Kai Larsen
Claire McInerney
Corinne Nyquist
Aldo Santos
Donna Silsbee


”Contemplate to see that awakened people, while not being enslaved by the work of serving living beings, never abandon their work of serving living beings.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Miracle of Mindfulness! (1976, p. 98)


In a way those who work in a learning organization are “fully awakened” people. They are engaged in their work, striving to reach their potential, by sharing the vision of a worthy goal with team colleagues. They have mental models to guide them in the pursuit of personal mastery, and their personal goals are in alignment with the mission of the organization. Working in a learning organization is far from being a slave to a job that is unsatisfying; rather, it is seeing one’s work as part of a whole, a system where there are interrelationships and processes that depend on each other. Consequently, awakened workers take risks in order to learn, and they understand how to seek enduring solutions to problems instead of quick fixes. Lifelong commitment to high quality work can result when teams work together to capitalize on the synergy of the continuous group learning for optimal performance. Those in learning organizations are not slaves to living beings, but they can serve others in effective ways because they are well-prepared for change and working with others.

Organizational learning involves individual learning, and those who make the shift from traditional organization thinking to learning organizations develop the ability to think critically and creatively. These skills transfer nicely to the values and assumptions inherent in Organization Development (OD). Organization Development is a “long-term effort at continuous improvement supported at all levels of the organization, using interdisciplinary approaches and modern technologies.”1 Organization Development is the mother field that encompasses interventions, such as organization learning. OD is about people and how they work with others to achieve personal and organizational goals. Many times achieving goals means making changes that require creative thinking and problem solving. French and Bell report that the values held by OD practitioners include “wanting to create change, to positively impact people and organizations, enhance the effectiveness and profitability of organizations, [to] learn and grow, and exercise power and influence.” (1995, p. 77) Although values do shift over time, the values held by OD practitioners mesh well with the characteristics of learning organizations as outlined in this paper.

The paper is organized according to the five disciplines that Peter Senge (1990) says are the core disciplines in building the learning organization: personal mastery, mental models, team learning, shared vision, and systems thinking.2 Even though the paper makes liberal use of Senge’s pervasive ideas, it also refers to OD practitioners such as Chris Argyris, Juanita Brown, Charles Handy, and others. What these writers have in common is a belief in the ability of people and organizations to change and become more effective, and that change requires open communication and empowerment of community members as well as a culture of collaboration. Those also happen to be the characteristics of a learning organization. The paper is influenced by team meetings in which the five authors prepared a class presentation on the topic of learning organizations. The team worked to emulate a learning community within the group. The paper reflects the learning, reflection, and discussion that accompanied the process.

Personal Mastery

Personal mastery is what Peter Senge describes as one of the core disciplines needed to build a learning organization. Personal mastery applies to individual learning, and Senge says that organizations cannot learn until their members begin to learn. Personal Mastery has two components. First, one must define what one is trying to achieve (a goal). Second, one must have a true measure of how close one is to the goal. (Senge, 1990)

It should be noted that the word ’goal’, in this context, is not used the same way it normally is in management. Managers have been conditioned to think in terms of short-term and long-term goals. Long-term goals for the American manager are often something to be achieved in the next three to five years. In personal mastery, the goal, or what one is trying to achieve, is much further away in distance. It may take a lifetime to reach it, if one ever does. (Senge, 1990) Vision is a more accurate word for it. Senge worked with Chart House International to prepare a videotape on Personal Mastery. In the videotape, the idea of lifelong learning is represented by the story of Antonio Stradivari whose quest was a particular musical sound that could be produced by a violin. Stradivari spent his entire life in the pursuit of that sound. He made constant refinements to the violins he crafted and produced instruments that are considered outstanding to this day. No one will ever know if Stradivari was fully satisfied with his last violin. Senge would say that Stradivari was not satisfied because of his obsession with continually trying to improve on the sound. (Senge, Self-Mastery, 1995) Senge refers to the process of continual improvement asgenerative learning.’ (Senge, 1990)

The gap that exists between where one is currently functioning and where one wants to be is referred to as ‘creative tension.’ Senge illustrates this with the image of a rubber band pulled between two hands. The hand on the top represents where one wants to be and the hand on the bottom represents where one currently is. The tension on the rubber band as it is pulled between the two hands is what gives the creative drive. Creativity results when one is so unsatisfied with the current situation that one is driven to change it. (Senge, 1990) Another aspect of personal mastery is that one has a clear concept of current reality. Emphasis is placed on the word ‘clear’ here. One must be able to see reality as it truly is without biases or misconceptions. If one has an accurate view of reality, one will see constraints that are present. The creative individual knows that life involves working within constraints and will not waver in trying to achieve the vision. Creativity may involve using the constraints to one's advantage. (Senge, 1990)

Handy has a similar concept in his ‘wheel of learning.’ The wheel consists of four quadrants: questions, ideas, tests, and reflection. The metaphor of the wheel makes one think of something moving. What keeps the wheel moving is:

Individuals who practice personal mastery experience other changes in their thinking. They learn to use both reason and intuition to create. They become systems thinkers who see the interconnectedness of everything around them and, as a result, they feel more connected to the whole. It is exactly this type of individual that one needs at every level of an organization for the organization to learn. (Senge, 1990) Traditional managers have always thought that they had to have all the answers for their organization. The managers of the learning organization know that their staff has the answers. The job of the manager in the learning organization is to be the teacher or coach who helps unleash the creative energy in each individual. Organizations learn through the synergy of the individual learners. (Senge, “The Leader’s New Work,” 1990)

Mental Models

Mental models are the second of Senge's five disciplines for the learning organization.(Senge, The Leader’s New Work, 1990) Much of the work involving mental models comes from Chris Argyris and his colleagues at Harvard University. A mental model is one's way of looking at the world. It is a framework for the cognitive processes of our mind. In other words, it determines how we think and act. A simple example of a mental model comes from an exercise described in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. In this exercise, pairs of conference participants are asked to arm wrestle. They are told that winning in arm wrestling means the act of lowering their partner's arm to the table. Most people struggle against their partner to win. Their mental model is that there can be only one winner in arm wrestling and that this is done by lowering their partner's arm more times than their partner can do the same thing to them. Argyris contends that these people have a flawed mental model.

