Business Book Of The Week: On the learning curve of change
Wednesday 19 May 1999
by Peter Senge and others (Nicholas Brealey pounds 19.99)
WHEN AT the beginning of this decade, Peter Senge published his book The Fifth Discipline, he effectively laid the seeds for a mini-industry. Today, it is almost as common for a company to declare itself a "learning organisation" as it is for it to claim that employees are its greatest asset. Meanwhile, the notion of continuous learning as a means of coping with the winds of change blowing through all sorts of industry is so widely accepted that tomorrow has been designated Learning at Work Day.
Like The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, the current volume is the work of a group of authors drawn together by Senge's thinking about the challenges facing organisations. And they have produced something a lot more accessible than the average collection of academic papers.
Instead of a guru pouring out his simple answers to a range of problems, there is a lot of questioning and much space devoted to real managers trying to implement what the likes of Senge, an academic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are constantly telling us.
For example, in a section on what it takes to be a leader at a time of turbulence, the chief executive of a US utility contributes a few paragraphs in which he explores how his organisation has gone about transforming itself since deciding that such an exercise was central to its survival. "I didn't appreciate how difficult it would be," he writes. "We had not realised how much baggage we were bringing with us from our previous 85 years as a regulated monopoly."
This executive says: "We had the most resistance from the upper levels of management." They justified their stance through weight of work, but the executive now feels that too much patience was shown. He believes that "some of the people who weren't ready" should be moved out of leadership positions."
This, of course, begs the whole question of what is leadership. Senge's own distinctive take is that the failure of past models - particularly, the collision of directive leadership with the development of "knowledge workers" who may know more about relevant matters than their bosses - creates a need for "a community of leaders" rather than the single "hero- leader" idea that has long been so popular in Anglo-American business.
Such an approach is not without its difficulties. Senge himself accepts that there will be creative tension from having not just leaders spread around the job but an encouragement to be, well, challenging. But the evidence collected by his team and the collection of "virtual colleagues" welcomed in to the fold suggests that this is necessary for surmounting the 10 or so challenges that fundamental change produces.
Some of these challenges are as basic as lack of time or an inability to "walk the talk," while others are more complex and deal with the fears and anxieties arising from situations where there is less control. It is Senge's thesis that such challenges arise naturally from the very process of change, and are generally made worse by determined leaders who seek to drive through change. The MIT man says that this is a result of the system pushing back the more the programme is driven through.
It is an intriguing thought to lay on top of all that has come before. But you do not have to go along with it to gain hugely from reading this book. The idea is to have your consciousness raised to all kinds of possibilities and not to see meeting the challenges of profound change as "a sort of checklist of problems to be solved by aspiring leaders".
If Senge and his colleagues can go some way towards getting organisations away from the temptation to see business in such terms, they will indeed have made a contribution, and arguably have created a change that will dwarf those that executives are so busy confronting.
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