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Peter M. Senge - INTEGRATED THEORIES of School Organization

Peter M. Senge - INTEGRATED THEORIES of School Organization

Peter M. Senge

With his book The Fifth Discipline - The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter M. Senge introduced a new integrated theory of the 'learning organization' (Senge 1990). His main perspective belongs to the humanistic perspective; however, he does go beyond it.

Senge introduces a systemic perspective on organizations. He is particularly concerned about the fact that the reason it is hard for us to understand how organizations live is because we are bound by our established 'mental images', and because we do not understand the long-term effects of what takes place in a social system. Our understanding is only partial, and we often misinterpret events because organizations rarely conduct themselves 'logically' in the short term.

Thus Senge also lays down a challenge to the contingency theoreticians, whose concern is about organizations reacting to short-term market variations. Senge feels that organizations, naturally, depend on their environment, but that 'the environment' is neither an unambiguous concept, nor does it react unambiguously - nor does it distinguish clearly between short-term and long-term needs.

Senge mentions five 'disciplines' as being essential to understanding organizations:

1. Systemic thinking, which for Senge is the key discipline. It helps us understand things in context, to understand the whole pattern and not just bits of the whole, and on this basis to sway organizations in the direction of meaningful changes.

2. Personal mastery, which is the learning process that continually seeks 'to clarify and broaden our personal vision, focus our energy, develop patience, and take an objective look at reality' (Senge 1990, p. 7). Senge sees a deep, personal learning process on the part of the individual organizational member as a prerequisite for a sound organization.

3. Mental models, or 'images' are deeply established conceptions, generalizations, hypotheses and assumptions that every one of us has and that colour our understanding of the world in which we live. They exert a strong influence on us and can often hinder us, for example, in choosing new, promising alternatives because our impressions serve as mental blocks. For Senge, common planning and development is a crucial learning process in sound organizations.

4. Development of a common vision, or the process that draws 'images' and experiences together into an integrated process toward a common image of 'why we are all here', is absolutely essential to the success of an organization, as Senge sees it. No facile 'Five-step rule' will beget such a vision, only long-term common development work carried out in an atmosphere of openness and transparency.

5. Team learning (or dialogue) is closely related to the previous discipline; but it has a deeper meaning as well. It concerns the general learning situation in an organization in which members succeed in laying aside their own mental images and 'think together'. The Greek term dia-logos signifies a free exchange of opinions in group work, which enables the group to discover new insight that no individual acting alone could achieve; and this is the process that Senge has in mind.

Senge stresses that this 'fifth' (here, the first) and most important discipline is sys-temic thinking. This discipline helps us to integrate the others so that they will not be relegated to a 'life of their own', so to speak, and become mere gimmicks. Nowadays it has become popular to talk about the need for a 'vision', but often this winds up being some flashy image without any deeper meaning for the employees. Often, teamwork is looked upon as a goal in itself; the result is often an inconsequential and unproductive process that does no one any good at all. It is important to Senge how individuals see themselves, likewise that these same individuals experience their organization as a place where they can continuously find out how to create their own reality.

This is why the concept metanoia occupies such a central place in Senge's theory. This is a Greek word that means 'fundamental change', or close to what we might call 'conversion' - i.e. a completely new way of perceiving oneself and the world. In the deepest sense of the word, this is what Senge believes learning really is: a fundamental means of 'recreating ourselves'.

Then what exactly does Senge mean by 'systemic thinking'?
He has come up with a number of laws' meant to serve as rules of thumb for systemic thinking in organizations:

1. The problems of today stem from the 'solutions' of yesterday.
2. The harder you push and the more you try, the harder the system pushes back.
3. The situation often gets better before it gets worse (for example, giving food to the hungry does not help them become self-sufficient in agriculture).
4. 'More of the same' brings us right back to where we started.
5. The cure can be worse than the illness.
6. Quick action means slow or delayed solutions (the quickest method is not always the optimal one).
7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space (thus it is often difficult to understand cause and effect).
8. Minor change can often have major consequences; but it is often unclear where it pays to expend the most effort.
9. You might 'have your cake and eat it too', but not necessarily all at once.
10. To split an elephant down the middle does not necessarily yield two small elephants (living organizations have integrity, and their character is a function of the whole).
11. No one is to blame.

Senge shows us that organizations react on the basis of how processes affect the whole - in both the long run and the short run. Without a deeper understanding of an organization's culture and systemic conditions, there is a major risk that 'development', instead of working as planned, will prove self-defeating.

In contrast to Mintzberg, Senge reflects a basically carefully considered humanistic perspective. His contributions also have great significance for our own thinking about strategies for renewal in organizations. But above all, his perspective is important for school improvement - not only because it explains why organizational learning is 'required knowledge' for the coming generation, but also because the schools themselves have much to learn from Senge if they are going to realize these principles for a learning generation.

Peter M. Senge - INTEGRATED THEORIES of School Organization
School Development - Theories and Strategies [PDF]

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