables further development of skills and capabilities.

This deep learning cycle constitutes the essence of a learning organisation - the development not just of new capacities, but of fundamental shifts of mind, individually and collectively. The five basic learning disciplines are the means by which this deep learning cycle is activated:
1. Personal mastery
2. Mental models
3. Shared vision
4. Team learning
5. Systems thinking

Sustained commitment to the disciplines keeps the cycle going. When this cycle begins to operate, the resulting changes are significant and enduring.

New skills and capabilities

A genuine learning cycle is operating when we can do things we couldn't do before. Evidence of new skills and capabilities deepens our confidence that, in fact, real learning is occurring. The skills and capabilities that characterise learning organisations fall into three natural groupings:
- Aspiration: the capacity of individuals, teams, and eventually larger organisations to orient themselves toward what they truly care about, and to change because they want to, not just because they need to. All of the learning disciplines, but particularly the practice of personal mastery and building shared vision, develop these capabilities.
- Reflection and conversation: the capacity to reflect on deep assumptions and patterns of behaviour, both individually and collectively. Most of what passes for conversation in contemporary society is more like a Ping-Pong game than true talking and thinking together. Each individual tosses his or her view at the other. Each then responds. Often, we are preparing our response before we have even heard the other person's view. In effect, we are "taking our shot" before we have even received the other's ball. "Learningful" conversations require individuals capable of reflecting on their own thinking. These skills emerge especially strongly in the disciplines of mental models and team learning.
- Conceptualisation: the capacity to see larger systems and forces at play and to construct public, testable ways of expressing the views. What seemed so simple from my individual point of view looks much less so when I see it from other's points of view. But constructing coherent descriptions of the whole requires conceptualisation skills not found in traditional organisations. Systems-thinking is vital for these skills, especially in concert with the reflectiveness and openness fostered by working with mental models.

The skills and capabilities required in building learning organisations shape what we can understand and accomplish. But they are unusual because they affect us deeply. They are not skills of specialisation. They inevitably lead to new awareness because they bring about deep shifts in how we think and interact with one another.

New awareness and sensibility

As our new skills and capabilities develop, the world we "see" literally shifts. For example, as we become better in systems thinking, we start to "see" underlying structures driving behaviour. Where we might have leaped immediately to blame someone in the past, we now have an instinctive awareness of the forces compelling them to act as they do. Similarly, with increased awareness of our mental models, we become increasingly aware of the ways in which we continually construct our views of the world. Rather than "seeing" a customer as "tough to deal with", we are more able to hear the exact words she or he said, and recognise how their words trigger our own mental models. Rather than "seeing" a "mature market", we see assumptions and practices that have gone unquestioned for years - and perhaps begin to imagine alternatives.

When a group begins to advance in the practice of dialogue a new type of listening emerges. People begin to listen to the whole, hearing not only what individuals say, but deeper patterns of meaning that flow through the group. For example, it is quite common in advanced dialogues for people to report that someone else gave voice to the thoughts they were about to say. This eventually quiets our anxieties about "getting our points out". More importantly, it gradually builds a subtle awareness of collective thought that profoundly transforms our experience of what is possible in genuine conversation.

As we practice the disciplines of personal mastery and shared vision we become increasingly aware of the presence or absence of spirit in an enterprise. We become more and more conscious of when we (and others) are operating based on our vision, versus when we are simply reacting to events. When a decision must be made by a team, people see the alternative in light of their vision and sense of purpose; and they often see new alternatives which would not have been visible if their deeper purpose were obscure.

New attitude and beliefs

Gradually, new awareness is assimilated into basic shifts in attitudes and beliefs. This does not happen quickly. But, when it does, it represents change at the deepest level in an organisation's culture - the assumptions we don't see.

Deep beliefs are often inconsistent with espoused values in organisations. The organisation might espouse an ideal of "empowering" people, but and attitude that "they won't let us do it" prevails. Thus, even though espoused values change, the culture of the organisation tends to remain the same. It is a testament to our naiveté about culture that we think that we can change it by simply declaring new values. Such declarations usually produce only cynicism.

