Systems thinking – the cornerstone of the learning organization
A great virtue of Peter Senge’s work is the way in which he puts systems theory to work. The Fifth Discipline provides a good introduction to the basics and uses of such theory – and the way in which it can be brought together with other theoretical devices in order to make sense of organizational questions and issues. Systemic thinking is the conceptual cornerstone (‘The Fifth Discipline’) of his approach. It is the discipline that integrates the others, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice (ibid.: 12). Systems theory’s ability to comprehend and address the whole, and to examine the interrelationship between the parts provides, for Peter Senge, both the incentive and the means to integrate the disciplines.
Here is not the place to go into a detailed exploration of Senge’s presentation of systems theory (I have included some links to primers below). However, it is necessary to highlight one or two elements of his argument. First, while the basic tools of systems theory are fairly straightforward they can build into sophisticated models. Peter Senge argues that one of the key problems with much that is written about, and done in the name of management, is that rather simplistic frameworks are applied to what are complex systems. We tend to focus on the parts rather than seeing the whole, and to fail to see organization as a dynamic process. Thus, the argument runs, a better appreciation of systems will lead to more appropriate action.
‘We learn best from our experience, but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions’, Peter Senge (1990: 23) argues with regard to organizations. We tend to think that cause and effect will be relatively near to one another. Thus when faced with a problem, it is the ‘solutions’ that are close by that we focus upon. Classically we look to actions that produce improvements in a relatively short time span. However, when viewed in systems terms short-term improvements often involve very significant long-term costs. For example, cutting back on research and design can bring very quick cost savings, but can severely damage the long-term viability of anorganization. Part of the problem is the nature of the feedback we receive. Some of the feedback will be reinforcing (or amplifying) – with small changes building on themselves. ‘Whatever movement occurs is amplified, producing more movement in the same direction. A small action snowballs, with more and more and still more of the same, resembling compound interest’ (Senge 1990: 81). Thus, we may cut our advertising budgets, see the benefits in terms of cost savings, and in turn further trim spending in this area. In the short run there may be little impact on people’s demands for our goods and services, but longer term the decline in visibility may have severe penalties. An appreciation of systems will lead to recognition of the use of, and problems with, such reinforcing feedback, and also an understanding of the place of balancing (or stabilizing) feedback. (See, also Kurt Lewin on feedback). A further key aspect of systems is the extent to which they inevitably involve delays – ‘interruptions in the flow of influence which make the consequences of an action occur gradually’ (ibid.: 90). Peter Senge (1990: 92) concludes:
The systems viewpoint is generally oriented toward the long-term view. That’s why delays and feedback loops are so important. In the short term, you can often ignore them; they’re inconsequential. They only come back to haunt you in the long term.
Peter Senge advocates the use of ‘systems maps’ – diagrams that show the key elements of systems and how they connect. However, people often have a problem ‘seeing’ systems, and it takes work to acquire the basic building blocks of systems theory, and to apply them to your organization. On the other hand, failure to understand system dynamics can lead us into ‘cycles of blaming and self-defense: the enemy is always out there, and problems are always caused by someone else’ Bolam and Deal 1997: 27; see, also, Senge 1990: 231).