autonomous workers in learning organizations

The Learning Organization

Continued from mastery & models.

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 organization are:

  • Personal Mastery
  • Mental Models
  • Shared Vision
  • Team Learning
  • Systems Thinking (which integrates the other four)

Personal Mastery

Mastery comes through deliberate practice. Personal knowledge mastery is the ability to see patterns hidden to the undisciplined eye. It is the sharing and explaining of implicit knowledge in order to push the boundaries of understanding. PKM is very much based on informal learning through communities of practice and professional social networks.

Mental Models

A model is not a map but a compass that can help guide organizations. It takes time to understand these models and use them to inform our work. But they are necessary for complex work and essential as the organization gets larger.

Shared Vision

A shared vision is not one that has been directed through the hierarchy but that which emerges when professionals work together. My Principle of Networked Management states that — It is only through innovative and contextual methods, the self-selection of the most appropriate tools and work conditions, and willing cooperation that more creative work can be fostered. The duty of being transparent in our work and sharing our knowledge rests with all workers, especially management. A work environment based on this principle provides a foundation from which a shared vision can emerge. We can develop a shared vision if we first are able to learn together. This requires the next discipline: Team Learning.

principle of network management

Team Learning

Learning is much more than training. People 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 organizational 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.

Systems Thinking

Peter Senge defines Systems Thinking as, “A very deep and persistent commitment to ‘real learning.’” Leyla Acaroglu describes six important systems thinking tools for complex problem solving

  1. Interconnectedness
  2. Synthesis
  3. Emergence
  4. Feedback Loops
  5. Causality
  6. Systems Mapping


Self-determination theory (SDT) is based on three innate human requirements: Competence, Relatedness, and Autonomy.

  1. Humans are inherently proactive with their potential and mastering their inner forces (such as drives and emotions)
  2. Humans have an inherent tendency toward growth development and integrated functioning
  3. Optimal development and actions are inherent in humans but they don’t happen automatically

Our current corporate, educational, and health care systems stand in the way of self-determination. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves (community) but we also need to have control of our own lives. Self-determination is the key to resilience in our health, our learning, and our work. We see this with the successful anomalies in the business world — W.L. Gore, Buurtzorg, Semco — which allow more self-determination than their competitors.

Several years ago I asked myself, which system has the best potential to change first? For those who agree that change is necessary, would it be better to concentrate on the creation of new business models and then let education and health care follow suit? I think so. Leadership seems to come from, or at least is deferred to, those who have the money or the means of production. So if you’re reform-minded, business reform is the most pragmatic avenue for your energies. Change the business models and change the world.

Engaged workers require Competence, Relatedness, and Autonomy. The lack of these three innate human requirements leads to disenfranchised workers. Look at any systemic organizational problem and you will likely see that at least one of these requirements is missing.

Taking the SDT model we can overlay the five disciplines of the learning organization so that we have intrinsically engaged individuals working in an organization that is continuously learning. All of these factors can be assessed to determine whether an organization is aligned for learning and living. From this solid foundation we can create organizations that are built to last and learn for a creative knowledge economy.

2 Responses to “autonomous workers in learning organizations”

  1. Hugh Mason

    While so many are attracted to this ideal, like Systems Thinking, it seems very challenging to apply in practice. Are there now enough case studies to discern positive and negative pragmatic, repeatable patterns?


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