But deep beliefs and assumptions can change as experience changes, and when this happens culture changes. The carrier of culture is the story we tell ourselves over and over again. As we gradually see and experience the world anew, we start to tell a new story.

The set of deep beliefs and assumptions - the story - that develops over time in a learning organisation is so different from the traditional hierarchical, authoritarian organisational worldview that it seems to describe a completely different world. For example, in this world we surrender the belief that a person must be "in control" to be effective. We become willing to reveal our uncertainties, to be ignorant, to show incompetence - knowing that these are essential preconditions to learning because they set free our innate capacity for curiosity, wonder, and experimentalism. We start to give up our faith in the analytic perspective as the answer to all of life's problems. Eventually, a deep confidence develops within us. We begin to see that we have far greater latitude to shape our future than is commonly believed. This is not naïve arrogance. It develops in concert with awareness of the inherent uncertainties in life, and knowledge that no plan - however well thought out - is ever adequate. This confidence is based simply on firsthand experience of the power of people living with integrity, openness, commitment, and collective intelligence - when contrasted to traditional organisational cultures based on fragmentation, compromise, defensiveness, and fear.


The real work of building learning organisations is the work of the deep learning cycle. It is the province of all who engage in ongoing practice of the learning disciplines. But it takes place within a "shell" of architecture - of guiding ideas, innovations in infrastructure, and theory, methods, and tools.

Guiding ideas

Good ideas drive out dad ideas. The problem with most companies is that they have no good ideas. Like a bad ecology, lack of good ideas or even having bad ideas pollute the organisational climate and become self-reinforcing.

Guiding ideas (or governing ideas) can be developed and articulated deliberately. Indeed, this has long been a central function of genuine leadership. Guiding ideas for learning organisations start with vision, values, and purpose: what the organisation stands for and what its members seek to create. Every organisation, whether deliberately or not, is governed according to some explicit principles. They are not necessarily benign. Perhaps the most pernicious guiding idea to penetrate to the heart of Western business management is that the purpose of the enterprise is to maximize return of the shareholders investment. If people really come to believe this, then whatever ideas are articulated will, by definition of the organisation's purpose, be subordinate to making money. By contrast the Japanese view is that a company is not a machine but a living organism, and, much like an individual, it can have collective sense of identity and fundamental purpose. This is the organisational equivalent of self knowledge - a shared understanding of what the company stands for, where it's going, what kind of world it wants to live in, and, most importantly, how it intends to make that world a reality.

Very often attempts to articulate guiding ideas in organisations result only in mission or vision statements. What, then, distinguishes powerful guiding ideas? The first distinguishing feature is philosophical depth. Agreeing genuinely the fundamental purpose of a company requires a long time (investment) in study and conversation among the key persons of the company. This the contrast to only traditionally having short meetings where the management team drafts mission or vision statements.

Traditional organisations are designed to provide for the first three levels of Maslow's hierarchy of human needs - food, shelter, and belonging. Since these are now widely available to members of industrial society, these organisations do not provide anything particularly unique to command the loyalty and commitment of people. The ferment in management today will continue until organisations begin to address the higher order needs: self respect and self actualization. That articulates a larger context within which to consider the specifics of an organisation's mission, vision, and values. It suggests that changes in the world offer a new opportunity for organisations to reach for higher aspirations. Regardless of whether you agree with these views, it is clear that they arise from considerable thought. They carry a sense of passionate conviction not captured in most mission statements. Years are needed to develop "a guiding philosophy" for the organisation and that means patience and perseverance.

The second distinguishing feature of powerful guiding ideas follows from the first - seeing the process as ongoing. Guiding ideas are not static. Their meaning, and sometimes their expression, evolve as people reflect and talk about them, and as they are applied to guide decisions and action. This, of course, is the central tenet of the discipline of building shared vision - that shared visions live in our ongoing conversations about what we seek together to create.

