Free «"The Fifth Discipline": A Comprehensive Review» Essay

Published in 1994, Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization has remained one of the seminal books in management. The focus of the book is to use systems thinking so that one may convert organizations into what the author has termed learning organizations. In the book, Senge has presented the five disciplines that present ways for developing the core competencies for learning, which he has lined as developing aspiration, evolving a reflective conversation, and most importantly in terms of the methods proposed by Senge, understanding complexity. 

The author starts with a snippet of a fact that will startle many readers. Thus, in less than 15 years, roughly 33% of the Fortune 500 companies will be gone out of business. Furthermore, he asserts that the average lifetime of the largest organizations is less than 40 years (Senge, 1994, p.17). The purpose of his presentation of this fact is to show that in order to survive the onslaught of the market and other forces, the organization has to be a learning organization. Consequently, turning an organization into a learning one is the main premises of the book. An organization can turn itself into a learning one through five disciplines. These are the shared discipline, systems thinking, mental model, team learning and personal mastery.

The first discipline, namely the shared vision, deals with the issue of putting the vision of the organization into the word form, creating a picture for all in the company to comprehend and share. This should include employees who would not succeed without the company (Senge, 1994, p.205). The employees should adapt the company’s vision as their own. Moreover, the company should harness the creative difference between the reality of the company and the vision as a motivation for the management and the employees (Senge, 1994, p. 142). However, Senge (1994) differentiates between the vision that everyone in the company genuinely shares and the generic vision statement that most companies have. Furthermore, for an organization to implement a vision successfully, there has to be an invitation for the involved people to confirm a commitment to the shared vision, or critique it. Furthermore, Senge discourages a “top-down” application of the visions and instead proposes that it should be a collaborative effort (Senge, 1994, p.213-214). Setting the vision is not an easy task either. He clearly states the difficulties as capturing a real commitment towards the vision among all the stakeholders in the organization. In relation to the human resource, one cannot overstate its significance in an organization. A successful implementation of the shared vision is the bedrock of all organizations.

The second idea is what he has termed as systems thinking. This is one of the most prominent aspects discussed in the book. The author explains that systems thinking is about thinking about the whole system, rather than concentrating on individual issues in the complexity (Senge, 1994, p.7). Senge explains ways of solving the issue by breaking it down into smaller parts which helps to a considerable degree. However, Senge states that this idea is misinformed. He explains that doing so makes one lose the intrinsic nature of the interconnection of issues (Senge, 1994). He calls on companies and individuals to realize that there is an underlyin connection between all issues in actions and future consequences, in spite of the time, location or situational differences between the issues. One has to look at the whole picture and not individual actions in terms of the solutions of problems or the decisions taken. This is relevant to the course and the human resource discipline as the course in several ways. In this regard, the human resource seeks a more holistic approach to issues in the workplace. Warren (2007) affirms this by explaining that attributes and interests of an individual should be allied to the overall task of the organization.

The aspect of mental models is also prominent in the book. This involves the organization trying to interpret the present circumstances and then putting an entity behind the company that people can relate to (Senge, 1994, p.8). In essence, this is about connecting the values of the business and the public perception of the company (face). In this aspect, flexibility is of paramount significance as a learning organization has to be able to evolve its mental model and its face. Senge (1994) further explains that the majority of companies that cannot adapt their mental models fast enough are the ones that end up failing. The author gives an example of Royal Dutch/Shell, which had to undergo dramatic changes in the 1970s and 1980s (Senge, 1994, p.4, 8). According to him, the company’s success in managing that period came from its application of mental models.

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The third aspect is team learning. It is essential in the creation, maturing and maintenance of team dynamics (Senge, 1994, p.10). Team learning is crucial as the teamwork ensures that the mental resources of the team as a whole are more than a sum of its parts. Cross training as discussed by Snell, Morris and Bohlander (2015, p.288) can assist in this aspect by ensuring that employees do not just learn their skills, but can fit in other parts of the organization, as well. In terms of the human resource, employees who are flexible in theory jobs offer a wide range of opportunities for the company. In this aspect, the personal mastery of issues is combined with the common vision of the company. All the stakeholders agree to admit to the theory of weaknesses as none is invincible and also admit to ignorance. Acting as colleagues and not as competitors or enemies is also significant in this regard; otherwise, team learning might not occur.

The last one is the personal mastery that involves an individual continually expounding and deepening his/her personal vision, ensuring that they see the reality in an objective manner and developing the perseverance (Senge, 1994, p.7). The most crucial tenet in acquiring this aspect is the devotion to truth. Senge explains that the culture of believing one to be hopeless and perception of no self-worth goes a long way in undermining the personal mastery. In order to have the personal mastery, one should train and utilize powers of the subconscious. In terms of the human resource, confident employees are one of the most essential aspects of any company as they are not only able to complete their tasks but they can point out to the management various issues that they feel are not optimal.

Application of the Book

This book provides a wide application in personal and organizational circumstances. At the personal level, Senge devotes a lot of pages to the individual in Chapter 9 that deals with the personal mastery. He notes that individual people have their “own will, mind and way of thinking (Senge, 1994, p.139).” Thus, to get the company to perform to its maximum, it has to harness these personal wills, minds and ways of thinking. At the personal level, an individual can use these three aspects for self-motivation in the completion of tasks. In this regard, he quotes Kyocera, the founder who explains that one has to tap into the subconscious mind, willpower and what he has termed as the “action of heart” in order to harness one’s potential. This is relevant to individuals too.

 At the organizational level, problem solving will require teamwork. The book presents this in Chapter 12, which the author has named Team Learning. Coordinating teams at the workplace can be an arduous task to manage. However, this book describes a process of the effective team management by starting a dialogue, leaving personal assumptions and entering into a “genuine thinking together (Senge, 1994, p.10).”  For instance, in regard to an issue that cuts across several departments, like the IT, human resource department and the accounting department, it would be better solved by a thorough genuine thinking together, rather than disparate acts by the three departments.

One of the struggles of the contemporary working person is to balance the aspects between work and family. In a case, where a person finds that one of the two aspects is overruling the other, the author recommends a structural family therapy (Senge, 1994, p.160). The life-work balance is a struggle that many people face, especially young people, while trying to make the career advancement by struggling through the hard work (Schuler & Jackson, 2007). This is an aspect that one can apply to daily situations.

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Assessment of the Book

As the work on holistic thinking regarding issues within the workplace, this book is almost unmatched. Its longevity is a testament to its value to the human resource administration and other related areas. It reveals the development and other areas in a company, where seeing the holistic picture is required. Its language is simple to understand which has ensured that the book has not become the preserve of the intellectual class, but the wider public can read it too. The book also discusses original ideas in contrast to other books in this field which seem to recycle ideas. At slightly more than 400 pages, it is also reasonably brief and makes an easy read for people who are too busy to read voluminous manuals on management. 

Pointing out weaknesses in such a book can be a hard task, considering this one of the best non-fiction books of the contemporary years. However, it is noticeable that the book takes an omnibus view of management thinking. As much as one wants to admit that thinking about issues in a more holistic way is likely to lead to a long-lasting solution, some issues need a break-down as they have to be worked on by different people/teams so as to arrive at the optimal results. Taking a lone path in such issues can be counterproductive. However, this book is one of those that every person involved in the human resource management and overall management should read. It is an all-time classic that is original and informative.

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