Double Loop Learning: The Organization Starts to Learn

Double Loop Learning: The Organization Starts to Learn

"Learning how to learn" will be the first order of business.

—Don Marchand and F. Horton: Infotrends, 1986

At the heart of and connecting both machine systems and living systems is the process of double-loop learning. The concept derives originally from Bateson and Ashby, and was further amplified as a metaphor for organizational models by Schon and Argyris (see 1974 in Fastpaths below). Double-loop learning is the theory of how and where individual learning meets organizational learning. The term itself derives from the "feedback loops" drawn on engineering drawings and circuit designs. Translated into the training realm, the first feedback loop refers to the learning done by a student (from feedback provided on tests), whereas the second loop refers to the learning done by the trainer (from course evaluations). Thus, as the student learns how to perform better, the trainer learns how to train better (as both a designer and deliverer of training). In fact, the trainer is practicing what might be called meta-training, learning how to learn AND train better. Learner and trainer are intertwined in an ongoing system that is continuously improving itself. The two feedback loops joining the two participants in the system are what we call double-loop learning (see Figure 6). This lies at the heart of organizational systems design.

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Figure 6: Organizational Systems Design.

Knowledge Orbits: Twin Feedback Loops

The twin feedback loops in a continuous learning organization could be diagrammed by highlighting the distinctions in the two force fields of performance, as follows:

First Loop Learning

Second Loop Learning

Student learns

Teacher learns

Feedback loop to individual

Feedback loop to organization





The twin loops include the following further distinctions:

First Loop Learning

Second Loop Learning

Feedback: Test scores

Feedback: Curriculum evaluations

Individual context

Group context

Result: Learning

Result: Learning about learning

Impact: Individual performance

Impact: Organizational performance

Whether viewed within the context of machine systems or living systems (for it exists in both), the double-loop learning process connects Loop 1 student learning with Loop 2 teacher learning—through knowledge orbits, information circulating in a performance force field. Figure 7 diagrams this process and highlights the benefits for each side within the continuous learning system.

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Figure 7: Knowledge Orbits— Connecting the Force Fields of Performance.

Extreme Learning Systems: Enabling the Vision

There's magic in the Web.

—Shakespeare, Othello, 1604

Learning ex Machina: The Web

With the advent of the Web, and what are currently called learning management systems, the architecture of continuous learning systems is slowly being put into place. For the first time in history, the vision of double loop learning—with its continually spinning feedback loops to both individual and organization—can become a reality. Such systems provide trainers with reporting tools, which can give a history and instant snapshot of the effectiveness of training initiatives. Learning management systems are to performance what the instant replay is to professional sports—providing instant feedback to support both accountability and accuracy in the training profession. This, coupled with high speed, globally accessible knowledge bases, and delivery networks, means we are entering an era of "extreme learning." But infrastructure, we must always remind ourselves, is not enough. If organizations are going to put the vision into practice, they will have to master content management, learning strategy, and strategic implementation as well—all within a systems context.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.

—John Muir, 1869



Frederick Taylor: Shop Management. Speaks to the systems side of manufacturing, and prescribes the chunking of system operations into component sub-processes for task analysis and performance improvement efforts. Taylor anticipates Deming's TQM in the 1980s as well as Michael Hammer's process reengineering in the 1990s.


Alexander Bogdanov's pioneering Tektology ("the structure of systems") appears in Russia, defining organizational form as "the totality of connections among systemic elements." Initiates the field of living or open systems design (how living organisms learn), which Bertalanffy (1950) will pursue.


George Humphrey: The Nature of Learning in its Relation to the Living System. Humphrey applied early systems theory to psychology. Influenced by Einstein's relativity theory and the search for a unified field theory, Humphrey suggests that psychological experience equates to a four-dimensional space-time continuum in which learning depends more on the time dimension, while perception rests on the spatial dimension.


Arthur Lovejoy: The Great Chain of Being, the classic study of systems thinking from Plato through Aquinas to the Romantics.


W. Ross Ashby: "Principles of the Self-Organizing Dynamic System" appears in the Journal of General Psychology. Anticipates his book (see 1952).


Norbert Wiener: Cybernetics: Or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Along with Ashby's book (1952), one of the two founding texts of modern systems thinking.


Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901–1972): "Theory of Open Systems in Physics and Biology" in Science magazine. Bertalanffy, a transplanted Austrian biologist who had been influenced by the Viennese Gestalt school of psychology (a "systems" view of psychology) and had already published in German in the 1920s, becomes a leader in the field of "open" living systems. Such "living" or "organic" systems (stemming from the thought of Aristotle and Goethe) were opposed to the architectural "machine" systems of Wiener (1948) and Ashby (1952), which were "closed" systems. These two opposing types of systems thinking would continue at odds down through the latter half of the twentieth century, as witnessed by MIT's Senge (captive to the machines systems vision of Forrester) versus Capra and Wheatley (promoting the organic view of organizations). In the twenty-first century, the two theories are now coalescing.


