Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Peter Senge: Bridging the gap between business & civil society

Matheos Viktor Messakh , THE JAKARTA POST , JAKARTA | Tue, 02/03/2009 12:31 PM | People

Peter Senge: JP/J. Adiguna Peter Senge: JP/J. Adiguna

Global warming has raised the emergency alarm with activist, governmental agencies and business organizations alike.

It is the most daunting environmental problem of our time, but not many grasp the bigger picture, says renowned business advisor Peter Senge.

Senge, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and founder of the Society for Organizational learning (SoL), has called for collaboration among business and non-business organizations to solve the problem.

An engineer by training, Senge is perhaps best known for his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline, which introduced the idea of the “learning organization” and has sold more than a million copies since its release. In 1997 Harvard Business Review identified the book as one of the seminal management books of the past 75 years. A new work released late last year promises to be just as influential.

In The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World (2008), Peter and his co-authors grapple with the environmental problems we face, highlighting innovative steps taken by individuals and corporations toward a more sustainable world.

For Senge and his co-authors, there are no “good guys” or “bad guys”; everyone is equally responsible for the problems facing the world. It may seem anachronistic that an expert in management and organizational change is focusing on sustainability, but Senge sees a strong connection in his work.

He has written five books since The Fifth Discipline all of which, he says, are about increasing interdependence and diminishing capacity to understand interdependence.

“All my books are about systems thinking, we’ve always had them. How we started to see the interdependence. …We got two curves that are creating big problems. One is the growing interdependence of the world…and a diminishing capacity to understand interdependence,” Senge told The Jakarta Post during his trip to the capital last week.

“The further human society drifts away from nature, the less we understand interdependence.

So if you deal with tribal cultures, prior to the agricultural revolution, many of them don’t even have a sense of themselves as separate from nature. They usually don’t have even a word for nature. You don’t have a word from something that’s not separate from you.”

Agrarian societies, he says, developed a slightly different attitude, believing it was humans who initiate the “natural” systems, which were often highly religious, and that humans are separate and superior.

During the industrial revolution and the subsequent urbanization process, he says, human beings began to ignore nature. “There’s a lot of American kids think their food comes from the grocery store and the concept of seasonality has no meaning to them whatsoever.”

The further people are from nature, the more they lost the ability to understand interdependence. “Nature is our teacher to understanding interdependence,” he says.

In October 1999, The Journal of Business Strategy named Senge as one of the 24 most influential people on business strategy over the last 100 years. In 2000, The Financial Times named him one of the world’s “top management gurus” and a year later Business Week rated him one of the Top Ten Management Gurus.

But business has never been Senge’s passion. “I had no interest in business, because I grew up in era when business was generally seen as a kind of a bad guy and I personally just never have prereminiscent in commerce.”

But his career as a lecturer on the subject has meant that he has met a great deal of prominent business people.

“I meet extraordinary people and what really struck me is that all the people in business are really intelligent but they are a lot more practical. And they continually deal with thinking better and acting more effectively.”

Senge describes himself as an ‘idealistic pragmatist’, an orientation that allows him to explore and advocate some quite ‘utopian’ and abstract ideas, most notable in relation to systems theory and the necessity of bringing human values into the workplace. He believes that vision, purpose, reflectiveness and systems thinking are essential if organizations are to realize their
potential.

He advocates for managerial and institutional change to build more sustainable enterprises, to foster social, natural as well as economic well being. The idea that the purpose of a company is to maximize profit, he says, is a basic misconception that pervades the business world.

He cites Peter Drucker’s adage that, “profit for a company is like oxygen for a person; if you don’t have enough of it, you’re out of the game,” but adds that, “if you think your life is about breathing, you’re really missing something”, Senge says that, unfortunately, most businesses operate as if their purpose was breathing.

“No, ultimately, the real purpose for any organization is to serve in some fashion. Business has a way of talking about how to create value, which is in someway isn’t bad…We just need to start thinking about if the value we want to create is consistent with all social and environmental well being.”

Senge said his thoughts are more or less influenced by the Confucian theory of leadership, particularly the theory of “Great Learning”, which scholars believe was written by Confucius’ grandson.

“It talks about the seven meditative spaces for leadership development and it starts with learning how to stop. A lot of people lost touch with what that means,” Senge says of the theory he was introduced to while in college.

“You need to learn how to stop your mind, because while you mind is in its continual state of flow you can’t observe, you can’t see what’s going on, until you can start to learn how to pay attention before the thought. So you cannot confuse the flow of your thought with what’s in front of you. Only then you start have some awareness of the reality you face.”

It seems Senge believes a multifaceted approach is needed to tackling the problems of our time.

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