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Theory of action: How organisations learn (Part 6 in a series)

For the theory of action to function we need to step back and view the organisation to which we are applying it as a whole. We need to ensure that each member of staff is continually engaged in attempting to know the organisation, and to know themselves in the context of it.

Organisational learnin

Chris Argyris and Donald Schön painted a picture of an organisation in which the people involved are continually working to understand what is required of them, (the organisation’s espoused theory) and adjusting their own actions to meet these requirements, (their theory-in-use.) Their understanding of what the organisation requires is often incomplete, as is their capacity to meet these demands.  Consequently, the performance of the organisation, which is an aggregate of theory-in-use and understanding of espoused theory, is in a state of flux as people seek to know their place within it and adjust their theory-in-use accordingly.

With these two theories and single and double-loop learning, we can see how Chris Argyris and Donald Schön connect up the individual world of the worker and practitioner with the world of the organisation.  Their approach made them focus on individual and group interactions rather than upon systems and structures.  They determined that for the organisation to learn, it has to work together.  This happened when staff took responsibility for others’ learning and they made discoveries, interventions and evaluations together.  They called t staff who took up this role ‘learning agents’.

To facilitate this process there must not only be a clear espoused theory but also a public representation of organisational theory-in-use to which individuals can refer. This is the function of organisational maps. These are the shared descriptions of the organisation which individuals jointly construct and use to guide their own actions.  By looking at the way that these are jointly constructed it is possible to describe how the organisations learnt. (Argyris and Schön 1978: 19).  Without these collective actions, ‘the individual will have learned but the organisation will not have done so’ (op. cit.).

Single-loop learning organisations

As we describe in the 4th post in this series, each person in the organisation will be adopting either single or double-loop learning to determine the actions they make to meet the espoused theory of the organisation.  If they use single loop learning then:

  • The feedback they use will be based on assumptions rather than facts
  • They are likely to reinforce routines rather than alter them to improve the outcome
  • They will inhibit the identification of error.

Thus, if everybody in the organisation adopts single loop learning to construct their theory-in-use then the organisation’s learning will be characterised by ‘defensiveness, self-fulfilling prophecies, self-fuelling processes, and escalating error’ (Argyris 1982: 8).   The collective outcome of this could be that the organisation actively but unintentionally works against its espoused theory. (Edmondson and Moingeon 1999:161)

Double-loop learning organisations

On the other hand, if the organisation encourages double-loop learning then those in the organisation:

  • Will use evidence-based feedback
  • Make changes to assumptions and routines
  • Adopt a risk-based analysis approach to select which actions to take.

The result will be that the collective outcome of the individuals’ theory-in-use is more likely to match the organisation’s espoused theory.

Finally, in order to  transform an organisation from single loop to double-loop learning, an interventionist strategy is required.  There are six stages to this strategy (Argyris and Schön 1978: 220-1)

This process entails looking for the maximum participation of clients, minimizing the risks of candid participation, starting where people want to begin (often with instrumental problems), and designing methods so that they value rationality and honesty.

This concludes our description of Argyris and his colleagues’ work.  We realise that this is a summary and our own interpretation, which is often secondhand. However, we hope it has provided you with a clear outline of their work and has stimulated your own reflections on how and the degree to which your school learns.

In the final post in this series we set the work in an educational context.

Take care, George



Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

Argyris, C. (1982) Reasoning, learning, and action: Individual and organizational, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Edmondson, A. and Moingeon, B. (1999) ‘Learning, trust and organizational change’ in M. Easterby-Smith, L. Araujo and J. Burgoyne (eds.) Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization, London: Sage.

Smith, M. K. (2001, 2013). ‘Chris Argyris: theories of action, double-loop learning and organizational learning’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/chris-argyris-theories-of-action-double-loop-learning-and-organizational-learning/. Retrieved: insert date]

© Mark K. Smith2001, 2013  Last Updated on October 18, 2019 by infed.org

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