Chris Argyris – Biography and Theories

Chris was born in Newark, New Jersey on the 16th of July, 1923.
During the Second World War he joined the Signal Corps in the US Army eventually becoming a Second Lieutenant.
He went to University at Clark, graduating with a degree in Psychology in 1947 and went on to gain an Masters in Psychology and Economics from Kansas University and a Ph.D. in organisational behaviour from Cornell University in 1951.

Chris made a large contribution to the development of our appreciation of organisational learning, and, deepened our understanding of experiential learning. He developed models with Donald Schon, of the single-loop and double-loop learning, and how these models translate into contrasting models of organisational learning systems.

His work has influenced thinking about the relationships of people and organisational learning and action research.

His early work explored the impact of formal and organisational structures, control systems and management on individuals.

Chris Argyris’ research lead to him producing books entitled, Personality and Organisation and Integrating the Individual and the Organisation.
He shifted his focus to organisational change, then moved on to an inquiry into the role of the social scientist as both researcher and actor.
His fourth major area of research was undertaken with Donald Schon which was focused around individual and organisational learning.

In addition to writing and researching, Chris Argyris was an influential teacher.

Theories of action: Theory in use and espoused theory
Argyris and Schon suggest that two theories of action are involved.
A theory of action is first a theory: ‘its more general properties are properties that all theories share, and the most general criteria that apply to it – such as generality, centrality and simplicity – are criteria applied to all theories’.
The former can be described as theories-in-use. They govern actual behaviours and tend to be tacit structures. Their relation to action ‘is like the relation of grammar-in-use to speech; they contain assumptions about self, others and environment’.
The words we use to convey what we, do or what we would like others to think we do can then be called espoused theory. This is the theory of action to which he gives allegiance, and which upon request he communicates to others . The theory that actually governs his actions is this theory-in-use.

Single-loop and double-loop learning
Learning involves a detection and correction of error. Single-loop learning is when given or chosen goals, values, plans and rules are operationalized rather than questioned. It occurs when error detection and correction permits the organisation to carry on its present policies or achieve its present objectives.

Alternatively, double-loop learning is to question governing variables themselves and to subject them to critical scrutiny.

Conclusions of Agyris’ Study
It is assumed that ‘good’ learning ‘takes place in a climate of openness where political behaviour is minimised’.
We need to be distrustful of bipolar models like Model I and Model II. This is because they set up an ‘either-or’ orientation.
The notion of double-loop leaning helps us to approach some of the more taken-for-granted aspects of organisations and experiences.

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