“Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder?”

“Why do we derive our self‐esteem from knowing as opposed to learning?” 

“Why do we criticize others before we even understand them?”

It’s been 25 years since these questions opened the seminal paper Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations by Peter Senge and Fred Kofman.

These questions persist today.

With all our technical prowess, expanded connectivity, and ability to scale, these seemingly basic questions—at the heart of increasing our capacity for learning—remain elusive in organizational life.

I will devote two blog posts to the authors’ vision of a learning organization. This first blog details some of the elements and challenges. In my next blog, I will focus on the kind of leadership required to cultivate and sustain such an environment.

Commitment to Learning and Change

In their groundbreaking paper, Senge and Kofman envision a “Galilean shift” of mind that details challenges and changes in individual values and organizational culture.

The paper resulted from theories, models, and practices outlined in their 1990 management text, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, which presaged the 1994 release of The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization.

In 1997, Harvard Business Review identified The Fifth Discipline as “one of the seminal management books of the last 75 years.”

The inquiry into learning initiates a deep and messy journey into being human in an organizational context. The authors identify five disciplines for cultivating learning cultures and reveal three frozen thinking patterns we must dissolve rather than solve.

I will suggest that embracing this commitment to change also requires us to expand our view to include an integral, multi-dimensional approach to learning and organizing.

A genuine commitment to change questions the difference between changing a symptom and revealing a root cause. We open new inquiries, confront our ignorance, and question our assumptions. This view of learning ventures beyond problem-solving. Two of Senge’s 11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline alert us of the limits of reactive problem-solving.

  • Law #1: “today’s problems come from yesterday’s ‘solutions.’”
  • Law #4: “the easy way out usually leads back in.”

From this inquiry, we discover that learning isn’t a mystery, strategy or problem-solving technique. It begins with a commitment – a commitment to rediscovering what it means to be a learner.

Five Disciplines

These five disciplines serve to cultivate capabilities for creating a “learning organization,” as quoted briefly from the book:

1 – “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.”

For Senge, personal mastery is fundamental: it points to our capacity for self-awareness, to observe and listen well, and be able to communicate our needs and expectations. Generally, people with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. Personal mastery is not something you possess—it is a practice, a lifelong discipline.

2 – “Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.”

Senge speaks to the effect that mental models have on our behavior. With this discipline, we start turning the mirror inward, learning to reveal our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny.

For Senge, mental models are essential to “focus on the openness needed to unearth shortcomings” in perceptions.

3 – “Building shared vision practices unearthing shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.”

Senge’s word choices are significant: future, commitment, and enrollment.

  • The future is a possibility—it’s not certain, or even predictable. It is an opening we cultivate with others in a field of alignment.
  • We enroll others into a future by encouraging and inviting them to share this possibility as their own, in their lives, in their desire for a future.
  • Commitment, in this case, is not an obligation, burden, or form of compliance. The authors discuss commitments to something bigger than ourselves, “to changes needed in the larger world and to seeing our organizations as vehicles for bringing about such changes.”

“Shared vision” ventures beyond the notion of a leader telling his/her vision at others; it is the capacity to hold a shared picture with others of the future we seek to create together. When cultivated through others, a shared vision has the power to be uplifting and to encourage experimentation and innovation.

4 – “Team learning starts with ‘dialogue,’ the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine ‘thinking together.'”

Senge posits how a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63. The discipline of team learning confronts this paradox. He points to “dialogue” as the context for genuine “thinking together.” To the Greeks, dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually.

Senge’s thinking is informed by David Bohm, who has written beautifully about the “need to be able to communicate freely in a creative movement in which no one permanently holds onto or otherwise defends his own ideas.”

5 – “Systems thinking is the Fifth Discipline that integrates the other four.”

Senge now suggests a new view: systems thinking discloses that there is no outside object – that the causes of your problems are part of a single system.

We tend to think that cause and effect will be relatively near one another. Thus, when faced with a problem, we focus on the “solutions” that are close by. When we fail to grasp the systemic source of problems, we are left to “push on” symptoms rather than dissolve the frozen thinking of the underlying cause.

Three Frozen Patterns

While Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations predicts a future that has largely unfolded, it also alerts us to three “frozen thinking patterns.”

Our immersion in technology and focus on the economy has blinded us to the very thinking patterns that keep us from adopting an interdependent view for learning together.

Specifically, the authors suggest the need to dissolve three programmed and entrenched western worldviews—our reactive self, our competitive self, and our fragmented self—promulgated by our education system, trained by our professional development, and socialized by our cultural incentives.

  • REACTIVENESS. For most people, reactiveness has been reinforced since childhood. We solved problems identified by others, read what was assigned, and wrote what was required. Being accepted became more important than being ourselves.
  • COMPETITION. Overemphasis on competition makes looking good more important than being good. The resulting fear of not looking good is one of the greatest enemies of learning. Learning begins with saying “I don’t know.”
  • FRAGMENTATION. Humankind has succeeded over time in conquering the physical world and in developing scientific knowledge by adopting an analytical method—studying each component in isolation—to understand problems. We specialize in parts or content without appreciating the whole context.

