Double loop learning

From CEOpedia | Management online

The concepts of single-loop and two-loop learning are based on Argyris and Schon's theory of action. People make decisions and act with the intention of reaching a predetermined goal. We then analyze and assess our actions to be able to evaluate whether they were effective or whether we could do something better or faster next time to arrive at the same goal. Human action is never random and always carries with it some consequences for which we are responsible (Greenwood, J. 1998). To understand the concept of double-loop learning, it is important to understand the differences between single-loop learning and double-loop learning.

Single loop learning

People tend to follow the same pattern of behavior when it comes to the way they conduct their lives or when they are solving a problem. They repeat patterns that they have already experienced, read about, or that are similar to the situation they are currently in or the problem they are currently solving. This same pattern with the same set of rules, values, norms, goals, procedures, processes and assumptions provides them with psychological safety - or peace of mind. It is learning in a loop.

Single-loop learning is discovering and correcting mistakes but not changing the core principles and goals of the organization. Error-correction and problem-solving activities add to the knowledge base or company-specific competencies or routines without changing the fundamental nature of the organization's activities (Ractham, V. V., & Kantamara, P. 2011).

An example of single-loop learning is the function of a thermostat for heating a room. A thermostat is an electronic device that communicates with a boiler or other heating source to maintain a constant temperature in a room - e.g. 23 degrees. The aim of the thermostat is to adjust the heating temperature so that the room is always 26 degrees Celsius. In winter the temperature drops and the thermostat heats more, in summer it does not heat at all because the room temperature is sufficient (Cartwright, S. 2002).

This kind of single-loop learning has worked in the past, but no longer. The organisation and its people need to change the way they think, problem solve and implement change to keep pace with the external environment. Society and the economy are changing at an ever-increasing pace, whether it is (Ractham, V. V., & Kantamara, P. 2011):

  • globalisation,
  • new technologies,
  • the environment,
  • philosophies of life,
  • the position of minorities in society, etc. Change today is a constant state of affairs and is taking place at an alarming rate. Standards, old rules, procedures, processes and assumptions may no longer work (Ractham, V. V., & Kantamara, P. 2011).

Double loop learning

We speak of double-loop learning when not only are errors uncovered and corrected, but at the same time the underlying norms and practices, embedded patterns of behaviour, the organisation's policies and its core objectives are challenged. This process involves changing company-specific competencies or routines or the organisation's core objectives. Thus, in two-round learning, problems are solved from the inside out. Single-loop learning only detects and resolves errors, double-loop learning identifies the cause of the error and changes entrenched patterns to prevent that cause (Ractham, V. V., & Kantamara, P. 2011).

An example of double-loop learning using the thermostat example is questioning the overall goal of keeping the room 23 degrees while also questioning the use of the heater and thermostat. Isn't it healthier for the human body to stay cool over the winter and not regulate the room temperature in any way? Wouldn't it be cheaper to get a wood stove instead of using gas heat (Cartwright, S. 2002)?

An example from economic practice could be a situation where a company produces a product that has the same defect over and over again. Workers have to continuously correct the defect. However, they then begin to question the entire composition of the product and consider alternative ways of creating and producing it. Once they have questioned the basic principles of how the product is made, they develop a new way of making it from scratch during which the product does not develop defects (Argyris, C. 2004).

Double loop learning conclusion

Single-loop learning is the result of instrumental means-end reflection on human action, whereas double-loop learning is the result of reflection on the norms, values and social relationships which underpin human action (Greenwood, J. 1998). Single-loop learning involves changing methods and improving efficiency in order to achieve stated goals (i.e., "doing things right"). Two-loop learning involves changing the goals themselves (i.e., "doing the right thing") (Cartwright, S. 2002).

Examples of Double loop learning

  • Double-loop learning is when people have a broader perspective and look to change the goals and objectives of their environment. For example, a company may recognize that its current processes are no longer effective and must be changed in order to achieve the desired outcomes. This type of learning involves questioning, reflecting, and analyzing the current situation to make decisions that will move the organization in a better direction.
  • Another example of double-loop learning is when a teacher evaluates their teaching methods and curriculum to improve student learning outcomes. For example, a teacher may recognize that certain learning activities are ineffective and need to be altered in order to better reach the students. This type of learning involves analyzing the current situation, reflecting on what works and what doesn't, and making changes accordingly.
  • A third example of double-loop learning is when a person acknowledges that their beliefs and values are outdated and need to be re-evaluated. For example, a person may recognize that their view of a particular culture or social group is outdated and needs to be changed. This type of learning involves questioning one's beliefs and values, reflecting on how they may have changed over time, and adjusting them accordingly.

Advantages of Double loop learning

Single-loop learning is the process of making a decision and acting on it without reflecting on the results of the action. This type of learning is efficient, but it can lead to repeating the same mistakes and can limit creative problem-solving. Double-loop learning, on the other hand, involves reflecting on the results of the decision and acting upon it. This type of learning is more thorough and encourages creativity, which can lead to better problem-solving and improved decision-making. The advantages of double-loop learning include:

  • Increased flexibility: Double-loop learning allows for more flexibility in decision-making, as it encourages reflection and reassessment of previous decisions. This allows for the incorporation of new information and the development of better solutions.
  • Improved problem-solving: The reflection and analysis of decisions through double-loop learning can help to uncover the underlying causes of a problem and provide the opportunity for more creative solutions to the problem.
  • Enhanced self-awareness: Double-loop learning helps to build self-awareness, as it involves reflecting on the results of decisions and analyzing what went wrong or right. This helps to identify and address areas of improvement.
  • Improved decision-making: By reflecting on decisions, double-loop learning encourages better decision-making as it allows for the consideration of different perspectives, which can lead to more informed decisions.

Limitations of Double loop learning

Double-loop learning is a great way to understand how decisions are made and how to make better decisions in the future. However, it has some limitations.

  • First, double-loop learning requires a lot of time and effort. This is because it requires reflection, analysis and feedback, which can be time consuming.
  • Second, double-loop learning requires a certain level of expertise to properly analyze and assess the results of the decisions. This requires having the right skills and knowledge to interpret the data and feedback.
  • Third, double-loop learning can be difficult to implement in large organizations. This is because it requires everyone in the organization to understand and use the same process, and this can be difficult to manage.
  • Fourth, double-loop learning can also be difficult to measure. This is because it is based on subjective assessment rather than hard data, so it can be hard to track progress objectively.
  • Finally, double-loop learning can be difficult to sustain in the long run. This is because it requires a lot of commitment and effort from everyone in the organization, and it can be difficult to maintain this over time.

Other approaches related to Double loop learning

  • One approach related to double-loop learning is reflective practice. This approach entails examining and reflecting on one’s own thoughts, ideas and actions. It involves reflecting on why you did what you did, and how you could have done things differently. It is an important practice for developing self-awareness, which is key to double-loop learning.
  • Another approach related to double-loop learning is problem-solving. This involves identifying and examining problems, considering possible solutions, and then assessing the effectiveness of each solution. It is a process of finding the best solution to a problem, which is an important factor for successful double-loop learning.
  • Dialogic learning is another approach related to double-loop learning. This involves engaging in dialogues with others in order to gain insight and understanding. It is an important tool for understanding one’s own actions and beliefs, as well as the actions and beliefs of others.

In summary, double-loop learning involves reflective practice, problem-solving and dialogic learning, which are all important tools for understanding one's own actions and beliefs, and for finding the best possible solutions to problems.

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Author: Ivana Miškić