One key to organizational success has to do with the capacity of people to learn — learn from mistakes as well as learn from successes. The call for organizational learning has escalated over the years ever since our culture and economy transitioned from a “we make things” focus to what is called a “knowledge society.”
Today, knowledge workers are highly valued as you know, but the real asset of a knowledge worker goes far beyond what she or he “knows”. Simply put, no one can hold all of the knowledge they need to do what they do today, much less tomorrow.
The strongest asset of a knowledge worker is her/his ability to figure things out, find information, gain knowledge, as well as transform experience into knowledge. This means three things to me.
First, the knowledge worker has to excel at investigation (using her/his networks, tools, etc.)
Second, because of the pace of change, he/she must have a high tolerance for ambiguity. Aristotle once said something like: the more you know, the more you realize how much more there is to know. Another way of saying that is: the more you know, the more you realize just how much more there is for you to learn. It is ironic perhaps, but those who are knowledgeable are likely more aware of their limitations than those who are less ambitious about gaining knowledge.
Third, to truly grow in knowledge, one has to be able to accept that they aren’t as knowledgeable as they can be or should be. In other words, you have to be self-critical, able to identify your “weak” areas, and be okay with not being as good today as you can be tomorrow.
Fundamentally, there are three categories of learning that help us grow our knowledge. These categories are: single loop learning, double loop learning and triple loop learning.
First, there is single loop learning. I heard this metaphor about single loop learning once, but can’t recall where, but it makes sense. Single loop learning is like a thermostat. You set it for a temperature. On a hot day, if your home heats up, the thermostat activates your air conditioner to bring things down to your desired temperature (the thermostat setting). If on the other hand, it’s cold outside and your home’s temperature goes below the setting, the heat kicks in. And so it goes.
In your organization, single loop learning happens all the time. A client phones in with a complaint. You deal with it, hopefully fix what happened, and the complaint is resolved. Or you discover one of your employees is off on the wrong track doing something. He didn’t understand the directions the first time, so you give the directions again and the employee gets back on track.
Single loop learning is important, but not enough. That’s where the second type of learning comes in: it is called: double loop learning.
Double loop learning does deeper and takes longer. The thermostat just regulates your equipment based on a setting. But it does not address the reasons why your home’s temperature fluctuates so much. Sure the environment changes, but do you have sufficient insulation? Is your equipment running efficiently? Are all your filters clean? Delving into the reasons why the temperature fluctuates is about double loop learning. In the client complaint and staff examples: What caused the client to complain in the first place? Was it a flaw in your service, in your communication protocols, or an error on the part of your staff? Did the staff person go off on the wrong track because they way directions are given are ambiguous or not made explicit in writing?
Double loop learning is about investigating the conditions and actions that caused the problem or issue in the first place. Often this type of learning calls for people to “get out of the box” and think imaginatively. It calls on people to understand how an alternative approach might work better. Learning experts will tell you that the capacity of an organization to be successful depends on its ability engage in this type of learning and at a quick pace.
The third type of learning is…surprise: triple loop learning. According to a resource I found on mangementhelp.org, “Triple-loop learning involves “learning how to learn” by reflecting on how we learn in the first place. In this situation, participants would reflect on how they think about the “rules,” not only on whether the rules should be changed. This form of learning helps us to understand a great deal more about ourselves and others regarding beliefs and perceptions. Triple-loop learning might be explained as double-loop learning about double-loop learning.”
An organization that is actively involved in all three types of learning is what you could call: a learning organization and such an organization provides the right environment for knowledge workers to share knowledge as well as grow it, together.