In its premier issue in 1995, strategy+business reviewed five books. One of them was the fifth anniversary edition of Peter M. Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Doubleday Currency, 1990), which introduced the concept of the learning organization to a broader audience. This book remains as relevant today as it was when it was first published. That’s no mean feat, given the changes that have occurred in the past 20 years.
Some of the most far-reaching of these changes have occurred in publishing, which has become digital and migrated online. This has created a sea change in the ways that ideas are communicated, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press 550 years ago.
Some observers are concerned that this change is fundamentally altering not only how we write and read, but how we think — and not altering it for the better. In his new book, a polemic titled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W.W. Norton, 2010), Nicholas Carr describes how the skimming and skipping that characterize online information gathering actually reroute the neural pathways in our brains. Carr warns that this could cause us to lose the capacity for the kind of mind-focusing “deep reading” that books engender, and the reflection and creativity that result from it.
Whatever the prevailing trend in reading may turn out to be, it is clear from 15 years of book coverage in s+b, written by a host of distinguished reviewers, that there is much to be thoughtful about. Executives who go back to the best books that s+b has covered over the years would gain a valuable source of information and insight. These are the rare books that have expanded the corporate lexicon and changed the way we do business.
Peter M. Senge’s The Fifth Discipline is surely one of the most influential management works of the past two decades. Senge, who founded the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, pegged the problems that companies commonly encounter to the inability to adapt to changing circumstances — in his words, to learning disabilities. He asserted (borrowing a theme from Arie de Geus) that organizations that are capable of learning possess a valuable competitive advantage, and went on, in the core chapters of the book, to lay out the now-familiar five components necessary to create such organizations: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared visions, and team learning.
Paul Idzik, then a Booz & Company partner, reviewed The Fifth Discipline on the occasion of the book’s fifth anniversary. “Senior executives are devoting more of their time these days to fostering a culture of learning within their organizations,” wrote Idzik. “They realize that many of the recurring problems they deal with would be more quickly and productively resolved if they managed and belonged to a learning organization.” That is still true; the organizational learning disabilities that Senge noticed (such as a fixation on short-term events that obscures the big picture) are still very much with us, and the learning disciplines still provide a remedy when practiced.
The list of seminal books that s+b reviewed must also include The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits (Wharton School Publishing, 2005), a paean to the uplifting effect of capitalism on the human condition, by the late University of Michigan professor C.K. Prahalad. This book is so compelling that it was featured as one of the year’s best business books in 2005 in two categories, strategy and globalization.