Chris Argyris Reading

Action, double loop learning. Some of the things I take away from this. Key things. This connects to the reading from Mason on noticing as a key aspect of double loop learning is the specific attention you need to be able to apply to your own assumptions and practices (how you do things) If you don’t notice, then none of the double loop things are even possible. (On a related note, as Mason points out, excellence in professional work requires a heightened form of noticing, or to turn it the other way around, those who turn out to be very good at what they do ‘notice’ things and in ways that others who aren’t so good can’t do.)

We all have habits of how we go about solving problems, and going about doing things. These habits are ‘mental maps’. This is how we actually do things. Espoused theory is the story we tell ourselves and others about what we think we do, but usually is not what we actually do.

Imagine you’re reading something that is difficult to understand. Your ‘espoused theory’, what you think you do, is, perhaps something like:

  • pause and keep rereading that sentence till you ‘get’ it (and if that doesn’t work, stop reading)
  • skip a bit and come back to it later
  • try to get a rough idea of what it might be about, and continue reading with it sort of in the back of your mind, in case something later helps you understand what it means
  • keep reading, and just not worry about what didn’t make sense

However, for many the mental map is often different to what we say we do. So when we read something difficult we might think that, yes, we read it, and understood it, even though there was plenty in there we didn’t. And even that we read it, and didn’t understand it, but that isn’t because I needed to think differently about it, but that it was written in a way where it’s the writings fault that I couldn’t understand it, so if I can’t understand it reading it once, then, well, that’s sort of that really.

Now, even outside of the example of reading something, Argyris’ point (and I will ignore the mention of management of organisational learning, as what he says is as relevant to making media, and learning, as it is to organisations) is that if you can make your mental model explicit to yourself, you can then see what your assumptions are, and that often it is these that can be changed to understand a situation or problem differently. This is what he means by ‘governing variables’.

Why governing? Because they decide everything else. Why variable? Because they change, can be changed, and shift. For example, to paraphrase American literary critic Lionel Trilling, in relation to reading ‘difficult’ novels he said something along the lines of:

[They] have been involved with me for a long time – I invert the natural order not out of lack of modesty but taking the cue of W. H. Auden’s remark that a real book reads us. I have been read by Eliot’s poems and by Ulysses and by Remembrance of Things Past and by The Castle for a good many years now, since early youth. Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that our relationship has been very intimate.

Note the shift in the ‘governing variables’. The novels aren’t there for him to read. They read him. This is a dramatic change, it inverts our expected understanding. So if he doesn’t ‘get’ it it is his problem, not the book’s or author’s. He is not ready yet, too young, they grew bored with him and sent him away. In other words the things he reads ask questions of him, and if he can’t answer those questions, the problem – in the first instance – is on his side. This is, for theoretical readings, my ‘governing variable’, that the work has something to say and that my role, in the first instance, is to be able to hear this. Then I can judge. But if I can’t first hear it, then I can’t judge it.

So, back to Argyris. Single loop learning we don’t question or recognise the ‘governing variables’ and as a result the goals, assumptions and so on are taken for granted. (I only do things in class that have marks attached, I write essays because they are academically relevant to me, a video is a linear, sequential matched bit of image and sound, a book is something linear and sequential, I learn by being told what the ideas are, I could make a better film if I had a better camera, and so on.) When these are questioned, or challenged, we become defensive. We also want things defined and this becomes how and why we do something (“what is a good blog post”, “how many do I have to do?”, “what will count as good?”). So, as he outlines, these are risk minimisation strategies, get it right by confirming it all first, meaning there is no wasted effort or mistakes made, that my environment, as a student and media user, needs to be known and controlled (by me, by the subject, by the teacher), and so on. Along side this are assumptions that all of this is normal, correct, and as it should be. In this model I there is little ability to test assumptions. We might argue about whether a good blog post is 100 or 200 words, and has 3 or 5 links out, but not what ‘good’ even means and why it might even matter.

Hence in model II control is shared (perhaps ‘good’ is then discussed and arrived at as a result of experience, context, and open conversation amongst those who are doing it?), there is a commitment to do it (in other words because it is worth doing, not because you get an explicit return for it), and it allows for common (that is a variety) of goals. Mine, the other staff, yours. This makes double loop learning more likely, simply because if there is an open discussion about, for example, ‘what a good blog post is’ then assumptions are then being recognised, and negotiated. It is the difference between being told that good equals this, versus developing a shared (and so mutually recognised) understanding of what matters. (At this point some will say that my job is to tell you want counts – model I, and I’ll say none of you will want to work in an organisation that does that to you, so let’s learn how this works now.)

To conclude. Traditional media is stuck in model I learning and systems. The internet is very much model II (just think about social media’s relationship model for ‘customers’ and companies and how it is ‘inverted’ the assumptions of corporate communication. Ten years ago I told my customers what our company did, what the products were and so on, through press releases and advertising. Now I have to spend as much time responding to what they tell me and each other, publicly, about my company and its products, and if I don’t listen, if I think my old model of saturation advertising (yelling louder), or doing nothing (letting it blow away because the media will move on to something else) will work, then I’m in trouble, because now we are the media).