The 5th Discipline: Learning Organizations

learning org-1

The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization by Peter Senge – available in a short synopsis – popularized the concept of the ‘learning organization.’  It introduced  systems thinking as a primary method to convert companies into learning organizations.  The five disciplines represent approaches (theories and methods) for developing three core learning capabilities: fostering aspiration, developing reflective conversation, and understanding complexity.

According to Peter Senge learning organizations are:…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.

The basic rationale for such organizations is that in situations of rapid change only those that are flexible, adaptive and productive will excel. For this to happen, it is argued, organizations need to ‘discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels.’.

While all people have the capacity to learn, the structures in which they have to function are often not conducive to reflection and engagement. Furthermore, people may lack the tools and guiding ideas to make sense of the situations they face. Organizations that are continually expanding their capacity to create their future require a fundamental shift of mind among their members.

According to Senge, real learning gets to the heart of what it is to be human. We become able to re-create ourselves. This applies to both individuals and organizations.


Systemic thinking is the conceptual cornerstone (‘The Fifth Discipline’) of his approach. It is the discipline that integrates the others, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice. Systems theory’s ability to comprehend and address the whole, and to examine the interrelationship between the parts provides, for Peter Senge, both the incentive and the means to integrate the disciplines.

Alongside systems thinking, there stand four other ‘component technologies’ or disciplines. A ‘discipline’ is viewed by Peter Senge as a series of principles and practices that we study, master and integrate into our lives. Each discipline provides a vital dimension. Each is necessary to the others if organizations are to ‘learn’:

  1. Personal Mastery
  2. Mental Models
  3. Building Shared Vision
  4. Team Learning

An excellent summary of Peter Senge’s contributions and place in the development of learning organizations can be found at, including implications for leadership.

Additional Resources

Creating a Learning Society by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce C. Greenwald;

Learning Together:  Children and Adults in a School Community by Barbara Rogoff

For Honda, Waigaya is the Way by Jeffery Rothfeder

In Conversation:  Eric Ries on How to Gain Competitive Advantage

The Lean Startup:  How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries


About Freedom to...

Consultant helping people and employers in health care, education and government to see and understand how their organization works and how to change them to improve performance.
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