Understanding Your Organization

Learning in organizations is about the detection and correction of error and dealing with criticism.  A “learning organization” would likely be more conducive to whistleblowing and less conducive to reprisals.  How does your organization respond in the face of error or criticism?  Does it engage in defensive routines or is it open and reflective?  When an organization’s culture is open to reflective, productive, ongoing learning and actively seeks to ensure there is congruence between what the organization's members say they do (espoused theories) and what they do (theories-in-use), whistleblowing and whistleblowers in theory, should be normalized allowing problems to be raised and solved internally.

An organization’s learning system is made up of both organizational structures and the organization’s behavioural world (or culture) that either inhibits (O I Learning System) or facilitates (O II Learning System) organizational inquiry and learning.  The learning system in turn reinforces and is reinforced by the "theories-in-use" of the individuals working in the system.  The following is a summary of the characteristics of the two types of learning systems and the theories-in-use in each and can be used as a tool for assessment.


Organizational Learning System

Governing Characteristics and Values of Model I and Model II – Theories in Use  in a Learning System

Theories-in-Use – Model I

Characteristics inhibiting change in Learning System (Single loop learning only)

Theories-In-Use – Model II

Characteristics facilitating shift to more reflective Learning System (Single and double loop learning flourish)

  • linked to defensive reasoning especially when issues are embarrassing or threatening.
  • linked to valid information, free and informed choice and internal commitment.
  • this sets up anti-learning consequences for double loop learning called primary inhibitory loops (inhibits face to face interactions).
  • behavioral world shares power, task definition and control, face-saving actions resisted (as defensive and anti-learning).
  • leads to defensive, dysfunctional responses triggered and reinforced by “conditions for error” such as: vagueness, ambiguity, untestability, scattered information, information withheld, undiscussability, uncertainty, inconsistency/incompatibility.
  • leads to lessening of competition to make decisions for others, to one-up others, or to outshine others for purposes of self-gratification.  Contributions of each member of group maximized.


  • further leads to anxiety, mistrust, uneasiness, and increased interpersonal conflict.
  • processes and decisions open to scrutiny by those expected to use them.
  • governing values are:  unilateral goal setting and actions, maximize winning and minimize losing, minimize expressing negative feelings.
  • evaluations and attributions are minimized unless accompanied by usable data and the reasoning behind them.
  • the above leads to secondary inhibitory loops (inhibits interactions between groups) and organizational defensive routines- to protect from embarrassment and prevent identifying causes.
  • the above should lead to reduction in defensive responses in individuals, within groups and among groups, and an emphasis on double-loop learning. 


  • four rules of defensive routines:
  1. craft messages that contain inconsistencies;
  2. act as if messages not inconsistent;
  3. make the ambiguity & inconsistency undiscussable ;  
  4. make the undiscussability of the undiscussable also undiscussable.
  • authors reason a change in individual theories-in-use to Model II can lead to a change in organizational theories-in use and help create O-II learning systems and behavioural worlds.



SourceAdapted from:  Argyris and Schon – Organizational Learning II – Theory, Method and Practice, (Addison – Wesley Publishing Company 1996).

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