MIT staffer on information, knowledge, learning

Von Gary H.

Peter Senge, a senior lecturer at MIT, told attendees here in Scottsdale, Arizona, at Computerworld"s Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference that many companies got it wrong during the craze for so-called knowledge management systems a few years ago.

"It"s amazing how much companies spent without figuring out exactly what they meant by "knowledge,"" Senge said Tuesday. "Knowledge is the capacity for effective action."

Raw information in a database doesn"t have that same power, he said.

In fact, he said, people often don"t know the important meaning of "learning." For instance, he said, attendees listening to him were learning nothing from his presentation. Only by applying what they had heard over time would learning come.

"Learning requires the application of knowledge," Senge said. "Being informed is not enough."

Senge wrote the widely acclaimed book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Currency, 1994), and he was recently co-author of Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future (Sol, 2004). Senge said the model of learning most people use was instilled in the classroom years ago and is all about getting right or wrong answers.

But in today"s complex world, a more useful way to look at it is "doing things a little better," he said.

Senge is also the founding chairman of the Society for Organizational Learning, a global community of corporations, researchers and consultants he said is committed "to increase our capacity to collectively realize our highest aspirations and productively resolve our differences" through the mutual development of people and institutions.

Senge listed the following as core competencies of skilled learning organizations:

-- Aspiration. People really want to learn, rather than doing it only when a crisis requires it.

-- Complexity. Leaders understand systems and can deal with complexity.

-- Conversation. There is team learning, and people need good listening skills for it to work. "There is not enough listening going on in most organizations," he said.

IT leaders are ideal for fostering learning because IT cuts across and integrates all the functions in a company, Senge said. He devoted much of his presentation to the ideas of Marvin W. Adams, the CIO at Ford Motor Co.

Much of Adams" work at Ford is based on the idea of an "adaptive enterprise," and his ideas about adapting are based on the principles of complexity theory, Senge said. The idea is to take a complex and semichaotic environment and encourage the "emergence of order."

Adams strives to do that by fostering three things in his IT organization: variation, which fosters innovation; interaction, in which team learning and listening are key; and selection, which requires studying results and learning from history, Senge said.

Senge said complexity theory, as well as some of Adams" notions, may strike IT managers as esoteric. "But if IT organizations won"t deal with complexity, who will?" he said.