Dr. Demet Varoðlu

Middle East Technical University

Dept of Management

Ankara - TURKEY

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Kadir Varoðlu

Turkish Military Academy (KHO)

Dept of Systems Management

Ankara - TURKEY

The Fifth Discipline

In his famous and influential book, "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization", Peter M. Senge presents a system of thinking and acting that can be the basis for reducing the learning disabilities in any organization (Senge 1990, 18-25). He presents seven learning disabilities in organizations:

1. "I am my position." When people in organizations focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results produced when all positions interact. This low level of responsibility then, can also be translated into the difficulty of knowing the reasons especially when the results are disappointing.

2. "The enemy is out there." We tend to find someone or something outside ourselves to blame when things go wrong. When we focus only on our position, we do not see how our own actions extend beyond the boundary of that position. However, "out there" and "in here" are usually part of a single system.

3. The illusion of taking charge. All too often "proactiveness" is reactiveness in disguise. If we simply become more aggressive fighting the "enemy out there," we are reacting -- regardless of what we call it. True proactiveness comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems. It is a product of our way of thinking, not our emotional state.

4. The fixation on events. Concern with events (e.g. last month's sales, the new budget cuts) distract us from seeing the longer-term patterns of change that lie behind the events and from understanding the causes of those patterns. However, primary threats to organizational survival come not from sudden events but from slow, gradual processes.

5. The parable of the boiled frog. Learning to see slow, gradual processes requires slowing down our frenetic pace and paying attention to the subtle as well as the dramatic.

6. The delusion of learning from experience. We learn best from our experience but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions. Traditionally, organizations attempt to surmount the difficulty of coping with the breadth of impact from decisions by breaking themselves up into components. They institute functional hierarchies that are easier for people to "get their hands around."

7. The myth of the management team. If there is disagreement, it is usually expressed in a manner that lays blame, polarizes opinion, and fails to reveal the underlying difference in assumptions and experience in a way that the team as a whole could learn.

In a later book, "The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook", Senge and his colleagues (1994, 24-27) give three key guiding ideas for learning organizations:

Thus, the core of learning organization work is based upon five lifelong programs of study and practice (Senge 1990; Senge et al 1994):

Systems Thinking

The five disciplines given above should develop as an ensemble. The reason why systems thinking is the fifth discipline is that it integrates the disciplines by fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice. Systems thinking starts with understanding the concept of "feedback". It shows how actions can reinforce or counteract (balance) each other.

A very important insight coming from systems thinking is that certain patterns of structure recur again and again. These "system archetypes" (Senge 1990, 94) show the structures in our personal and organizational lives. Two of the system archetypes are explained below:

Archetype 1: Limits to growth. In order to produce a desired result, the reinforcing process creates a spiral of success but also creates inadvertent secondary effects (a balancing process) which eventually slow down the success. Therefore, as a management principle, don't push growth; remove the factors limiting growth.

Archetype 2: Shifting the burden. An underlying problem generates symptoms that demand attention. But the underlying problem is difficult to address, either because it is obscure or costly to confront. So people shift the burden of the problem to other solutions which only ameliorate the symptoms and leave the underlying problem unaltered. Then, the problem gets worse. According to the systems view, besides the detail complexity (sort of complexity in which there are many variables) there is also dynamic complexity, situations where cause and effect are subtle, and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious (same actions having dramatically different effects in the short run and the long run).

Therefore, the essence of the discipline of systems thinking lies in a shift of mind:

In this paper, we will be putting forward the recent effects of systems thinking on management education which have been accelerated with the publication of Fifth Discipline. In giving an account of these effects, full coverage is not aimed, therefore, only some examples are discussed. The discussion is divided under two headings: (a) the content of courses, and (b) the design of courses.

The Effect of Systems Thinking on Business Education

It has been more than 35 years since the first discussion of system dynamics and education was presented by Jay Forrester (Gould 1993, 103). Forrester proposed that system dynamics be used to integrate management education.

