RESEARCH LETTER No. 2.14

ORGANIZATIONS BURNING TO LEARN

The organizations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization.” Senge 1990, p.4). Senge calls these organizations “learning organizations”.

In natural resource management the idea of ‘adaptive management’ was introduced to by Holling (1978) and is now widely known. Holling and Meffe (1996) extended the concept from ecosystems to natural-resource-management institutions. They identified a “pathology” in institutions managed in an authoritarian manner: a “lack of monitoring of outcomes, a growing isolation of agency personnel from the systems being managed and insensitivity to public signals of concern” (Briggs 2003) – in other words, an inability to learn and adapt. Is the antidote to this ‘pathology’ the creation of ‘learning organizations’? Agencies may not have such a ‘pathology’ but find merit in adopting the concept of the ‘learning organization’ as a sound foundation for their deliberations.

If an organization was explicitly a learning organization what would this mean? In general it would mean that there would always be room for new ideas and knowledge to be acquired and used by the organization. ‘Learning organization’ implies that the general attitude within it would be one of enquiry, examination of assumptions, reassessing options, pursuing avenues of discovery. An integral part of the culture could be that:

Senge (1990) summarized the components of the Learning Organization under 5 headings:

Systems Thinking” (p. 6) – thinking about how the whole system works; thinking about cycles, feedbacks, how ‘this’ affects ‘that’;

Personal Mastery” - developing proficiency in “continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focussing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively” (p.7);

Mental Models” (p.8) – “learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world [deeply ingrained assumptions] to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny” (p.9).

Building Shared Vision” – unearthing common views, not just the leadership view, of how the future might look;

Team Learning” – confronting the paradox “How can a team of committed managers with individual IQ’s above 120 have a collective IQ of 63?” (p.9); the team becomes the fundamental learning unit rather than the individual; the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

Senge's book is stimulating and a helpful aid to thinking about organizations. While it has a business setting the principles can be applied more widely to encompass natural resource and emergency service agencies, and research groups.

Postscript. The sequel to Senge (1990) is Senge et al. (1999) “The Dance of Change”.

Literature cited

Auditor General of Victoria (2003). Fire prevention and Preparedness. Government Printer, Victoria.

Briggs, S. (2004).Command and control in natural resource management: revisiting Holling and Meffe. Ecological Management and Restoration 4, 161-162.

Holling, C.S. (ed). (1978). Adaptive environmental assessment and management. Wiley and Sons, London.

Holling, C.S. and Meffe(1996). Command and control and the pathology of natural resource management. Conservation Biology 10, 328-337.

Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Doubleday, New York.

Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R., Roth, G. and Smith, B. (1999). The Dance of Change. The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London.

Victorian Department of Natural Resources and Environment (2001). Code of Practice for Fire Management on Public Land. Victorian Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Melbourne.

A. Malcolm Gill
25 March 2004