Sunday, April 1, 2007

Peter Senge Interview on Organizational Learning

Many of us have read the influential work of Peter Senge, who has become nearly a household word in the fields of organizational behavior and leadership.

Who is Peter Senge? Peter Michael Senge was the Director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and is presently (2005) on the faculty at MIT. He is the founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL). Senge emerged in the 1990s as a major figure in organizational development with his book The Fifth Discipline where he developed the notion of a learning organization. This views organizations as dynamical systems (as defined in Systemics) in a state of continuous adaptation and improvement .

Here is a summary of a highly informative interview with Senge in 1996 that reveals the basis for his thinking. This is a "deep" thinking piece, but well worth the journey. Senge's thinking is well-reflected in my new work in the field of human consciousness and organizations.

Question: Can we develop institutional wisdom?

Peter Senge: It seems to me that deep down the deepest questions for me have to do with the conscious evolution of human systems, because my own belief is that we have evolved in a very unbalanced way.… It seems to me that with power has to go wisdom, and there's no evidence at all that, particularly collectively, we have any wisdom at all.… Is it really possible to enhance institutional intelligence, the capacity collectively to understand, to have institutional wisdom, wisdom defined as having a deeper understanding of the longer-term consequences of action?

I've been amazed by people's capacity to face reality

So that's really been an overarching question, how you begin to help people collectively, in an organizational setting, tap into the real reserves that exist for profound learning and change, for facing things which seem impossible to alter…

Our systems of thought supersede life itself

Our systems of thought supersede life itself, so it's not vitalizing energy and we've lost. I think that if we can't rediscover that, we have no hope of ever developing the wisdom and the understanding that is going to be commensurate with our power. There is something that human beings have a capacity for that, if we don't tap, our power will annihilate us. I really do think that there is not much hope for that.

Matter & Mind: The issue behind all the issues

I had an interesting conversation a year ago with Mr. Nan, the Chinese Zen master who lives in Hong Kong. In China he's a very revered figure. He's considered an extraordinary scholar because of his integration of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. I asked him if he thought that the industrial age was going to create such environmental problems that we would destroy ourselves. And he didn't completely agree with that. It wasn't the way he saw it. He saw it at a deeper level, and he said, "There's only one issue in the world. It's the reintegration of mind and matter." That's exactly what he said to me, the reintegration of mind and matter…

We basically create organizations, which are like matter. And then, we become prisoners of those organizations. So you might very well say, "Thought creates organizations, and then organizations hold human beings prisoner" …

To me, the essence of what systems thinking is all about people beginning to consciously discover, explain and account for how their own patterns of thought and interaction manifest on a large scale, and create the very forces which the organization then 'is doing it to me.' And then they complete that feedback loop, and the most profound experiences I've ever had in consulting have always been when people suddenly go, "Holy cow! Look what we are doing to ourselves!" And what is always significant in those moments, is the we. Not "you," not "them," but we…

That is the way I would describe or define a true systems philosophy, which is one that closes the feedback loop between the human being, their experience of reality, and their sense of participation in that whole cycle of experience. There is nothing that is occurring in matter that is fundamentally inseparable from mind. So I think Mr. Nan is probably right. That is the issue behind all the issues.

You can't understand a system unless you create it

"You can't understand a system unless you create it." I agree with that completely. So it is now possible to say very succinctly what we are doing at the Learning Center, and in a way that I don't think we have ever been able to say it. It is really simple: to consciously attempt to create learning communities as a way of understanding learning communities.… At a deeper level what discipline is all about is this kind of approach to creating.… That’s a different kind of science…

The music doesn't come from the violin

Peter, what do you do when you facilitate workshops and co-create situations of large group transpersonal intimacy in large groups?

Peter Senge: I'll give you an instrumental response. To create music, you have to have violins. You have to have instruments, okay? But the music doesn't come from the violin. The violin is an instrument. For me, at an experiential level, I create that reality in my own consciousness, and then I play the instruments.… I just kind of fall into my love of the people.… and that is the music.

Say that two people are facilitating. The single most important, generative feature is the quality of that relationship.… To me, that's the essence of a loving relationship, because love is about presence. It's about showing up and being present.… Love is beyond feelings. Love is not a feeling state. Love is a state of consciousness beyond feelings…

I think there is a deeper force that's dominant, and that is what I would call this capacity to live in the world you want to create.… There is nothing more powerful in the creative process than knowing what you want to create.… If you know what you want to create, then you can to some degree live in that space in your own consciousness.

Infrastructures for Learning Communities

It seems to me, that there is a tremendous hunger today for community…

Experience, Truth, and Participatory Science

Embracing both conceptual and experiential truth.… Buckminster Fuller on science: to put the data of one's experience in order…i.e., each and every human being is born to be a scientist.


Senge’s research interest concerns the conscious evolution of human and systems and how to help people collectively tap into the reserves that exist for profound learning and change. The mind and matter story of Master Nan opened the space for rearticulating the essence of systems thinking as relinking matter and mind in the social world: to help people and organizations close feedback loops between collectively enacted behavior and the consciousness of those who act. Science, when performed from this deeper perspective, focuses on bringing forth new realities, for "you can’t understand a system unless you create it."

Likewise, leadership, when performed from the same perspective, is about accessing and operating from a "deeper force" related to the "capacity to live in the world you want to create" and bringing your full self into the present moment, "because love is about presence. It's about showing up and being present." How can we, I wonder, develop this quality of presence and awareness across larger systems?

Take Home Value for Economic Development?

What do these ideas have to say about economic development organizations and their mission in building greater prosperity in communities? I would welcome your thoughts on this question.

Here are two initial observations I would offer:

  • ED organizations could become learning organizations and increase their impact on their goals by adopting the ideas and strategies outlined by Peter Senge. My work with many ED organizations reflects that they are not currently equipped to learn and apply their learning fast enough. Many are frankly closed to learning. The leaders of many ED organizations believe they already have all the answers, and they need to act and not learn. I think this needs to change: ED organizations must become more open and use constant learning as an edge to becoming more impactful.
  • ED leaders need to take stock of the ideas that underlie the organizations, programs, plans and strategies they create. Up until recently, economic developers have been obsessed with the notion of matter-based wealth; that is wealth associated with physical realities, such as real estate, manufactured products, physical location and proximity, etc. Senge is alerting us to the need to embrace the non-material realities of mind and spirit. Because of the heightened importance of human capital in economic development, we are beginning to move in this direction. We have much further to go along this path. Even many of our efforts to develop the knowledge economy and human capital resort to old-style matter-based reality principles and strategies. They don't work. We need new strategies that reflect human consciousness and the many other ideas suggsted by Peter Senge.

This is only a tip of the iceberg in exploring how Peter Senge's ideas could be applied to ED organizations. I will return to this issue again in the future.

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