LOs and Metanoia - Arie de Geus and the "Learning Company" LO27107

From: AM de Lange (amdelange@gold.up.ac.za)
Date: 08/06/01

Replying to LO27074 --

Dear Organlearners,

Artur Silva <artsilva@mail.eunet.pt> writes:

>I think the majority of people, in this list and elsewhere,
>more often relate the origin of the concept of LO to Senge
>and his "The Fifth Discipline" (1990). I don't. And I think it
>is important to state this, as I will try to show that the two
>conceptions, even if they have similarities, have different
>origins and objectives and really constitute two different
>models of the "Learning Organization".
>It would be perhaps interesting to open the previous
>paragraph to discussion and see how many would like
>to question the paternity I am stating. Fortunately (or
>unfortunately) the point has no discussion! It's Senge,
>himself, in his Forward to "The Living Company" that
>says: "It was through Arie de Geus, whom I met over
>15 years ago, that I first became seriously acquainted
>with the concept of organizational learning. That meeting
>began the journey of a lifetime." (LC, pg. 1)

Greetings dear Artur,

Thank you for again another delightful contribution. Thank you also for
your authetic viewpoint and not just repeating the books.

It is forntunate (if not unfortunate ;-) that the Managerial Sciences
(MSs) have less endeavour for systematics than the Biological Sciences

Giving the name "Learning Organisation" to a particular kind of
organisation in MSs is like giving the name "Abc.. def.. (Xyz.. )" to a
particular kind of living organisms. Here "Abc.. " is the name of the
genus, "def.. " the name of the species to which that genus belong and
"(Xyz.. )" the surname of the person who gave that name to the species.

One of the issues in biological systematics is to establish which name for
a species has priority. Biologists have a golden rule. The earliest name
(with certain provisions) takes precedence. Sometimes a valid name known
for more than a century has to be replaced by another valid name simply
because it has been described earlier and some researcher into old
literaure discovered it at last. This new unfamiliar name is often a
nuisance, but has to be honoured so as not to impair the systematics.

The name "Learning Company" for me refers to organisations of the business
kind. A name like "Learning Synagogue" would then refer to Jewish
organisations of the religious kind. Or a name like "Learning Gholf Club"
would refer to organisations of the sports kind. I am sure you all can
suggest many more such names for learning species (each having many
learning specimens). They will all belong to a genus consisting of
learning species. So what is this genus itself? It is for me Senge's
"Learning Organisation".

Senge's concept and De Geus' concept differ as the concepts genus and
species differ.

Arie de Geus makes it clear that in a company which the drive ("the tail
of the fish") is to make money, its control ("the head of the fish") is
not also to make money, but to learn. Those companies in which the "tail
and the head of the fish" becomes one thing, namely to make money, do not
last long.

Allow me now to give you another example of other which had the same clear
insight which De Geus has, but which go back more than a century in
Southern Africa and more than two centuries in South Africa. It is
Christian Missions (Roman Catholic and Protestants). The drive ("tail of
the fish") of the missionaries were to preach the gospel and so convert
indigenous people to Christianity.

But the far majority of these missionaries discovered within a few years
that the viability of their mission depended on something different. They
had to help the local people with learning literacy, trades and healthy
habits. In other words, they had to become "Learning Missions".

I find your next comment fascinating:

>First, it was not a text from a scholar, reflecting
>about companies from the outside -- it was from
>an insider, a "corporate man", at the time the
>head of planning for the Shell Group, where he
>previously had line responsibilities.

The "missionaries in the field" were often chasticised by their
benefactors and overseers (the "clergy") living in Europe for not sticking
to evangelisation ("tail and head" becoming the same).

In other words, the concept of Learning Missions (I cannot remember if the
name was articulated as such) is much older than the concept of Learning
Companies. But the galant missionaries clearly described how they had to
organise their missions into learning communities.

>But, fourth, and most important: in the 1988 HBR
>article, de Geus (briefly) described the Shell Study
>about longevity in companies (later developed in LC).
>The Shell study discovered that some 1/3 of all created
>companies die in about 10 years -- companies have
>a big infant mortality rate! But even the life span of
>other companies is only about 20-30 years.

