Organizational learning

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  • “Organizational learning is the process by which an organization gains new knowledge about its environment, goals, and processes. Herbert Simon (1997) posits three ways in which organizations learn: (1) individuals within the organization learn some new fact or procedure, (2) the organization ingests outsiders with knowledge not already in the organization, and (3) the organization incorporates new knowledge into its files and computer systems. As broader organizations, governments and policy-making communities also learn.” (Smith)

See also: change management, knowledge management, expansive learning, etc.

Single loop vs. double loop learning

Theories on action

Argyris and Schoen's (1974) theories on action describe two aspects that govern individual actions that affect organizational learning.

  • Espoused theory: words used to express what we and what we wish others to understand by our actions
  • Theories-in-use: the implicit mental models and theories we actually use

According to Argyris and Schoen (1974) in organizational learning and practice individuals' mental models regarding what to do in a given situation guide their actions rather than the theories they espouse regarding how they should act.

  • “Argyris (1992) distinguishes between two kinds of organizational learning: single-loop and double-loop learning. Single-loop learning occurs when a mismatch between the intended and actual outcomes of an organizational activity occurs and is corrected without questioning the assumptions or values that gave rise to the actions and their expected outcome.” (Smith)
  • “Double-loop learning occurs when the underlying assumptions or values are questioned by the organization” (Smith)

Single-loop learning is the putting to practice of the accepted principles and strategies (espoused theories) of the organization. Once this fails, double-loop learning is activated. Double-loop learning, by questioning the theories-in-use of an organization, can help an organization adapt and evolve and learn from the situation. (Smith, 2005)

Technical vs. social learning

Two paradigms on the nature and processes involved in organizational learning prevail.

  • The technical perspective sees organizational learning as the “about the effective processing, interpretation of, and response to, information both inside and outside the organization. This information may be quantitative or qualitative, but is generally explicit and in the public domain” (Easterby-Smith and Araujo 1999, p. 3-5 in Smith 2001)
  • The social perspective sees organizational learning as “the way people make sense of their experiences at work... learning is something that can emerge from social interactions, normally in the natural work setting. In the case of explicit information it involves a joint process of making sense of data… The more tacit and ‘embodied’ forms of learning involve situated practices, observation and emulation of skilled practitioners and socialization into a community of practice.” (Easterby-Smith and Araujo 1999, p. 3-5 in Smith 2001)



  • Argyris, C.; Schön, D. (1978). Organizational Learning: A theory of action perspective. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley. ISBN 0201001748
  • Argyris, C. (1992). On Organizational Learning. Cambridge, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Argyris, C. (1993). Beware of Skilled Incompetence, R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 10, HTML reprint.
  • Hovland, Ingie, (2003) Knowledge Management and Organisational Learning: An International Development Perspective. An Annotated Bibliography, Working Paper 224,Overseas Development Institute, PDF
  • Nonaka, I.; Takeuchi, H. (1995). The Knowledge Creating Company. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195092694
  • Nonaka, I. and von Krogh, G. (2009). Perspective - tacit knowledge and knowledge conversion: Controversy and advancement in organizational knowledge creation theory. Organization Science, 20(3), pp. 635-652. .PDF
  • Simon, H. A. (1997). Administrative Behavior, Fourth Edition. New York, NY: The Free Press.
  • Smith, Keith, W. () Organization learning, PDF Preprint for Encyclopedia of Governance, Marc Bevir, ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sagex).
  • Smith, M. K. (2001). Donald Schön: learning, reflection and change', the encyclopedia of informal education, [1]
  • Smith, M. K. (2001). Learning in organizations. The encyclopedia of informal education. [2]