"Universities are a classic example of fragmented learning. Professors within each department may be the world's leading experts on management, finance, operations, and marketing, but the university as an institution cannot apply their learning to the running of its own affairs." (Kim and Senge 1994, 283)

"Useful methodologies like system dynamics have been in existence for 30-40 years and yet are still taught in only a small fraction of management schools" (Kim and Senge 1994, 277).

One important reason for this was that the systems view was not applicable in its earlier times, therefore other views which were applicable were preferred both in literature and teaching. As Fifth Discipline brought that applicability, things started to change in business education, following the new trends in literature.

Some Examples of the Effect of Systems Thinking on the Course Content of Business Education

Some Examples of the Effect of Systems Thinking on the Context of Business Education

As was stated above, management education suffers from fragmented learning. For instance, the "Business Strategy" course usually offered at the last semester of an undergraduate program does not necessarily make up for the integration of the functional field knowledge given before that, which takes longer - about 3 years (longer time spent in compartmentalized learning).

"Organization as classroom" approaches (Meyer and Gent 1996) can be alternative to our university education nationwide. In the pilot tests of these approaches in Canisius College, Babson College, and University of Oklahoma, junior students finance and manage service-business-report projects. In order to complete these projects, for instance, the University of Oklahoma students simultaneously enroll in four courses (Principles of Management, Principles of Marketing, Business Communication, and Business Law). In another case close to this one, a project-based course is introduced in each term of the curriculum of the study (total number of projects = 7) Business Information technology in University of Twente in the Netherlands (Spil and Coonjers 1996). The students form 15-person companies (case-company) that have to perform assignments on five different areas; namely, project planning, information planning, use of specification method, cost/benefit analysis and quantitative analysis. As a result, individual learning is reported to be improved by collaboration.

Another alternative can be the field-based consultative experiences for both undergraduate and graduate students (Bailey, Sciglimpaglia and Toole 1996). In this system, students, university and the clients gain in many ways. Besides getting extra funds for its operation, the university also establishes close links with business environment which will enhance its effectiveness. In addition, the students have the chance of observing the real consequences of their recommendations.

Foundation of "industrial universities" is another development in management education. For instance, Motorola University was formed to address the need for practice and immediate use or application (Bales 1996). Two industrial universities have recently been founded in Turkey by two largest divisionalized companies.

The formation of a consortium of American and Irish universities (Wood et al. 1996) can be another example of the attempt at seeing the world more complete and putting some parts together. The first offering of this consortium was an interactive export market research project conducted by groups of American and Irish students on behalf of a number of U.S. firms. (The client firms wished to research market opportunities in various European Union countries.)


Even though the title of the paper stresses the impact of Fifth Discipline on management education, following a circular cause-and-effect relationship, one should not forget the contributions to the "systems view". In management, Ackoff's end-state planning, and Argyris and Schön's theory of action are among the well-known contributors to a "systems view".

Putting systems thinking into real practice means shifting from mainly teacher-directed to learner-oriented education and this can be done with brand new curriculum and course designs. However, these designs are more difficult. One particularly difficult issue is the politics and processes of moving from a traditional teacher-dominated classroom to the free-wheeling research atmosphere of a learner-centred classroom. Some teachers find this transition threatening, because little is known about how to evaluate students coming out of this different kind of education. Thus, this different kind of education is not impossible even though it is difficult.


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Bales, E. 1996. Corporate Universities vs Traditional Universities: Friends or Foes? Third Annual EDINEB (Educational Innovations in Economics and Business) International Conference, Orlando, Florida, USA.

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Spil, T. A. M. and R. M. H. G. Coonjers. 1996. BIT Incorporated 2: Student Companies Learn By Doing. Third Annual EDINEB (Educational Innovations in Economics and Business) International Conference, Orlando, Florida, USA.

Wood, V., M. Pitts, J. Bell, P. Ibbotson, and S. Karahan. 1996. IPIRL: Exploiting Interactive Information Technologies to Aid International Collaborative Learning. Third Annual EDINEB (Educational Innovations in Economics and Business) International Conference, Orlando, Florida, USA.

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