Concept and Proposal of a New Approach
Artur Ferreira da Silva
Instituto Superior Técnico, Universidade Técnica de Lisboa, Av. Rovisco Pais, Lisbon, Portugal
Keywords: Complexity, Learning Organizations, Learning Architecture, Patterns, Reflective Research.
Abstract: This paper presents a research project in progress aiming at accelerating and making more profound the
learning in organizations. The concepts of learning organization is revised and a learning architecture based
on Alexander's patterns is proposed. Some aspects of the context and methodology used are also mentioned.
This paper describes an action research project in
progress for some years, the objective of which is to
make a contribution to the identification of patterns
of a Learning Architecture, that attempts to
transform organizations with severe learning
disabilities into organizations more able to learn.
In Section 2 we conduct a revision of the concepts
of Learning Organization (LO) and Learning
Company, based on the works of their two major
proponents, Peter Senge and Arie de Geus. As we
will see, de Geus often mentions that learning
companies can be considered alive.
In Section 3 we will present the context that lead
us to understand the need for a Learning
Architecture, that is based on the concept of
"patterns" developed by Christopher Alexander,
which allows for the design of regions, towns and
buildings that he considers alive.
In Section 4 a brief Outline of the Project is made,
preceding the Conclusions.
In the following sections we will summarize and
comment on two conceptions of LO's, the first from
Senge, and the second, from Arie de Geus, who uses
mostly the equivalent expression "Learning
2.1 Senge's Learning Organizations
Peter Senge was the main disseminator of the
concept of LO (Senge, 1992) (Senge et al., 1994),
and his conception is the best known in the academic
and business worlds and the most quoted in the
literature on the subject. Everyone knows the five
disciplines that Senge proposed to create a LO:
Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Building Shared
Vision, Team Learning and Systems Thinking. For
some people, one organization is considered to be
(or not) a LO, if it respects (or not) Senge's five
Nevertheless, it must be said that Senge (1992)
never claimed that his "five disciplines" have been
"proved" by any academic research.
In "The Fifth Discipline" (Senge, 1992: 5-6)
these disciplines are introduced with a mechanics
analogy: "Engineers say that a new idea has been
'invented' when it has proved to work in the
laboratory. The idea becomes an 'innovation' only
when it can be replicated reliably on a
meaningful scale at practical costs". And he
continues explaining the five "component
technologies" that are needed to come together to
make airplanes for commercial use. "The DC-3, for
the first time, brought five critical component
technologies that formed a successful ensemble (...)
Today, I believe, five new 'component
technologies' are gradually converging to
innovate learning organizations" - his five
disciplines (all highlights in bold are from the author
of this paper, except when specified).
The discussion of LO's is part of a greater field
of Organizational Learning. Due to space constrains,
this general question will not be directly addressed
in this paper, except in two minor points, one of
which follows (Tsang, 1997).
Ferreira da Silva A..
LEARNING ORGANIZATION - Concept and Proposal of a New Approach.
DOI: 10.5220/0003692403840389
In Proceedings of the International Conference on Knowledge Management and Information Sharing (KMIS-2011), pages 384-389
ISBN: 978-989-8425-81-2
2011 SCITEPRESS (Science and Technology Publications, Lda.)
Tsang discusses the dichotomy between
descriptive and prescriptive research in this field.
He clarifies (Tsang, 1997: 85, Table II) that
descriptive research tries to answer the question of
"how does an organization learn?" and it is part of
the "organizational learning rigorous research". It
has the "objective of theory building" and its "target
audience are academics". Prescriptive research is the
one that refers to the "learning organization" and
tries to answer the question of "how should an
organization learn?". Its "objective is to improve
organizational performance" and is normally based
on the "consulting experience" of their authors.
According to Tsang, Senge's position has to be
considered as a prescriptive theory.
Indeed, as many others, in the decade that
followed, Senge provided much training and
consulting services to companies to help them to
become learning organizations.
