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Double-Loop Learning – Argyris

November 17, 2013

Kolb’s [1] experiential learning cycle (see previous posting https://patkirwanmanagementmusings.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/learning-cycles-kolb/) provides a deceptively simple model to support learning in our professional lives.

If we accept that the modern business environment  is highly dynamic and that change is inevitable, then organisations that are better able to recognise impending change, and have systems in place that allow the organisation to learn and adapt faster to change will possibly have a competitive advantage over their rivals. This is the strategic reasoning behind programs to develop learning organisations and to implement systems of knowledge management.

Chris Argyris [2] writes about different levels of awareness and complexity in the learning process. Much of the learning that individuals and organisations engage in is single-loop learning. Here,  goals, value systems, plans or cultural norms provide the constraints (Argyris terms them “Governing Variables”) of the system. Learning then consists of detecting failure to meet the governing variable – that is, error detection and taking action to correct the error – so that the final outcome conforms to the governing variables. This is a classic feed-back loop, such as a thermostat provides for control of temperature for heating systems. Individuals and organisations engaged in single loop learning do not question the governing variables but strive to find solutions within the constraints imposed by the governing variables.

Double-loop learning, in contrast, makes significant contribution to teaching us how to learn, going beyond error detection and correction to questioning the assumptions that underlie the constraints of the system and therefore enabling possible future alternatives outside the current governing variables.  In double-loop learning the processes being operated are questioned and improvement to the system itself are identified and implemented.

Double loop 001

Figure 1: Single- and Double-Loop Learning (adapted from Argyris [2]).

Argyris highlights significant barriers to achieving double-loop learning. Individuals tend to avoid examining their own failures and will blame colleagues or the system for failure thereby missing opportunity to engage in higher levels of learning. Open organisational cultures that favour effective multi-directional communications, acceptance that failure is a normal part of business life  and avoidance of blame cultures all help avoid the pitfalls Argyris warns us about when trying to learn as individuals or as organisations.

Bibliography:

[1] Kolb, D., (1984), “Experiential Learning”, Engelwood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall.

[2] Argyris, C., (1994), “On organizational Learning”, Oxford, Blackwell.

Further Recommended Reading:

Argyris, C. and Schön, D., (1978), “Organisational Learning: a theory of action perspective”, Reading, Mass., Addison Welsey.

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