Levels of Organizational Learning: Organizational learning may occur at several levels:

  • Individual-level: focus on the basic tool and communications mastery (skillfulness)
  • Team level: focus on cross-functional issues, quality of relationships, and team dynamics
  • Organizational level: focus on infrastructures for training, promotion, diagnosis, goal setting, and mobilization
  • Societal level: focus on networking and benchmarking.

Chris Argyris and Doland Schon identified two levels of organizational learning. These are; single-loop learning and double-loop learning. Swieringa and Wierdsma developed the third level of organizational learning, which they termed as third-loop learning.

Single-loop learning, in fact, represents lower-level learning, and double-loop learning and third-loop learning represent higher-level learning.

Single -Loop Learning: Single-loop learning is incremental learning that changes strategies of action in ways but the values (standards or product quality) remain unchanged. Single-loop learning occurs when errors are detected and corrected without modifying organizations’ existing policies, goals, or assumptions. Example: Quality control inspectors who identity a defective product may convey that information to production engineers who, in turn, may change product specifications and production methods to correct the defect.

In single-loop learning, people, organizations, or groups change their actions according to the difference between expected and reached outcomes. Single-loop learning occurs at the operative level.

Double-Loop Learning: By double-loop learning, we mean learning that results in a change in the values of theory-in-use, as well as in its strategies and assumptions. Double-loop learning occurs when errors are detected and corrected such that an organization’s existing policies, goals, and/or assumptions are called into question and challenged.

Double-loop learning occurs when the diagnosis and intervention require changes in underlying policies, assumptions, and goals, and then new actions follow. Double-loop learning occurs at the tactical level.

Triple-Loop Learning: Triple-loop learning focuses on transforming organizational members by helping them learn how to learn. That is, triple-loop learning focuses on the ability to effectively utilize single- and double-loop learning.

Ideally, triple-loop learning links all of the local learning units into a unified learning organization. Triple-loop learning resides at a higher level of abstraction (thought); it develops the organization’s ability to learn about learning.

In summary, while single-loop learning is all about correcting errors without questioning underlying assumptions and double-loop learning detect errors, questions underlying assumptions behind the actions and behavior, and also learns from these mistakes, triple-loop learning is operating at a higher level; it develops the organization’s ability to learn about learning.