Three key guiding ideas for learning organizations

Are there guiding ideas relevant for all efforts to build learning organisations? One example offers three interrelated ideas which constitute the philosophical core of the systems perspective. All three of these ideas question bedrock tacit assumptions of the Western cultural tradition.

The primacy of the whole suggests that relationships are, in a genuine sense, more fundamental than things, and that wholes are primordial to parts. We do not have to create interrelatedness. The world is already interrelated.

In the West, we normally tend to think the opposite. We tend to assume that parts are primary, existing somehow independent of the wholes within which they are constituted. In fact, how we define "parts" is highly subjective, a matter of perspective and purpose. There is no intrinsic set of categories, no innate way to define elements that is built into the nature of the "real thing" we are looking at. The primacy of the whole is even more compelling when we consider living systems.

In the realm of management and leadership, many people are conditioned to see our "organisation" as things rather than as patterns of interaction. We look for solutions that will "fix problems", as if they were external and can be fixed without "fixing" that which is within us that led to their creation. Consequently, we are inevitably drawn into an endless spiral of superficial quick fixed, worsening difficulties in the long run, and an ever-deepening sense of powerlessness. In organisations, articulating the primacy of the whole as a guiding idea may be the first step in helping people break this vicious cycle.

The community nature of the self challenges us to see the interrelatedness that exists in us. Just as we tend to see parts as primordial to wholes, we tend to see the individual primordial to the community in which the individual is embedded. When somebody asks us to talk about ourselves, we talk about family, work, things we care about, and what we do for fun. But in all of this talk, where is our "self"? The answer is nowhere, because the self is not a thing. The self is a point of view that unifies the flow of experience into a coherent narrative - a narrative striving to connect with other narratives. More over, the narrative is deeply informed by our culture. The stories we construct to make sense of our experience, to give meaning to our actions and thoughts, are stories that we have learned to construct.

When we forget the community nature of the self, we identify our self with our ego. We then assign a primordial value to the ego (part) and see the community (whole) as secondary. We see the community as nothing but a network of contractual commitments to symbolic and economic exchanges. Encounters with others become transactions that can add or subtract to the possessions of the ego.

The resulting loss is incalculable - isolation, loneliness, and loss of our "sense of place". We lose a sense of self which other cultures know very well. For example, in many indigenous cultures the essence of being a person is being in relationship to other people. In such cultures, our unquestionable "reality" of separation is not so "real". A culture where people greet one another with "I see you", and where speaking a person's name brings him or her into existence as a person, may seem "crazy" to us. But it is perfectly consistent with a systems view of life, which suggests that the self is never "given" and is always in a process of transformation.

The community nature of the self opens the door to powerful and beneficial changes in our underlying values. When we do not take other people as objects for our use, but see them as fellow human beings with whom we can learn and change, we open new possibilities for being ourselves more fully.

The generative power of language illuminates the subtle interdependency operating whenever we interact with "reality" and implies a radical shift in how we see some of these changes coming about. We participate more deeply than we imagine in shaping the world that we perceive.

Philosophers have given the name "naïve realism" to the worldview which holds rigid positions like the primacy of the parts and the isolated nature of the self. This worldview takes reality as a given entity outside our perception, and sees language as the tool through which we describe this external reality "out there". We have no actual way of ever knowing what is "out there". Whenever we articulate what we see, our language interacts with our direct experience. The "reality" we bring forth arises from this interaction.

The alternative to "naïve realism" is recognizing the generative role of the traditions of observation and meaning shared by a community - and that these traditions are all that we ever have. When we are confronted by multiple interpretations of the "real world" the alternative to seeking to determine which is "right" is to admit multiple interpretations and seek those that are most useful for a particular purpose, knowing that there is no ultimately "correct" interpretation. The alternative to seeing language as describing an independent reality is to recognize the power of language that allows us to freshly interpret our experience - and might enable us to bring forth new realities.

