IT HAS been said that the only reality that has not changed is the phenomenon of change. This fact of existence has often been a subject in conversations as well as in written materials. Lectures and references in leadership and management courses always have topics about change. One may also hear parents advising their off-springs to change. Both employees and employers would also wish there would be some change in the business environment; electorates — in the way their chosen candidates perform their duties as public officials; in schools, in the way their students are taught, — and a host of other change that is wished for, planned for, in varying degrees of hope and at times, in near desperation.
My first encounter with the seminal book on change was fifteen years ago when Peter Senge’s (with Art Kleiner, Charlotte Roberts and George Roth) book The Dance of Change: The Challenges to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations came out a year and two weeks earlier (March 16, 1999) than when our classes in Witzenhausen began. Witzenhausen is a campus of Kassel University, south of Germany where the Institute for Social Sciences (ISOS) had been set up.
Our Professor lectured on an elaborate discussion of change drawn from Senge’s 2nd edition March 1996 of Senge’s seminal book on The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization first issued in 1990. The same year our class in Wizenhausen started in 2000, Senge issued Schools that Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares about Education. An earlier Fieldbook was issued in 1994.
Named by The Journal of Business Strategy (September/October 1999) as “one of the 24 people who has had the greatest influence on business strategy over the last 100 years, The Financial Times (2000) named Senge as “one of the world’s top management gurus.” Likewise, “BusinessWeek (October 2001) rated Senge one of the top 10 management gurus.”
Senge’s primary idea in his writings “views organizations as dynamical systems (as defined in Systemics) in a state of continuous adaptation and improvement.” As I listened to our professor for the first lecture day, I was reminded of lectures on systems thinking I took at the pontifical University of Sto. Tomas in the early 1980’s. Briefly, UST lectures talked of possible breakdown of an organization when its constituents, especially its middle and higher management decide on matters that seemingly resolve a problem but which adversely affect other units of an organization with the proponents oblivious of such consequences. At that time though, the lecture being a team taught one, the next lecturer stressed to us that for signs of organizational breakdowns, whether this be caused between or among individuals or units, the guide would be to apply “equiibrium,” a fundamental law of physics! The guy was a seasoned physics lecturer. And Senge being an Engineer introduced “punctuated equilibrium.” Physics used in management! But I’ll shelve this for another conversation.
Senge crafted the concept of the learning organization that continues to learn to cope with change, that doesn’t become obsolete, that is likely to sustain its competiveness amidst the change that happen because its people “continually enhance their capacity to create their desired future.” Instead of seeing themselves “as separate from the world, to connected to the world, from seeing problems as being caused by some external forces, to seeing ”how their own actions create the problems they experience.” To Senge, this paradigm shift is indeed “the heart of a learning organization.” Simply said, change is possible if, first, the actors know of other options, second, that an option is doable, third, is beneficial and fourth, is non-threatening.
To be sure that my graduate students understood their readings on Senge’s books, I asked one student to illustrate in the simplest way these four conditions of change. The student chose indeed the simplest way to illustrate these very sound principles of introducing organizational change. She said, if one wants another way to cook eggs, one has to know another recipe of cooking eggs and that this recipe/option is doable – meaning, the needed ingredients, kitchen paraphernalia are available; also that this option should not cause high blood or discomfort to whoever is served the recipe – meaning, the recipe/option is beneficial. Also, the option should be non-threatening — in this case, a savory egg recipe which demonstrates the househelp’s culinary prowess would likely reap the boss’ praises; at the same time trigger the boss’ wife’s jealousy; hence would cause the househelp possible dismissal from work. This example amused the class.
Drawing from this discussion, a student proposed that in context of the high power distance dominant in Philippine culture — the chosen option should be welcomed by a significant other in the organization. The class agreed that employees would enthusiastically pursue an option particularly if a significant other (the boss) approves of the option. The class chorused: “Write Mr. Senge about our fifth condition!”
Seasoned management lecturers may not necessarily be content with this simplistic response, but I thought, the students’ understanding of the conditions for change could help induce change in their personal world, if need be. To give justice to “Human Capital Management and the Learning Organization” course, I assigned them to craft cases illustrating Senge’s five disciplines of the learning organization. More later.