Knowledge : Learning Organizations ( Part 1 )

by Kai Larsen, Claire McInerney, Corinne Nyquist, Aldo Santos, Donna Silsbee and Dr. Sue Faerman, May 13, 1996, University of Albany, New York.

The original material is at

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Personal Mastery
3. Mental Models
4. Teams


5. Shared Vision
6. Systems Thinking


7. Conclusion
8. Endnotes
9. Appendix A - example
10. Appendix B - definitions
11. Mediagraphy 

"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 as ' generative 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 'wheels 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:

  • Subsidiarity: Giving away power to those closest to the action,

  • Clubs and Congresses: Places and opportunities for meeting and talking,

  • Horizontal Fast-Tracks: Horizontal Career-Tracks that rotate people through a variety of different jobs in the new, flattened organization,

  • Self-enlightenment: Individual responsibility for his own learning,

  • Incidental Learning: Treat every incident as a case study from which learning can occur.

  • The driver of the wheel should be the leader of the organization who sets the example for others to follow. ( Handy, 1995. )

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:


To remain in unilateral control,


To maximize winning and minimize losing,


To suppress negative feelings, and


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:

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 )

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.

Kai Larsen can be reached at

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