When we forget the generative power of language, we quickly confuse our maps for the territory. We develop a level of certainty that robs us of the capacity for wonder that stifles our ability to see new interpretations and new possibilities for action. Such are the roots of belief systems that become rigid, entrenched, and ultimately self-protective. When we forget the contingent nature of our understanding, who we are becomes our beliefs and views. This is why we defend against an attack on our beliefs as if it were against an attack on ourselves.

Theory, methods, and tools

If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don't bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking. There are many tools and methods vital to developing learning organisations. All of these methods and tools help us enhance the capabilities that characterise learning organisations: aspiration, reflection and conversation, conceptualization. Theories are fundamental sets of propositions about how the world works.

Thinking in terms of theory, methods and tools sheds new light on the meaning of the "disciplines for building learning organisations". These disciplines represent bodies of "actionable knowledge" comprised of underlying theories, and practical tools and methods derived form these theories.

Through developing practical tools and methods, theories are brought to practical tests that in turn lead to the improvement of the theories. This continuous cycle - of creating theories, developing and applying practical methods and tools based on the theories, leading to new insights that improve the theories - is the primary engine of growth in science and technology.

The same basic connections between theory, method, and tools underlie each of learning disciplines. Each embodies practical tools, which are grounded in underlying theory and methodology. In systems thinking, the tool of system archetypes is based on a general methodology, called "system dynamics", for understanding how the feedback structure of complex systems generates observed patterns of behaviour. The methodology, in turn, is based on the theory of complex feedback systems. One part of that theory describes how complex systems involve reinforcing and balancing feedback processes. In the discipline of working with mental models, the power of methodology derives from underlying theories about the nature of mental models, and about the sources of defensiveness when we perceive threat or potential embarrassment. These theories have their origins in developments in linguistics and in cognitive and social psychology.

Why is it important for tools to be based on underlying theories? "Theory-less" tools are not likely to significantly add to our store of generalizable knowledge. Without underlying theory, you get tools which might work in one situation, but you don't know why. They might fail in other situations, but you don't why either. Ultimately the tool's usefulness may depend on irreproducible aspects of a particular person's skill. With no underlying theory, we may not always appreciate the limitations of a tool, or even its counter productiveness if used inappropriately. In our rush to solve practical problems, we may grab at ready-made solutions that neither address the fundamental causes of a problem, nor stretch our thinking in important new directories.

Herein lays the strongest reason to look for tools based on important new theories: only such tools have the power to change how we think. Most tools introduced into management to solve problems, however innovative they may be, are based on conventional ways of thinking. After all, without underlying theory, how could they be otherwise? Such tools maybe useful, but they will not be transformative. They often leave deeper sources of problems unchanged.

For example, many useful "systems analysis" tools are available for diagramming, analyzing, and redesigning organisational business processes. Some of these tools have been applied and refined over many years. But virtually all of them are based on a static way of seeing the world. They recognize that "everything in the system is connected", but they characterize that connectedness in terms of "detail complexity". They help to create a snapshot showing how a system works at a moment in time. This helps to rearrange the elements of that system into a more ideal picture.

But conventional static systems analysis tools offer no understanding of how the problems we have today have developed over time, especially if the causes are nonobvious. Nor will they help in understanding the likely consequences of our future efforts at change, especially where we might take actions that make things better today but worse tomorrow. Because they are a product of our present ways of thinking, static systems tools will tend to merely reinforce the notion that "somebody else" created our problems. They offer no penetrating insights into how our own actions may have caused our present problems - or how our own perspective led us to the obvious "fixes" that eventually made our problems worse. For this you need a dynamic, not a static, perspective.

Relying on our present ways of thinking, it is very difficult to develop tools that change that way of thinking. For this we must find or generate new theory. Although relatively rare, there are strong examples of the impact of managerial tools and methods supported by bringing in a new body of theory to a field where it had not yet been applied. For example, the traditional quality management tools like control charts derive their usefulness from the theory of stationary statistical processes, a well-established field within mathematics.

