What is Organizational Learning?
Chris Argyris and Donald Schön (1978) defined organizational learning (OL) as: “the detection and correction of error”. Fiol and Lyles later define learning as “the process of improving actions through better knowledge and understanding” (1985). Dodgson describes Organizational Learning as: The way firms build, supplement, and organize knowledge and routines around their activities and within their cultures and adapt and develop organizational efficiency by improving the use of the broad skills of their workforces. (1993). Huber states that learning occurs in an organization “if through its processing of information, the range of its [organization’s] potential behaviours is changed” (1991).
A “learning organization” is a firm that purposefully constructs structures and strategies, to enhance and maximize Organizational Learning (Dodgson, 1993). The concept of a learning organization has become popular since organizations want to be more adaptable to change. Learning is a dynamic concept and it emphasizes the continually changing nature of organizations. The focus is gradually shifting from individual learning to organizational learning. Learning is essential for the growth of individuals; it is equally important for organizations. Since individuals form the bulk of the organization, they must establish the necessary forms and processes to enable organizational learning in order to facilitate change.
OL is more than the sum of the parts of individual learning (Dodgson, 1993; Fiol & Lyles, 1985). An organization does not lose out on its learning abilities when members leave the organization. Organizational learning contributes to organizational memory. Thus, learning systems not only influence immediate members, but also future members, due to the accumulation of histories, experiences, norms, and stories. Creating a learning organization is only half the solution to a challenging problem (Prahalad & Hamel, 1994). Equally important is the creation of an unlearning organization which essentially means that the organization must forget some of its past. Thus, learning occurs amidst such conflicting factors (Dodgson, 1993).
Three types of organizational learning (Argyris and Schön)
Single-loop learning. This occurs when errors are detected and corrected and firms continue with their present policies and goals. According to Dodgson (1993), Single-loop learning can be equated to activities that add to the knowledge-base or firm-specific competences or routines without altering the fundamental nature of the organization’s activities. Single-loop learning has also been referred to as “Lower-Level Learning” by Fiol and Lyles (1985), “Adaptive Learning” or “Coping” by Senge (1990), and “Non Strategic Learning” by Mason (’93).
Double-loop learning. This occurs when, in addition to detection and correction of errors, the organization questions and modifies its existing norms, procedures, policies, and objectives. Double-loop learning involves changing the organization’s knowledge-base or firm-specific competences or routines (Dodgson, 1993). Double-loop learning is also called “Higher-Level Learning” by Fiol and Lyles (1985), “Generative Learning” or “Learning to Expand an Organization’s Capabilities” by Senge (1990), and “Strategic Learning” by Mason (1993). Strategic learning is defined as “the process by which an organization makes sense of its environment in ways that broaden the range of objectives it can pursue or the range of resources and actions available to it for processing these objectives.” (Mason, 1993:843)
Triple-loop learning. This occurs when organizations learn how to carry out Single-loop learning and Double-loop learning. The first two forms of learning will not occur if the organizations are not aware that learning must occur. Being aware of ignorance motivates learning (Nevis et al., 1995). This means identifying the learning orientations or styles, and the processes and structures (facilitating factors) required to promote learning. Nevis et al., (1995) identify seven different learning styles and ten different facilitating factors that influence learning. For example, one of the facilitating factors is identifying the performance gap between targeted outcomes and actual performance. This awareness makes the organization recognize that learning needs to occur, and that the appropriate environment and processes need to be created. This also means recognizing the fact that lengthy periods of positive feedback or good communication can block learning (Argyris, 1994).
Double-loop learning and Triple-loop learning are concerned with the why and how to change the organization, while Single-loop learning is concerned with accepting change without questioning underlying assumptions and core beliefs. Dodgson states that the type of Organizational Learning also depends on where in the organization the organizational learning occurs. Thus, learning can occur in different functions of the organization such as research, development, design, engineering, manufacturing, marketing, administration, and sales.