Senge’s five disciplines essentially function as a means of categorizing and systematizing knowledge and the production of knowledge through the identification of basic elements that are constitutive of the latter. It is precisely the transition from these disciplines in their singularity towards their holistic effect that is crucial to Peter Senge’s systems theory approach. In his account, the initial theoretical step is to name crucial aspects of knowledge, which are necessary for knowledge to both exist and function. The second theoretical step is to identify how a greater effect is produced through these aspects. For Senge, this occurs precisely because of systems theory’s central concept of holisim, from which a system always possesses the potential for the realization of goals beyond its core constituting elements, because these elements co-operate or assemble together to form something greater than what they are as individual elements.
Senge identifies five disciplines that are crucial to the learning organization. These are mental models, building shared vision, team learning, personal mastery and systems thinking. Senge’s concept of mental models can be understood as a version of ideology. Mental models are the underlying assumptions that structure our representation of reality. Key to the learning organization process is to understand what are the underlying assumptions and presuppositions that determine our outlook on the world. By defining these assumptions, it is possible to both overcome limitations in our thoughts and develop new ways of looking at the world. Building shared vision is primarily a “leadership” (Senge, 2006, p. 9) concept, but one that emphasizes the necessity of a common goal. According to the communal and societal nature of human existence, it is not enough for individuals to maintain isolated dreams and visions. What is needed is a group effort to realize such a vision. Team learning continues this concept, as isolated paradigms of knowledge are viewed as detrimental in Senge’s view. For the success of a learning organization, learning must be unified so that knowledge is distributed throughout the organization, thus strengthening it. The notion of personal mastery, despite its name, refers to a team concept for Senge. Personal mastery includes the notion of seeing “reality objectively.” (2006, p. 7) Accordingly, personal mastery refers to the refinement of the individual, but at the same time, it is an emphasis on non-individual thinking. It is systems thinking which forms what Senge terms the crucial “fifth discipline,” as Senge wants these disciplines to “develop as an ensemble.” (2006, p. 11) For this reason, “systems thinking is the fifth discipline” (Senge, 2006, p. 12) as “it is the discipline that integrates the disciplines, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice.” (Senge, 2006, p. 12) The diversity of disciplines such as personal thus need to be thought as a coherent system. In this way, the learning organization gains in power, as all elements of the system are geared towards the success of the organization. Accordingly, this produces a holistic effect, as individuals and individual disciplines produce something greater than these disciplines, through the combination of a diverse number of basic disciplines into a coherent whole.
Whereas Senge’s theory is compelling, we may nevertheless ask the following questions for discussion:
1) Is it sufficient to reduce the elements of the learning organization to only five disciplines? What about serendipitous and contingent parts of the knowledge process? How is this compatible with a systems theory based approach? As Robert L. Flood writes in criticism of Senge’s account, “we will always be faced with uncertainty.” (1999, p. 2)
2) While Senge attempts to offer a holistic argument, does he not at the same time advance a reductionist account of knowledge and learning, as he only discusses five key disciplines? In other words, Senge’s account may not be great enough in its scope to handle the radicality of knowledge.
3) How do these various disciplines in their difference fuse together? It is one thing to advocate a systems theory approach that views these disciplines as a unitary whole through the emphasis on the fifth discipline, but how can this “fusion” process be realized in a practical and efficient manner? How does a system itself emerge?