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Learning is a process. Single loop learning is a circular four step process - 1) learning is making decisions, 2) acting on those decisions, 3) assessing the experience and results of those actions, and 4) changing future decisions and actions based on those results. Double loop learning incorporates a second loop to allow for the potential to update mental models or worldviews used in single loop learning.

Learning is evidenced by the improvement in actions of an organization through better knowledge and understanding. Learning is encoded into the routines, procedures, methods, culture, and structure of the organization. These guide behavior, develop insights, knowledge, assessment of action effectiveness in the past, present, and future. Learning involves understanding or reasons why beyond immediate events and is context dependent.

See: James F. Courtney, David T. Croasdell, and David B. Paradice, Inquiring Organizations, Australian Journal of Information Systems Sept 14, 1998 and March, James G. (1991), Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning, Organizational Science, Vol. 2, No. 1, February 1991

Chris Argyris theories of action and learning --
Theory of action --
Argyris and Schön (1974) initially looked to three elements:

  • Governing variables: those dimensions that people are trying to keep within acceptable limits. Any action is likely to impact upon a number of such variables - thus any situation can trigger a trade-off among governing variables.
  • Action strategies: the moves and plans used by people to keep their governing values within the acceptable range.
  • Consequences: what happens as a result of an action. These can be both intended - those actor believe will result - and unintended. In addition those consequences can be for the self, and/or for others. (Anderson 1997)

Single-loop learning --
For Argyris and Schön (1978: 2) learning involves the detection and correction of error. Where something goes wrong, it is suggested, an initial port of call for many people is to look for another strategy that will address and work within the governing variables. In other words, given or chosen goals, values, plans and rules are operationalized rather than questioned. According to Argyris and Schön (1974), this is single-loop learning.

Double-loop learning --
An alternative response is to question to governing variables themselves, to subject them to critical scrutiny. This they describe as double-loop learning. Such learning may then lead to an alteration in the governing variables and, thus, a shift in the way in which strategies and consequences are framed.

Organizational learning --
This is how Argyris and Schön (1978: 2-3) described the process in the context of organizational learning: (Source: http://www.infed.org/thinkers/argyris.htm, March 22, 2007).

    When the error detected and corrected permits the organization to carry on its present policies or achieve its presents objectives, then that error-and-correction process is single-loop learning. Single-loop learning is like a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and turns the heat on or off. The thermostat can perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and take corrective action. Double-loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization's underlying norms, policies and objectives.

Individual learning -- In cognitive psychology terms applied to the individual, double-loop learning revises an individual's mental model to better deal with reality.

Intention and outcome -- Where the consequences of the strategy used are what the person wanted, then the theory-in-use is confirmed. This is because there is a match between intention and outcome. There may be a mismatch between intention and outcome. In other words, the consequences may be unintended. They may also not match, or work against, the person's governing values. Argyris and Schön suggest two responses to this mismatch, and these are can be seen in the notion of single and double-loop learning.

Management application --
Single-loop learning can be characterized as geared towards ""doing things right."" Double-loop learning can be characterized as geared towards ""doing the right things."" Double loop learning leads to the development of new insights which lead to the development of new strategies. It specifically allows for the challenging of existing assumptions and learning for the sake of learning, which is the breeding ground for innovative ideas.

Double loop learning leads to the identification and testing of assumptions. It prompts searches for new perspectives from which to view a situation, or system. New meaning is sought in old observations. New uses are investigated for existing tools.

Learning as a cybernetic system --
The learning process described here is fundamentally a cybernetic process. Learning only occurs when there is a mismatch between intention and outcome. When there is a mismatch, two corrective action processes can take place. If the single loop process is determined to be ineffectual, the double loop is engaged to revise the assumptions, mental models, or world-views in order to achieve the intended results.