Innovations in infratructure

Infrastructure is the means through which an organisation makes available resources to support people in their work. Just as an architect and contractor of a house must develop mechanism to get the right building materials and bring them to the site, builders of learning organisations must develop and improve infrastructural mechanisms so that people have resources they need: time management support, money, information, ready contact with colleagues, and more.

Organisations seeking to enhance learning have experimented with diverse innovations infrastructures. The innovations in infrastructure that will support emerging learning organisations encompass a broad range of changes in "social architecture" - including changes in organisational structures (such as self-managing structures), new designs for work processes, new reward systems, information networks, and much more.

Planning is a very traditional managerial responsibility. Also planning may be understood as learning. A broad array of new planning tools and methods, such as scenario analysis and systems modelling may lead to a new understanding of the role of planning as an infrastructure to enhance learning throughout an organisation. Planning is no longer primarily a staff function for coming up with the proper "answer" which managers must then implement, but a process whereby management teams change their shared mental models of their company, their markets, and their competitors. This contrasts sharply with many companies which attempt to drive learning through the training and education departments. While ongoing training and education are important, they are less integral to most business operations than planning is. Even though line managers may believe that an initiative pushes by training or human resources is worth-while, in a world where people are already overcommitted and budgets are rarely abundant, what is not integral to the business often does not get done.

The most important innovations in infrastructure for learning organisations will enable people to develop capabilities like systems thinking and collaborative inquiry within the context of their jobs. It matters little if we are masterful at inquiry in training sessions, but can only pontificate in real management meetings; or if we are accomplished in systems thinking exercises but cannot apply then to real work setting. Until people can make their "work space" a learning space, learning will always be a "nice idea" - peripheral, not central.

Managerial practice field

Following this reasoning, we can focus on one potentially significant innovation in infrastructure - the managerial practice field. The underlying idea grows from comparing organisational settings where teams learn reliably with other settings where little team learning occurs.

As examples there are two types of managerial practice fields. Learning laboratories are focused on particular issue areas, like new product development and cycle time in complex supply chains. Dialogue practices focus on the quality of conversation and capability for collective thinking. In some cases these take place with intact teams, such as management teams; in other cases, the "teams" are diverse groups of people who need one another to take effective action in a broad area of concern. The dialogue projects create a different sort of practice field, which is not defined by a set of particular management issues but by a common commitment to generate deeper levels of conversation which can penetrate into whatever issues, both personal and substantive, need to be addressed.

In both types of practice field cases, the overarching principle is to establish a new cycle of learning that connects practice and performance. And, in both types of cases, initial evidence suggests that the practice field concept may, indeed, be a breakthrough in learning infrastructure. The next steps are to diffuse the practice fields more widely, to further test their merits, and to see if they may indeed constitute significant new infrastructures for organisational learning.


Leaders' intent on developing learning organisations must focus on all three of the architectural design elements. Without all three, the triangle collapses.

Without guiding ideas, there is no passion, no overarching sense of direction or purpose. People ask, "Why are we doing this?" or "What's this change in infrastructure all about?" Top management gets fired up about "total quality management", "reengineering" or some other hot idea. Time and resource are poured into achieving intended changes. But, after a year, with little tangible to show for the effort, something else hot comes along and the effort is abandoned. Ultimately, the organisation remains at the whim of circumstance and external conditions. This happens again and again unless people discover that leadership involves articulating transcendent guiding ideas to which they will stay committed.

Without theory, methods and tools, people cannot develop the new skills and capabilities required for deeper learning. Efforts at change lack depth and are ultimately seen as superficial. For example, the CEO and managers through the organisation may espouse a guiding idea about "openness", and the importance of surfacing mental models. But if people do not practice regularly with suitable tools, conversations polarise when issues get hot. People withhold their genuine views to avoid uncontrollable conflict, trust erodes, and "openness" is seen as a façade of "nice ideas" inconsistent with what actually happens in the organisation.