When "The Dance of Change" was published
(Senge et al., 1999), Senge was interviewed by the
Fast Company Magazine (Senge, 1999) and was
introduced by these words: "Ten years ago Peter
Senge introduced the idea of the 'learning
organization'. Now he says that we need to stop
thinking like mechanics and - start acting like
gardeners". When questioned about the
performance of the large scale change efforts in the
past decade, he answered "My own experience at
MIT and at SoL [Society for Organizational
Learning] has mostly been with big companies. How
much change have they actually accomplished? If I
stand back a considerable distance (...) I have to
conclude that inertia is winning by a large margin.
(...) I have to say that there is enough evidence of
success to say it is possible - and enough evidence
of failure to say it is not likely." (Senge, 1999).
2.2 Learning Companies by de Geus
The need for companies to learn had been presented
previously by Arie de Geus, at the time Head of
Planning of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, in a
seminal article published in the Harvard Business
Review (HBR), in 1988 (de Geus, 1988). In this
article he presented briefly a study done by Shell
that "surveyed about 30 companies that have been in
business for more than 75 years". Even if "a full one
third of the Fortune '500' industrials listed in 1970
had vanished by 1983" the survey identified "several
(companies) that were still vigorous at 200, 300 and
even 700 years of age and studied 30 (of those)
companies" (de Geus, 1988: 70).
Arie de Geus also reminded us that learning
within organizations is not mainly a question of
some people learning, but of "institutional learning",
which he defines as "the process whereby
management teams change their shared mental
models of their company, their markets and their
competitors. For this reason we think of planning as
learning and of corporate planning as institutional
learning." (de Geus, 1988: 70).
He also recognizes that "every living person -
and system - is continuously engaged in learning.
In fact the normal decision process in corporations is
a learning process, because people change their own
mental models and build up a joint model as they
talk. The problem is that the speed of that process is
slow - too slow for a world in which the capacity to
learn faster than competitors may be the only
sustainable competitive advantage. (...) The critical
question becomes: Can we accelerate institutional
learning?" (de Geus, 1988: 71).
But de Geus' master piece is his book "The
Living Company" (de Geus, 1997) where he
presents in detail the Shell study already mentioned,
and many other personal references and reflective
learning of a lifelong professional career. It must be
said that Arie de Geus has always been a
"practitioner". The Shell group is a Dutch-English
Group, with many interesting characteristics, namely
"an ethic of distributed power" (de Geus, 1997: 223-
In the early 1980s, the Planning Group made a
study of companies that were older and bigger then
Shell - at the time 75 years old (de Geus, 1997: 10).
Arie de Geus visited many Universities and later
Shell "commissioned a study, conducted by two
Shell planners and two outside business school
professors, to examine the question of corporate
longevity. From the very first moment we were
startled by the very small number of companies
which met (...) (the) criteria of being larger and older
than Shell. In the end we found only 40 corporations
of which we studied 27 in detail, relying in
published case studies and published reports." (de
Geus, 1997: 12).
The importance of studying those longlived
companies was that they had been able to survive,
with the same corporate identity and cope with
various serious changes in the environment and had
been able to change themselves to adapt to those
external changes. So, they had proved that they were
able to learn profoundly and systematically. During
the study they identified that those longlived
companies had "four key factors in common". They
were (de Geus, 1997: 12-16):
LEARNING ORGANIZATION - Concept and Proposal of a New Approach
"sensitive to their environment" (or 'open')
"cohesive, with a strong sense of identity"
(having a 'persona' or the 'ability to build a
"tolerant" (also referred as 'decentralized' or as
having 'awareness to ecology')
"conservative in finance" (having 'the ability
to govern its own growth and evolution
The book has many suggestions (but they are neither
recipes, nor prescriptions) for companies to
accelerate and make their learning processes more
profound, and it is a possible source of 'patterns' (our
word) that may, eventually, lead to a more
generative learning of organizations. It also
mentions 'problems' - more common, by the way, in
most organizations - that have exactly the opposite
effect of the mentioned patterns.