W. Ross Ashby: Design for a Brain. British theorist, initiates "machine" view of systems, which will culminate in Forrester's and MIT's view of systems. Ashby, along with Wiener, develops the notion of feedback and of single and double-loop learning (the latter including learning about learning). Together with Wiener (1948) Ashby is one of the two founders of modern systems thinking. In 1956 he publishes An Introduction to Cybernetics.


International Society for the System Sciences is founded (ISSS). Its motto is a definition of system: "Elements working together as a whole." See


Jay Forrester, MIT professor of machine systems theory, publishes Industrial Dynamics.


Robert Gagne edits anthology Psychological Principles in System Development, which includes key chapter by Meredith Crawford on systems thinking in instructional design— including her proto-outline of an ADDIE model for instructional design (developed during the 1950s by the U.S. military). The method would be popularized in 1975 in a series of white papers.


Thomas Kuhn: Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Its key concept of paradigm (mental model), with its example of the revolutionary shift in thinking from Aristotle to Newton, is directly related to systems thinking. (See Paradigm)


Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe: The Rational Manager: A Systematic Approach to Problem Solving and Decision Making. Classic performance improvement model built on problem solving.


Ludwig von Bertalanffy: General Systems Theory (a collection of essays from the 1930s onwards). Bertalanffy's "general" systems theory equates to "open" or "living" systems theory.


George Klir (ed.): Trends in General Systems Theory. Papers on the development of systems thinking across several disciplines.


Paul Friesen: Designing Instruction: A Systems Approach Using Programmed Instruction. Well-written summary of PI system.


Gregory Bateson: Steps to an Ecology of Mind, early precursor to learning systems theory. Formulates a theory of deutero-learning or "learning how to learn," which is very close to Ashby's earlier double-loop learning theory (1952): While the individual learns, the organization learns HOW to learn.


William Gray and Nicholas Rizzo (eds.): Unity Through Diversity: A Festschrift for Ludwig von Bertalanffy.


Fred Emery and Eric Trist: Toward a Social Ecology. Since the 1950s these two British experts, building on Bertalanffy's work on open systems, had been propounding a practical dynamic systems view of organizational development. Stressed the socio-technical side of organizational design as opposed to scientific Taylorism (see Fastpaths 1987, Weisbord).


Donald Schon and Chris Argyris: Theory in Practice. Formulate theory of double loop learning with application to organizations, based on the theories of Wiener and Ashby.


ADDIE is born, the system employed by instructional designers. Instructional Systems Design (ISD) is officially launched as a model by Florida State University (and simultaneously by the U.S. military)


Robert Lilienfeld: The Rise of Systems Theory. Good summary of movement.


James Miller: Living Systems. Exhaustive study of the topic (of organic, open systems).


Walter Dick and Lou Carey: The Systematic Design of Instruction. Still an important textbook in the field.


Douglas Hofstadter: Goedel, Escher, Bach. Focuses on the feedback loops in systems.


Robert Tannenbaum et al.: Human Systems Development: New Perspectives on People and Organizations.


Marvin Weisbord: Productive Workplaces.


Robert Wright: Three Scientists and their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information. (See Knowledge Management.)


Charles Handy: The Age of Unreason (on the learning organization).


Peter Senge: The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.


Richard Pascale: Managing on the Edge: How the Smartest Companies Use Conflict to Stay Ahead. Chapter on "the two faces of learning" distinguishes little "l" learning (maximization) from Big "L" Learning (metamization).


George Richardson: Feedback Thought in Social Science and Systems Theory. A superb study of systems thinking across multiple disciplines.


William Rothwell and H. Kazanas: Mastering the Instructional Design Process: A Systematic Approach. Excellent summary of instructional design processes and theories. One of the best.


Margaret Wheatley: Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. An "organic" systems view of organizations.


Chris Argyris and Donald Schon. Organizational Learning II.


Fritjof Capra: The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Good summary of the history of organic systems thinking (as well as of Ashby and Wiener's machine systems models).


Stephen Haines: Systems Thinking and Learning. A good summary of living systems theory as applied to organizations.

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"Living systems" and "machine systems" are two major models of systems thinking.

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My mother, whose views on education were remarkably strict, brought me up to be extremely short-sighted; it is part of her system.

—Heroine in Oscar Wilde's
The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895

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