Why Organizations Can’t Learn 2: What Does it Mean for an Organization to Learn? – Peter Senge

Peter Senge
Peter Senge, author of “The Fifth Principle”

As is typically the case with business buzzwords, “learning organization” means different things to different people. However, unlike many business buzzwords that simply rehash the same old same old, there is something vital here that is worth getting to the bottom of.

It would be great if we could look up the term in the dictionary and get a concise definition that was useful. Unfortunately we cannot. As a relatively new concept that is frequently misunderstood, the term “organizational learning” needs some careful grounding. Our approach will be to assemble a definition after considering the perspectives of four of the field’s pioneering thinkers. What better place to start than with the guy responsible for bringing the term into popular use.

Peter Senge

In his book “The Fifth Discipline” (1990), Peter Senge says that, although it’s natural for individuals to wish to learn, structural obstacles within our organizations impede us from doing so. The solution is to become a learning organization, which — as he put it in his inspirational vision — are:

“…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

Senge’s framework for becoming a learning organization introduced ways of talking about organizations that were (and probably still are) unfamiliar to most business leaders. Instead of talking about policies, procedures and reporting relationships, he discussed human dynamics, relationships and feedback. He discussed the behavior of organizations in terms of human systems.

Human systems develop distinct boundaries and characteristic behaviors through interactions with other systems both inside and outside the organization. These systems are comprised of various subgroups of the individuals that make up the broader organization. Holism, the systems property that the whole does not equal the sum of the parts, holds, which in this context means that the aggregate behaviour of the system cannot always be inferred from the individual behaviors of its members. One implication is that behavior at the systems level can interfere with the intentions of constituents. This begins to answer the question that Senge posed:

“How can a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63?”

It’s not only the systems that populate our organizations that can hold us back but also the assumptions, prejudices and beliefs that populate our minds. These mental models, often operating unconsciously, filter our experience of the world and create self-fulfilling prophecies about what may or may not be possible within our organizations. So even though we believe that we can hold the emotional content of our mind at bay, while we objectively view and then rationally respond to the world, we cannot.

However not all the forces that operate upon us and within us work against us. Senge also describes the power of teams, the unifying effect of shared vision and the universal human drive to achieve mastery. These forces bring us together and can dramatically magnify the positive impact of what otherwise would be our isolated individual efforts.

Senge did not invent most of the concepts discussed in the Fifth discipline. What he did do is demonstrate how they interoperate in an organizational context. Developing greater awareness of organizations as systems, Senges urged, would foster our ability to identify and remove structural impediments to learning and to better organize ourselves to achieve the higher purpose of learning collectively.

It’s worth noting that many of the key concepts that Senge introduced to the business community in 1990 (e.g., feedback, systems behavior, shared vision, team learning, individual mastery, the importance of collaboration, etc.) are also key concepts of the Agile movement, usually thought of as starting with the Agile Manifesto published in 2001. The fact that both are rooted in the same principles should make clear that, although the two movements emerged from different disciplines (i.e., software development and organizational development (OD)), they share a common philosophy. A bit down the road we will discuss in greater detail how, along with other disciplines, ideas from software development and organizational development are coalescing into a broader business agility movement.


“The Fifth Discipline.” Senge, Peter. 1990.

Peter Senge is just one of the luminaries to have contributed to the definition of organizational learning. In the next three installments of this series, we will look at Karl Weick, David Snowden and Nassim Taleb, respectively.

Read more of the series:

Part 1: The Need to Learn

Part 3:  What Does it Mean for an Organization to Learn? – Karl Weick