Harvard Business Review described The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years. The five disciplines necessary for a learning organisation are:
- Personal Mastery
- Mental Models
- Shared Vision
- Team Learning
- Systems Thinking (which integrates the other four)
In the January 2017 issue of Inside Learning Technologies, I discussed personal mastery and mental models. The key challenge for learning professionals today is to help their enterprises become learning organisations, as described in Senge’s book. It is also to master the new literacies of the network era and promote critical thinking, for ourselves and others. Questioning existing hierarchies is necessary to create the organisations of the future where power and authority are shared, based on mutual trust. Personal knowledge mastery (taking control of our professional development) and an attitude of working in perpetual beta (continuous experimentation) are two of the disciplines required to develop the third discipline: Shared Vision, or our worldview.
Companies today need to become network-centric and especially learning-centric. Networked individuals are the new engaged citizens, and we have to connect with our professional communities, finding them where we can, often aided by social media. These awareness networks can keep us connected to the real world, through wide and diverse human relationships. We cannot rely on our ‘algorithmic overlords’ to tell us how to understand our environment. Building these networks is everyone’s responsibility.
We can develop a shared vision in our communities of practice. Finding communities of practice, where we can safely test alternative ways of thinking and doing, then becomes a priority. Professionals without communities to help them continuously refine their practice are at a real loss in this network era.
It is only by working and learning interdependently, retaining our autonomy, co-developing our mastery, and feeling a shared sense of relatedness that people are truly motivated. Workers have to feel they are part of something. Relatedness is the universal need to interact, be connected to, and care for others. This is what the military, organised religions, and political movements have understood for centuries.
Learning faster is not about taking more courses or consuming more information. It’s about have better connections. We can start by visually mapping our knowledge networks, as it is important to understand the makeup of our sources of knowledge. If our networks lack diversity, we may suffer from the effects of group-think or experience an echo chamber of opinion. While the concept of diversity is simple to understand, the practices to weave a diverse knowledge network can be difficult to make into habits. Personal knowledge mastery is not a tool set, but rather a discipline. It takes time, feedback, reflection, and active practice to master. It is the foundation for shared vision because without an individual moral and professional compass, we cannot integrate with a collective vision.
Organisations need to switch from short-term to long-term thinking about learning. Executives have to understand that learning is not something to get. People need time to master these skills, but they cannot do this in an organisation where mistakes are not tolerated. People need to be able to share openly and this may work against existing performance management systems, most of which should be put in the dust bin anyway.
Yes we can develop a shared vision. First we have to learn together. This requires the next discipline: Team Learning.
Team Learning: Narrating Our Work
We need to continuously remove barriers to learning. People in a network era learning organisation need more than training: they need ongoing, real-time, constantly-changing, collaborative, support. Much of this they can get from themselves, their communities of practice, and their networks. But they can only work effectively if barriers to organisational learning are removed. In such an environment people at all levels are narrating their work in a transparent environment, the daily routine supports social learning, and time is made available for reflection and sharing stories.
Those in positions of authority should be removing barriers to learning, or they are not serving their organisations in the network era. For example, we often learn through stories. Encouraging team members to share anecdotes makes knowledge contextual and easier to remember. Sharing observations while working supports critical thinking. Doing this regularly, with the narration of our work, creates a knowledge flow of implicit knowledge. When exceptions to the workflow occur these can be saved as explicit cases from which to learn. Recording of decisions, including decisions not to do something, ensure that we can go back and reflect upon what we have done, and learn from the past. This becomes a virtuous cycle of implicit to explicit knowledge flows.
Active experimentation is encouraged through constant learning by doing, as best practices are useless in dealing with complexity. Business results will emerge from the entire network, when everyone is responsible in a transparent and open organisation. Leadership can focus on creating a more social workplace for teams to learn together.
The four disciplines of Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision, and Team Learning must be in place before Systems Thinking can unify them. All of these disciplines are about learning: individually, as teams, and as an organisation. Senge describes Systems Thinking as, “A very deep and persistent commitment to ‘real learning.’” Only by actively engaging with our work and questioning our assumptions can groups of individuals, over time and through practice, become a learning organisation. This is why in the network era workplace, work is learning and learning is the work.
Note: This article appeared in Inside Learning Technologies e-Magazine