An alternative model would present a framework where both partners could win. If they stop resisting each other, they can work together flipping their arms back and forth. The end result is that they can both win and they can win many more times than if they were working against each other. (Senge, 1994) Argyris says that most of our mental models are flawed. He says that everyone has ‘theories of action’ which are a set of rules that we use for our own behaviors as well as to understand the behaviors of others. However, people don't usually follow their stated action theories. The way they really behave can be called their ‘theory-in-use.’ It is usual:

  1. To remain in unilateral control,
  2. To maximize winning and minimize losing,
  3. To suppress negative feelings, and
  4. To be as rational as possible by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether or not they have achieved them. (Argyris, 1991)

People act this way to avoid embarrassment or threat. (Argyris, 1991) Argyris says that most people practice defensive reasoning, and because people make up organizations, those organizations also do the same thing. So at the same time the organization is avoiding embarrassment or threat, it is also avoiding learning. Learning only comes from seeing the world the way it really is. (Argyris, 1993) Argyris believes that we arrive at our actions through what he calls the ‘ladder of inference.’ First, one observes something i.e., a behavior, a conversation, etc., and that becomes the bottom rung of a ladder. One then applies his or her own theories to the observation. That results in the next rung on the ladder. Subsequent rungs on the ladder are assumptions we make, conclusions we draw, beliefs we come to have about the world, and finally the action we decide to take. As we climb farther up the ladder, we are becoming more abstract in our thoughts. Unfortunately, our flawed mental models usually cause us to make mistakes in this process of abstraction, and we end up with inappropriate actions. This entire process becomes a loop. We generalize our beliefs and assumptions to the next situation we encounter and use them to filter the data we are willing to consider. Hence, every time we start up the ladder for a new situation, we are handicapped from the beginning. (Argyris, 1993; Senge, Fieldbook, 1994)

Argyris believes that people can be taught to see the flaws in their mental models. One way to do this is to practice the left-hand column technique. In this exercise, one takes some dialogue that occurred during a conversation and writes it in the form of a play script on the right-hand side of a sheet of paper. In the corresponding left-hand column, one records what he or she was really thinking during the conversation. An example is as follows:

Left-hand column
(What I'm thinking)
Right-hand colum
(What was said.)
Everyone says the presentation was a bomb. Me: How did the presenation go?
Does he really not know how bad it was? Bill: Well, I don't know. It's really too early to tell. Besides, we're breaking new ground here.

Me: Well, what do you think we should do? I believe that the issues you were raising are important.

He really is afraid to see the truth. If he only had more confidence, he could probably learn from a situation like this.

I can't believe he doesn't realize how disastrous that presentation was to our moving ahead.

Bill: I'm not so sure. Let's just wait and see what happens.
I've got to find some way to light a fire the guy. Me: You may be right, but I think we may need to do more than just wait. (Senge, 1990, pp. 196)

Professor Sue Faerman at the University at Albany suggests that there could be two left-hand columns: one for what each partner to the conversation might be thinking: (Faerman, 1996)

Left-hand column #1
(What I think she was thinking.)
Left-hand column #2
(What I was thinking)
Right-hand column
(What was said.)

Argyris maintains that true learning occurs when the left-hand and right-hand columns begin to match. Once one has been trained in this technique, one can do it mentally during a conversation to assess what is being said. As a culture, we have to learn to say what we think and to take criticism without being on the defensive. People and organizations learn by recognizing mistakes and correcting them. No progress can be made if we pretend that the mistakes never happened.

What an organization needs is ‘actionable knowledge.’ This is Argyris‘ phrase for a new set of mental models. These models would be validated through research and would be a series of if-then statements that would say something like: “..if you act in such and such a way, the following will likely occur.” (Argyris, 1993, p. 2-3) These models are also referred to as system archetypes and will be discussed later in this paper.



A team, say Robbins and Finley, is “people doing something together.” It could be a baseball team or a research team or a rescue team. It isn’t what a team does that makes it a team; it is a fact that they do it “together.” (Robbins and Finley, 1995, p. 10) “Teams and teamwork are the ‘hottest’ thing happening in organizations today...” according to French and Bell. (1995, p. 97) A workplace team is more than a work group, “a number of persons, usually reporting to a common superior and having some facetoface interaction, who have some degree of interdependence in carrying out tasks for the purpose of achieving organizational goals.” (French and Bell, 1995, p. 169)

A workplace team is closer to what is called a selfdirected work team or SDWT, which can be defined as follows: “A selfdirected work team is a natural work group of interdependent employees who share most, if not all, the roles of a traditional supervisor.” (Hitchcock and Willard, 1995, p. 4) Since teams usually have team leaders, sometimes called coaches, the definition used by Katzenbach and Smith in French and Bell seems the most widely applicable: “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” (1995, p. 112)

