The Learning Organization and Systems Thinking: Applying Theory to the Current Moment

4 min.

The business world began talking about learning organizations when in 1990 Peter Senge published his book The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. The principles stated in that classic publication are true all these years later, and today it is interesting to see how they are applied at contemporary IT companies, such as Itransition.

A learning organization is a company that makes learning for all its members easier, evolving and changing with the changing environment. Peter Senge believes in four principles that make an organization a learning one: personal mastery, mental models, team learning and shared vision. The fifth principle is systems thinking, that brings all of the principles together to allow the company to truly learn and grow, and in a way, it is the most important one since without it others do not form a coherent whole.

How Is Systems Thinking Different

Systems thinking is a different way of understanding causes and effects, where everything is treated as part of an interwoven fabric, a bigger system that often has its own rules. Most of the time people see events as separate in time and space and all they do is explain them. If you focus only on isolated parts you can never find roots of the problems and therefore solve them once and for all.

The natural tendency of the human mind is towards reactive thinking. Since the times when humans had to hunt for survival, the brain labeled events as bad or good, with the body reacting accordingly. Today’s whole civilization is built on reactions (just think about the reaction to a world catastrophe on the faces of the stock market brokers). So when something goes wrong, everyone starts playing the blaming game. If a project becomes unprofitable, for instance, there are the following parties to blame: the project manager, the team, the market, the business partner, the wrong moment, the buying public, etc. That can create a ripple effect situation where those who are blamed may lose motivation.

Systems Thinking Itransition Style

Only an evolution to a new type of thinking – systems thinking – can bring about genuine, long-lasting success in any business. In problematic situations, Itransition abides by the following principles:

There is no failing

There is lack of feedback. In business, communication is everything and if for some reason the lines of communication malfunction, many issues can slip out of focus for all parties and create negative effects. By talking to each other at all levels (from departments and teams, to team leaders and members) the company can function as a system, work together to understand the reasons behind successes and failures, and learn from both.

Mind the time lag

Mistakes are sometimes detrimental to a team’s moral, to their self-esteem and sense of professional mastery, and that’s understandable. But the type of thinking that labels mistakes as only negative is dying out. There is a deeper understanding that if something ‘bad’ happened, it is somehow necessary for the evolutionary development of the company. But the hidden value of that event is often delayed. Mistakes can only be perceived as mistakes when allowed for a certain time lag. While you are making a mistake, you don’t know that yet. It is important to remember that and not jump to conclusions right away.

When something happens, accept it

Instead of reacting to the event, or putting a label on it by calling it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it is healthy to just let it be for a while. At times, it helps to put an issue away, and if there is a lack of understanding about what brought on this or that event, it’s smart to just document it and let it be. In a few months or maybe even years, the true reasons for the event will become apparent (often part of a system and not the fault of its separate part), and once that knowledge is there, the company has grown to a higher level. Passing on that experience and expertise to the whole company is the next step.

Gradually abandoning the retrograde and often unproductive reactive thinking and applying the principles of systems thinking to the whole organization can really help IT companies navigate through crises with grace. When these principles are skipped, however, and systems thinking is ignored altogether, multiple problems may arise in day-to-day operations of the company. Issues that may arise from lack of systems thinking is the topic of our next blog post, so stay tuned.

Do you have any stories to tell or comments about your experience applying the principles of learning organizations? Share with us below and let’s start discussions that can point us to new discoveries together!