Without innovations in infrastructure, inspiring ideas and powerful tools lack credibility because people have neither the opportunity nor resources to pursue their visions or apply the tools. Changes cannot take root and become part of the fabric of organisational life. Learning is left to chance. It is not managed with the same commitment that other critical organisational activities are given. Efforts to promote systems thinking, reflection, or other learning capabilities have little, enduring organisation-wide impact. Infrastructure that is incongruent with guiding ideas can also lead to cynicism. Managers may espouse that "Human beings are intrinsically motivated to learning", but if people feel that they must pursue learning only "on their own time" then they lose faith not just in the organisation, but in the idea of learning.

Interestingly, when the three main guiding ideas are all present, basic innovations in infrastructure typically occur far more easily and sustainably. Levels of supervisory management are removed and don't return. Quality inspectors are eliminated permanently. Authority to study and improve work processes is pushed down to front-line workers, who embrace it as their own. Guided by an overall philosophy, and empowered by effective tools and methods and by the authority to take action, the quality improvement process then begins to lead to significant change.

Moreover, pursuing all of the elements of the architecture simultaneously generates synergies that do not occur when attention is pad to only one of the elements alone.

Avoiding the reenginnering "quick fix" of changing structures only

Particularly in the arena of "reengineering that is popular today, a synergy is needed between infrastructure innovation and theory, tools and methods. Organisations are attempting to reorganise more around "horizontal" processes that cut across traditional vertical functions. But such "horizontal process" organisations are much more interdependent than traditional functional organisations. This places a particular burden on people to learn together and practice systemic thinking.

Without a well-articulated theory and set of tools, most reengineering efforts are driven instead by vague concerns to eliminate redundancy or reduce costs. Even if such early efforts are successful, they do not build an organisation's capability to continually reengineer it. Often, the organisations become dependent on expert reengineering consultants.

Already, critiques have begun to surface about the arbitrariness and unreliability of reengineering when it is not guided by clear theory. Re-engineering in not exactly a tool box - more of a direction, a cause, a faith in the possibilities of top-down revolutions. When considering common causes of reengineering failures, all items are symptoms of the absence of appropriate theory: failure to understand the processes that are being demolished before the re-engineering is implemented: attacking too many processes - there are usually only about five or six that are truly significant; exclusion of some parts of the corporation from any impact or consequences - i.e. sacred cows, and - excessive speed - most successful re-engineering programmes take three to your years.

In corporate arenas, senior managers are often eager to make changes in infrastructure, believing that the more dramatic and quick changes they make, the more long-lasting and positive the effect may be. Yet, there is abundant evidence that changes in infrastructure, like reorganisations and changes in reward systems often have far less impact than expected. One reason is that they conflict with established guiding ideas.

Despite the eagerness and political payoff that often come from changes in infrastructure, when we first work to articulate guiding ideas, and then design the infrastructure reform in harmony with those ideas, the results seem to be far more sustainable. Links to guiding ideas allow an infrastructure reform effort to mode from a reactive to a creative orientation.

Preparing the soil and developing the seeds

Many of the methods and tools of learning organisations will be impossible to implement widely without changes in traditional guiding ideas in management. In turn, new guiding ideas will prove impossible to instil widely without a corresponding commitment to appropriate methods and tools. The reason, again and again, is that the systemic insights are inconsistent with traditional guiding ideas. The precious seeds of new insight fall on barren soil.

For example, implementing systemic insights may require that diverse organisational interests cooperate in pursuing policies that might be suboptimal for individual functional areas. But such behaviour can seemingly contradict traditions of functional excellence. Unless commitment to the mission and vision of the larger organisation is greater than commitment to individual functional goals, functional goals will predominate.