Tsang (1997) would classify this book as a
"descriptive theory", even if de Geus mentions
modestly that the Shell Study has been conducted in
an "unscientific way" (de Geus, 1997: 16).
Having concluded that companies can learn, de
Geus refers to them as "living companies" or "living
systems" because "only living systems can learn".
Nevertheless, he also says that "It probably doesn't
matter whether a company is actually alive in a strict
biological sense or whether the 'living company' is
simply a useful metaphor." (de Geus, 1997: 17).
In a chapter called "The problems with
conventional learning", he writes (italics are from de
Geus): "If decision making is learning, then all
companies learn all the time. There is no need to
'build' a learning organization. You already have a
learning organization. But the traditional time-
honoured ways in which most companies
accomplish this learning is inadequate" (de Geus,
1997: 77). And then he presents some of those
disadvantages: "It is slow"; "it closes down options";
"it depends on learning by experience and not on
learning by simulation"; and "It breeds fear" (de
Geus, 1997: 77-80).
We end this section with a final quotation from
the first lines of the almost completely unknown
"Foreword" by Peter Senge to de Geus' book: "It
was through Arie de Geus, whom I met over 15
years ago, that I first became seriously acquainted
with the concepts of organizational learning. That
meeting began the journey of a lifetime" (de Geus,
1997: 1).
It is a pity that these words are not also in the
beginning of "The Fifth Discipline". This would
have avoided much confusion in the business and
academic fields. Indeed, de Geus is so little known
that he is not normally quoted in relation with these
concepts and he was not included in the references
of the Tsang's paper mentioned.
2.3 Reflective research: How
Professionals Create New
Many readers may feel distressed with the preceding
pages: So, there are some academics that can
conduct "prescriptive research" and produce guru-
like books and some practitioners that can produce
"descriptive research", that is both relevant and
rigorous? Are there not Universities that produce the
knowledge that the professionals apply? Does this
means that, at least in some cases, it may be the
exact opposite that happens?
Those questions are very similar to the ones that
led Donald Schön to write "The Reflective
Practitioner" (Schön, 1983). In this book, he makes a
strong criticism of the Technical Rationality,
dominant in our society and universities and how the
"Reflection-in-Action" may be an alternative.
(Schön, 1983: 21-69). He shows how professionals
think-in-action and how many reflect on past
actions, producing new knowledge, and apply these
concepts to many different professions (Schön,
1983: 76-204). He also proposes, as a variant of
action research, a method of "reflective research",
that can be used by professionals and researchers
alike, and often in combination, allowing for the
production of results that are both rigorous and
relevant (Schön, 1983: 307-325).
3.1 From Information Systems to the
need of a Learning Architecture
By the early 1980's, our previous professional
experience had convinced us that all Information
Systems (IS) developed within organizations are
always socio-technical complex systems, and the
"requirements" result from the "emergence of sense"
between developers, management teams and other
professionals involved. Hence, "requirements" do
not pre-exist to the "design" - they are laboriously
constructed and/or emerge during the process, in a
permanent dialogue with the materials and with all
the people involved. Also, when an application is
developed within an organization or a change project
occurs one must understand that every organization
KMIS 2011 - International Conference on Knowledge Management and Information Sharing
is a complex socio-technical system by itself. Thus
when we touch even what may seem to be a small
part of it, we are always touching the whole system.
To understand an organization is to understand this
complex system, and to change an organization of a
reasonable dimension is to cope with all this
complexity, including the further complexity that
results from the fact that new forms may emerge at
any moment from within the pre-existent
complexity. To talk about "implementing change",
"managing change" or "creating a learning
organization", without taking into account the
aforementioned complexity is a sure recipe for
disaster - unless some good things emerge in spite
of the efforts of the changing team...
