Collaborative Culture: Peter Senge on the Foundations of Organizational Learning

CHARLOTTE, NC. January 2011, by

On the road to unlocking collaboration, our culture series has taken us through a review of Schein’s many layers, Handy’s four structural models, and Kotter’s eight steps for change – lots of ways to slice and dice the cultural barriers.

To me, it was important progress and worth the deep dive, tapping dozens upon dozens of insightful comments, for which I remain grateful.

Looking back, I’m increasingly convinced:

Cultures can, over time, be intentionally shaped and directed by visionary and resilient leaders. But the complexity of organizations, markets and other social ecosystems invariably worsens with scale, raising the bar for mitigation ever higher.

We need some breakthrough thinking. How can we foster collaboration and cultures that encourage it?

Where do we turn now?

Peter Senge, in his 1990 watershed work The Fifth Discipline (latest ed. 2006), laid an important foundation for Learning Organizations that still resonates today. As we look to frame the core dynamics of effective collaboration and the many challenges of the necessary culture change, I think we need to go back to the source.

While Senge advocated 5 critical disciplines for the modern organization, I struck gold on several foundational takeaways, each resonating with my views on collaborative innovation. Not all of them qualify as ‘disciplines’ as he defined them, but they all seem to have strong relevance to the challenges at hand.

Let’s look at them:

  1. the power of dialog to weave new insights on broader, divergent ways, in his words “open to the flow of a larger intelligence” and “taking us in directions we could never have imagined.” (is it just me, or does that sound a lot like Twitter?)
  2. exposing the vital role of context as the critical lens through which our ideas relate to the world, to each other, and to potential innovations
  3. understanding our social ecosystems, with a nod to “systems thinking”, exposing relationships across parts of the whole; this was an important stake in the ground for interdisciplinary thinking, concepts at the core of the collaborative model and Senge’s view of organizational learning
  4. recognizing that cultures can and must promote learning through deeper inquiry, encouraging us to challenge the rigor of our thinking; ‘critical thinking’ has lost focus in the commercial space and across western society, creating a fundamental problem in education priorities (but that’s another stream!).
  5. harnessing heuristics and paradigms to capture the mental power of abstraction, which he called “mental models;” these help us frame ideas, solutions, and (eco)system relationships in visual, more intuitive terms
  6. importance of the study of nature’s patterns, many holding secrets to how our world and our problems relate, with key messages for ecosystem sustainability and a means to understand complexity around us.

Senge looked to future organizations to master these challenges, becoming increasingly skilled at complex problem solving, and increasingly motivated to take on harder problems, adapting to handle more complex environments and challenges. Successful organizations, he hoped, would demonstrate resilience, and an expanding, repeatable capacity for learning.

Like many visionaries, Senge challenged future leaders to pick up the cause and drive these conceptual ideas into practice. Where are those leaders when we need them?

Some of them may be staring back at us in the mirror.

As we depart from Senge (with much to mull over!) let me direct your attention to the work of Marcia Conner, who has produced a series of books that lay out much of the work ahead in crafting a viable, sustainable learning organization.

Perhaps you’ve connected with her at #lrnchat, on Twitter?

Read up, and listen in.

Ultimately, we must promote cultures that value both learning and collaboration. That’s where innovation and great ideas come from.

We’re at a crossroads, of sorts, and here’s why:

Talking around notions of collaborative cultures is easy, in the same way people banter about collaborative innovation. Small wonder there’s such a buzz about it. But fostering cultures that spawn collaborative behaviors is hard work. I wonder: do we have the resolve to take it on?

Ahead: I’ll provide more specifics on the mechanics of effective collaboration. The journey continues, and we’re picking up the pace.

Here’s some additional dialog just posted on Quora, based on this thread.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts.

24 thoughts on “Collaborative Culture: Peter Senge on the Foundations of Organizational Learning

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Collaborative Culture: Insights from Peter Senge on the Foundations of Organizational Learning « Driving innovation in a digital world -- Topsy.com

  2. I think it is all easier than this. We make it complicated because we over invested in an old model that we have to throw away (along with our status). Rather than take over your comments, I’ve written a post on my blog.

  3. Chris,
    Nice post as usual :-)

    I tweeted to you that #ecosys and #ssmchat as well as many other hash tags can be framed as emerging “cultures” If looked using that lens, I think it’s fair to say that twitter is a classic real world example of how a “culture” can evolve.

    “the power of dialog” is exemplified not only in synchronous # chats, but perhaps even more in the asynchronous @ RT @ and RTs that enables “When you see something, say something.” It allows the exchange of tweets to be the independent variable, while Time is accessible on an “as needed basis.”

    “exposing the vital role of context” is created on Twitter most obviously by links and short statements as in “to the point of Resilience” What is a little less obvious is the history of info exchange that supplies the real human context from which meaning emerges.

    When I tweet to you or vice versa, we “know” how we are talking to and the 140 characters “trigger” a meaning that is unique to our conversations on twitter, your blog, at the ecosys wiki as well as the very occasional phone call.

    Don’t want to make this comment over long, but my strong hunch is that the other elements that Senge highlights can be pretty easily transferred to twitter interaction.

