Venture Knowledgist Quality Integration
THINKING STRATEGICALLY ABOUT THE LEARNING
OF AN ORGANIZATION TOWARDS EXCELLENCE
- 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).
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
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.
THE ESSENCE OF "THE LEARNING ORGANIZATION"
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
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
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
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 ARCHITECTURE OF LEARNING ORGANIZATION
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
THE INTEGRITY OF THE ARCHITECTURE
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
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
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
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
Preparing the soil and developing the
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.
PUTTING ALL TOGETHER
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
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
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
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]