The Learning

A Conversation with MIT Professor and Best-Selling Author (The Fifth Discipline) Peter Senge
By John Milton Fogg

Close your eyes: imagine an MIT Ph.D., founder of the famed think tank, Global Society for Organizational Learning (, and, at 55 years old, one of 24 extraordinary men and women in the world named business "Strategist of the Century"...

Did you picture a boyish, blondish, unassuming guy more at home in slacks and a sweater than in a three-piece suit? That's Peter Senge, author of the million-selling landmark book The Fifth Discipline and the sage-scholar who almost single-handedly created the concept powering the executive suites of the best corporations in the world today, "The Learning Organization." Dr. Senge (who never uses the title), describes himself as an "idealistic pragmatist" who explores and advocates some leading-edge ideas about systems theory and the necessity of bringing human values to the workplace. His special interest lies in decentralizing the role of leadership in organizations and enhancing the capacity of all the people in an organization to work productively toward a common vision. If you are a business owner asking, "What's my part in creating the kind of world I'd actually be proud to leave my grandkids?," then read on. -- JMF


Peter, how do you define "learning"?

We've had a simple definition for years: enhancing. Learning is a process whereby human beings, individually or collectively, enhance their capacities to create what it is they really want to create. You could be learning to walk or talk, or learning how to do something collectively in an organization; it all comes down to the same basics. It's about bringing results into reality that you really care about--and doing so reliably, not just once, through dumb luck. Learning is always about growing a specific capacity at some level.

A few years ago, I heard another great definition from Tom Johnson, the accounting expert and co-inventor of Activity-Based Costing, who was influenced by Gregory Bateson, the famous philosopher and pioneer of the systems movement: "Learning is defined as discovery and embodiment of nature's patterns."

I like this definition, because it draws out some different nuances of why learning seems so important to us. Learning is more than simply "functional"--it's one of the most meaningful activities we ever experience.

For example, when people feel their lives are going well, what do they do? They go off and learn something. Whether it's reading a book, watching a film or listening to the village story-teller, or sitting down at age 70 to learn how to paint or to play the guitar, human beings seem to have an insatiable desire to learn.


"Insatiable desire" sounds an awful lot like "required."

I think learning itself is very close to what it means to be human. However, on a practical level, all learning processes are a matter of choice. Teachers wrestle with this constantly. The teacher wants the kid to learn something, but the kid doesn't particularly want to. The good teacher knows that under those circumstances, not much learning's going to happen. Great teachers find ways to excite or interest their students in ways that the choice becomes easier.


But is it always optional, Peter? Don't we as human beings have some kind of imperative to develop and grow, which requires learning?

There's some truth to this--but we have to watch our words. On the one hand, "imperative" could simply be a way I talk about something that matters deeply to me. On the other hand, it could be heard as a kind of programming, where we have no choice in the matter. Again, on a practical level, that's rarely my experience: I find that learning is almost always a matter of choice, even if we're not aware of that choice.

Even if life puts you in very difficult circumstances, where you "have to" learn something, the depth and extent of the learning will always be influenced by the choices you make. Some people who go through great traumas learn something from the experience, while others don't; some learn simply that they can survive it, while for others, the experience triggers something deep inside, perhaps a whole new awareness and appreciation of what it means to be alive..


And clearly, you encourage people to make that choice?

I don't worry about encouraging people to make the choice--I'm much more interested in people seeing that they have choices.

People often feel they have no choice. If we believe we're stuck in our situation, with no real possibility for change, we don't feel much motivation to learn. And this may occur on a personal level or on a very large, collective level.


What is it that there is to learn?

The first rule of all learning processes is that learners learn what learners want to learn. That's always been a big problem in schools; it's one reason schools, by and large, have never really been about learning.

There are actually two aspects to this. On the one hand, people want to learn how better to achieve what they want to achieve. This is why there is always the potential for organizations to create powerful environments: they exist so that people can do something together that they couldn't do by themselves.

On the other hand, people also want to learn to be themselves. When those two come together, you get magic. The alignment or intersection of these two characterizes a profound learning environment.

The problem is, people often have a very limited notion of the latter, and they don't we get much guidance from the culture.

In Western cultures, and really throughout the industrial world, I believe we have an extraordinary deficit of understanding of what it means to be a human being, which traditionally was considered the most important knowledge of all.