Today, many executives are articulating a new philosophy revolving around "empowering people". But few organisations are working hard to introduce tools and methods to actually help people to make more intelligent decisions, especially decisions that improve system wide performance. The result will likely be organisations which decentralise authority for a while, find that many poor and uncoordinated decisions result, and then abandon the "empowerment" fad and recentralize. The "empowered" soil will lie fallow, with no seeds to grow- this, of course, is precisely what many of the newly "empowered" workers, cynical from past management fads, fear.


The power of the above ideas comes when we put the pieces together, an image emerges of the full scope of the work of building learning organisations: an image that is both more complete and more richly textured than can be seen from "the five disciplines" alone.

The triangle of organisational architecture represents the most tangible form of efforts. (Indeed, that is precisely why the triangle symbol is used: all physical structures start with the triangle. In three-dimensional construction, the most elementary physical structure is the triangle's cousin, the tetrahedron.) By contrast, the circle represents the more subtle underlying discipline-based learning cycle. (As a form, the circle is inherently abstract and intangible - with no edges or vertices, with no beginning and no end, an ancient symbol of ongoing movement.) The key focus for activity is in the triangle. The central causality of change is in the circle. Both continuously affect and influence one another. Together they represent the tangible and subtle changes involved in building learning organisations.

We tend to assume that which is most tangible is most substantial, and that which is intangible is unsubstantial. In fact, the opposite is true. A set of guiding ideas articulated by one generation of management can be changed by another. An infrastructure developed and implemented today can be resigned tomorrow. A current set of tools and methods can be supplanted by a new set of tools and methods. The very reasons why we focus on the triangle - because here is where we can make changes - also mean that those changes can be short-lived.

By contrast, the deep learning cycle, which seems so evanescent and uncertain at first glance, endures- once we begin to assimilate systems thinking as a way of seeing the world become. Once we learn to distinguish our assumptions from the "data" upon which those assumptions are based, we are forever more aware of our own thinking. Once we begin to operate with a genuine sense of vision, we have a permanent understanding of the difference between reacting and creating. Once a group has participated in true dialogue, its members do not forget. Changes produced by the deep learning cycle are often irreversible.

There are countless cases where people continue to pursue their dreams even though there is no organisation reward, once they have developed enough confidence and competence to make progress. They simply do it because "it is the right thing to do". It sometimes becomes impossible for senior management to uproot a shared commitment to systems thinking and openness, once it has become established. Learning teams within organisations simply outlive unsympathetic bosses.

This does not mean that, having begun to practice the learning disciplines, we will retain high levels of mastery automatically. As in any discipline, our level of expertise ultimately depends on how far along our own developmental path we travel, and on our commitment to continual practice. But we do not forget the basic principles we have learned. The first deep effect of the learning cycle is orientational - we become oriented to a way of being that remains with us, as a sort of inner compass. We may not always operate in the manner of that discipline, but we tend to know when we are, and when we are not.

Balancing attention between triangle and the circle

While changes in the circle are what really matter, attention is often best placed on the triangle of guiding ideas, infrastructure, and theory, methods and tools. These represent the operational issues where concentrated time and energy can produce results.

Yet, while we are focused on the triangle we are mindful of the circle. When you spin a top, the primary mode of movement is rotation around its axis. But, after a while, a secondary mode of movement develops. The top begins to recess, as the axis itself slowly, gradually begins to move around its original position. This precession is quite mysterious to the casual observer because it has no visible relation to the obvious rotation of the top. Unless we understand the dynamics of the top as a system, we might not even notice the precession, and we certainly wouldn't tend to connect this subtle movement to the spinning. So it is with the deep process of learning. For a long time it may appear that there is nothing going on except the surface activity of the learning. People talk about new ideas. They practice the application of tools and methods. Yet, deeper changes are in the offing. When those deeper changes start to become evident, many people will not even notice them and those who do will often not connect then with the obvious activity.

