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The Practice of Own Theory Development

December 1, 2013

Since starting this blog I have written regularly about theories of learning (Learning Cycles – Kolb, Double-loop Learning  – Argyris )  but also about the need for the practicing professional to develop theory of their own (Why use Theory? ). This we need to do for several reasons. Firstly, it helps internalise theory making it easily retrievable in everyday practice, especially when we are under stress to make sense of a complicated situation or to find solutions to real world business challenges. Secondly,  internalising a particular theory may help us combine this with elements of others to achieve our own new, integrated theory.

My personal approach to internalising new theory is to ensure I really understand the author by reading mindfully, taking concise notes. I then read key works the author referred to in the article or paper, if I can source them. In addition, I look for critical analysis of the theory by others to understand potential weaknesses and to source other views which might be of use. I also test the theories where possible through reflection. I do this by applying the model  to my own past experiences and seeing where it helps explain those events or might have been useful in arriving at a different outcome, had the theory been known to me previously. Finally, I may seek out colleagues and friends with similar interests to discuss the theory and start a dialog to get their input and insights. At some stage in this process the new theory becomes internalised for me and I thereafter find it easier to work with  and to understand how it relates to other theory and perhaps even derive a new, personal integrated theory.

Figure one below provides an example of a personal integrated theory I devised some time ago. It combines Kolb’s Experiental Cycle of Learning [1] with Argyris’s Double-loop Learning [2], providing me with a unified theory that supports my personal learning better that if I try to apply these separately.

Personal Integrated Learning Model 001

Figure 1: My current personal integrated theory of learning

Do such personal theories have to be academically rigorous? I don’t believe so, unless you want to publish a paper in a learned journal!   For me, in my professional or personal life, these own theories must be of real utility in sense-making, problem-finding and in solution-finding.  That is the standard I require them to fulfill. And when they no longer fulfill that standard or I have morphed them into something new as a result of reflection on newer experiences or reading about other theories, I discard them totally or upgrade to my current latest and greatest version!


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

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


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