Throughout the industrial age, we have been increasingly substituting technology for knowledge. If any of us who live in the "modern world" were tossed out into the wilderness by ourselves, chances are we wouldn't last long. For most of human history, most human beings knew how to survive quite well on their own; today, we've lost that knowledge.

Or, take health: For most modern people, "being healthy" means having no diseases. Our "health care" establishment has very little to do with true health; Western medicine has no agreed-upon definition of "health"--just lots of know-how about diseases. The result? We live longer and longer at lower and lower standards of health.


Is this a kind of what's-wrong orientation?

Entirely--it's all about deficits and fixes, because we define health as the absence of disease, as opposed to the presence of vitality, generativeness or suppleness.

Children are very supple. Most of us get stiffer and stiffer as we age. If you're ever around a Taoist master or an advanced martial artist in his '70s, you'll see that these people walk like little children: they somehow have tapped into a process that actually builds suppleness with aging.

Traditionally, Chinese defined health not as the absence of disease but as the capacity of the body to re-establish its balance. If you have an injury or develop some sort of disease and then feel fine again in a few days, the Chinese would say, "Ah, you're very healthy."


Making a leap to the organizational health of a business: Are we similarly focused on "what's wrong" in business?

Yes, it carries over directly. I had a great conversation with Peter Drucker about this a few summers ago, on the eve of his 90th birthday. We were talking about the role of understanding the creative process in business management. He sat back, smiled, and said, "You know, the older you get, the more you understand the variety of diseases the human body can withstand."

Now, here's a guy who's about to turn 90: I promise you, he's got a lot of stuff that doesn't work quite as well as it did 30 or 40 years ago--but what vitality, energy and alertness! We talked for over three hours without a break; it was a wonderful conversation. He added, "Managers are obsessed with solving all their don't need to solve most problems, you just outlive them."

There's a huge difference between being obsessed with fixing all the things wrong in organizations and continually asking the question, "What are we trying to create?" How are we trying to make the world a better place? Who would miss us if we were gone? These questions anchor you in your sense of purpose and vision. They build the presence of organizational vitality, as opposed to the absence of organizational diseases.


What are some other indications of organizational vitality?

The most obvious is the people: Do the people in the organization grow? Are they healthy? Do they become more of who they might be? Do they develop a richer, deeper sense of what it means to be a human being? Do they develop a broader sense of responsibility for themselves, their families, their world? Do they develop more and more a sense of real confidence that, as difficult as things are, we can actually create things we really care about?


Are there other elements involved in creating a learning organization, other than the people?

Yes--although it always comes back to the people, because the organization is its people. What distinguishes one organization from another is its collective capacity to be generative, to bring forth new things that matter to the world.

For example, all organizations are influenced by their governing ideas. By this, I don't mean the "official" values, but the ideas that actually govern how decision are made. Nothing has undermined the generativeness and long-term performance of business in the world more than the insidious idea that the purpose of the business is to make money--to "maximize return on invested capital," or whatever lingo you want to use. That's a pure flight of insanity, the extent of which shows how out of touch we really are.

Drucker said this years ago: "Making a profit for a company is like oxygen for a person. If you don't have enough of it, you're out of the game." But anybody who thinks that life is about breathing has missed something.

An organization's generativeness starts with its sense of purpose. It also has to do with the organization's adaptability--the ability to be generative in multiple domains--and its sensitivity to the environment.


Sensitive to the environment, how?

Businesses today are being challenged to an unprecedented degree to pay attention to what's going on in the environment. That's very difficult, because they are so driven by short-term profitability. Most CEOs are obsessed with this, because they think their job is to do the next deal, and the deal can fall through if the stock price isn't what it should be.

On the other hand, if you're focused on trying to build long-time value for everybody concerned--which includes your investors, by the way--then short-term stock price fluctuations are a lot less important.

Gradually, businesses of all sorts will have to learn how to balance short-term performance with longer-term aims, because the environment of business is changing profoundly--though many still don't see this, or if they do, don't know what to make of it.


Changing from what to what, Peter?

The most common way to express this is moving from "shareholder" to the "stakeholder" model--shifting from Management 101 as taught in business schools (and propagated by consulting firms), that the purpose of business is to maximize return of invested capital, toward the idea that there are many stakeholders for a business whose needs must be balanced: investors, customers, members and communities.

