Chris Argyris

The manager's academic

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Chris Argyris: organisational learning thinker
Image used with permission from the London School of Economics

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.

Biography

Introduction

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 during his later career, at Harvard. However, Argyris was no stuffy academic. His passionate interest in management and his work on organisational problems made him one of the most respected management thinkers of our time. He was 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. Indeed, much of his work focused on the interaction between practicing managers. He was also a prolific writer, penning 33 books and monographs and over 400 articles during his lifetime.

Argyris was 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 was rather special. He was anxious not to compartmentalise his work; giving equal weight to research, teaching and consulting. These three things he saw as being interrelated and supportive of one another.

Life and career

Chris Argyris (1923-2013) developed an interest in how people learn at an early age. 'It sounds corny, but I love learning for its own sake' is how he explained it. After serving as a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps during World War 2 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. He taught at Yale for 20 years and was instrumental in creating the Yale School of Management.

By the mid 1960s he was Professor of Industrial Administration at Yale and in 1968 moved to the Harvard Business School where he later became the James Bryant Conant Professor of Education and Organization Behaviour. As well as being a highly respected academic, Argyris was also director of strategy consulting firm The Monitor Group of Cambridge, Massachusetts. His consulting work was wide-ranging and highly influential. Clients included IBM, DuPont and Shell, along with the US State Department, other US government bodies and several overseas governments. This perfect marriage of practical application and academic knowledge reinforces his significant contribution to the field of management. As a prolific writer, it seems Argyris certainly had a lot to say. 

Key thinking

A staunch supporter of job enrichment, Argyris 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 believed that each person already has the psychological energy that provides motivation. The challenge is not to find ways of artificially motivating people but to recognise and channel this innate energy.

T-groups

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, as we now know, for most people these positive effects were short-lived. Once back in the turmoil of their organisation life and mixing again with those who had not been trained, the resolution and ideas were quickly forgotten and people reverted to their old way of doing things.

This rapid return to original behaviour by people who had been extremely enthusiastic about the ‘new approach’ generated by T-group training, led Argyris to formulate an idea that affected people’s views about organisational behaviour for many years. He suggested that the way people behave in organizations shows there is a sharp difference between the beliefs they profess and the beliefs on which they appear to act.

Espoused theories and theories-in-use

Argyris coined the terms espoused theories for what people profess to believe, and theories-in-use for what they appear to believe when faced with problems in the real world. After much research, Argyris concluded that no matter how genuinely we believe in an 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.

Argyris used the concept of 'defensive routines', discovering that not only do people slip easily into them, 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 said 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 concerned 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. He explores organisational change in more detail in his 2000 publication Flawed advice and the management trap.

Argyris’s ideas of how we make the step from decision to action were taken up by Peter Senge in his publication The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization (1990). Here, he takes Argyris’s ideas to formulate Senge’s Ladder of Inference. The Ladder of Inference and Left-Hand Column are two examples of methodologies that helped people to better understand what goes on during the thinking process and how exchanges with others are made. Such tools were developed to encourage learning, as opposed to just defining problems.

Agryris explored the notion of defensive reasoning in his later publication Reasons and rationalizations: the limits to organizational knowledge (2004). Eminent business professor Warren Bennis describes this book as Argyris’s 'most cogent, and perhaps most important, in summing up a lifetime of thought, action, and heart on the critical issue of how we live our lives in integrity, both in and out of organizations.'

Single-loop and double-loop learning

Concern at people's failure to learn from experience 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 (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. Argyris and Schön suggested that an organisation 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 when budgets are being exceeded the solution is to 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.

In Perspective

Impact

Argyris' work is rarely a comfort to managers. He raises profound questions about how we run organisations and frequently throws into doubt much of what is widely accepted to be good practice. 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 later years Argyris took a closer look at leadership and after considerable research came to the disparaging conclusion that despite the masses of literature produced on the subject, there was a distinct lack of anything practical being produced!

Argyris also took a lively interest in IT which he felt would come to play a key role in learning within organisations. He said: '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.' He was, however, aware of its shortcomings too:

IT is used primarily to deal with single-loop issues. IT may make it more likely that managers and scholars can be more rigorous in understanding and explaining, but it is less helpful in producing new prescriptions that require a double-loop perspective. No matter how good a computer program is, it is not guaranteed to be error-free. (Interview with Crossan, 2003).

He also warned about the dangers of information overload in the respect that one could use it as a means of avoiding making a decision or taking action. This dichotomy reflects the academic and the practitioner – the theorist versus the doer.

Argryis was a passionate teacher and received many awards and accolades during his impressive career, including 11 honorary doctorates and several lifetime achievement awards. His long-ranging career developed in line with the changes taking place within the fields of management and leadership. Principally known as the founder of the field of organisational learning, Argyris continues to be remembered today for his valuable academic and practical contribution to management.

Further reading

Key works by Chris Argyris

Books

Personality and organization. New York: Harper and Row, 1957

Understanding organizational behavior. London: Tavistock, 1960

Organizational learning.(With Donald Schön). Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1978

Reasoning, learning and action. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1982

Overcoming organizational defenses. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1990

Knowledge for action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993

On organizational learning. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993

Flawed advice and the management trap. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999

Reasons and rationalizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004

Organizational traps: leadership, culture, organizational design. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010

 

Book chapters

Double-loop learning in organizations: a theory of action perspective. Chapter in Smith, K. and Hitt, M. eds. Great minds in management: the process of theory development. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007

Learning in organizations. Chapter in Cummings, T. ed. Handbook of organization development. London: Sage, 2008

 

Journal articles

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

Double-loop learning, teaching, and research. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 1 (2) 2002, pp. 206-18

 

Works by others

Books

Senge, P. The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday Century Business, 1990. (Fully revised and updated in 2006)

Journal articles

Crossan, M. Altering theories of learning and action: an interview with Chris Argyris. Academy of Management Executive, 17 (2) 2003, pp.40-46

Van Den Berge, A., Koch, E. and Swann, N. Thinking about influence. Organisations and People, 13 (2) 2006, pp. 26-33

Van Den Berge, A., Koch, E. and Swann, N. Thinking about influence. , 13 (2) 2006, pp. 26-33

Wilks, D. The trap of flawed advice. Competency and Emotional Intelligence, 8 (4) 2001, pp.11-13

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