Peter Senge: Learning Organizations & Systems Thinking

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  • 0:00 Who Is Peter Senge?
  • 0:38 Learning Organizations
  • 1:53 Systems Thinking
  • 2:43 Advantages
  • 3:27 Disadvantages
  • 3:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucinda Stanley

Lucinda has taught business and information technology and has a PhD in Education.

In this lesson, you'll be introduced to Peter Senge, a proponent for decentralizing leadership. We'll explore his contributions to the leadership model for learning organizations through an exploration of systems thinking.

Who Is Peter Senge?

The Journal of Business Strategy called Peter Senge 'Strategist of the Century' in a 1999 issue. Peter Senge is an advocate for decentralizing leadership so all people in an organization can work together towards a common goal.

Born in 1947, Senge has earned multiple degrees, including a Ph.D. in Management from MIT. So what makes him the strategist of the century? Well, Senge is a proponent for what has become known as learning organizations, which are predicated on the principles of system thinking. Let's take a look at what that means.

Learning Organizations

In his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization (1990), Senge defined learning organizations as those organizations that encourage adaptive and generative learning, encouraging their employees to think outside the box and work in conjunction with other employees to find the best answer to any problem.

There are five characteristics of a learning organization:

  1. Personal mastery, or how the individual looks at the world
  2. Mental models, or an individual's deeply ingrained assumptions
  3. Shared vision, which encourages experimentation and innovation among multiple members
  4. Team learning, or more than one person acting together; two heads are better than one
  5. Systems thinking, looking at the whole picture rather than the individual problem

Within each of these characteristics there are three levels of approaches, including

  • Practice, or what the individual does, which is the lowest level
  • Principles, or what the individual does in keeping with the guiding ideas of the organization
  • Essences, or what the individual automatically thinks in terms of the whole organization, which is the highest level of mastery

Let's take a closer look at this idea of systems thinking that's so important to having a learning organization.

Systems Thinking

According to Senge, learning organizations encourage a holistic approach called systems thinking. Systems thinking stems from the tenets of system theory where each process integrates with all the others. Basically, it means the ability to see the big picture and to be able to see the interrelationships between what might, at first, seem to be completely unrelated.

Systems thinking relies on a collective intelligence, believing that a group of people are smarter than one or two smart people. In systems thinking there's a commitment within this process to real learning, and an agreement that occasionally, the group may be wrong. This process requires that individuals listen to every idea that's put forward and that there are no wrong or bad ideas. While one idea may initially seem off the wall, it may result in someone else thinking outside the box and coming up with a really good idea.


There are some significant advantages to systems thinking and learning organizations. Being able to understand how elements of a business fit together means a better solution can be found.

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