The world according to Senge

Phillip
Whiteley drinks in the latest words from management guru Peter Senge.

When
a conference speaker starts telling a personnel management audience about
Confucius or the location of neurones in the body, the more level-headed
delegate switches to their doodle pad with despair. They gave enough trouble
establishing business credibility without being encouraged to philosophise in
such a self-indulgent manner.

If
the speaker is Peter Senge, you should not switch off for long. He has an
eclectic background, a preference for the big picture, but also an ability to
switch cuttingly to some pressing business need and to illustrate the links.

The
architect of the Learning Organization has become sharper in his critique of
traditional managers and the hire-and-fire brigade. It may be a philosophical
message but he feeds the arguments that demonstrate how people matters are
close to the heart of business, if you will give him time to explain himself.

Senge
is an intellectual ally in the HR managers’ battle against the philistines, but
he reaches conventional business people directly, too. It is a decade since The
Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization

appeared, during which time it has sold more than 750,000 copies, while both
the Financial Times and Harvard Business Review have named Senge as one of the
world’s top management gurus.

His
writing and talks now range over a wider subject base than the tightly argued
Fifth Discipline, with its five defined disciplines for the learning
organisation.

But
there is always a point. When he discusses how our neurones are in the heart
and intestines as well as the head, it is to illustrate that we all live in
ideas, metaphors and gut feeling: the hard-headed financial controller no less
than the emotional intelligence guru.

He
takes issue with the commonest myths in the business world: that people just
want money; that only crisis brings about innovation; and that technology alone
determines change. These are of relevance to those designing reward schemes as
well as for those considering strategy.

The
last of these myths is germane as the Internet spreads its tentacles. Senge’s favourite
aphorism comes from his friend, the Chilean biologist Humberto Mutarana:
"History does not follow the path of opportunities but the path of
desires."

Technology
alone does not determine change. To illustrate the point, at the Hay
international conference in Florence last month [May 16-18], he produced a
graph showing an exponential curve, representing the expected acceleration of
progress.

He
discusses molecular computing, genetic engineering and robotics and the
apparent capacity to create new life forms. "It is easy to
extrapolate," says Senge. "But the important questions are to begin
thinking as deeply as we can, ‘In what ways might that not happen?’"

"We
are biological," he told the audience of personnel managers. "We will
not move at infinitely faster speeds."

So
far, so oblique. But he brings the theory swiftly to bear on the topical matter
of the work-life balance. "How many of you work longer hours than 10 years
ago?" he asks the audience, provoking a forest of hands. "We will not
continue to expand our working days. There is another set of trends that are
equally fundamental."

He
continues, "In the 1990 US census, fewer than 10 per cent of families were
‘traditional’, with one person working and the other staying at home with
children. Can that really continue as a trend? The erosion of family structures
that have been built up over tens of thousands of years?"

These
concerns matter to all managers because the most pressing business need is the
attraction of the right talents and skills. The trend towards insecurity and
long hours will not continue indefinitely.

So
what about the belief that people are motivated by money? Is that really a
myth? "Work has to have meaning for people and you cannot compensate for
that with money," says Senge.

"A
lot of people believe that the purpose of the enterprise is to maximise the
return of the invested capital. It is a formula for mediocrity. I have never
been around a company with a financially superior performance that believes
that. Invariably they have different core beliefs – they believe they are there
to make the world a better place."

This
is Confucian teaching, he says unapologetically; that aspiration is a core
value. Speaking after the conference address, he underlined the message.
"It is hard to find people who do not care. We are concerned about the
fate of other human beings – even if it is only our kids."

The
myths still hold sway, he argues: "We act as if all that matters to people
is how much money they make, when we all know from our experience the
inadequacy of that view. Now, I am generalising; I know some people work for
money at stages in their lives, but the basis of the strategy has always
stumped me – how people could believe something so deeply that so patently
fails in our experience."

For
Senge the difference between personnel management and general management does
not exist, and he laments the rise of the term human resources. "What the
term ‘human resources’ means is humans standing in reserve waiting to be
used," he bravely told the HR audience in Florence. "Not too many of
us would be excited at the prospect of going into a career aspiring to be
standing in reserve, waiting."

The
model of an "efficient" enterprise deploying people as
"resources" is not efficient at all, he says.

Senge
reserves particular scorn for market analysts. "Most of them got their
MBAs five to 10 years ago; sometimes less. Do they really understand what it
takes to grow a business? No they don’t, yet we are obsessed with pleasing
these 28-year-olds."

The
shallowness of thinking among investors creates a vicious circle of crisis and
rescue, with enterprises desperate to be saved by the "hero CEO", he
says.

"The
new hero-CEO then pumps new life into the organisation, typically by cutting
costs (and usually people) and boosting productivity and profit. But the
improvements invariably do not last. People cling to habitual ways of doing
things. Invariably, new crises ensue, spurring a search for a new
hero-leader."

Organisations
more accurately resemble interlocking networks of social relationships, which
cannot be measured, rather than the dead metaphor of the business as a machine
under the control of a "hero".

Senge’s
is a passionate argument, but as rational as any, given the simple fact that
intangible assets now dominate any organisation.

There
is more emotion to his writing and speaking now than in The Fifth Discipline,
but just as much intellectual rigour. Senge now seems more inclined to talk
generally, to digress (or appear to). Perhaps he has loosened up. Or just
carried on learning.

Comments are closed.