    • So many great thoughts, Michael. Thanks for sharing them here and during today’s #SMCHAT. I imagine we’ll be discussing Senge soon at #ECOSYS in the Education context as well.

      Some first reactions –

      re: culture (in twitter chat context, was that “A1b”?), I guess it’s all in the definitions. I think the most evident, talked about culture is higher up the chain, at the “social media” level, with its own protocols and standards, even a chat around it: believe its #SMManners?

      re: dialog, I think learning via conversation is absolutely crucial, both real time and async; I think it’s the magic of the new Twitter paradigm, if not the currency; I believe Senge had a very strong quote here (will try to surface).

      re: context, it seems to be the essential lever of critical thinking; we need to be able to evaluate problems and ideas in alternative lights; I saw real energy in todays #SMCHAT when we looked at culture simultaneously in 3 contexts, A1a Corp, A1b Social/Ed and A1c Mainstream/Pop. Can be hard to juggle multiple contexts in 140c, but I think we made it work for us today; would like to attempt that more and more; also saw some value in embedding hashtags mid-tweet to refer to multiple contexts.

      Senge has a way of sparking conversations, does he not? Guess that puts him somewhere on the spectrum between instigator and thought leader.

      Thanks again for the insights Michael. Looking forward to more.


      • Nice points. Your comment ” culture is higher up the chain, at the “social media” level” brings to mind that in the frame of Culture as a Complex Adaptive System, I think it’s useful to frame Culture as being “fractally organized.”

        Wikipedia –
        A fractal .. can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole,”[1]

        a property called self-similarity.

        My point is that the dynamics of person to person interactions might go a long way to articulating the evolution of culture in a community, enterprise or even societies at large.

        In that context, I think I see how Twitter can be a living observable example of how a culture can evolve from merely the transfer of 140 chrs in real time and asynch time.

      • Outstanding, Michael. I agree with all of this. I think Twitter as ‘complex adaptive system’ is spot on, and needs more focus.

        In fact, I think I shall tweet that presently :)

        re: Fractals I think the definition applies to Twitter chats and communities perfectly. So, more traction.

        re: Outcomes (adding) we can’t participate in every chat out there of course (though some days it seems like I’ve tried!) but I am coming to believe that the persistence of output, teed up below, and in the case of #ECOSYS it’s our (eg.,) wiki of takeaways, is the most critical gap in terms of emergent value. Without this component, I see most emergent insights get lost. Next best alternative is probably blog posts and comments, but these have proven difficult to organize topically. Never know which post is going to have that germ of an insight we’ll need for problem X. And search is, well, search :)

        Thanks as always. Getting me thinking before that first cup of coffee. Going to be a good day :)


      • I’m so glad to know this resonates with you. It’s precisely what we are trying to explore with #EdbDish as a visual and word based language to be able to communicate insights about Complex Adaptive Systems.

  4. Chris,
    Thank you for reminding us of Senge’s work. I think it will take a lifetime for us to practice and put to use all the wisdom of The Fifth Discipline. I will not be able to be on your chat today but the one thing I would contribute is how can we as agents of change be more responsive to what we see? And how to we pace ourselves between the gaps we notice and how we facilitate change?
    Cheers to more!

    • Hey Jenn,

      Thanks so much for your comment. You’re right about Senge, I view researching his work as more of a ‘mining expedition’!

      To your point on responsiveness, to me it starts with knowing the opportunities to engage. I find it can be very difficult just keeping track of it all.

      Here’s how I try to manage chances for dialog in context:

      • Twitter hashtags – classify/amplify ideas by topic
      • Twitter lists – track idea people by topic
      • Twitter chats – discuss ideas by topic (special mention: #ideachat)
      • Blog posts with comments – expand ideas
      • Blog rolls – track idea incubators (people/ideas)

      To drive better engagement and, ultimately, our ability to be more responsive, we need to expanded focus in:

      • Wikis – to persist (save) transient ideas
      • Context-aware Apps – filtering inputs by topic
      • Mixing spaces – places for ideas and their catalysts to come together and emerge in new directions; maybe that’s Twitter? or Twitter chats? A couple of us cooked up #ideacafe recently with this need in mind.

      So many ideas, so little time!

      For now? With a little help from TweetDeck and WordPress, I have the ability to see what’s out there, then work within my time box allocations to invest time where I can. For now, our ability to slice/dice ideas and meet/mingle with their catalysts is left more or less to our own devices. Yes there’s an app for that. The question is: which one?

      Did Senge envision all this?

      I know Tapscott did. But that’s another post.

      And to your point on pacing? You’re right, we have to find a personal balance. For me, the most important space “in between” is commonly known as ‘sleep’ :)

      Thanks for the stopping in, Jenn. Looking forward –


  5. To actually put these six items into practice we will need to learn and strengthen our collaborative communication, behaviors and methods – perhaps the most vital skill set to hone, going forward.

    Without them it will be a more uneven path to accomplish greater things with others than we can alone or to “simply” stay relevant in this increasingly connected, complex world.

