Module MT090

Organizational Learning


Module author

Bertrand Moingeon

HEC Paris

Learning objectives

After you studied this module, you will be able to:

  • Define organizational learning according to Argyris.
  • Explain what the theory is about and what it tries to explain.
  • Discuss why it is relevant to know about organizational learning in today's economic environment and management practice.
Workload units 1
Reading extract Organizational Learning


Why Open School of Management believes that knowing the concept of organizational learning is helpful

Organizational learning is, broadly defined, a subsection of organizational theory that concerns itself with the study of how organizations learn and adapt. Learning, it is maintained, is a function of an adaptive organization that allows that organization to react to changes in it's environment, much like an animal would be able to do. The purpose in studying organizational learning, then, is to help organizations understand how they can adapt to environmental change, and what things it needs to pay attention to when seeking to adapt.

Argyris and Schön were the first to really study organizational learning. In 1978 they wrote Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective, which built on Bateson's ideas of first and second order learning. Argrys and Schon focused on double-loop learning; the idea that organizations could examine and critique the values and assumptions of individuals within the group that led to an initial action. That analysis and criticism would then produce a sort of Hegelian synthesis that would combine new data with old assumptions to produce new understanding of the topic being studied. When an organization learns in this way, it is learning about learning, which Argyris and Schön called double-loop learning. Double-loop learning also involves wholesale change in how an organization works; as Argyris and Schön saw it, reflection on process should help identify problems. When these problems are detected and corrected so that the current systems continue, or the current objective remains in place, then that is considered single loop learning. This is similar to a switch that only knows to turn something on or off based on an external input, like temperature or light level. Double loop learning takes place when the problem is detected and corrected by modifying the current objective or altering the systems currently in place. Double loop learning involves much more institutional change because it deals with altering organizational perceptions and established systems and paradigms.

To be truly considered a learning organization, it is necessary for a group to not only have members who are educated, or who learn. Continued employee training is essential for continued corporate success, after all. A learning organization is one that actively facilitates and encourages employee improvement, and is constantly evaluating how that employee learning (single-loop learning) is conducted. Single-loop learning, as defined by Argyris and Schön, happens when the existing structures for learning are taken for granted; in other words, there is no need to change anything, because things "work fine" the way they are. Any reflection that is done is done with the purpose of making the existing structure work better. Double-loop learning, which is far more desirable in this paradigm, makes no such assumptions. Reflection here is focused on making the existing structures work better, and questions the systems underlying the learning themselves. It is less "What can I do better?" and more "How can these systems work better?"

These theories of organizational learning are very important for modern managers to learn and understand. Educational theory (especially as posited by Howard Gardner) shows us that everyone learns differently. Modern school systems are very conscious of this, and strive to teach to "multiple intelligences" as much as possible in the confines of a classroom. Organizations that are seeking to effectively educate their employees need to recognize this fact as well, and never assume that if someone doesn't understand material that they are simply incapable of doing the work. With more and more untrained (but highly intelligent) employees entering the workforce, it is important for organizations to constantly evaluate their training practices and make sure that the systems they have in place are working for all employees.

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


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