Friday’s Finds #23

Peter Senge on Organizational Learning

I was offline for much of the week but I did manage to live-tweet Peter Senge’s presentation at the CSTD conference. Instead of my standard mix of Friday’s Finds, here is a special summation of a fascinating presentation. With no notes, no PowerPoint and one transparency on an overhead projector, Peter Senge held everyone’s attention.

The average life expectancy of large companies is about 30 years, but some are over 200 years old. What is the reason for this? Organizational learning! Basically, individual learning in organizations is irrelevant. Work is almost never done by one person alone. Almost all value is created by teams and networks of people.

In Silicon Valley it was observed that the more turbulent the employment situation, the more stable were the professional social networks of workers, whether employed or not.

Knowledge is the capacity for effective action (know how) and it is the  only aspect of knowledge that really matters in life. While learning may be generated in teams, this type of knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks.

The field of knowledge management was co-opted by information technology vendors, and became useless for organizational learning.

A practitioner (definition) is someone who is accountable for producing results.

The main factors contributing to organizational longevity are: a shared sense of identity, a tolerance for experiments (planting next year’s seeds), being fiscally conservative, and sensitivity to the environment. The last one is very important. Companies and industries must understand and support their environment (no fish, no fish sticks to sell).

We have had falling commodity (food) prices over time due to globalization. This equates directly to falling farmers’ revenue. A systems thinking approach would realize that this is not sustainable. Our global food system is the greatest generator of poverty in the world. We need to create global food chains that don’t drive farmers off their lands. Look at the Sustainable Food Lab whose goal is to accelerate the shift of sustainable food from niche to mainstream.

Did you know that it takes 250 litres of water to make 1 litre of Coca Cola? The company is now addressing this, but we all need to understand the entirety of the environments we live and work in. The first step is to see and understand the system. Then we need to take some time and reflect. In this way we can change the mental models we use to describe our world. All businesses are managed based on existing mental models. If you change the models, you can change the world.

A new business model, started in Europe, is that if you produce it, you are responsible for it forever (e.g. take back your car at the end of its life). This is a positive change  and social justice proponents, as well as environmentalists, have to stop being negative. We must see the extraordinary opportunities for change.

As training and development professionals, we were asked what is all this learning for. There were many responses, such as to improve the bottom line or to make a better world. Peter Senge showed us that the objective of all of our endeavours should be learning how to live together.

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