The Learning Circle and Arthur Andersen (distributed by Euromanagement, Holland +31 40 297 4944)
Price £185 plus VAT

I suspect that my response to Peter Senge’s seminal 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline, was similar to that of many other people. While excited by the concepts and optimistic about the impact they could have, we are aware that our skills could be taken to a higher level.

How many of us, for example, would feel confident of embarking on the construction of systems diagrams with clients? Can we honestly claim that we can analyse a piece of dialogue in terms of where its components fit on Senge’s “ladder of inference”?

Although there is much written about these concepts, the opportunities for guided practice are more limited. Unless we spend large sums of money on formal training courses, most of which would involve a trip to the US, we have to rely on learning by trial and error. This training programme is a highly welcome resource that should find a ready audience. Each of the programme’s four CD-Roms combines substantial video, audio and textual content.

The starting point is “Friday Night at the ER”, a simulation that gives the viewer responsibility for managing admissions to a hospital emergency room in a way that maximises patient satisfaction as well as generating hospital revenue. Since Friday night is the busiest time of the week, pressure on the service can be managed only by adopting a “systems” approach and, without this, the viewer quickly becomes overwhelmed. This simulation has been a regular part of systems-thinking workshops in the US; having it available over here for individual use opens up welcome possibilities for learning.

The second section concerns the application of mental models and systems thinking. Interviews with staff involved in the emergency service provide the context, in which viewers explore and apply their understanding of these concepts.

I was struck by the intellectual challenge presented by Activating the Fifth Discipline. Eschewing the conventional training model of presenting information and then testing comprehension, this product offers a more personal, exacting learning experience. The learner is plunged into interactive activities (such as guiding the progress of an interview) for which feedback is provided by an onscreen coach whose comments can be accessed on demand. Background information is displayed, with options to explore related topics. The complexity of the activity is such that learners are given several opportunities to correct or complete inadequate answers, with comprehensive feedback.

My absorption with the content was slightly marred by the occasionally frustrating mechanics of making selections, and I looked in vain for a means of printing out the reference pages. These contained some of the clearest exposition of certain topics that I have come across, and I would have welcomed a permanent record. The structure of the programme seemed to assume that I would learn it all as I went along but I doubted this, and wanted the security of a record to return to later. Perhaps the answer would have been to record new insights and information in the “journal” facility (a sort of learning logbook) that was always available.

The programme demands commitment in terms of time and mental effort. It takes several hours to complete, and although you can take a break, the contents are cumulative, which determines the sequence in which the material can be accessed. While I have yet to complete it, it is a measure of the product’s appeal that I fully intend to do so.

Jo McHale
Hamelin Occupational Psychology