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    Systems thinking, organizational change and agency: a practice theory critique of Senge’s learning organization

    Caldwell, Raymond (2012) Systems thinking, organizational change and agency: a practice theory critique of Senge’s learning organization. Journal of Change Management 12 (2), pp. 145-164. ISSN 1469-7017.

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    From its earliest formulations, ‘systems thinking’ has been at the heart of the learning organization, and it provided the inspiration for Senge’s widely influential and idealised image of a future characterised by new possibilities for organizational change and human agency. But Senge’s vision of learning organizations was always characterized by a practice problematic: he did not define the social practices of learning that would realise the utopian ideals of the learning organization. Change as systems and change as practices, systems theory and practice remain profoundly incompatible. Growing awareness of this issue has led to increasing doubts about the future of the learning organization, and there are mounting calls for new starting points or the final abandonment of the whole concept. Yet despite this sense of disillusionment, there have been few critical appraisals of Senge’s legacy from a practice theory perspective that seeks to unravel the links between practice and learning, agency and change. Here, it is argued that Senge’s work can be re-conceptualised as a partial fusion of ‘systems thinking’ and learning theories that leads to a concept of organizational learning as a process of system-based organizational change. However, the concept is critically flawed in two major respects. First, as a systems or structural model, it is theoretically flawed, because it cannot theorise the organizing practices by which learning and change occurs in organizations. Second, it is substantively flawed as a practice for increasing the dispersal of human agency, power, knowledge and autonomy within the workplace. It is concluded that Senge’s concept of the learning organization now faces its final abandonment as a theoretical and practical guide to organizational change.


    Item Type: Article
    Keyword(s) / Subject(s): practice theory, systems thinking, organizational change, human agency, learning organization
    School: Birkbeck Faculties and Schools > Faculty of Business and Law > Birkbeck Business School
    Depositing User: Raymond Caldwell
    Date Deposited: 04 Apr 2013 14:24
    Last Modified: 02 Aug 2023 17:02


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