Argyris's contribution to research on organisational learning, including the concepts of single and double-loop learning, explores the relationship between personality and the organisation, and suggests how these relations can best be made mutually beneficial.
At first glance, Chris Argyris's career looks more like that of a classical academic than that of a management guru. Certainly he has spent much of his working life in one or other of America's leading academic institutions - for most of the 1950s and 1960s he was at Yale, and since then he has been at Harvard - but Argyris is no stuffy academic. His passionate interest in management and his work on organisational problems make him one of the most respected management thinkers of our time. He is also one of a small, exclusive band of cross-over management experts: people who are as much at home in the earthy world of factory and boardroom as they are in the rarefied atmosphere of academia.
Argyris is firstly a behavioural scientist, and he has earned his place in the forefront of that discipline with a career devoted to understanding how organisations behave and how managers learn. His style is rather special. He is anxious not to compartmentalise his work and gives equal weight to research, teaching and consulting: three things he sees as interrelated and supportive of one another.
Life and career
Chris Argyris was born in 1923 and at an early age developed an interest in how people learn: 'It sounds corny, but I love learning for its own sake' is how he explains it. After service in the Second World War he returned home and, like so many young men at that time, felt a strong determination to help create a better world. Fortunately for us, he chose to direct his interest in education towards the needs of organisations and the individuals working in them. His great energy and formidable academic qualifications - a Baccalaureate in psychology, a Masters in economics and a Doctorate in organisation behaviour - equipped him perfectly for the task and by the early 1950s he was teaching and carrying out research at Yale University.
By the mid 1960s he was Professor of Industrial Administration at Yale and in 1968 he moved to the Harvard Business School where in 1971 he became the James Bryant Conant Professor of Education and Organization Behaviour, a position he still holds.
His consulting work has been, and continues to be, wide-ranging and highly influential. Clients have included IBM, DuPont and Shell, along with the US State Department, other US government bodies and several overseas governments.
A staunch supporter of job enrichment, Argyris has always challenged the extremes of Taylorism, especially the suggestion that one hires a hand, rather than a whole person. Underlying virtually all his thinking is a fundamental belief in people, and he tirelessly reminds us of the mutual benefit that comes when organisations assist and encourage individuals to develop their full potential. He believes that each person already has the psychological energy that provides motivation. The challenge, he suggests, is not to find ways of artificially motivating people; it is to recognise and channel this innate energy.
Chris Argyris was an early adopter of the ground-breaking T-group experiments in the 1960s. T-group training is a phrase used to describe a number of similar training methods whose purpose is to increase the trainee's skills in working with other people - and a considerable proportion of time on such a training course is spent in discussing trainees' relationships with each other. Along with many others, Argyris was elated by the success of T-groups, with their power to unfreeze the rigid, authoritarian behaviour of so many managers and to generate a feeling of liberation and excitement. However, for most people these positive effects were short-lived. Once back in the turmoil of their organisation life, mixing again with those who had not been trained, the resolution and ideas were quickly forgotten and people reverted to their old ways of doing things.
Espoused theories and theories-in-use
Argyris coined the term espoused theory for what people profess to believe, and theories-in-use for the theory they actually use when they take action in the real world. After much research, Argyris concluded that no matter how genuinely we believe in some approach to a situation, at the first sign of threat, embarrassment or loss of face, most of us fall back on a deep-rooted, master programme of behaviour. This behaviour, which is characterised by a powerful defensive attitude and a tendency to blame others whilst struggling to maintain control and save face, is surprisingly consistent across different cultures and classes.
Not only do people slip easily into defensive routines, they are totally unaware they are doing so. It is a reflex action, an automatic response to any threat or challenge. Argyris argued that the organisation can inhibit learning because it imposes - perhaps unconsciously - rules over the ways in which people relate to each other. Argyris says that problem-solving and decision-making can be dominated by an almost unconscious drive to save face, protect others, or maintain the status quo. What concerns Argyris most about this behaviour is that it blocks any opportunity people have to learn from experience and provides an all too effective strategy for avoiding change.
Single-loop and double-loop learning
Concern at failure to learn from experience has led Argyris to the theory for which he is best known: the concept of single- and double-loop learning. Developed in collaboration with Donald Schön, and described in their book Organisational learning published in 1978, the theory stresses the importance of human reasoning as a basis for decisions and action.
Their work also produced the idea of a learning organisation. An organisation, Argyris and Schön suggest, differs from a mob by having procedures for making collective decisions; by delegating authority to individuals to act for the collectivity; and by setting out boundaries and rules. For all this activity, norms and strategies are developed, but in a healthy organisation these are constantly being tested and challenged as people interact and learn new ideas. The constant learning of people within an organisation, when reflected in the way the organisation itself changes and develops, can reasonably be described as organisational learning - hence the term learning organisation.
