Disciplines of a Learning Organization: Peter Senge

If there is one book that has influenced my business thinking the most, it is Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of Learning Organization” and I have referred to it many times over past years on this blog. Written in 1990, the insights contained in this book are even more relevant today when the rate of change has only accelerated – probably a reason why HBR identified this book as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years.

A couple weeks ago, I posted a sketch note on Why Organizations Don’t Learn? based on an HBR article by the same title and someone ended up asking me,

“How do organization’s learn?”

This question immediately reminded me of five disciplines of learning organizations that Peter Senge outlines in this book.  They are:

  • Personal mastery is a discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.
  • Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.
  • Building shared vision – a practice of unearthing shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.
  • Team learning starts with dialogue, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine thinking together.
  • Systems thinking – The Fifth Discipline that integrates the other four.

Source: Wikipedia

In the book, Peter Senge offers a wonderful analogy to introduce systems thinking:

A cloud masses, the sky darkens, leaves twist upward, and we know that it will rain. We also know that after the storm, the runoff will feed into groundwater miles away, and the sky will grow clear by tomorrow. All of these events are distant in time and space, if they’re all connected within the same pattern. Each has an influence on the rest, and influence that is usually hidden from view. You can only understand the system of rainstorm by contemplating the whole not any part of the pattern.

Businesses and other human endeavors are also systems. They, too, are bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions, which often take years to fully play out their effects on each other. Since we are part of that lacework ourselves, it’s doubly hard to see the whole pattern of change. Instead we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get resolved.

While the book is a must-read if you want to gather better understanding and context behind these disciplines, here is a short summary of five disciplines of a learning organization in form of a sketch note. 

Hopefully, this will help others in acknowledging the foundation of what it takes to create a learning organization.

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Why Organizations Don’t Learn? #Sketchnote

Organizations that don’t learn constantly, adapt continuously and execute relentlessly are more likely to be disrupted by constant change and competition.

Peter Senge, in his book defined a learning organization as:

“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.”

We have to go beyond formal learning methods if we have to truly build learning organizations in a rapidly changing world. A learning organization is not possible without learning individuals and individuals learn the most with each other in a network and  and through their work in an culture that promotes informal learning.

I emphasized culture because it can be one of the biggest bottlenecks in how organizations learn and apply what they learn to create meaningful results. It doesn’t matter how much you invest in formal learning, tools and methods, if you do not have a culture where people are encouraged to share without any fear, learning may not come to the fore.

Why do companies struggle to become and remain learning organizations? In November 2015 issue of HBR, I came across an article by Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats titled “Why Organizations Don’t Learn” where they outline the cultural and individual biases that don’t allow organizations to learn. They also provide useful tips to overcome those biases.

Here is a sketch note I created to distill key biases that prevent organizations from learning. To know what you can do to overcome these biases, I recommend you read the full article at HBR. 

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Fluid Learning


“The tools of the mind become burdens when the environment which made them necessary no longer exists.” – Henry Bergson

When solving problems, we love standard solutions and tools. What worked for us in the past becomes our tool to solve problems in the future. A psychologist named Raymond Cattell termed this as “crystallized intelligence” – ability to use learned knowledge and experience. It is much like water frozen in to pieces of ice. It cannot flow.

But, we cannot solve problems of today with techniques of yesterday. With rapid changes all around us, it is even more crucial that we pay attention to “fluid intelligence” – to analyze and solve problems in novel situation without excessively relying on past knowledge or experiences, to observe the patterns and think critically. 

When it comes to learning constantly, we need both. While driving, we need the rear view mirror to avoid accidents but we can’t drive forward only looking at the rear view mirror. Fixed learning and experiences of the past equips us better to handle uncertainty but in itself, they cannot help us navigate the uncertainty. For that, we need an ability to learn, unlearn and relearn quickly in line with the given context. We need an ability to not let past experience interfere with the possibilities. We need to learn to navigate without a map – or create a map as you go along. We need a keen observation of patterns that emerge as we apply the learning. When we do this consistently, learning flows and grows.

The tools of our mind are fixed, but the environment is constantly evolving.

Our tools and methods of learning have to evolve too!


Also Read: Specialization is a Journey, Not a Destination