Business Book Classic: The Fifth Discipline

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Great business books have a major impact when they’re published. Then they get “plowed under.” Other books claim attention.  And without noticing it, we’re not thinking about them anymore.

I call a business book a classic if it meets two tests. It must have published more than 25 years ago. It must be impactful. Some books are impactful because they contain timeless business tactics and techniques. Others changed how we think or do business.

The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter Senge is a classic by any measure. It introduced the term “learning organization,” now part of our common business vocabulary. Before 1985, hardly anyone had ever used the term “learning organization.” After The Fifth Discipline was published in 1990, usage of the term shot straight up.

Senge thought we needed to become better at learning as an organization. Business was becoming more complex and more dynamic. Organizations could only respond effectively if they could learn effectively. He identified five components of a learning organization. These are five disciplines, not five concepts. They are practices, not ideas. The five disciplines are:

  • team learning
  • shared vision
  • mental models
  • personal mastery
  • systems thinking

The Fifth Discipline is truly a classic book. But it has problems.

Reading the Book Can Be A Problem

The first chapter of The Fifth Discipline is idea-rich and easy to read. After that, the prose gets murky. Some readers used other books, like The Fifth Discipline Field Book, to understand the practices. Others supplemented The Fifth Discipline with articles about the learning organization.

The Fifth Discipline May Seem Dated

There’s another problem, too. The Fifth Discipline came out in 1990. It may seem a little dated in 2020. There’s nothing in it about some of the most exciting system concepts developed since 1990. There’s nothing on self-organizing systems. There’s nothing on emergence.

My Suggestion

Buy the book anyway. Appendix 2 describes system archetypes. It’s worth the price of the book.

You can buy a used copy on Amazon for a couple of bucks. The Kindle version of an updated edition is $14.99. If you own the book, you can read the first chapter or so and get the major benefits, and then skip the hard reading. Keep Appendix 2 as a quick reference on the way systems work. I’ve had copies of the pages in Appendix 2 in my quick-reference folder since I first read the book.

Supplement The Fifth Discipline with a good book about living, dynamic systems. I suggest The Web of Life by Fritjof Capra.

Bottom Line

The Fifth Discipline is a classic business book. Terms and concepts from the book became part of our standard business vocabulary and thinking toolkit. The early chapters and the appendix on system archetypes are excellent. Supplement The Fifth Discipline with some reading on living, dynamic systems.


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