The History

What is the history of  “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of Learning Organizations”?  “What led to its birth?”

Truthfully, the works responds to of an area of thinking few management concepts have, in my opinion, ventured into.

The author does not say so explicitly.

But many who read the works, at first while daunted by the difference in its tone,  with time, begin to appreciate the anti-thesis that this work represents.  The older one is, the better it grows on you almost to a point of no-return.  And does so, with a sense of gentleness and lots of first-hand stories.

The five disciplines of the work present an anti-thesis of most concepts of management as we know it today.

However for us to appreciate what the anti-thesis is, we would first need to appreciate the question, “Where do most concepts of management come from?”  What is the thesis?

So, let me turn the question over to you.  What do you think?

The popular notions of post-1980’s management concepts come on the heels of major global phenomena that were unfolding in the 60s and 70s but we can trace that all the way to the 40s.  World War II.

Soon, after the war, it then became about the scramble by the masses to rebuild nations, city-by-city repurposing large-scale manufacturing from supplying ammunitions to building commodities that allow families restore and build homes, shops, schools, war-torn buildings and offices.  The 1970s and 80s saw the growth of multi-national companies who now took management from the shop floors to lands beyond their oceans.

So the 40s represented a turning point for understanding the concept of management from within our recent times in history.

When the war ended, bastions of leaders lost jobs in the military.  However, given their  vast influences and resources, many carved out their niche in the private and public sectors as captains of industries and political leaders of their nations and enjoyed positions of leadership and influence within them.

plural noun: bastions
  1. 1.
    a projecting part of a fortification built at an angle to the line of a wall, so as to allow defensive fire in several directions.
    synonyms: rampart, bulwark, parapet, fortification, buttress, outwork, projection, breastwork,redoubt, barbican, stockade, palisade;

    “he had fortified the stronghold with ditches and bastions”
  2. 2.
    an institution, place, or person strongly maintaining particular principles, attitudes, or activities.
    “cricket’s last bastion of discrimination”
    synonyms: stronghold, bulwark, defender, support, supporter, guard, protection, protector,defence, prop, mainstay

    “the last bastion of male-only suffrage in Europe”

And so, when you carefully think through the history, we begin to realize that most concepts of management and leadership as we know today are the product of slews of ideas, concepts, frameworks rooted in the monarchy and hierarchy and then were tried, test and polished in the military, during World War II.  They proved to be very successful in the military.

What happened next?

How did they run their ships outside of the military?

Well, you are right!  Just as it was in the military!

At first things were working well.  People gathered and worked hard to pull themselves out of the ravages of the war.  And they wanted a better future for their children and their future generations.  And it showed these were happen in terms of pulling out of difficult situations and improving lives as we know it.

However with time, as the next generation took over the reigns, things began to change. While most organizations strove to last for as long as they could, many struggled to sustain their sales earnings even when the populace had better buying powers.  Still, fortunes would change hands at the sniff of an inflation or recession.  When inflations rose, the borrowers stood to gain.  When inflation declined, the banks would find their fortunes changing for the better.  By the 90s, companies, sprouted, merged, disappeared and increasingly criminals would begin to use them as fronts for illegal activities such as trafficking (substances, humans and animals) and money-laundering.

Why were these happening?    Why was a management strategy that worked so well in the military no longer working in the public domain?

The short answer is.  The military is not designed for the long-term.

What is it then designed for? It is designed to exercise in the short-term.

It is to go in, kill the enemy and get out.   When the mission is accomplished, the team is disbanded and redeployed.  It is designed to create results for the short-term!  Holding an iron fist at all times!  Get the job done.  No questions asked.  The enemy lines were drawn very clearly.

We tried to do the same in the civilian world.  Should we become successful at eliminating the competition (or the enemy; notice the parallels we draw in the corporate world when we say we should strive to ‘eliminate the competition’), then we say we are successful.

But, what if the enemy does not die?  And the competition fights back?  What happens next?  Well, you don’t want to die either.

And so, we prolonged the war. We kept the same strategy up hoping we would turn the corner soon enough. Perhaps at the next one? Just keep pushing for now!

Except when we prolong the war, the cost of running the military, as we see it happening in the monarchy, the process does so at huge costs!

Try running the private sector by chalking up huge levels of costs.

What happens to it?

It goes under, pretty much. Very soon.  Or it would begin to depend on loans, bailouts, payouts, grants and aids to keep itself afloat and going.

The Living Company

The research for this work began as a response to seeing the corporate world beginning to flounder under its own weight some ten to twenty years after World War II.  However, as it dug deeper, Arie de Geus, the author of “The Living Company” began to notice a handful of organizations that not only survived the life-time of its founder but continued to grow generation after generations surviving from as far back as 700 years ago.

Now, how did they do that?

We did not say it was easy.  But it is possible.  In learning to understand, what it takes for an organization (or a country) to grow and keep doing so over time, the research began to discover five behaviours when they are carried out consistently by people within the organization as disciplines, they helped the organization to grow consistently as well.


This gave rise to the writing of the book “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of Learning Organizaitons” and its eventual publication in 1990 by its author and a friend of Arie de Geus, Dr Peter Senge.

What sets a Learning Organization apart from others?

A Learning Organization begins by questioning the mandate it is in, and understand the reasons for its ongoing relevance.  When an organization is learning, it would often work its way out of its mandate, if necessary.

Most mandates set by an organization are in response to an event from our pasts.  This is particularly so within the public-sector.  A rise in crimes or rise in illnesses or rise in the number of citizens succumbing to HIV/AIDs or land conflicts or labour or spousal disputes or poverty and so on.

In questioning the reason for its continued relevance, these organizations work upstream to determine and deal with causality.  It questions the reason for the persistence of the increase or changes of these events.  When it learns and discovers the reasons for the increase, it will begin to reduce the effects of the causality, and therefore the need for its existence.  When the problem goes away the need for sustaining the organization also goes away.  In this way, it cuts off the costs of sustaining the institution.

This notion of management, however runs contrary to current forms of management. We do not question the mandate.  We would take it for granted.  We exist, because it just is.  Just like the military.  We ask, “Who is the enemy?”.  We do not ask, “Why is he the enemy?”  We do not ask, “Why jump?”.  Instead, we ask, “How high?”

The approach of Learning Organizations to management will eventually allow the organization see the ways cycles of causality have trapped the organization in endless circles of ‘running a-round’.  This is key in recognizing that as these cycles spin, they take us through the ups and downs on the journeys of our realities.  The military strategizes.  ‘It has no time for thinking’.  It says, “Charge!” That is before the enemy charges at us!

We think we are leading the journeys in our realities. These vicious circles of causality prove to us that we are not the ones doing so.  Instead, we begin to see that these cycles are the ones leading us on.   In reality, parts of these circles of causality appear on the surface (as we would say at the tip of the iceberg) and manifest themselves as problems and conflicts that span individual, national and global relations and health.


A Learning Organization learns to get to the answers at the bottom of this puzzle! It serves as an anti-dote to past notions of management and carve out a future the organization can thrive in.

We have always needed it. We just did not have a way of seeing, what that could look like, till the five disciplines, its art and the practice of Learning Organizations came alive for us.

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