Organization development (OD) focuses on the human side of organizations. It is believed that individuals who have some control over how their work is done will be more satisfied and perform better. This is called empowerment in OD. Put these empowered individuals together into teams and the results will be extraordinary, we are told. French and Bell put it this way:


OD interventions are divided into two basic groups: diagnosis and action or process. Team building is one type of process intervention. In fact, French and Bell consider teams and work groups to be the “fundamental unitsof organizations” and the “key leverage points for improving the functioning of the organization.” (1995, p. 171)

A number of writers have studied teams, looking for the characteristics that make some successful. Larson and LaFasto looked at highperformance groups as diverse as a championship football team and a heart transplant team and found eight characteristics that are always present. They are listed below:

  1. A clear, elevating goal
  2. A resultsdriven structure
  3. Competent team members
  4. Unified commitment
  5. A collaborative climate
  6. Standards of excellence
  7. External support and recognition
  8. Principled leadership (Larson and LaFasto, 1989, in French and Bell, 1995, p. 98)

How does a group become a highperformance team? Lippitt maintains that groups operate on four levels: organizational expectations, group tasks, group maintenance, and individual needs. Maintenancelevel activities include encouraging by showing regard for others, expressing and exploring group feelings, compromising and admitting error, gatekeeping to facilitate the participation of others, and setting standards for evaluating group functioning and production. (Lippett, 1982, p. 9)

Lippitt defines teamwork as the way a group is able to solve its problems. Teamwork is demonstrated in groups by: (a)”...the group’s ability to examine its process to constantly improve itself as a team,” and (b) ”the requirement for trust and openness in communication and relationships.” The former is characterized by group interaction, interpersonal relations, group goals, and communication. The latter is characterized by a high tolerance for differing opinions and personalities. (Lippett, 1982, p. 207-208)


A recent concept in OD is that of the learning organization. Peter Senge considers the team to be a key learning unit in the organization. According to Senge, the definition of team learning is:

Senge describes a number of components of team learning. The first is dialogue. Drawing on conversations with physicist, David Bohm, he identifies three conditions that are necessary for dialogue to occur: All participants must “suspend their assumptions;” all participants must “regard one another as colleagues;” and there must be a facilitator (at least until teams develop these skills) “who holds the context of the dialogue.” Bohm asserts that “hierarchy is antithetical to dialogue, and it is difficult to escape hierarchy in organizations.” (Senge, 1990, p. 245) Suspending all assumptions is also difficult, but is necessary to reshape thinking about reality.

Before a team can learn, it must become a team. In the 1970s, psychologist B. W. Tuckman identified four stages that teams had to go through to be successful. They are:

  1. Forming: When a group is just learning to deal with one another; a time when minimal work gets accomplished.
  2. Storming: A time of stressful negotiation of the terms under which the team will work together; a trial by fire.
  3. Norming: A time in which roles are accepted, team feeling develops, and information is freely shared.
  4. Performing: When optimal levels are finally realized—in productivity, quality, decision making, allocation of resources, and interpersonal interdependence.

Tuckman asserts that no team goes straight from forming to performing.“Struggle and adaptation are critical, difficult, but very necessary parts of team development.” (Robbins and Finley, 1995, p. 187)

Senge’s characterization of dealing with conflict draws on Chris Argyris. Argyris writes about how even professionals avoid learning, using entrenched habits to protect themselves from the embarrassment and threat that comes with exposing their thinking. The act of encouraging more open discussion is seen as intimidating, and they feel vulnerable. (Argyris, 1994, p. 346-7)) The missing link for Senge is practice. Team learning is a team skill that can be learned. Practice is gained through dialogue sessions, learning laboratories, and microworlds. (Senge, 1990, p. 245) Microworlds are computerbased microcosms of reality, in which one learns by experimentation . Examples are Logo, in which children learn the principles of geometry, and SimCity, in which one literally builds a city, making all the decisions and learning the consequences of those decisions. Simulation, Senge believes, is a tool for learning “How do things work?” and just as important, “How might they work differently?” (Senge, 1990, p. 338)


Contributors to The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook declare that team learning is not team building, describing the latter as creating courteous behaviors, improving communication, becoming better able to perform work tasks together, and building strong relationships. (Senge, 1990, p. 355) Just as teams pool their knowledge and then examine it from many different angles, so have the practitioners of OD shared their different perspectives and experiences. One such OD “strategist” is Juanita Brown, who has coached organizations toward innovative ways to involve employees. Looking back on groups with which she has worked, she recounts those experiences where team building turned into team learning. She draws inspiration from the community development movement and from the study of voluntary organizations. Roots of this are found in the work of Miles Horton, Paulo Freire, the Scandinavian study circles, Saul Alinsky, M. Scott Peck, and Marvin Weisbord. (Senge, Fieldbook, p. 508-9)

Of particular interest is her description of the San Francisco Foundation, a funder of worthy causes throughout the Bay area, which she counseled through a period of extraordinary growth, change, and pressure. Foundations may promote innovative projects, yet they are seldom organized progressively themselves. The executive director, Martin Paley, wanted to shift the role of the Distribution Committee from administrative decisions to policy making, involve the community in a dialogue on project directions, and then for the first time publish explicit grant guidelines in a newsletter. He also faced the delightful problem of an extremely large bequest. Approaching it as an adventure, he hired Juanita Brown as a long range planning consultant. In addition, he attended a systems dynamics training session led by Peter Senge at M.I.T. (Sibbert and Brown, 1986)

