SUSTAINABILITY Peter Senge – The dynamics of change and sustainability

Peter Senge has received worldwide acclaim for his work in translating the abstract ideas of systems theory into tools for understanding economic and organisational change.
Named in 1999 by the Journal of Business Strategy as one of the 24 people who have had the greatest influence on business strategy over the prior 100 years, Senge is senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also chair of the Society of Organisational Learning (SoL), global community of corporations that he helped found in 1997.
He is co-author of The Dance of Change: The Challenges to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations.
In 1997, Harvard Business Review cited his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization as one of the seminal management books of the past 75 years.
Senge talks with Loren Gary about the disciplines that help create genuine learning organisation and how they come into play in his work around environmental sustainability issues.

In The Fifth Discipline, you write about the component technologies or learning disciplines that combine to create learning organisations. You group these disciplines into three broad areas; the first is the capacity for aspiration. Please explain what that is.
It has to do with what motivates change. It’s very common for people to think that real change only occurs if there’s crisis. That’s another way of saying that people have not developed capacity to change because they see opportunities for real innovation even before somebody has gun to their head. When an organisation changes only when it has to, that’s testimony to the fact that the people in it don’t have picture of the future that’s compelling enough to cause them to automatically bring about changes needed.
The capacity for aspiration has to do with creating such compelling picture. It involves the disciplines of personal mastery and building shared vision.

But people don’t aspire in vacuum. They have to be able to make sense of their current reality.
Right, but the problem is, people often have very different views of what’s going on. So just as they need sense of capacity to aspire and foster shared visions, they also need second broad capacity, which involves the ability to think together and reach some common understandings.
People often suppress their differences, choosing simply to salute the flag of what management says. But for organisational learning to take place, people have to be able to articulate their assumptions about what’s going on – in other words, to learn the discipline of bringing their differing mental models out into the open.
Organisational or team learning also requires the ability to overcome the fear of conflict so as to challenge one another’s thinking without invoking defensiveness. This is essentially the discipline of dialogue. If people think they always have to agree, the intelligence of the overall organisation will never be greater than the sum of its individuals’ intelligence. Collective intelligence comes from our differences: we achieve more integrative understanding by virtue of seeing how different people view particular situation.
These first four disciplines – personal mastery, building shared vision, working with mental models, and dialogue and team learning – all have to do with building the individual and collective capacity to have strong conviction about what we want to create as well as the capacity to think together.

What about the fifth discipline – systems thinking?
Oscar Wilde said, “For every complex problem, there’s simple solution. And it’s wrong.” How do we really deal with the world without either trivialising its complexity or overwhelming people with all the complexity? This is the third broad capacity and it’s where the discipline of systems thinking comes in.
Systems thinking has to do with learning how to see the interdependence – the processes of change that are always going on all around us but which we normally don’t see. In other words, the feedback loops, delays and other processes that require us to think not in linear, A-causes-B ways, but to focus instead on the pattern of interaction.
Thus, if there is constant friction between the manufacturing and sales divisions, systems thinking encourages us to focus not on the personalities of the respective vice presidents of each division, but on the underlying patterns of interaction between the two units. In so doing, we move beyond simply reacting to the symptoms of the problem to achieving measure of understanding of its root causes.
Taken together, the five disciplines of personal mastery, building shared vision, mental models, dialogue, and systems thinking comprise the three legs of stool: the capacity to aspire, the capacity for conversation, and the capacity to understand complexity. You need all three legs to create learning organisations; the capacities and the disciplines that support them are interdependent.

Why did you create the Society for Organisational Learning (SoL)? And which of the member organisations of SoL are particularly good integrators of the disciplines we’ve been discussing?
My colleagues and I founded SoL as continuation of MIT’s Centre for Organisational Learning, which was established in 1991. The idea was to move beyond the traditional consulting practice, which focuses on working with individual companies and to get companies working together – that is, to help companies do together what they couldn’t do by themselves. Today, I guess people would call it community of practice.
Then, too, after working with many different efforts to build learning capabilities in organisations, my colleagues and I felt that we could begin to detect patterns and recurring challenges across companies – whether they were high-tech manufacturing firms, more traditional manufacturing firms, service businesses, or even public schools. (In The Dance of Change we wrote about these challenges, grouping them into three broad areas: getting started, sustaining momentum and the more transcendent challenges involved in redesigning and rethinking the nature and purpose of the business.)
Today, there are SoL networks in more than 30 countries. There are number of successful enterprises involved in SoL that have made good progress in developing several of the five disciplines. Harley-Davidson was founding member, as were Intel and Hewlett-Packard. British Petroleum (BP) has been involved for the past 10 years. FedEx was very involved for many years; so was Ford. But I try to avoid holding up models because none has gone more than 10 percent or 20 percent of the way toward complete integration. This work is not something that you do overnight. You can make progress in the short term, but you never stop – it’s an ongoing journey.

In The Dance of Change, you list environmental intelligence as one of the six key intelligences required for organisations looking to develop robust systems approach to their impact on succeeding generations. Is environmental intelligence the focus of SoL’s work?
SoL isn’t solely about environmental sustainability issues. For example, some organisations that work with SoL are just focused on helping each other implement organisational learning tools. Others concentrate on issues related to manufacturing and product development.
There are also number of organisations in SoL that see sustainability issues as becoming really increasingly strategic in the world of business. Up until 10 years ago, very few businesses felt that way. The SoL Sustainability Consortium started to take off after famous 1997 speech by BP CEO John Browne, who essentially said, “If we wait until there’s 100 percent unanimity among scientists about global climate change, we will have waited too long to do anything about it.”
But the basic ideas of organisational learning do still come into play here, as w

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