    More than traditional top-down “leaders” the most valuable players will become those who can instigate and/or participate in collaboration among disparate individuals, motivated by a strong, sweet spot of mutual benefit

    • Hi Kare,

      Thanks for your comment. My eye went straight to ‘instigator’ because I’m afraid I have that in my system.

      Seems the role of catalyst is key.

      re: Complexity I hope we all continue exploring the continuum from ‘simple’ to ‘complex’ as we go forward. Our ability to understand and harness complexity, to me, requires our ability to envision the interactions. Senge: Mental Models. Kuhn: Paradigms. Reading a good book now by Wray Herbert on heuristics. Purists will say (and probably be right) that we can’t control the outcomes and certainly run risks by simplifying what is by nature complex. But if we learn the simple rules in play, I think we have a chance to make a difference. No, not an HSD commercial, but they are definitely onto something on this aspect (Eoyang, Halladay, Nations, et al).

      re: Methods – I covered some above in my response to Jenn. Just a snap shot, work in progress.

      I guess I’m an optimist, but its a good set of problems to have :)

      Again, thanks for jumping in. Hope we can continue these conversations. They’re important threads.


  6. Chris,
    Continuing from our chat today, it was interesting how the word “training” gets a bad rap from some. It’s a common business term–and right into the official title of folks we’d want to co-opt into rethinking corporate learning, so I hate to see it become, as described in the chat, “the dreaded T word.” To me, I think of “training” as describing directed ways of bringing content into the organization. And it can be done well or very poorly. Sometimes the best value is simply that someone is taking the time to think about what content would be useful to the org to help people know what they don’t know.

    In this sense, “Learning” is the companion term describing the (successful) consumption of content in order to use it when appropriate (your “multiple contexts”).

    In a world full of sources for self-directed exploration, learning without training is easy. It’s the training without learning that is always the waste!

    Cheers, Ken

    Ken Rosen
    Performance Works
    Blog at http://www.PerTalks.com

    • Ken,

      You are absolutely right, I didn’t intend to devalue the great work of trainers around the world. You’ve done a good job to clarify the dynamic at work here.

      And “training without learning” is probably what was in mind when I said what I did.

      re: classroom model learning, the epiphany I was having during #SMCHAT was that the business model of (classroom) training and the public education model of classroom learning look remarkably similar. From Christensen on down the line, there are comparisons to ‘Factory Model’ education.

      The question for me now is: when is classroom style training/learning most effective, and when does that approach defeat the deeper need for context sensitive learning?

      Not sure if there’s an app for that, but I’m sure there are quite a few books on it. I’m quite sure I need to read some of them. And maybe attend #LRNchat?

      Thanks for the insights, Ken. Very much appreciated. See you online (and hopefully, back here!).


      • Thanks much, Ken. Great to know there’s value, but a big part of that is driven by the deep insights that come from readers, like yourself. Someone (Becky?) said recently – and I agree – its really about the comments !!

        Your kind words are truly appreciated. Definitely makes it worth coming back.


  7. Hi Chris,

    Great post, in looking at how classic Senge applies to culture shift in modern environments. I know it’s impossible to capture all aspects of culture in one list, but I wondered where resilence or adaptiveness to change (or perhaps even proactive desire for changing the status quo) might fit in. In increasingly complex organizations facing constant change, embracing change versus overcoming resistance is needed to shift cultures.

    I also found it interesting to review your principles in the context of modern Senge – his focus on environmental sustainability; presencing and openness to responding to what is going on around us, more ‘in the moment’ than planning or analyzing; and on relationships.

    In that context, I know you reference understanding social ecosystems – with culture shifts happening through relationships and human interactions, perhaps framing this more on people versus systems might reflect the modern collaboration and culture change you’re looking at, and Senge’s focus in current times?


    • Hi Kim.

      Absolutely agree, there are two major points I missed that should have been called out:

      re: Resilience (will research and add more)

      re: Adaptation (will research and add more)

      Senge discusses both, and both are critical. I’d go back and add bullets 7 and 8 to the post, but I’d probably violate a cardinal rule of social media etiquette. Or something.

      Also interesting reading from Scott Page at U.Mich re: Complex Adaptive Systems, more on that to come as well.

      Thanks so much for the insight Kim, here and on Twitter. I look forward to further exploring the myriad factors on the journey of unpacking our social ecosystems.

      One of many roads worth travelling, it seems to me :)

      Best –


      • I think it’s fair to say that Resilience as a theme for education is getting traction at #ecosys. @GraingerEd has done some wonderful work including presentations that apply directly to enterprise.

      • Agree. I just didn’t go straight to “Resilience” language in 5th Discipline. I was definitely getting warm in reviewing “Personal Mastery”.

        There is a section on Adaptive Organizations that I plan to re-read and post on, above, to complete the thread.

        Hoping Sean can share some direct input on his thoughts re: Senge regarding education. Clearly, that dialog is already happening in the #ECOSYS #K12 context, tweet by tweet. These blog threads feed into and are integral with that conversation, but also traverse other (albiet highly related) highways (collaboration, complexity, organization culture, social networks).

        Going to need a new GPS soon :)


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