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June 26, 1995

4 Min Read
Is your company a learning organization?

I must tell you about a book that is likely to have the same revolutionary impact on management theory and practice as did F.W. Taylor's writings on scientific management.

As you know, Taylor emphasized that managers should be the "thinkers" and that workers should be the "doers." This concept, coupled withWeber's concept of bureaucracy, and Fayol's five principles of management, provided the foundation upon which our traditional management paradigm was built. It has endured because it enabled the U.S. to be an industrial powerhouse during most of the 20th century when the business environment was relatively stable.

Changes for the 21st century. Now, the business environment is undergoing drastic changes. The pressures of global competition, reinforced by the information revolution, are forcing firms to investigate and consider adopting more appropriate management paradigms. Organizations are starting to realize that they can no longer be successful when they tolerate inefficiency in their use of people by separating the thinkers and doers; relying solely on top-down planning; control, and supervision; and accepting the delays and inflexibilities of bureaucracy. They also realize that any such change should be revolutionary, not incremental.

In their search for a more appropriate management paradigm, some of our leading firms are experimenting with a concept called The Learning Organization. Author Peter Senge covers this topic in his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of Learning Organizations. In a little more than 400 pages, he presents a clear, easily understood discussion of this subject. It is based upon Senge's work with a number of organizations, including Ford, Digital, Apple, and AT&T, and on his experiences working as director of the systems thinking and organizational learning program at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

According to Senge, the fifth discipline is concerned with a shift of mind from seeing parts to seeing wholes, from seeing people as helpless reactors to seeing them as active participants in shaping reality.

Organizational learning disabilities. The following sampler should give you some ideas of what this book is about. It discusses seven organizational learning disabilities, which inhibit organizational learning, including the following two. "I am my position." People tend to view their responsibilities as limited to the boundaries of their job and tend not to see or identify with the big picture. "The enemy is out there." The tendency to place the blame on someone or something outside of ourselves when things go wrong.

The fifth discipline is systems thinking and is described as the cornerstone that integrates four core disciplines into a coherent body of theory and practice. These four are Building Shared Vision, which encourages a commitment to the long term; Mental Models, which focus on new ways of viewing the world; Team Learning, which develops the skills of groups to search out the larger picture and look beyond their individual perspectives; and Personal Mastery, which fosters the personal motivation to continually learn how our actions affect the world.

Each of these disciplines is analyzed in detail along with its application in real world situations.

Ask the Manager

Q: Why have corporate philosophy (or mission) statements emerged as a useful management tool?

A: In the past, such statements were usually given little credence. They were often viewed as collections of platitudes that were not to be taken seriously, because they had little or no relationship to the "real world" of top-down command and control.

Today, in response to a very dynamic and competitive world, some organizations are struggling to move from their old command-and-control-type structures to flatter, more responsive network-type organizations. These firms use philosophy (or mission) statements to guide individual, team, and corporate behavior and decisions, and to convey the organization's culture.

To be effective, the statement should use compelling, vivid prose. It should be easily grasped and remembered. It must be developed and communicated so that it will raise everyone's awareness of the philosophy and increase feelings of ownership. It cannot be imposed from above. The firm must imbed its philosophical principles into the fabric of organizational life, and translate general policy statements into specific policies. Certainly the firm's reward systems must be compatible with and reinforce these principles, because, over the long term, people tend to do what they are rewarded for.

For example, if a firm's philosophy is "Excellence through people," we would expect statements relating to positive employee behavior; employee empowerment; communication with employees; appropriate employee compensation, training and performance appraisal systems; emphasis on promotion from within; and selection of managers based upon competence in both people and technical skills.

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