When the de Geus' HBR article was published, we
were involved as consultants to the Board of the
Bank of Portugal, where we were working directly
with a small, high-level team of directors and senior
professionals in charge of creating a new global,
company-wide, "Information Model" or
"Information Architecture" for the Bank - in
consultation with the Board, all Directors and many
senior professionals of all Departments.
Two years earlier, a well known multinational
consultancy company had developed an Information
Systems Plan for the Bank. They had interviewed
people from each Department separately and
proposed a Portfolio with a long list of departmental
applications, each one with its own data base, that
had been later developed with different definitions
and different times and rules of actualization - all of
this using the same Relational Database System
(DB2) that they had also proposed. By the time we
were called in, the Board was unable to understand
anything of what was happening in the Company
(and the Country) because each time they met to
discuss any given subject two or three Directors
would arrive with different information - all in the
zebra-like green-white paper obtained in the same
central mainframe, but from different applications
and data bases.
The Information Architecture team identified and
defined 242 'macro-processes' and 435 'Information
Types' (or data entities) that should be used
consistently in the future within the whole company
and in all their computer applications. Of course the
old IS Plan was now obsolete and a new one had to
be created, which was commissioned to the same
team, and was initiated some weeks later.
During the time between the two projects, and using
a participatory "reflective practice" approach, the
whole team reflected on the process so far, with
special emphasis on the socio-organizational
conditions involved, and published a paper in a
professional Conference (Rodrigues et al., 1990). In
that paper one of the main conclusions was that
although the new "Information Model" was
extremely important, the more important result
was the institutional learning reached by the
Board, all the Department Heads and senior
professionals that Information was a strategic
resource of the company that should be managed in
a holistic way.
3.2 Learning Architecture's Patterns
Indeed the main problem of companies is learning
and organizations need to have a "Learning
Architecture" as they have other Enterprise
Architectures (the Information one being a good
example). If it is true that all companies learn it is
also true that the majority of them suffer from
"severe learning disabilities" especially in what
concerns "double loop learning" (Argyris and
Schön, 1996), this being the main reason why they
are often unable to learn, change and adapt to the
changes in the environment quickly enough, and die
We must clarify now what we mean by a Learning
Architecture and how it applies to our project. In
normal life the word "Architecture" applies, at least,
to two different situations. We talk of Architecture
when we are talking about designing a bridge, a
building or a park, for instance. But we also talk
about Architecture when thinking about planning (or
re-planning) a town. This Section will be based
mainly on the works of Christopher Alexander
(1979, 1964), (Alexander et al., 1977).
The first book (Alexander, 1964) is principally
about design and its main interest is to create a good
introduction to the other two, especially when
Alexander writes: "If we agree to treat fit as the
absence of misfits, and to use a list of those potential
misfits which are most likely to occur as our
criterion for fit, our theory will at least have the
same nature as our intuitive conviction that there is a
problem to be solved." (Alexander, 1964, 26-27).
But in what concerns our purpose, it is "The
Timeless Way of Building" (Alexander, 1979) that
is most important. "There is a central quality which
is the root criterion for life and spirit in a man, a
town, a building, or a wilderness. (...) In order to
define this quality in buildings and in towns, we
must begin by understanding that every place is
given its character by certain patterns of events that
keep on happening there. (...) These patterns of
events are always interlocked with certain geometric
LEARNING ORGANIZATION - Concept and Proposal of a New Approach
patterns in the space. (...) The specific patters out of
which a building or a town is made may be alive or
dead. To the extent they are alive, they let our inner
forces loose, and set us free; but when they are dead,
they keep us locked in inner conflict." (Alexander,
1979: ix-x). Even without going further into the
whole book, this quotation is enough to remark upon
the following points.
The first remark relates to the understanding of the
importance of the physical spaces of organizations,
and Nonaka's concept of physical "Ba" (Nonaka and
Konno, 1998), (Von Krogh et al., 2000) that we have
already applied in other work (Silva and Tribolet,
2007). But the most important remark is that this
does not apply only to buildings or towns, but also to
men and their organizations that, as de Geus also
commented, can be alive or not, giving an important
hint to what can be a "living organization", that is,
by definition, a learning one.