Six ‘Commitment to the Community’ input sessions were held to open the foundation to new ideas. What they heard was that this foundation didn’t belong to the Distribution Committee or to the staff; it belonged to the community and community members wanted “damn good care” taken of it. They came to think of the foundation as a kind of community development bank. They learned that every meeting agenda is subject to change; that they had too much structure; and that people can learn from each other. (Sibbert and Brown, 1986)

Brown expressed her belief in the importance of dialogue as follows: “Strategic dialogue is built on the operating principle that the stakeholders in any system already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges.” The ‘community of inquiry’ can extend beyond employees to include unions, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders, becoming a “dynamic and reinforcing process which helps create and strengthen the ‘communities of commitment’ which Fred Kofman and Peter Senge emphasize lie at the heart of learning organizations capable of leading the way towarda sustainable future.” (Bennet and Brown, 1995, p. 167)


While much anecdotal evidence exists, there remains a lack of a clear understanding of how to really describe and measure team learning. As Senge stated:

What usually is measured is productivity, because high or low productivity has a direct effect on wages, the cost of products, the consumption of resources to produce goods, the quality of work life, and the survival and competitiveness of industries and of individual firms. However, these studies only evaluate productivity at the individual level. (Pritchard, 1990, p. 254) Goodman et al suggest that "if we want to understand how to design more productive groups, we need to move to finer-grained models that link group design and productivity changes." They suggest that the Hackman model (below) provides a good start. (Goodman et al., 1988, p. 317)

<HACKMAN MODEL. Effective Work Groups>

Shared Vision

What does it mean to have a shared vision? A shared vision begins with the individual, and an individual vision is something that one person holds as a truth. Throughout history there are many examples of people who have had a strong vision, some of these people are remembered even today. One example is John Brown with his vision of a holy war to free the slaves, which culminated in his attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. According to Carl Jung, "Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.... Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes." (Mindscape, 1995)

What is this vision that is found within our hearts? According to WordNet,3 a vision is a vivid mental image. In this context, vivid means graphic and lifelike. Based on this, it can be concluded that a vision is a graphic and lifelike mental image that is very important to us, i.e., held within our hearts. The vision is often a goal that the individual wants to reach. In systems thinking that goal is most often a long term goal, something that can be a leading star for the individual.

The shared vision of an organization must be built of the individual visions of its members. What this means for the leader in the Learning Organization is that the organizational vision must not be created by the leader, rather, the vision must be created through interaction with the individuals in the organization. Only by compromising between the individual visions and the development of these visions in a common direction can the shared vision be created. The leader's role in creating a shared vision is to share her own vision with the employees. This should not be done to force that vision on others, but rather to encourage others to share their vision too. Based on these visions, the organization's vision should evolve.

It would be naive to expect that the organization can change overnight from having a vision that is communicated from the top to an organization where the vision evolves from the visions of all the people in the organization. The organization will have to go through major change for this to happen, and this is where OD can play a role. In the development of a learning organization, the OD-consultant would use the same tools as before, just on a much broader scale.

What is a shared vision? To come up with a classification for shared visions would be close to impossible. Going back to the definition of a vision as a graphic and lifelike mental image that is very important to us, Melinda Dekker's drawing [see p. 2] is as good as any other representation of shared vision. The drawing will probably be interpreted differently by people, but still there is something powerful about the imagery that most people can see.

Reflection on shared vision brings the question of whether each individual in the organization must share the rest of the organization's vision. The answer is no, but the individuals who do not share the vision might not contribute as much to the organization. How can someone start to share the rest of the organization's vision? Senge (1990) stresses that visions can not be sold. For a shared vision to develop, members of the organization must enroll in the vision. The difference between these two is that through enrollment the members of the organization choose to participate.

When an organization has a shared vision, the driving force for change comes from what Senge calls "creative tension." Creative tension is the difference between the shared vision and the current reality. With truly committed members the creative tension will drive the organization toward its goals.

John Brown, mentioned earlier, had a vision of freeing the slaves. Obviously, this was not a vision that came out of his own mind. He must have taken the slaves’ vision and shared it with them. Clearly, if the slaves had truly preferred to stay enslaved, John Brown's vision could not have existed. The slaves’ sense of shared vision made it possible for them to die by Brown's side, but they did not die for Brown, they died for a shared vision.

Systems Thinking

In the October 17, 1994 issue of Fortune magazine, Brian Dumaine named Peter M. Senge: "MR. LEARNING ORGANIZATION.” (Dumaine, 1992) Why is it that in a field with so many distinguished contributors, Peter Senge was referred to as the "intellectual and spiritual champion?" (Dumaine, 1992, p. 147) The reason is probably because Senge injected into this field an original and powerful paradigm called ‘systems thinking,’ a paradigm premised upon the primacy of the whole --the antithesis of the traditional evolution of the concept of learning in western cultures.

Humankind has succeeded over time in conquering the physical world and in developing scientific knowledge by adopting an analytical method to understand problems. This method involves breaking a problem into components, studying each part in isolation, and then drawing conclusions about the whole. According to Senge, this sort of linear and mechanistic thinking is becoming increasingly ineffective to address modern problems. (Kofman and Senge, 1993, p. 18) This is because, today, most important issues are interrelated in ways that defy linear causation.

Alternatively, circular causation—where a variable is both the cause and effect of another—has become the norm, rather than the exception. Truly exogenous forces are rare. For example, the state of the economy affects unemployment, which in turn affects the economy. The world has become increasingly interconnected, and endogenous feedback causal loops now dominate the behavior of the important variables in our social and economic systems.

