jueves, 5 de diciembre de 2013

Peter Senge & Organizations as Living Systems

By Juan Sebastián Cárdenas Salas

“Business and human endeavors are systems…we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system. And wonder why our deepest problems never get solved.”[1]

Peter Senge

When Peter Senge launched his materialized vision about the management of organizations in 1990 with a famous book called The Fifth discipline: The Art and Practice of the learning Organization, he encouraged a revolution on defined paradigms linked to what an organization is. In this book Senge introduced the innovative concept of Learning organization which is basically those who are immersed in a constant process of adaptation, improvement, and evolution, where people are constantly setting up their collective intelligence “learning how to learn together” (Senge, 2006). This is the key point to understanding how his vision impacted the paradigms of business more than 20 years ago, and how it is still sowing a new conscience around the business practices.

Peter Senge is currently senior professor at MIT and founder of SOL (Society of Learning Organizations), a non-profit organization composed of researchers, consultants and corporations constantly working for the enhancement and wellness of organizations (Senge, 2008). Because of his achievements in the field of organizational management, he was named the “Strategist of the Century” and one of 24 personalities who has boosted the way business is led today (Smith, 2001).

I strongly think it is a fact that those who work -or are interested- in the realm of organizations are familiar with Peter Senge’s statements. However, the concept of learning organization requires going beyond the criteria of management. It requires thinking business as a Human Community[2] or a living being whose intelligence, continuous capacity of adaptation, and evolution, depends on its cells: People. As is known “Cells are the smallest form of life—the functional and structural units of all living things” (Machalek, 2011). Therefore, as human beings we are those essentials forms of life from organizations. Our human behavior, as an integrated system of cells, defines the biopsychosocial[3] state of business that we are shaping, and this system affects whether or not an organization is healthy (has a sustainable life) or has a type of disease. In that way, business, similar to humans, can have a long healthy life, or die of cancer (cells degeneration). So to understand organizations as living beings is quite relevant, as is being conscious of its developing and improvement as a human. 

In order to explain the concept of business as a human Community, Senge starts by thinking about the principal issues where organizations are involved: energy, climate change, food, water, materials waste and toxicity. In concordance, he considers business are “the most powerful [institutions] in our modern society,” (Senge, Oct. 2006) whose influence has a huge impact on developing and sustainable progress of our planet. On one hand, Senge affirms that:

“Many good business are naturally concerned about their impact on their local environment, both the communities in which they operate and the natural systems… you could define a good business by its sensitivity to its environment.” (Senge, Oct. 2006).

On the other hand, many of them because of the capacity of power and control used in order to privilege a few at the expense of many, are negligent of “philanthropic gestures” (Senge, Oct. 2006) and do not truly care about these issues. They instead focus on getting the maximum monetary profit. Hence, according to Senge (Oct.2006), “the ones that survive for a long time are relatively more responsible and sensitive than those that aren't.” Those that are conscious to invest in social- environmental capital will have a profitable life generated by trust from its stakeholders.

In addition, to keep clarifying what the “organic model of the corporation” is, Senge (Oct. 2006) describes the origin of the problem which, according to him, comes from the last more than 80 years of education on business schools whose “dominant mythology” has been focusing in the main aim of a business is maximizing “return on investor’s capital”. If we stare two centuries back, this foundation, indeed, starts with the Industrial Revolution where developing machines to enhance industrial process released a “monster of progress” which was devouring all resources for getting the maximum monetary income regardless whether it implies a sustainable process or not. Therefore, according to Senge (Oct. 2006), it established the mythology of “companies as [machines] for making money” whose outcome we can compare to the famous fable of The Goose With the Golden Egg where the owner, because of his desire for power, killed his company -The Goose- breaking its sustainable process: one golden egg every day. Thus, Senge affirms that making money is not related to making profit:

“For a human community, profit is the consequence of being effective in pursuit of your purpose or mission. Or, is a company first and foremost a machine for making money, and the people and relationships among them is secondary, they are simply "human resources" needed by this machine.” (Senge, Oct. 2006). 

I consider it is one of the most important statements to understand an organization as an intelligent living being. A machine does not have conscience, whereas “as a human community we have an ethical foundation based on our empathy and compassion for the larger living systems within which we as a living system exist.” (Senge, Oct. 2006). 

It is a fact that putting in practice this vision is not easy because it is not only related to business but has to do with the whole systems where we coexist with others in life. This demands a high level of sustainability and responsibility. Moreover, our human complexity is a factor which is not even totally clear to understand. However, the curiosity, innovative spirit, and passion of some visionaries who habit this whole system that we know as the world, have allowed us to pick up the produce of progress and evolution despite the barriers of conscience and uncertainty to which we are constantly exposed.


“About Peter Senge” SOLONLINE.com April 2008. Web. 07 Nov. 2013. <http://www.solonline.org/?page=PeterSengebio>.

“Biopsychosocial” Merriam Webster Dictionary Online. MERRIAM-WEBSTER.com 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2013. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/medical/biopsychosocial>.

Machalek, Alisa Z. “Preface: The Microscopic Metropolis Inside You.” National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIH). 22 Apr. 2011. Web. 09 Nov. 2013. <http://publications.nigms.nih.gov/insidethecell/preface.html>.

“Peter M. Senge Quotes” GOODREADS.com 2013. Web. 08 Nov. 2013. <http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/21072.Peter_M_Senge>.

Senge, Peter. “Business as a Human Community - Interview with Peter Senge” SGIQUARTERLY.org Oct. 2006. Web. 07 Nov. 2013. <http://www.sgiquarterly.org/feature2006Oct-3.html>.

Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Revised ed. Random House LLC, 2006. Googlebooks.com. Web. 08 Nov. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?id=qcHB5iEDSlgC&printsec=frontcover&hl=es&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>.

Smith, Mark K. “Peter Senge and the learning organization”. INFED.org 2001. Web. 09 Nov. 2013. <http://infed.org/mobi/peter-senge-and-the-learning-organization/>.

“The Goose With the Golden Egg” BARTLEBY.com 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2013. <http://www.bartleby.com/17/1/57.html>.

[1] Look reference “Peter M. Senge Quotes”

[2] Look reference “Business as a Human Community - Interview with Peter Senge”

[3] “Relating to, or concerned with the biological, psychological, and social aspects” (“Biopsychosocial”). Businesses as living systems are Biopsychosocial systems.

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