Single- and double-loop learning

Single-loop and double-loop learning


In this blog entry I will discuss the theory of single- and double-loop learning presented by C. Argyris. Furthermore I will explain in what ways the understanding of those learning processes can lead to better organizational outcomes.

In 1978 C. Argyris developed a model that describes two ways that one can learn from one’s experiences, single- and double-loop learning. This model was made to understand how people learn within organizations. Moreover, it can support group development processes, global teamwork as well as intercultural learning.

Single-loop learning is the easiest and most common learning style. It involves using feedback to make continuous adjustments and adaptations, in order to maintain a high performance standard. For example, if a certain action yields results that are different to what one expected, through single-loop learning, one will observe the results and automatically take in feedback, in order to apply a different approach. It is in a sense increasing efficiency by learning out of experience. The more one does something the better one gets at it. This can translate to cost savings, increased revenue and profitability amongst others in a corporate setting.

Double-loop learning is a more complex way of processing information and involves a more sophisticated way of engaging with an experience. It is the ability to challenge and redefine the assumptions underlying performance standards to improve performance (Argyris, 1978).

Argryris used the analogy of a thermostat to controlling the room temperature to explain the difference between both types of learning. In single-loop learning the thermostat will find the optimal way to heat or cool the room to a specific temperature. Double-loop learning however will challenge and redefine the controlling variables by questioning whether the specified temperature is suitable for the people in the room. I find this analogy very applicable to Singapore where I experienced that stores, as well as the university are effective in cooling entire buildings. However, in most cases these buildings are too cold. Through single-loop learning Singaporeans managed to efficiently cool there buildings, but second-loop learning is needed to redefine the underlying performance standards. Intercultural interactions are another useful application of this theory that I experienced first hand on my exchange at the NUS. Our values and beliefs are deeply rooted within our cultural background. Moreover, so are the assumptions we make about what strategies will be successful in a given situation. When being confronted with an intercultural misunderstanding, it is natural to react with one’s default behaviour. In case this is not effective, one will reassess one’s strategythrough single-loop learning, until one finds a solution that works. This may be enough in many environments. In intercultural behaviours however, this strategy has higher chances of being unsuccessful. These situations require a deeper assessment of the situation and strategy. To have a constructive outcome, one has to modify and adapt some of one’s own goals and beliefs to create an attitude that is open to many cultural values and application methods (Henderson, 2013).

Both single-loop as well as double-loop learning can be effective in the right situation. Single-loop learning is all about increasing efficiency and learning by doing. Double loop on the other hand looks at the big picture and tries to steer efforts in the right direction. Currently the world of business is dominated by single-loop learning and double-loop learning is mostly applied after a crisis(McLucas, 2003). It is important however one understands double-loop learning and applies it regularly to make sure that one’s effort is put to optimal use.




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Argyris, C. (1978). Organizational Learning.

Henderson, S. (2013). Evaluating Double Loop Learning of Cultural Competencies.

McLucas, A. C. (2003). Decision Making: Risk Management, Systems Thinking and Situation Awareness. Argos Press.











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