Thus, fragmentation is now a distinctive cultural dysfunction of society.4 (Kofman and Senge, p. 17) In order to understand the source and the solutions to modern problems, linear and mechanistic thinking must give way to non-linear and organic thinking, more commonly referred to as systems thinking—a way of thinking where the primacy of the whole is acknowledged.


David Bohm compares the attempt to understand the whole by putting the pieces together with trying to assemble the fragments of a shattered mirror. It is simply not possible. Kofman & Senge add:

In his prominent book, The Fifth Discipline, Senge identified some learning disabilities associated with the failure to think systemically. He classified them under the following headings:

Although each of these contains a distinct message, illustrated how traditional thinking can undermine real learning by following up on one example: "the fixation on events."

According to Senge, fragmentation has forced people to focus on snapshots to distinguish patterns of behavior in order to explain past phenomena or to predict future behavior. This is essentially the treatment used in statistical analysis and econometrics, when trying to decipher patterns of relationship and behavior. However, this is not how the world really works: events do not dictate behavior; instead, they are the product of behavior. What really causes behavior are the interactions between the elements of the system. In diagrammatic form:

It is commonly recognized that the power of statistical models is limited to explaining past behavior, or to predict future trends (as long as there is no significant change in the pattern of behavior observed in the past). These models have little to say about changes made in a system until new data can be collected and a new model is constructed. Thus, basing problem-solving upon past events is, at best, a reactive effort.

On the other hand, systems modeling is fundamentally different. Oncethe behavior of a system is understood to be a function of the structure and of the relationships between the elements of the system, the system can be artificially modified and, through simulation, we can observe whether the changes made result in the desired behaviors. Therefore, systems thinking, coupled with modeling, constitutes a generative --rather than adaptive-- learning instrument.5

Thus, according to Senge:


Once we embrace the idea that systems thinking can improve individual learning by inducing people to focus on the whole system, and by providing individuals with skills and tools to enable them to derive observable patterns of behavior from the systems they see at work, the next step is to justify why systems thinking is even more important to organizations of people. Here, the discipline of systems thinking is most clearly interrelated with the other disciplines, especially with mental models, shared vision, and team learning.

Patterns of relationships (or systems) are derived from people's mental models --their perceptions about how the relevant parts of a system interact with one another. Naturally, different people have different perceptions about what the relevant parts of any one system are, and how they interact with one another. In order for organizational learning to occur, individuals in the organization must be willing and prepared to reveal their individual mental models, contrast them to one another, discuss the differences, and come to a unified perception of what that system really is.

This alignment of mental models can be referred to as developing a shared vision, as is discussed in the first part of this paper. It is possible that mere discussion among individuals may lead them to a shared vision but, because problems are often too complex, usually this exercise requires the aid of some skills and tools developed by systems thinkers. Whether simple or complex frameworks are used (such as word-and-arrow diagrams or computer simulation), they are essential instruments to developing a shared vision.

When groups of individuals who share a system also share a vision about how the components of that system interact with one another, then team learning (or organizational learning) is possible. First, they learn from one another in the process of sharing their different perspectives. There are many organizational problems that can be solved simply by creating alignment. For example, cooperation is a lesson that is often learned by people who recognize that they belong to different interdependent parts of the same system.

Second, people learn together by submitting their shared vision to testing. When complex dynamics exist, a robust shared vision allows organizational members to examine assumptions, search for leverage points, and test different policy alternatives. This level of learning often requires simulation, which is a much more specialized systems technique. However, if the problems faced by the organization are among commonly observed patterns which have been previously studied, archetypal solutions may be available to deal with them. Later in this paper, we will discuss an example using an archetype commonly referred to as "growth and under-investment."


Systems thinking represents a major leap in the way people are used to thinking. It requires the adoption of a new paradigm. Although there is no such a thing as a learning organization, we can articulate a view of what it would stand for. In this sense, a learning organization would be an entity which individuals "would truly like to work within and which can thrive in a world of increasing interdependency and change." (Kofman and Senge, 1993, p. 32)

And according to Senge, systems thinking is critical to the learning organization, because it represents a new perception of the individual and his/her world:

But, as we shall see next, systems thinking requires skills and tools which can only be developed through lifelong commitment. Plus, it requires that not just one, but many organizational members acquire them. Thus, some of the authors refer to learning organizations as ‘communities of commitment.’


At the foundation of systems thinking is the identification of circles of causality or feedback loops. These can be reinforcing or balancing, and they may contain delays. But before we "close" the loops to distinguish among these terms, let’s examine two examples of flawed (or incomplete) thinking which take into account only partial relationships between elements of systems.

The first example is an unilateral perception of the arms race. The word-and-arrow diagram below illustrates, from the point of view of an American, the logic behind building U.S. armaments:

Foreign arms ---> Threat to the U.S. ---> Need to build U.S. arms6

The diagram can be read as follows: The more foreign arms, the greater the threat to the United States and, thus, the greater the need to build U.S. arms to defend the country from these potential aggressors. This non-systemic view suggests that U.S. arms are a defensive response to the threat posed by other nations: "If only the other nations would reduce their armaments, then so would the United States."

The second example illustrates a simple view of the mechanism involved with adjusting the temperature in a room during a hot summer:

Current temp. too hot ---> Turning on the air-conditioner ---> Results in lower temperature

For all of us who know about the developments of the cold war, or who have experienced first-hand the extremely cold temperatures inside movie theaters in mid-July, it is no surprise that these two diagrams tell only part of the story. Yet, if asked to tell the whole story, many of us would draw alternative diagrams, instead of complementing these. Over time, systems thinkers developed conventions to illustrate relationships, and to capture the whole story in just one diagram. Moreover, they found it useful to distinguish between stories such as the ones told above.