The two types of learning - single-loop and double-loop - refer to the way people respond to changes in their environment. Single-loop learning occurs when a manager responds with a simple application of the rules approach to a problem. For example: Problem - budgets are being exceeded. Solution: cut costs. Argyris uses a thermostat as an analogy for single-loop learning; the thermostat switches the heating on and off in response to temperature changes.
Double-loop learning goes beyond this simple feedback response and questions the assumptions on which the response is based. In the thermostat model the double-loop approach would be to question the validity of the selected temperature. In the example involving exceeded budgets, the double-loop approach would be to check the appropriateness of the budget figure and the basis on which it was calculated.
Speaking to a conference in 1982, Argyris described the theory thus:
'Learning can be defined as occurring under two conditions. First, learning occurs when an organisation achieves what it intended; that is, there is a match between its design for action and the actual outcome. Second, learning occurs when a mismatch between intention and outcome is identified and corrected; that is, a mismatch is turned into a match.... Single-loop learning occurs when matches are created, or when mismatches are corrected by changing actions. Double-loop learning occurs when mismatches are corrected by first examining and altering the governing variables and then the actions'.
His work is rarely a comfort to managers. Argyris raises profound questions about how we run organisations and frequently throws into doubt much of what is widely accepted to be good practice. And when he does outline solutions they are never simple or easy. What he offers, and what makes his contribution to management thinking so important, is a profound and detailed exploration of the fundamental principles of organisational behaviour and human interaction in the workplace. He pulls no punches when showing us how hard we will have to work, and how much we will have to change if we are to achieve our full potential; but he is equally convincing when describing the rewards we will receive for our efforts.
In recent years Argyris has been looking at leadership and, after considerable research, he claims the massive literature on this overworked subject has failed to produce anything practical. Such strong views should make his books compelling reading.
Argyris is also taking a lively interest in IT, something he feels will play a key role in learning within organisations. He says: 'In the past the one-way, top-down approach gained strength from the fact that a lot of behaviour is not transparent. IT makes transactions transparent so that behaviour is no longer hidden. It creates fundamental truths where none previously existed.'
In his latest book, Organizational traps, published in April 2010, Argyris returns to a key theme of his celebrated work: how organizations learn - or not. He explores the traps that organisations fall into, and links them to issues of leadership, culture and organisational design. It challenges leaders to re-think their approach in order to avoid making the same mistakes, something all managers and leaders may want to read and think about.
We would like to thank Chris Argyris for reviewing and contributing to this article in summer 2010.
Key works by Chris Argyris
The following are all available from The British Library:
Personality and organization. New York: Harper and Row, 1957
Understanding organizational behavior. London: Tavistock, 1960
Integrating the individual and the organization. New York: Wiley, 1964
Theory in practice. (With Donald Schön). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1974
Increasing leadership effectiveness. New York: Wiley, 1976
Organizational learning.(With Donald Schön). Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1978
Reasoning, learning and action. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1982
Action science. (With Robert Putnam and Diana McLain Smith). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985
Overcoming organizational defenses. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1990
Knowledge for action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993
On organizational learning. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993
Organizational learning II. (With Donald Schön). 2nd ed. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1996
Flawed advice and the management trap. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999
Reasons and rationalizations.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004
Learning in organizations. Chapter in Cummings, T. Handbook of organization development. London: Sage, 2008
Organizational traps: leadership, culture, organizational design. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010
Teaching smart people how to learn. Harvard Business Review, 69 (3) 1991, pp. 99 -109
Education for leading learning. Organizational Dynamics, Winter 1993, pp. 5-17
Good communication that blocks learning. Harvard Business Review, Jul-Aug 1994, pp. 77-85
Works by others
Entry about Chris Argyris in The Blackwell encyclopedia of management. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005
Noonan, W. Discussing the undiscussable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007. Includes foreword by Chris Argyris and chapter on his work.
Quay, R. On leadership and organizational theory: a checklist of works of Chris Argyris, Fred. E. Fiedler and Victor H. Vroom. Monticello, Ill.: Vance Bibliographies, 1980.
Truelove, S. Influential thinkers on training. Stockport: Institute of Training and Occupational Learning, 2003.
Wood, J. and Wood. M. eds. Chris Argyris: critical evaluations in business and management. London: Routledge, 2009. Brings together in one volume the most influential critical writing on Argyris.
Fulmer, R. and Keys, J. A conversation with Chris Argyris the father of organizational learning. Organizational Dynamics, 27 (2) 1998, pp. 21-32
Retrospective organizational learning: a theory of action perspective. Academy of Management Executive, May 2003, 17 (2) pp. 37-55. Collection of articles looking at the book Organizational learning by Argyris and Schön. An interview with Chris Argyris discusses the context of the book and explores the authors' ideas and intentions. Peter Senge examines the book's influence on practitioners and an academic commentary by Mark Easterby-Smith and Marjorie Lyles considers the book's key ideas and academic impact.