Q15- Senge’s Journey: from Learning to Presencing?

After two of CCLFI clients in the Philippines decided to become “living, learning organizations,” I was pleasantly amazed at how far the influence of Peter Senge’s concept of “learning organization” (LO) has reached. Today, I stumbled upon a 2001 OECD study on “Cities and Regions in the New Learning Economy.” Wow!

The concept of LO did not solely originate from Senge. It was a concept that has been talked about before 1990 by other experts such as Chris Argyris, Donald Schon and David Bohm. 1990 was the year when Senge’s bestseller book came out: “The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.” Senge also borrowed ideas from Forrester, Meadows and their colleagues at the systems dynamics group in MIT of earlier “Limits to Growth” fame.

The concept itself is a pregnant one, for it leads to new ways of looking at organizations: that organizations are like living entities. Organizations learn and adapt. They evolve and mutate. They are not like machines that need mechanics, fixers and top-down Taylorist managers; they are more like plants that need nurturing gardeners.

Not all experts agree. For one, David Garvin decries those who see “learning… as a New Age phenomenon, whose goal is releasing human potential rather than improving the bottom line… [whose] discussions of learning organizations have often been reverential and utopian” (see his book “Learning in Action”).

I agree with Garvin that the five LO disciplines are remote from the bottom line. His definition of a LO is more business oriented and practical, which fits well in the context of the Harvard Business School where he teaches. However, I think business is not the only area of application of LO concepts.

Lest “learning organization” remains a “Cloud 9 concept,” Senge and his colleagues came up with concrete tools four years later (see “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization,” 1994).

Despite the criticisms, I think the fundamental basis of LO is solid. Garvin looks at managing behavior and performance (external view) while Senge looks at the mental models that determine behavior (internal view). In the words of Senge, “the central message of The Fifth Discipline is… that our organizations work the way they work, ultimately, because of how we think and how we interact.” The two views actually complement each other, and a mix of the two should be best in real world situations.

Frederick Taylor’s view of organizations is linear and straightforward. It fits well in managing factories that are basically extended machines. However, 21st century service organizations where knowledge workers rather than machines create value are more complex entities. We are just starting to learn how to manage these entities, thanks to Peter Drucker, Peter Senge and a new breed of management gurus. The next book by Senge’s group (“The Dance of Change: the Challenges to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations,” 1999) reflects the difficulties faced by this new breed. It was around the same time when a group of management theorists and practitioners assembled at the Harvard Business School and debated on the fixing/mechanic-versus-nurturing/gardener polarity (or the Theory E versus Theory O; see Beer and Nohria’s “Breaking the Code of Change”). After reading the interesting debate I reached the conclusion that it is not an “either/or” choice but more a “both/and”.

The learning process in organizations is one of the features that distinguishes the two viewpoints.

The process of organizational learning and the nature of human knowledge are two great issues at the root of the amusing confusions among practitioners of organizational learning and knowledge management. The book “Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future” (2004) by Senge and his colleagues at the Society for Organizational Learning raises a third great issue: the human process of innovation.

From our workshops in 1999 CCLFI discovered that the most fulfilling moments in a person’s life are of four types, and for some deep and unknown reason, all the four types are fundamentally creative moments. People are happiest or most fulfilled when they perform or participate in a creative process. We are not sure why. Csiksczentmihalyi, after studying these creative moments, observed that the person’s experience is like forgetting one’s self in a process he labeled as “flow” (see: “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention,” 1996). The new field of transpersonal psychology has formed itself around the study of such experiences.

In Senge’s language, “presencing” is the art and practice of consciously entering a creative space and process where innovation can take place. It is “pre-sensing” the future and participating in bring about the future into the present. It is internally sensing what is emergent within and without. It calls forth the intrapersonal and/or transpersonal skill of entering the quiet creative wellspring within yourself: the bottom of the “U” according Otto Scharmer (see his book “Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges”) or the “flow” of Csiksczentmihalyi.

At CCLFI we have experienced these creative moments. We observed in our workshops that almost everyone had experienced this moment at some time in their life, although they may not consciously recognize it as such. Perhaps it is not a largely cognitive process. We are at a loss to come up with words to describe the experience. “The mind is the last to know,” I tell my colleagues.

All these may sound “New Age-y” to some, but in the end, innovation is essential for hard-nosed business survival or even planetary survival. In the end, we must be able to connect the intangible experiential process of creation with its tangible benefits to the rest of the world. Whether businessmen or business school professors like it or not, we must continue to strive to understand the deeper nature of human creativity and innovation — and put that understanding to work in practical problems that confront not only businessmen but also prime ministers, not only factory managers but also peace negotiators.

Let me end with a quote from Secretary General Takenaka of the Asian Productivity Organization:


    “The days when incremental or continuous improvement preoccupied corporate managers are over. It is to innovation and breakthroughs that those managers have turned their attention. For achieving innovation, the most relevant tool is no longer quality control or quality management. It is knowledge management in its broadest sense, which includes value creation or knowledge creation that is the most relevant.”

Tell us what you think.

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2 Responses to “Q15- Senge’s Journey: from Learning to Presencing?”

  1. John James O'Brien Says:

    This topic, like so much in your blog, Apin, is close to my heart. The work of Chris Argyris was a catalyst for my decision to take an MA in leadership and training at Royal Roads University, Canada some years back. Henry Mintzberg is another favourite. Csiksczentmihalyi’s Flow resonated deeply, enabling a great appreciation of Tolstoy’s Levin character in Anna Karenenina: Levin embodies flow and this almost spiritual oneness is captured well in that work.

    At the same time, I have yet to encounter a workplace actually able to live its espoused values and to develop the kind of frame required for consistency that also enables fluidity and contextual response to anomalies. Wrestling with these ideas gives meaning to our work. I continue to see a dichotomy between theory and practice. This is not to say that the two cannot come together–rather that theory may be focused in ways that practice is not. I have worked in very traditional command and control environments as well as those characterized by the new aginess” you mention (e.g. aboriginal smudge ceremonies to start routine meetings). Both represent extremes. One inhumane, the other subjective and inconsistent. To me, a great challenge and opportunity in the KM sphere is to find the right place on the continuum for any given organization.

    It is interesting to learn that companies in the Phillipines are interested in these concepts. It is fascinating to explore why some countries in the region seem poised to evolve and others not.

  2. apintalisayon Says:

    Our own personal practice of OL in our organization – CCLFI – convinces me that OL is a demanding discipline. Our team learning processes break down so often because we touch on personal issues in ourselves, issues so deep-seated it requires much awareness and commitment and years to resolve. Thanks to our learning and personal growth orientation, we reflect, learn and keep bouncing back. Yes, the gap between OL theory and practice is great. And yes, the challenge is to find the realistic balance between the ideal and the reachable.

    Thanks, John, for your candid sharing. We do resonate to similar thoughts and frequencies. I do hope we meet up one of these days, in HK, Canada or elsewhere. I will be attending 6th ICKM in December 2009 in Hongkong, as I am one of the panel chairs and conference committee member.

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