Yet, the two are connected in subtle ways. The deeper changes are evoked only by sustaining the surface movement. If the rotation stops, so too will the precession. If we stop working to articulate guiding ideas, to improve infrastructure, and so apply the tools and methods embodied in the learning disciplines, the deeper learning cycle will not progress.

Similarly, the deeper changes will gradually affect the work on architecture. Potential guiding ideas like "openness" and "localness" will have little conviction until enough people experience the collective intelligence of the whole that is possible when capabilities for dialogue, mental models, shared vision, and systems thinking develop. This is one reason we generally advise against writing down mission or philosophy statements too hastily. A premature articulation can "freeze" people around principles which have not yet been experienced, precluding deeper understanding and conviction.


Ultimately, all learning is judged by results. The rationale for any strategy for building a learning organisation revolves around the premise that such organisations will produce dramatically improved results, compared to more traditional organisations. Whether the results include profit, time to market, customer loyalty, or other agreed-upon measures of effectiveness, learning must ultimately be assessed in terms of "how well the game is played". None of us would think a product development team was learning if it did not improve its products, or sales tem if it did not establish more loyal customers.

The problem is knowing how and when to measure important results. There are two interrelated issues in assessing results of learning processes: patience and quantification.

We need patience precisely because deeper learning often does not produce tangible evidence for considerable time. Yet, in effect, impatient managers often do just that to asses whether or not learning processes are progressing. Measurements that are made prematurely will lead to erroneous conclusions. This principle, while easy to state, can be very difficult for impatient managers and organisations to practice.

The second problem with assessing results is quantification. Again, there is a simple guiding principle: "Measure quantitatively that which should be quantified; measure qualitatively that which should not be quantified". In almost all organisational learning settings, there will be some important quantifiable results: sales, time to market, product quality, total cost (especially including many costs which are often hidden, like life cycle costs), and profit. But many of the most important results of organisational learning are not quantifiable: intelligence, openness, innovativeness, high moral, courage, confidence, and genuine caring - for the customer, for one another, and for our shared aspirations. Despite the nonquantifiable nature of such results, they are not unknowable. There are many ways that people can come to agreement in making assessments of progress in producing such results. But there are also many dangers.

In particular, organisational cultures that are saturated exclusively in scientific principles have an insatiable appetite for quantitative measurement - even when they misrepresent truth and reality. For example, management often uses quantitative "proxies" for qualitative results, such as the proxies used with operating staffs. Managers often become obsessed with the proxies and not with what the proxies are intended to represent. This often causes destructive games playing in companies, even to the point of causing people to do things to make the proxy look good counter to the desired result. There are time, when the organisation would have been better off without a measurement than with a faulty one. But this can be a difficult lesson for control-oriented cultures.

The implicate order

Lastly, there is also a level still more subtle than the deep learning cycle. This most subtle level is, however, also the most difficult to talk about. In fact, we may only infer its presence, since there is no tangible evidence of its existence. But ultimately it may prove vital to a full understanding of the deep shifts in awareness and capabilities of learning organisations.

The true reality is different from appearance, or the reality we perceive. We may distinguish between actual and apparent reality with the terms Implicate and Explicate Order, respectively. The Implicate Order is to be a metaphysical entity responsible for matter and energy as well as consciousness. It is to be the fundamental underlying substructure of everything.

The most subtle aspects of "thinking strategically" lies in "knowing what needs to happen". This is extraordinarily difficult to describe, but many often feel that all we are ever doing is "listening" purposefully to what is needed.

Such questions may hold a particular power as we stand here at the outset of the journey of learning about learning organisations. A quest in life is toward understanding the roots of fragmentation in our ways of thinking and being. It should be said that wholeness is what is real, and that fragmentation is the response of this whole to man's action. Insofar as the quest for learning organisations might re-establish "the primacy of the whole" in human affairs, perhaps the quests are more intertwined than we can at present know.

[The material of this text has been as a major reference material for many papers in differerent seminars or conferences]