Even if published before, "A Pattern Language"
(Alexander et al., 1977) is the second of these two
books and presents 252 patterns from the whole to
the particular (regions, towns, buildings) and from
the design to the construction. Each pattern has a
title, a description of the problem (unfit) to be solved
followed by the proposed pattern.
In what concerns Learning Architectures, like in
Alexander's patterns, we must create patterns of an
Architecture that facilitates, more than creates, the
desired changes and learning - and then hope that a
senior executive will not destroy everything with his
best intentions. Some would say that, after preparing
the terrain, planting the seeds, watering when
needed, and doing all the other things that are under
his control, the only thing that a farmer can do is to
pray... Indeed we are saying that one cannot create a
LO, one can only design a system that allows for
learning and nurture it, much in the same sense of
what is done in agriculture.
The development in recent years of complex
systems research and its application to society and
organizations (Davis and Sumara, 2006; Rosenhead,
1998) deserves some comments. On one hand,
organizations are an instance of complex systems
that can go from one learner or a small group, to a
company or a local or regional community, and even
to the whole of Humanity. Probably many of the
learning patterns that apply to organizations can also
apply to civilizations and vice-versa. This allows, for
instance, to search for patterns in other phenomena,
like the 'birth stage' of the movements that created
our most important civilization transformations
(Alberoni, 1989).
On the other hand it is impossible to think about
Organizational Learning and LO's from only one
academic domain. Not only LO's relate with learning
(and unlearning) in all the afore mentioned
dimensions, but they also relate to the findings in
many disciplines, namely, but not exclusively, in
"organization theory" (Rosenhead, 1998), as well as
sociology, anthropology, ecology, etc. So a cross-
disciplinary perspective is needed. But even if this
has been suggested by many Authors since the
1960's (Piaget, 1967), (Morin, 1986), (Le Moigne,
1995) the restricted domain-centred view of
academic research has made inter or cross-
disciplinary work more a dream than a reality. Even
today, where complexity theories are being
considered in many domains, they continue to be
generally treated in each one, separated from the
complexity studies of the others. Rosenhead (1998)
commented that "Indeed there is no unified field of
complexity theory, but rather a number of different
fields with intriguing points of resemblance, overlap
or complementarily. While some authors refer to the
field as 'the science of complexity', others more
modestly and appropriately use the phrase in the
So what is most needed is to change the
paradigm with which we understand
organizations, and stop doing only "normal
science" (or "puzzle resolution") when, clearly, what
is needed is a profound "paradigm shift" (Kuhn,
1970) and if that is true, then, more than many
citations of recent papers of only one restricted
domain, it is important to refer to critical references
of many domains of knowledge, where the date of
publication is less important than the correctness of
the ideas.
As it has been mentioned above, this project began
as a reflective research project, when the author was
a professional Systems Engineer, and it is based on
many cases and on a constructivist epistemology.
The project continued later in academia where other
research experiments on learning have been
conducted. Some of those experiments were about
teaching and learning; others have been conducted
within organizations, trying to improve their
knowledge management and learning; still others
were related with "students organizations" that, due
to the fact that their "management teams" have a
short period of service, can be very important to
study learning, change and emergence in
KMIS 2011 - International Conference on Knowledge Management and Information Sharing
organizations, as the vinegar fly is in genetic
mutation studies, due to the fact that they live very
short lives. It is the result of all those reflections,
(conceptual) readings and "reflective research"
experiments, that this paper introduces.
In this paper we have presented synthetically a
research project intended to accelerate and make
more profound the learning processes of
organizations, through the concept of a learning
architecture, based on Alexander's patterns. We have
made a revision of the literature and presented the
context and methodology of the project and some
sources for the mentioned patterns.
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LEARNING ORGANIZATION - Concept and Proposal of a New Approach