The Society for Organizational Learning 1995-2009 

A Personal, Unofficial Overview

by Barry Sugarman        

    This account of SoL is largely based on participant observation over almost ten years, starting as a novice who arrived during the early “flying high” phase around 1996. I was quickly welcomed. Took the “Core Competency Course” in 1999.  Published a study of SoL collaborations / cases in several federal government agencies in 2000 (outside grant). Worked on staff as Research Coordinator from 2001 until 2005.

    The organization that became known as SoL was born at MIT around 1995, based on ideas about organizational learning and change led by Peter Senge and described in his best-seller The Fifth Discipline: Theory and Practice of the Learning Organization. The swift surge of interest (even before publication) led to forming a Center for Organiz-ational Learning at MIT. Later it would (be forced to) go private as The Society for Organizational Learning (SoL). In this summary of some 15 years’ history I shall mostly use “SoL” to cover the whole period including the Center.

    SoL’s mission was to promote this work through the five discipline defined there. Following Deming and the Quality movement, many business “thought  leaders” and their followers were ready for a vision of “the Learning Organization”.  That appeared in Peter Senge’s many presentations and in The Fifth Discipline (1990). 

    Senge’s ideas developed from his deep work in systems dynamics and organizational development and his conversations with key researcher-thinkers (e.g. Jay Forrester, Chris Argyris) and practitioner-thinkers (e.g. Bill O’Brien HANOVER INSURANCE, Arie de Guess SHELL, Dee Hock VISA.). Peter’s thinking evolved as he did many interviews and consultations with business leaders and mentors. In The Fifth Discipline he describes many examples from management experience to illustrate each of the five “disciplines” that he highlights.

 

    The book was a true “best seller” with 400,000 copies in print. It was also honored as a most important publication in business strategy.  Not your average business best seller. Another characteristic that makes SoL/Senge unusual among both business consultants and academics is a strong skepticism about measurement efforts, as usually implemented. 

     Example of a key promotional strategy: at Ford Motors Peter was a regular presenter at their in-house executive development program, where significant supporters emerged among senior/middle managers (but not C-class). Ford was an early corporate  member of the Center for OL at MIT. Several early (proof of concept) projects occurred at Ford including one “classic” case - see CAR LAUNCH by George Roth & Art Kleiner.          

                        

    SoL was constituted as a balanced collaboration between three member constituencies: practitioners (with practical problems and control of resources, often managers), consultants, and researchers. Seats on the SoL board of directors were divided this way. Thus SoL was not just a Community of Practice; it aimed to balance, exploit and integrate these three different perspectives, needs and resources. 

    Phase One: SoL began as (one of many) research and collaboration centers at MIT. For a few years everything looked wonderful: funds were plentiful, thanks to corporate contributions to the Center and consulting fees to some associates, both boosted by the “learning organization” fad of those years, combined with the allure and assurance of the MIT brand. This allowed the SoL core practitioners-advocates to learn from various action/change experiments/research. But this was mostly not research in a traditional academic style. (Major exception: John Sterman and his associates in rigorous systems dynamics research, including simulations).

    Three books mark three phases in the evolution of the thinking and practice of  Senge and the most active SoL core group:  

 (1) THE FIFTH DISCIPLINE (1990) is the manifesto or banner that defines the theory and vision. Suddenly Peter’s project is flying high: plenty of major corporations want to be “in the club”, so plenty funds support work by a core of skilled practitioner-theorists. The book, featured in major business media, popularizes the meme of The Learning Organization and in effect endows a ghost “chair” for its author,  who is on faculty at MIT but can work full-time for the “cause”

(2) THE FIFTH DISCIPLINE  FIELD-BOOK (1993) supports the wide interest in “how could I apply this idea to my own situation?” resulting from phase one, by offering practical advice and describing successful examples. (Many contributors, co-authors.) This is a phase of trying to  consolidate the early surge of interest and build capacity for a long term of multi-stage, ever-deeper change projects with members. But major setbacks were about to appear. 

     (3) THE DANCE OF CHANGE (1999) marks a major shift in this success story. Instead of seeing diffusion of successful SoL innovation projects, time and again the “immune system” of the host organization reasserted itself.  This book presented brilliant systemic analysis of the limiting factors, learning from the situation. The learnings and implications put much greater demands on all parties in such change projects, requiring intervenors to engage much more effectively with higher levels in the system early on. But resistance there is great.  In the twenty years since this book are there any successes to report - at this level, beyond the isolated pilot project? I don’t know, though I do know some anecdotes of “successful” change leaders who quit after discovering the weight of upper level resistance.

 

    THE LATEST PHASE (10-20 years)  

During its prosperous years, even as the bounty dwindled, SoL always invested in capacity building, sometimes subsidizing unfunded participants - including likeminded practitioners from overseas. Many of these activists returned home and founded SoLFrance, SoLSpain, Austria, Australia, Bulgaria, Japan, Singapore, etc. Whether they operate the classic SoL model (with the three constituencies) I do not know but they use the same brand name and vision statements.  They seem to be thriving, while the founder entity in Cambridge (renamed as SoLNorthAmerica) has withered - at least in its visible infrastructure. 

    Ed Schein’s thesis in the book “DEC Is Dead; Long Live DEC” might apply to SoL: the formal organization in question is dead but its alumni are influential and the entire field/industry has been influenced in good ways, thanks to DEC - and perhaps thanks to SoL in its field.

The next-generation SoL units in other lands take turns in hosting  global gatherings. Most hold membership in a Global SoL Association and share the original SoL brand mark ,but it has no legal authority. No franchises. Within North America the diaspora of SoL alumni moves on, consulting, teaching in informal networks.

    In its heydays (Phases 1 and 2 ) SoL was an association with big ambitions, impressive projects and high-end members, including (not all at the same time) Ford, Shell,  HP, Unilever, Intel, Detroit Edison, AT&T, Sanofi.  Several agencies of the US federal government were closely involved, including EPA, Dept of Ed., US Army, also the World Bank.

A Liaison Group was central  (average 15 members) representing the member companies plus SoL staff (and sometimes also one or two researchers or consultants) met for three days, four times a year. 

This group shared learnings and problems from their home settings, planned a big annual meeting for all members, and worked among themselves to learn and apply the five disciplines more effectively. 

    SoL in its prime was not a minor league operation. Possibly grandiose in its vision but operated by humble talented people, collaborating together in a community of deeply woven relationships, in no way cultish, all passionate about a shared vision: to help more organizations become learning organizations, where people can work for goals they care about in ways they care about.