Single Loop Learning and Double Loop Learning

The Concept of Organizational learning is included in studies of MBA, MHA, Organizational Learning, Strategic HRM & more.

What Is Meant by a Learning Organization?

Answer: The organization portrayed as a learning system is certainly not new.3 In fact, at the turn of the last century Frederick W. Taylor’s learnings on scientific management were said to
be transferable to workers to make the organization more efficient. However, the beginning of today’s use of the term learning organization is usually attributed to the seminal work of Chris Argyris and his colleagues, who made the distinction between first-order, or “singleloop,” and second-order, or dentero or “double-loop,” learning.4 The differences between these two types of learning applied to organizations can be summarized as follows:

1. Single-loop learning involves improving the organization’s capacity to achieve known objectives. It is associated with routine and behavioral learning. Under single-loop, the organization is learning without significant change in its basic assumptions.

2. Double-loop learning reevaluates the nature of the organization’s objectives and the values and beliefs surrounding them. This type of learning involves changing the organization’s culture. Importantly, double-loop consists of the organization’s learning how to learn.

The other theorist most closely associated with learning organizations, Peter Senge and his colleagues, then proceeded to portray this type of organization from a systems theory perspective and made the important distinction between adaptive and generative learning.The simpler adaptive learning is only the first stage of the learning organization, adapting to environmental changes. In recent years, many banks, insurance firms, and old-line manufacturing companies made many adaptive changes such as implementing total quality management (or TQM), benchmarking (comparing with best practices), Six Sigma (a goal of virtually no defects in any process) programs, and customer service initiatives. However, despite the popularity and general success of these efforts to adapt to changing customer expectations for quality and service, organizations have still struggled with their basic assumptions, cultural values, and structure. They have not gone beyond mere adaptive learning.

The more important generative learning was needed. Generative learning involves creativity and innovation, going beyond just adapting to change to being ahead of and anticipating change.8 The generative process leads to a total reframing of an organization’s experiences and learning from that process. For example, the largest car dealer, AutoNation, totally reframed and showed generative learning from the nightmare customers typically experience in trying to buy a used auto. This firm anticipated customer needs by proactively addressing key issues such as a no-haggling sales process, providing a warranty on used cars, and being able to buy from any one of hundreds of car lots.

With the theoretical foundation largely provided by Argyris (double-loop learning) and Senge (generative learning), we conducted a comprehensive review to identify the major characteristics of learning organizations.9 Figure 3.1 shows the three major dimensions or characteristics of learning organizations that emerged out of the considerable literature. The presence of tension—Senge calls it “creative tension”—serves as a catalyst or motivational need to learn. As shown in Figure 3.1, this tension stems from the gap between the organization’s vision (which is hopefully always being adjusted upward) and reality and suggests the learning organization’s continually questioning and challenging the status quo. The systems characteristic of learning organizations recognizes the shared vision of employees throughout the whole organization and the openness to new ideas and the external environment. The third major characteristic shown in Figure 3.1 is an organizational culture conducive to learning. The culture of the organization places a high value on the process of learning and goes beyond mere lip service by setting mechanisms in place for suggestions, teams, empowerment, and, most subtly but importantly, empathy. This empathy is reflected by the genuine concern for and interest in employee suggestions and innovations that can be operationalized through reward systems.

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