ADAPTIVE AND GENERATIVE LEARNING: IMPLICATIONS FROM COMPLEXITY THEORIES1
One of the most important classical typologies within the organizational learning literature is the distinction between adaptive and generative learning. However, the processes of these types of learning, particularly the latter, have not been widely analyzed and incorporated into the organizational learning process. In this paper, we put forward a new understanding of adaptive and generative learning within organizations grounded in some ideas from complexity theories: mainly self-organization and implicate order. Adaptive learning involves any improvement or development of the explicate order through a process of self-organization. Self-organization is a self-referential process characterized by logical deductive reasoning, concentration, discussion and improvement. Generative learning involves any approach to the implicate order through a process of self-transcendence. Self-transcendence is a holo-organizational process characterized by intuition, attention, dialogue and inquiry. The main implications of the two types of learning for organizational learning are discussed.
“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.” Albert Einstein, N.Y. Post, November 28, 1972
In recent years, interest in the concept of organizational learning (OL) has grown dramatically, generating a great deal of debate and management research (Bapuji and Crossan, 2004; Easterby-Smith et al., 2000). Due to its popularity and complexity, it is surrounded by a plethora of perspectives and views (see Miner and Mezias, 1996; Örtenblad, 2002, or Shipton, 2006 for a review). One of the most important classical typologies within OL literature is the distinction between adaptive and generative learning (Argyris and Schön, 1974, 1978; Fiol and Lyles, 1985; Senge, 1990; Arthur and Aiman-Smith, 2001). Although nowadays a myriad of terms are used to describe these two concepts of learning, this typology was most likely introduced into the OL literature by Argyris and Schön (1974) through their distinction between single loop and double loop learning. Single loop learning permits an organization to maintain its present policies or achieve its present objectives by adjusting or adapting its behaviors. Double loop learning involves the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives.
Most of the research in our field has mentioned and even emphasized the importance of both types of learning for organizations (e.g. Fiol and Lyles, 1985; Miner and Mezias, 1996). However, few works (e.g. Argyris et al., 1985; Anderson, 1997; Senge, 1990; Kim, 1993) have attempted to analyze what factors facilitate these activities, have tried to inquire into the process in which they take place or have incorporated these processes into the OL process. Furthermore, organizations and people are becoming good at single loop learning, at adapting to a changing environment, but practitioners and organizations are not normally so adept at second loop learning, at changing their theories, models or paradigms. This may be due to organizational inertia (Hannan and Freeman, 1977) or individual resistance to change (Dent and Goldberg, 1999). Managers’ defense mechanisms also may prevent them from broadening their beliefs and policies. Most executives are so committed to the strategies and cultures they have nurtured that it is painful for them to admit that these are obsolete (Kets de Vries and Miller, 1984; Miller, 1993). Whatever the case, generative learning is generally associated with radical innovations that would dramatically improve firm performance (Kang et al., 2007) and that are becoming essential in our organizations. Consequently, there is still a need to improve our understanding of how double loop or generative learning takes place in organizations, where it can be located in the OL process, and how can we enhance it.