Single-loop learning is part of a broader concept of organizational learning theory developed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schon in the 1970s, and later expanded by several other organizational thinkers, to explain the types of learning that take place in organizations. In order to fully understand the concept of single-loop learning, it is important to learn the necessary terms for defining the context of organizational theory and contrasting single-loop learning with other types of learning, such as double-loop and triple-loop learning.
Single-loop learning is the most basic type of learning and behavioral change that can take place within a system and is also described as incremental learning. Single-loop learning describes the type of learning that takes place when the objective is to fix problems within the present organizational structure so that the system will function better, and does not attempt to alter the structure of the system.
Double-loop learning, also known as reframing, contrasts with single-loop learning by questioning the purpose and function of work being done within an organization and does not take existing organizational structures for granted. Double-loop learning is concerned with understanding the basis for the tasks being completed, rather than a more efficient process for completing them.
Triple-loop learning is the third type of learning that is compared with single-loop and double-loop learning. Also known as transformational learning, triple-loop learning involves the questioning not just of work processes and the basis for tasks within an organization, but also the reflexive examination of the individual's attitudes and point of view.
Organizational learning (OL) is the broader field of study in which single-loop learning was developed. OL has been defined in multiple ways over the past several decades by organizational theorists. The most basic definition of organizational learning is the process of finding and correcting errors in organizations, but organizational learning also has come to include other processes for understanding the culture and behaviors of organizations.
Theory of action
Argyris formulated single-loop and other learning theories based on his theory of action, which claims that individuals have a theory or mental map for the actions they perform. These theories are enacted in an unspoken way through theories-in-use, or in a verbalized way that is used to explain actions to others through espoused theories.
Many organizations that are examining organizational learning and single-loop learning are doing so because they are involved in a process of change management. Change management is the process that companies and other organizations go through when attempting to alter the organizational culture and status quo of operating. It involves identifying problems and problem-solving techniques.