Here is how I prefer to think of it: The purpose of business is to contribute to a more viable world--socially, economically and environmentally. We're not in the business of simply building financial capital; we're also in the business of building human capital, social capital, natural capital.

There is little you can say with certainty about the future of our global industrial economy--but this is one: It will not continue as it has. It can't. It's not possible.

We are the first species in the history of life on this planet that systematically destroys species. We're changing the global environment in ways we know and ways we don't--with totally unknown consequences. Most scientists accept that global climate change is occurring; these are not Cassandras, these are the opinions of mainstream scientific communities.

The rich keep getting richer; the poor keep getting poorer. We talk about the "global village"--but no sustainable village has 15 percent of the people with 85 percent of the goodies! Today, the soft drink producers of the world own 10 to 20 percent of the rights to drinkable water, and this percentage will grow because the business models of these companies demand that growth. At the same time, countries such as India face immense and growing shortages of drinking water.

Anyone who thinks these patterns of globalization are going to continue is hiding under a large rug of denial and self-delusion.


And all this is profoundly changing the environment in which business operates, as well...?

Absolutely, and a growing number of global businesses see this. Companies such as BP, Shell, Unilever or SwissRe, the largest reinsurance company in the world, are in the thick of these global changes.

The major oil companies face the dilemma of knowing that demand for fossil fuels continues to grow, while the only sane future lies in a radically different energy system based on renewable, non-polluting energy.

Property and liability insurance companies around the world are feeling the costs of climate change and increasing weather instability.

When top managers in such companies can talk candidly, they talk about their real concern--and it's not the price of capital, it's whether or not we're going to have any degree of social and political stability; in some cases, it's whether or not they're going to have businesses at all.

Today we're witnessing a massive re-militarization led by the US, ostensibly in the name of increasing national security needs. But little is likely to happen to stop the spread of weapons, as the underlying technologies grow steadily more sophisticated. We've so far avoided nuclear terrorism because of controls on the materials required--but soon genetic weaponry will use the most basic material of all, the green cell. Nobody's going to control this. Building "higher and higher walls" isn't likely to bring security without dealing with the underlying forces producing insecurity.

These are the learning challenges of today's world. Most businesspeople look at the next three months, perhaps the next year or two, and figure, "We'll let somebody else worry about these problems." People in global-scale organizations increasingly do not have this luxury.


And the answer is a learning organization?

Oh, there's no absolute answer. I mean, that would trivialize the whole situation. All we can say is, try to appreciate the reality in which we're operating and keep asking the question, "What do we want to create?" What do we want to create locally? What do we want create globally?

The learning organization is not an answer any more than Plato's Republic was an answer. Plato created those dialogues to get people thinking about an ideal, about what might be possible, not to provide a blueprint. A vision that can inspire change simply asks, "What do we truly want to create?"

You might say the answer is "a restorative industrial society that produces no waste." That clearly captures one direction in which we have to go. Nature produces no waste. By "waste," I mean something that accumulates indefinitely and destroys living systems. In that sense, there are elements in the answer that you determine simply by asking, "What do we know about life in general on this particular planet?" But that's far short of a practical answer.


So the answer really is the question.

The answer is waking up and saying, "What am I going to do? What are we going to do? What's my part in creating the kind of world I'd actually be proud to leave my grandkids?"

I heard a rather harrowing analogy the other day. A German gentleman said, "So many Germans who lived through World War II and gradually found out everything that had been going on in the concentration camps said, 'If only I'd known...' Don't believe it! Most Germans had clues as to what was happening. It wasn't in the newspapers and it wasn't being widely or openly discussed--but most people had some idea of what was going on, and chose not to pay attention. They didn't feel they could do anything about it, so denial became the only feasible recourse."

He went on to say, "Our grandchildren will say the exact same things of us. 'How could you have sat there and driven those SUVs? You saw carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere, yet you kept driving cars that got 10 mpg! How could you possibly have done that? How could you continue to buy the things you were buying and live the way you were living, when you knew that 85 percent of the people in the world were suffering and 25 percent were on the brink of starvation?'"

This is not an issue of good guys versus bad guys. There aren't evil people running Coca-Cola and BP, they're just people, no different from you and me, feeling as trapped as the rest of us--trapped in larger systems no one knows how to change. When we focus attention on the few who get way out of line and exorcise our anxieties through witch hunts, we miss the real point.

It's the larger system we've created that shapes all of this--and we created it. We're the only ones who can change it.