Article: Systems Thinking and five disciplines of learning organisations

Learning & Development

Systems Thinking and five disciplines of learning organisations

As organisations embrace the changes in the modern ecosystem and disassociate themselves from the typical regressive protocols of command and control working, it is imperative for them to adopt frameworks that lead to building learning organisations.
Systems Thinking and five disciplines of learning organisations

In an insightful session at People Matters L&D Conference, Dr. Pradnya Parasher, Founder & CEO of ThreeFish Consulting India, discussed her personal experiences in leading organisations and suggested frameworks that learning organisations can adopt to function successfully.

She proposed three core ideas that lay the foundation for learning organisations. 

1) There are vastly satisfying and productive ways of ‘working together’ vs the conventional ‘command and control’ way of working led by rigid hierarchy

2) Organisations function the way they do given how people in the organisation work, think and interact. Many times, when we think of organisations, we almost think of them as an entity devoid of the people. But at the heart of every organisation, it is the people that are working there

3) Building learning organisations is not an ‘end goal or a destination’ but a lifelong journey of acknowledging people within organisations and enabling them to achieve the desired outcomes

How do we define a learning organisation?

Dr. Parasher shared Peter Senge's view of a learning organisation, ‘organisations where people continuously expand their capacity to create results that they truly desire. A learning organisation is a place where expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, collective aspiration is set free and where people are continually learning how to learn together’. 

How to build the culture of a learning organisation?

She suggested three core learning capabilities in teams required to build learning organisations.

The first capability refers to capability of aspiration, .i.e., having a collective vision that unifies the learning organisation.

The second capability is having reflective conversations, where meaningful dialogues are conducted.

The third capability is the ability to understand complexity in organizations.

She added that the five competencies that we must build relate to personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning and systems thinking.

Discipline of Personal Mastery

In this segment, Dr. Parasher discussed the significance of patience in practising personal mastery - to be able to continue to visualise one’s future, do the work and patiently wait for the results to emerge, while also seeing reality objectively in terms of what is and what can be.

She further added that if we see a semblance of traditional, western or eastern philosophy and spirituality in this concept, there truly is. The entire discipline of personal mastery has a very solid grounding in spirituality as it’s referring to the individual's soul. 

Discipline of Shared Vision

Dr. Parasher tied the idea of personal mastery in organizational context by suggesting that learning organizations are required to blend the top down with the bottom up, i.e. leaders must be able to set the vision, allow the teams to work towards that vision, and paint a motivating picture for people that induces collective enthusiasm in teams. The strategy must help align people with the vision and enable them to act towards that vision.

Discipline of Mental Models 

This discipline refers to building capability to enable individuals to differentiate between what is fact and what is an assumption. She mentioned Chris Argyris, a renowned practitioner in the area of organisation development and a systems thinker, who propounded a ladder of inference that suggested ways to follow facts to build meanings, as people have the tendency to color facts based on their assumptions. 

She added, “the whole process of internal meaning making is so unconscious that we almost assume that the meaning that we have is the same as the fact or the actions we are taking are directly driven from the facts and what we have observed.”’

Building capability of enabling teams to see what path they have traversed from ‘what is’ to ‘what they are interpreting and doing’ is, in essence, the third discipline of mental models.

Discipline of Team Learning 

This discipline involves the ability to conduct dialogues, i.e. learning to share one’s process of deriving interpretations. Understanding and sharing the process of dialogue leads to collective meaning-making, enabling teams to learn to think together. This leads to a way more productive and satisfying output than what we achieve with individual meaning-making.

At the heart of dialogue is advocacy and inquiry, as proposed by Peter Senge. Advocacy means ‘putting forward one’s point of view and trying to influence people to think the way one thinks.’ This should be balanced with inquiry which means ‘to try to understand what meaning the other person is making and how they see things with the same degree and passion.’ 

Discipline of Systems Thinking

System thinking involves thinking about the larger systems - both the parts and the whole. It is about understanding the impact of one’s actions in the present and the future, near and distant.

In a learning organisation, members would think about how their actions impact their team, unit, division, function and the organisation.

This discipline, as Dr. Parasher put it, is learning what we are doing collectively as an organisation impacts the entire ecosystem, locally and globally, and even beyond.

Ultimately, the task of L&D professionals is to create an atmosphere for organisations enabling them to absorb and act on these principles.

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Topics: Learning & Development, #PMLnDIN

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