Argyris & Schon’s ‘Double-loop Learning’ for a Thinking Workforce

Making learners active participants in their own learning is every training professional’s dream! You don’t want a workforce that’s a passive recipient of knowledge. Instead, you want an engaged workforce that is thinking and questioning all the time.

And that is where Argyris and Schon’s theory of ‘double-loop’ learning comes in.

In this article, we’ll explore what is meant by ‘single-loop’ and ‘double-loop’ learning, how ‘double-loop’ learning is different from ‘single-loop’ learning, and how it can build a vibrant learning organization.

Single-loop Learning: Doing things right

Single-loop learning is a type of organizational learning about finding a solution to a problem and applying it over-and-over again. It focuses on solving problems within a rigid boundary in the existing system. When we encounter a problem, we ask ‘what’ the problem is, and then try to solve it. The issues may continue to persist, but the focus remains on ‘detection and correction of error’. 

The biggest disadvantage with this approach is that we end up making quick fixes and don’t try to find ‘why’ the problem is occurring (the root cause). And as it is based on what has or has not worked in the past, it does not encourage innovative thinking.

Double-loop Learning: Doing the right things

Double-loop learning is not about the method, it’s more about the objectives themselves. It is about thinking outside the box, where the problem is examined from different angles and existing rules are challenged or questioned. The focus is on a long-term sustainable result, not on quick fixes. Double-loop learning allows you to modify or even reject the ‘goal’ of a learning activity in the light of experience. You discard dysfunctional or useless ways of doing things and adopt ways that actually work!

The concept encourages everyone to think more deeply about their assumptions and beliefs. You begin thinking about doing things differently, and address problems with a uniquely innovative perspective.


Single-loop Learning vs. Double-loop Learning

Single-loop Learning Double-loop Learning
Follows current ways of doing things within the existing systemFinds short-term solutionsEncourages passive acceptance of informationFocuses on following the rules without questionLess employee involvement Questions current ways of doing thingsFinds long-term solutionsCalls for changing the rules and even learning goals when requiredEncourages questioning, criticism, feedbackMore employee involvement


Examples of Single- and Double-loop Learning

Let’s take an example of a certain product X being launched by a company. While the product concept is exciting, the actual product was having some serious issues. The lower/middle-level production and marketing teams are aware of the problems, but the top management is not.

How will the ground-level teams behave in single-loop as against double-loop learning in this situation?

Single-loop learning: The middle and lower management is focused on trying to fix the issues as they come up. They know that top management is excited about the product, and so, they simply go about fixing product issues with the objective to appease the top management. Larger issues like product feasibility and profitability are ignored resulting in massive losses to the organization.

Double-loop learning: The middle and lower management raises questions about whether product X should be launched in the first place. They question the existing policies and assumptions about the product launch and seek long-term solutions to the issues. Losses to the organization are prevented.

How ‘Double-loop’ Learning Helps Improve Performance

Double-loop learning calls for a creative approach to problem-solving. Problems are viewed as opportunities to improve organizational performance. It is all about reflecting and challenging on existing practices, and about implementing changes that are sustainable and effective. Double-loop learning helps the learner:

  • ‘Think out-of-the-box, ‘seek change, and look at the bigger picture
  • Make better decisions through creative and critical thinking
  • Produce more innovative solutions
  • Accept failure; be flexible and willing to change
  • Abandon an unproductive idea early on rather than trying to somehow make it work
  • Adopt better ideas quicker to be more productive

Double-loop learning helps foster an open-minded, innovative, solution-oriented, progressive learning culture. It helps create a learning organization that boldly addresses problems, challenges the status quo, and welcomes transformation!

Let me conclude with a quote by Argyris and Schon- ‘Double-loop learning occurs when the error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies, and objectives.’ 

To know more about “How to use Nonaka & Takeuchi’s Model to Create a High-impact Learning Organization!” Click here!

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