The arms race is an example of reinforcing (or positive or amplifying) feedback. Not only do more foreign arms increase U.S. arms, but more U.S. arms also tend to provoke increases in foreign arms. One reinforces the other:

<A System's View of the Arms Race>

Although reinforcing feedback is commonly labeled as "positive" or "amplifying," this does not carry any value judgment. It simply means that a change in one part of the system causes a change in another part of the system which, in turn, amplifies the change in the first. Things do not always have to grow either. For example, a reduction in foreign arms will reduce the threat to Americans, which will probably cause a reduction in U.S. arms, which is likely to lead to further reductions in foreign arms (since U.S. threat to foreign nations is reduced.)

By itself, reinforcing feedback leads to either exponential growth or decay.

<Exponential Growth>


Controlling room temperature is an example of balancing (or negative or controlling) feedback. In this case, a change in one part of the system causes a change in another part of the system which, in turn, counteracts the change in the first:

<A system's View for Setting A/C Room Temperature>

If the Perceived Gap is positive, i.e., Current Room Temperature is greater than Desired Room Temperature, the A/C is adjusted upwards increasing the flow of colder air, thus reducing the gap. This is a balancing system because more adjustment means less gap, not more (unless, obviously, the adjustment is made in the wrong direction!). The leverage point in this system is desired room temperature. If it is set too low, as seems to be the case in shopping malls and movie theaters, the resulting room temperature may be too low for the casual wear people tend to use during the summer.

By itself, balancing feedback leads to goal-seeking behavior.

<Goal-Seeking Behavior>


The time dimension is another factor which tricks people who fail to think systemically. For example, because it takes time to build up foreign arms, an American may not perceive that action as resulting from a response to increases in U.S. arms, but rather as an independent aggressive initiative. Thus a more accurate representation of the arms race would be:

<A System's View of the Arms Race with Delays

Sound systems thinking requires the utilization of a combination of reinforcing and balancing feedback loops, and the accurate identification of delays. Complex systems are composed of multiple feedback loops laid upon one another. Often, the behavior of the variables in these systems can only be understood through simulation. But, before we discuss simulation, let’s recognize the existence of certain archetypal structures which are commonly found, and for which behaviors are already well understood.


A number of system structures or patterns of relationships are commonly found in a variety of settings. Some of these have been carefully studied, and their patterns of behavior and leverage points have been identified. Senge discusses them in The Fifth Discipline, Appendix 2 (pp. 378-390):

The arms race discussed previously could be used as an example of the "Escalation" archetype if we told the story using two balancing feedback loops, instead of just one large reinforcing feedback loop:

<Arms Race as an Illustration of the 'Escalation' Archetype>

The management principle derived from it is to look for a way for both sides to win, since their continued competition will lead to great costs and inefficiencies. Cooperation or mutual understanding is called for.

A practical application of a combination of the "Growth and under-investment" and "Eroding goals" archetypes was recently applied in a strategic planning effort for the Office of Disabled Student Services (DSS) of the University at Albany, State University of New York. Appendix A contains a copy of the analysis that was done for DSS. In this study, the authors suggested that the only way to respond effectively to the increased demand for services for disabled students at the University at Albany would be by increasing work capacity. Although this insight was not particularly dazzling by itself, when coupled with an evaluation that in the absence of resources to increase capacity, there would be slow but unequivocal tendencies to allow for the erosion of the quality of services traditionally offered by the Office, DSS’ leadership recognized that this process was already in place, but no one had really noticed it. This is because there are delays in the system.

When system archetypes apply, it becomes easy to focus on high leverage points, and to identify and avoid symptomatic solutions to real problems. This is because the analysis which serves as the foundation for the archetypes has already been done. On the other hand, when the systems under study are more complex because they are composed of a combination of structures, it becomes important to build models and to simulate to confirm assumptions about behavior.


Model building involves the conceptual formalization of mental models about the interrelationships between important elements in a complex system, for the purpose of examining the behavior of the variables of interest. Unfortunately, a great deal of modeling training, and experience is required to build good models, even simple ones. For this reason, so far, the literature in systems thinking for learning organizations has only traced a few steps in this arena. Usually, when modeling work is required, professional modelers are involved in the analysis to serve as the interface between those who know the system (the clients), and the mathematical formalization of the model.

The distinction between qualitative and quantitative systems thinking is commonly made by referring to the former as soft and the latter as hard system dynamics. At present, the contribution made by Senge to the field of organizational learning has relied primarily upon soft system dynamics. However, it is important to emphasize that the knowledge available today in the form of general principles, archetypes, etc., is the product of 30 years of hard system dynamics research and development. Thus, in general, the development of knowledge in systems thinking is highly dependent upon the latter, while its application has been very successful in the former.

Yet, system dynamics technology has progressed tremendously in the last few years. The availability of low-priced, user-friendly software for PCs (such as Stella II, produced by High Performance Systems) is extending the realm of quantitative analysis to amateur modelers. Moreover, the skills and tools needed are becoming available in a variety of settings, including K-12 education. Still, only a handful of people qualify as professional modelers, a fact which should serve as an alert with respect to the quality of the modeling being done in the field.


Where formal models do exist, they serve the function of a learning laboratory for managers. Some of the commonly used micro-worlds are:

Each of these captures the dynamics of different systems, with different behaviors, leverage points, principles, etc. For example, the Boom & Bust and Beer Distribution games deal with different dynamics of the business cycle. Fish Banks, on the other hand, is modeled after the tragedy of the commons problem. In Stratagem, players make decisions about investment and consumption practices which carry short- versus long-term tradeoffs.