Ideally, such a list provokes solutions, the very reaction that cements these patterns in place. In an almost Zen-like manner, the authors invite us to lean into the patterns in ways that reveal a dissolution rather than a resolution. They acknowledge “dissolution” as an unconventional strategy:

“We try to solve fragmentation by promoting systems thinking. To solve competition, we do team building and devise more sophisticated coordination mechanisms. To solve reactiveness, we apply preemptive strikes of proactive ‘leadership.’

However, our solutions don’t question the background assumptions that gave rise to these conditions. To address the roots of these problems we don’t need solutions but dissolutions.”

Dissolving Frozen Patterns

The iceberg model below reveals our view of reality that preserves our frozen thinking patterns.

Most of our lives occur at the tip, immediately observable and instantly solvable. “Dissolving” frozen thinking patterns requires slowing time and expanding space to observe reality at the third “design” level (“underlying structures”).

image credit: Northwest Earth Institute

Adopting an interdependent view of reality (at the “design” level) allows us to cease reacting to or anticipating expectations, needs, and desires (at the “events” or “patterns” levels). Instead, we become aware of the underlying structures that influence our habitual patterns; then we become conscious of our mental models – the beliefs and assumptions – that support those structures.

The solvent proposed by the authors is a new way of thinking, feeling, and being: an interdependent worldview accessible at this third level of reality.

  • Reactiveness becomes creativity when we see the “poetic power of language,” how language brings forth distinctions from the undivided flow of life.
  • Competition becomes cooperation when we discover the “community nature of the self” and realize that our role as challengers is to help each other excel.
  • Fragmentary thinking becomes systemic when we recover “the memory of the whole,” the awareness that wholes and parts operate in a circle of self-generation.

The dissolving of these frozen thinking patterns cultivates three core learning capabilities that are desperately needed today: fostering aspiration, developing reflective conversation, and understanding complexity.

The Nature of Learning Communities: It’s about humans

Cultivating learning (and specifically, a learning organization) is most challenging precisely because its manifestation discloses what it means to be human.

Learning reveals our vulnerability, occurring between a need and a fear. Fulfilling our needs often means confronting our fears, which reveals our second nature as reactive and competitive, socialized from fragmented views.

Senge admits as much in his next masterpiece, appropriately titled The Dance of Change: The challenges to sustaining momentum in a learning organization (1999), which outlines the obstacles to dissolving those three patterns.

I’ve come to realize that there are two fundamental views that make it more challenging to cultivate a learning culture.

First, a learning community must be culturally grown and strategically managed. No force of strategy, technology, or systems can make up for a lack of the cultural awareness and mutual understanding necessary to expand the possibility of learning past the need to know and adapt.

Beyond mere knowledge sharing exists the impulse to learn—at its heart, an impulse to be generative, to expand our capability, and to ennoble our dignity as humans. We are called to honor and cultivate that impulse.

Second, a learning culture is unlike any other business competency, transition, or mission. It requires attention in ALL four quadrants for perceiving human life and activity, as viewed from an integral perspective. We are called to become multi-perspectival beings.

The following four-quadrant grid from Integral Theory (in a previous blog) reveals the four dimensions to be applied to an inquiry into a learning organization.

The Nature of Learning Communities: Four Dimensions

Senge and Kofman’s paper addresses all four dimensions of creating a learning organization—a first for the literature of the day. Yet, since its publication, we’ve had little integration of these ideas, especially from the left side of the grid.

Generally, most ideas about learning focus on the upper right (performance) or possibly both the upper right (performance) and lower right (processes).

A quick review of some of the literature for learning and development professionals this past year reveals these issues:

Concerns about data and analytics and transitioning to data-driven learning; use of marketing to guide or scale learning; the impact and ROI of learning; questions of why we measure (and what we measure).

This notion of learning organizations has given way to networks connected by technologies with multiple platforms that transact business and share knowledge but fail to relate, co-create, discover, or truly collaborate. Performance and Process trump Self-Discovery and Practice.

This four-quadrant model offers an integral (four-dimensional) view of a Learning Organization.

Most developmental programs focus only on single dimensions: 1) knowledge sharing, 2) training and performance, 3) practice and community, or perhaps 4) personal mastery.

Absent from much of the current literature are those intangible issues (left side of the quadrant) concerned with cultivating the imagination, presence, and personal mastery that expand perceptions to shape how we relate, collaborate, and discover ourselves with others.

Organizational Learning Requires Leadership

The attention and intention required to integrate these four dimensions to cultivate a learning culture reveal a daunting challenge, profound realization about humankind, and willingness to both learn and lead.

Learning competes against economic survival, expanding technologies, strategic direction, and hyped-up concerns about scaling—items which result from our frozen thinking patterns to survive. Our relationship to them can be sourced to the view of learning held by those leading our organizations.

Some learning and development specialists take on more than one of these dimensions—rarely do they tackle all four. Implementing all four would require rethinking our entire notion of organizational life, belonging, and business.

The key to that kind of culture requires a different kind of leadership, beyond a single leader—leadership as a cultural norm. In a learning organization, leadership is expected from everyone and cultivated by the organizational leaders.

The next blog will explore Senge’s notion of leadership that can work to cultivate learning organizations.


tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and contemplative practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism and contemplative practices.