The same can be said of Christian Missions. They came into Southern Africa
before colonialization took over. They had to become Learning Missions in
order to keep on going. As a result of colonialisation in the name of
"christianity", the churches (but seldom these missions) got a bad name.
After the decolonialisation many of the ordinary churches had to close.
But these Learning Missions are still operating, even though they had to
cope with much bad feelings against them.

>The LO model of the Geus has the following
>important characteristics:
>1 It's not an "a priori" or "prescriptive" model --
>there are no rules or disciplines that organizations
>obey to became LO's. On the contrary, it is an
>"a posteriori" concept, related with the capacity
>of real companies to adapt and survive.

There is a rule hidden here. To be able to adapt and survive they have to
learn. But what sort of learning is then necessary? To answer this
question De Geus shifted his focus from Learning Companies to Living

So what corresepondences are there between living and the kind of learning
which he has in mind? I find the following instructive:

>Based again in the Shell Study, he describes (in LC) the
>characteristics of those companies:
>(a) "Sensitive to his environment" (open, learning)
>(b) "Cohesive, with a strong sense of identity" (have a "persona")
>(c) "Tolerant" (also used "decentralized")
>(d) "Conservative in Finance" (pg. 12-14)

They point to four of the 7Es (seven essentilaities of creativity).
(a) openness ("paradigm-opne")
(b) sureness ("indentity-categoricity")
(c) wholeness ("unity-associativity")
(d) spareness ("qunaitity-limit")

As for myself, I use specifically the phrase "authentic learning" to
qualify the learning which we need to keep organisations alive.

>A last comment to stress that for people who have
>difficulty in seeing companies as "living beings"
>(and not as "machines") the Foreword of Peter Senge
>to LC makes a compiling case for that hypothesis.
>I have used it with customers and I can guarantee its

Dear Artur, I do not wish to criticise you, Senge, De Geus or anybody else
who begin to focus on living organisms as examples to organise our
organisations. It is highly commendable and a most positive development.

However, it is one thing to have knowledge of life which maintains itself
without human intervention and another thing to actually keep living
organisms in captivity alive. The former knowledge is known as biology.
The latter does not have a formal name so that I will call it "biopraxis".
It is the practical knowledge without which no farmer will make a success.
Its the knowing coming from experiencing the doing.

A basic feature of human organisations is the daily interventions in them
by humans from the top (more) to the bottom (less). The knowledge needed
to keep human organisations alive is not merely something akin to biology,
but also something akin to "biopraxis". In other words, the manager should
not only think like a "biologist", but also like a "farmer". The closest
in which these two become united, is in the "wardens" of highly sensitive,
nature parks.

One way to develop sensitivity to this "biology"+"biopraxis" is to go on
hiking trails with such wardens for a week or so. There are actually some
parks here in South Africa which offer these precious opportunities.

Another way to develop sensitivity to this "biology"+"biopraxis" is what
I suggested many moons ago. "Adopt some genus and care for it". It can be
any genus of plants or animals. Make it a hobby by keeping specimens, bred
from captive specimens and making sure that they also breed in captivity.
Make it also a passion by studying specimens in the wild and improving
their conservation status. Make it a science by studying all the
morphology and physiology of that genus.

Jan Smuts, the father of Holism, was not only a statesman, but also an
expert of the grasses (Graminaceae) of South Africa.

I can speak of experience. "Biopraxis" taught me as much as "biology". To
keep a difficult plant alive and even successfully breed it into next
generations helped me to study biological literature from the viewpoint of
all 7Es like liveness and wholeness.

My pride is an magnificent Adenium oleifolium which I dug out of the
Kalahari desert 24 years ago. It is called by the common name "desert
rose". It belongs to the Oleander family. Its sap is deadly (one of the
four ingredients of the arrow poison of the San people.) It has a huge
caudex (tuber) under the sand which can rot easily in captivity. Its
pollination is extremely intricate. The germination of its sparsely
produced seeds are even more intricate as well as just keeping the
seedlings alive for the first two years. I am now producing 3rd generation
plants. It takes about a dozen years from seed for a plant to become
mature enough to produce seed self. Without "authentic learning" nothing
of this would have been possible.

I have sometimes been offered money for this plant. Will I sell it? Never.
Money cannot buy life.

With care and best wishes,


At de Lange <amdelange@gold.up.ac.za> Snailmail: A M de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre Faculty of Science - University of Pretoria Pretoria 0001 - Rep of South Africa

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