In each of these games, the objective is to understand the nature of the system at hand, and to extract some lessons about how to improve the conditions of the system or how to avoid problems inherently associated with the systems because of the nature of their structures. The underlying message is that structure determines behavior, and people can generally learn to identify what has to be done to deal with problematic behavior by "playing" with the system until they "understand" how it behaves.


The concept of the learning organization arises out of ideas long held by leaders in organizational development and systems dynamics. One of the specific contributions of organizational development is its focus on the humanistic side of organizations. The disciplines described in this paper “differ from more familiar management disciplines in that they are ‘personal’ disciplines. Each has to do with how we think, what we truly want, and how we interact and learn with one another.” (Senge, 1990, p. 11) The authors of this paper see learning organizations as part of the evolving field of OD. To our knowledge, there are no true learning organizations at this point. However, some of today’s most successful organizations are embracing these ideas to meet the demands of a global economy where the value of the individual is increasingly recognized as our most important resource.

Click on numbers to get back.

1 This definition is an adaptation of the definition offered by French and Bell (1995, p. 28). It was developed by the Spring 1996 section of PAD633 Organization Development and Analysis course at the University at Albany, taught by Dr. Sue Faerman.

2 Because Peter Senge is so influential in the field of learning organnizations, his book The Fifth Discipline is cited here freqently. All references to The Fifth Discipline are indicated in parentheses as his 1990 work. All other references to works by Peter Senge in this paper are listed by title in parentheses.

3 On-line Lexical Database by researchers at Princeton, builds on the Oxford English Dictionary (1928).

4 Kofman and Senge argue that fragmentation is a cultural dysfunction of society because it is a byproduct of its past success.

5 Systems modeling and simulation are the foundation of systems thinking. This larger field is known as ‘System Dynamics,’ founded by Jay Forrester of MIT in the 1960s.

6 Example extracted from Senge, 1990, pp. 69-73.

Appendix A

A Systems Thinking Analysis Using a combination of archetypes for the Office of Disabled Student Services DSS), University at Albany, State University of New York

We draw upon Senge's systemic theory of what happened at People Express to help highlight the consequences of failure to address the issues identified in this strategic planning effort for DSS. (The Fifth Discipline, pp. 130-135) The word and arrow diagram below is an adaptation from the one on p. 133. In it we will find three systems archetypes: (1) growth and under-investment (2) balancing process with delay, and (3) eroding goals. In the analysis, we highlight "the size of DSS’ budget," but any other measure intended to improve the work capacity of the organization would also be appropriate, such as for example "using DSS’ resources more efficiently" (by spending resources according to pre-defined priorities).

<Word-and-Arrow Diagram for DSS's Budget Problem>

Word-and-Arrow Diagram for DSS’ Budget Problem

The positive feedback loop on the top-left of the diagram represents the growth in demand for services for disabled students (DS). This loop indicates that demand for and availability of services reinforce each other: the greater the demand, the more services are provided, which satisfies the needs of disabled students and leads to new demands. The growth in demand which triggered this process was caused by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. As previously mentioned, ADA defined disability more broadly and opened the doors of higher education to a much larger group.

The negative feedback loop on the top-right is a balancing loop which prevents the growth in services for disabled students to continue forever. It causes this growth to level-off when the work capacity of DSS has been met. Thus, the limiting factor in this system is the organization's work capacity. This is how it works: As demand grows, perceived performance (measured in terms of work capacity divided by demand) begins to fall. The reduced performance (in a given task) causes the quality of the work of the organization to fall, which consequently drives disabled students' satisfaction down. Eventually, reduced satisfaction will also cause demand to fall.

The work capacity of the organization does not stay fixed, however. This is captured in the third feedback loop, in the bottom of the diagram. This is also a balancing loop (negative), and it serves to balance the organization's perceived performance with its performance standard. This is how it works: Suppose DSS has a performance standard of one (i.e., it wants its work capacity always to meet --or be equal to-- DS’ demand). Then, as performance falls because of higher demand, this causes a perceived need to invest in the organization's capacity. If this investment occurs, eventually, it will serve to increase DSS’ work capacity until perceived performance is finally equal to one. In other words, DSS’ work capacity will be adjusted up or down depending upon its perceived performance and its performance standard.

So far, we have discussed (1) growth and under-investment and (2) balancing process with delay. The following observations should serve to underscore the conclusions from this exercise in modeling:

The last two observations lead us into the last archetype in the diagram: eroding goals. There is reason to believe that under a scenario of increasing demand --because of the delay involved in building up the organization's work capacity and because of the gap in time between growing DS’ dissatisfaction and fall in demand-- there will be a permanent gap in the organization's performance (between perceived and standard). If the organization allows its performance standard to slip because of this on-going experience with a lower performance level (positive link between perceived performance and performance standard), then the problems the organization is experiencing will be magnified. This is because performance standard will be allowed to fall below one, relieving the pressure to invest, lowering actual investment levels, and, ultimately and definitely, keeping work capacity from growing sufficiently to meet demand --indeed, helping increase the gap between DS’ demand and DSS’ work capacity.

This is probably the most important insight offered by this model. It says that an organization which has been suffering for some time with falling performance may never be able to return to previous performance levels simply because it lowered its standards. If this happens, the organization locks itself in a situation of low performance and high dissatisfaction. Naturally, the long-term result will be lowered motivation and morale within the organization. The solution to this problem is to bring the performance standard back up to adequate levels, and making sure that it stays fixed up there.

