Courts as Learning Organizations: Towards a Unifying Vision

Article excerpt

With the publication of The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge introduced the concept of a learning organization as one that is "continually expanding its capacity to create its future."' The initial application of this idea was in the corporate world. However, as Senge's work spread through his publications and Innovation Associates' Leadership and Mastery workshops, it became obvious that learning organization principles were also relevant for teachers, public administrators, and elected officials; in short, individuals who were members of all types of entities. "All were in 'organizations' that had still untapped potential for creating their future. All felt that to tap that potential required developing their own capacities, that is, learning."2

Senge observed that managers in the public sector seemed to be less aware of the inadequacies of their prevailing management practices; furthermore, business managers seemed to share "a commitment and a capacity to innovate that was lacking in the public sector."1 Since Senge concentrated his attention on the business sector rather than on organizations such as the courts or other government institutions, many people affiliated with the courts are unfamiliar with his work, especially the theoretical framework of the learning organization that has tremendous potential for improving their work. This article introduces learning organization theory and describes its possible uses in the courts.

What is a learning organization?

Senge describes the essence of a learning organization as one in which deep learning cycles occur that enable the development of new capacities that foster fundamental shifts of mind both individually and collectively. He identifies six characteristics that are fundamental. The learning organization is one that; creates continuous learning opportunities; promotes inquiry and dialogue; encourages collaboration and team learning; establishes systems to capture and share learning; empowers people toward a collective vision; and connects the organization to the environment. These organizational practices are more than just noble concepts; they are ways members within an organization act in concert so as to grow together as individuals, and in such a manner that the collective body learns and grows as well.

Senge states that organizations need to "discover how to tap peoples' commitment and capacity to learn at all levels" if they hope to keep up with a world that is so rapidly changing.' He attests to people's ability to learn, but notes that the organizations of which we are part often do not build on that capacity. He states that for an organization that is responsive to people's capacity for learning and, thus, for the organization's ability to grow, it is not enough just to survive: "'Survival learning' or what is more often termed 'adaptive learning' is important indeed, it is necessary. But for a learning organization, 'adaptive learning' must be joined by 'generative learning', learning that enhances our capacity to create.'"1

A learning organization is intended to be a catalyst for continual change, but for such change to occur consistently, several elements aie necessary: (1) the institution must be guided by a sense of direction or vision that leadership endorses and amplifies; (2) upper management (leadership) must lend its power and authority to encouraging change; (3) general staff must realize some compelling forces that require their participation; (4) individuals in the organization must have both the cognitive ability and the desire to be part of such a change; and (5) leadership must originate from the top, but eventually must be infused throughout the various levels of the organization. Organizations that implement the concepts embraced in these principles engage in a radical commitment to an ongoing, shared process of change and become rooted in collective leadership and collective learning.

The core of Senge's work revolves around his description of the five disciplines that enable organizations to become learning organizations. …