The above exercise underscores the significance of establishing and keeping track of performance measurements. It also clarifies why it is so important to focus services and establish priorities. Under a condition of increasing demand, it is very easy for one to fall into the trap of trying to do everything and unwillingly allow quality standards to fall. Keeping standards fixed and monitoring performance closely are key concepts not only to identifying much needed increases in work capacity, but also to help advocate increased budget allocations.

The model also suggests that the only way DSS will be able to meet its increasing demand is with increased investments in work capacity. Whether those resources should be raised internally, through federal, state and local agencies, through grant-writing and/or fund-raising initiatives will depend upon the evolving characteristics of the environment. Right now, grant-writing and fund-raising initiatives appear to be the most viable alternatives. If DSS wants to maintain its proactive standing in the region, then it must find ways to implement those alternatives.

Appendix B - Definitions

According to Fortune magazine, "the most successful corporation ... will be something called a learning organization, a consummately adaptive enterprise." [emphasis added] But Senge argues that increasing adaptiveness is only the first stage in moving toward learning organizations. The impulse to learn in children goes deeper than desires to respond and adapt more effectively to environmental change. The impulse to learn, at its heart, is an impulse to be generative, to expand our capability. This is why leading corporations are focusing on generative learning, which is about creating, as well as adaptive learning, which is about coping.

But generative learning, unlike adaptive learning, requires new ways of looking at the world. Generative learning requires seeing the systems that control events. When we fail to grasp the systemic source of problems, we are left to "push on" symptoms rather than eliminate underlying causes. Without systemic thinking, the best we can ever do is adaptive learning.

Those who believe in the need for shared vision have looked to groups that have this quality, and found them to be best characterized as communities. Companies redifined as communities see all employees as citizens, sharing in the decision-making and dedicated to a higher purpose.

The difference between where we are now and where we want to be results in a feeling that we need to change. This feeling is known as creative tension.

This is a barrier to learning for both the individual and the organization. We are afraid of embarrassment or perceived threats and that prevents us from having an open mind.

Detail complexity is simply when a problem involves several variables. Dynamic complexity are situations where cause and effect are subtle, and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious.

Senge highlights that when the same action has dramatically different effects in the short-run and in the long-run, there is dynamic complexity. When an action has one set of consequences locally and a very different set of consequences in another part of the system, there is dynamic complexity. When obvious interventions produce non-obvious consequences, there is dynamic complexity.

Senge also argues that conventional forecasting, planning, and analysis methods are not equipped to deal with dynamic complexity.

Any reciprocal flow of influence. In systems thinking it is an axiom that every influence is both cause and effect. Nothing is ever influenced in just one direction.

Computer simulations of "microworlds" that allow us to speed up time and see the results of actions that might be taken by an organization.

Rather than use of a tool, it is through creative ideas, often from unexpected sources, applied to our work activities that gives leverage. A team working with a shared vision can through experimentation develop that extra edge, leverage.

Systems thinking needs the disciplines of building shared vision, mental models, team learning, and personal mastery to realize its potential. Building a shared vision fosters commitment to the long-term. Mental models focus on the openness needed to unearth shortcomings in our present ways of seeing the world. Team learning develops the skills of groups of people to look for the larger picture that lies beyond individual perspectives. And personal mastery fosters the personal motivation to continually learn how our actions affect our world.

But systems thinking makes understandable the subtlest aspect of the learning organization --the new way individuals perceive themselves and their world. At the heart of a learning organization is a shift of mind --from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems as caused by someone or something "out there" to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience. A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it.

Single loop learning is linear. It is trying to find a better way to do a process. It is comparable to continuous quality improvement. Double loop learning goes a step further and asks why we are doing the process in the first place. Should we be doing something else?

Systems Archetypes are generic structures which embody the key to learning to see structures in our personal and organizational lives. They are types of systemic structures that recur again and again. Their knowledge helps us to identify and understand the underlying causes of problems, possible leverage points, and so forth. Some examples of systems archetypes are:

The archetype template is a specific tool that is helping managers identify archetypes operating in their own strategic areas. The template shows the basic structural form of the archetype but lets managers fill in the variables of their own situation.

There are three distinct levels to view reality: events, patterns of behavior, and systemic structure. According to Senge, contemporary society focuses predominantly on events, less so in patterns of behavior, and very rarely on systemic structure. Leaders in learning organizations must reverse this trend, and focus their organization's attention on systemic structure. This is because event explanations --who did what to whom-- doom their holders to a reactive stance toward change; pattern-of-behavior explanations are limited to identifying long-term trends and assessing their implications --they suggest how, over time, we can respond to shifting conditions (adaptive learning); structural explanations are the most powerful --only they address the underlying causes of behavior at a level such that patterns of behavior can be changed (generative learning).

A discipline that starts with "dialogue," the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine "thinking together." Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations.

Learning about learning. Understanding why we make the choices we do. What predisposes us to act in certain ways?

This model of learning is based upon observation of animals functioning in the wild. They wait, they focus, they strike, and then they wait again. People also alternate between activity and repose; to make effective change, this pattern must be tapped. The "wheel of learning" has four parts of its cycle--reflecting (thinking and feeling), connecting (looking for links or hypotheses), deciding (choosing an action), and doing. There are both individual and team versions of the cycle. David Kolb and Charles Handy are associated with this concept and Stephanie Spear developed a team variation.


The Mediagraphy can be found on the Learning Organizations homepage.