Posts Tagged ‘Argyris’

My 2010, a year of blogging

January 6, 2011

Today marks my 1st anniversary of blogging, and 2010 was an “interesting” year, as they say.

I changed continents (again), and took on multiple roles in addition to being a global director of Knowledge Management, and wound up job hunting – but not in that order.

My roles this year included my main job, that of a director of Knowledge Management, as well as unofficial Chief Learning Officer which saw me in many meetings with universities and vendors of learning materials, head of Localization & Translation in which I inherited a recently emptied department and a strangled budget, and made friends with several translation vendors across the world.
Another role was that of program manager of the offshoring and outsourcing activities that took me to India, and involved building a team of over a hundred software engineers while I also managed the contract and relationship of a similar-sized group in Bali, tried vainly to move some outsourcing to South-Africa, and celebrated the building of a 15-person team in Chile.
During this time I received a few “what are you doing” phone-calls from the Australian embassy in India, and many people avoided me in case I was looking to offshore their job.

In July I my relationship with Mincom ended, and having waved goodbye to Brisbane, found myself back in Denver and job hunting.
Since then I have interviewed with dozens of firms – been hugely interested in some, horrified by a few, and left others feeling vaguely relieved not to be working there and having to breathe in their toxic culture on a daily basis.
Some interviews ran into several months and included large panels only to end with me as the runner-up, while others ended in a fizzle when the budget vanished, the position was cancelled, or the VP herself resigned after missing several chances for an interview.
Some had really sharp and focused job descriptions (HP, Invensys, and Philips for example), some had a copy/paste smorgasbord, and some had job descriptions that were a complete mystery.
Some organizations were clear and transparent about their process, others seemed to be playing it by ear and making it up as they went along.

Generally, the people were nice but clearly unsure about what they are trying to achieve – one guy spent 30 minutes posing an elaborate scenario that he fed me piece by piece until we arrived at the answer he apparently had in mind. According to him this was the first time anybody had given the correct answer but he was seemingly unhappy with that so I didn’t get the job.
Maybe just as well, all things considered.

I often wonder how much a firm’s recruitment practices are a reflection of what it is like to work there, and what effect recruitment practices have on their clients.
According to a few research papers I read, it is and it does.

Keeping Busy

Besides looking for a permanent employer, flying around for interviews, and making copious resume modifications to satisfy recruiters, I blogged on KM-related topics, networked, and read several IO Psychology and KM textbooks from cover to cover. Some people have hobbies, some play golf, and I read textbooks – go figure.

Some people take a break from work when they are between jobs, I mostly designed questionnaires and wondered about Communities of Practice.
I also thought about Sharepoint a lot – can you believe it, 130 million licenses and likely to hit 97% adoption rate this year?
Again, go figure!

As part of a Master’s in Knowledge Management I covered various maturity models and although I really liked the KMMM by Lange & Ehms, the K3M by Liebowitz & Beckman, and the various KMMI attempts, they all seemed to be heavy on the Conservation side and light at the Innovation end. I also felt that they neglected the point made by Argyris that processes will inevitably obscure and hide those systematic problems that are essentially never spoken about – things that we become systematically blinded to by the way we measure and think. As a result I built my own KM Maturity model based on the Carnegie-Melon CMMI, with two added layers bookending the CMMI, and blogged incessantly about the implications of Argyris and his Single and Double Loop Learning concepts. The blog about externalization and avoidance I was sure might get me lynched by recruiters.
Seems I must like Argyris, because he comes up in my blogs more than any other author.
Owing to my longtime interest in IO Psychology and research methods, the offspring of the KMM was a questionnaire instrument (currently in Beta), which of course lives on a KM wiki (CoP-M).

To get a better way to benchmark and examine the current state of KM in an organization, I developed a KM & OL Climate questionnaire called the KMOL-C which is now in its RC2.1 version with an RC-3.0 in planning.

During this time I also started thinking about starting my own LLC, firstly because even providing pro bono consulting in the US means one is vulnerable to being sued personally.
Secondly it would allow me to do paid consulting and contracting.
I am still stuck for a company name however, so feel free to suggest one.

Having Fun

Mostly I read textbooks for fun, but I also had many enjoyable discussions, debates, and arguments with HR people on LinkedIn – Since I was dealing with them a lot it seemed logical.
I also played with some new applications – bibus an opensource equivalent to EndNote, Qiqqa a nice CAQDAS tool for qualitative interviewing, R a free statistical package that means I can’t afford SPSS or SAS, and ggobi a graphical add-on for R. No spinplots like VisualStats had, but VisualStats seems to have stopped.
I added all my books to GuruLib – mostly by using a webcam to scan in the ISBN barcodes.
Using R, I pulled correlation numbers for a survey I did for a LinkedIn discussion and discovered that self-identified HR people are more than twice as risk averse as operational managers.

Reading academic papers was very enjoyable, and in case you think they are all boring and filled with indigestible facts and arcane theory, here is one I particularly enjoyed:

My most favorite piece of research findings was this one about penguins (Meyer-Rochow & Gall 2003)

Now besides the fact that next to ducks, penguins are the next funniest animal, there is something inherently funny about research that clocks the speeds and distances of penguin evacuation.
Also, knowing that penguin poop is more dense than blood but less dense than honey, and is ejected at pressures that approach that of a car tire, is just fascinating.
The paper also won an IgNoble award in 2005

What’s in Store for 2011

I hope to register my own LLC soon, start a PhD, and get a job with a really interesting and innovative company, and I hope to use my survey instruments with several organizations, volunteer time to worthy organizations, and stay healthy.

More to the point, I hope to carry on enjoying knowledge management, IO Psychology, and discovering interesting ideas and people.

… and blogging, of course.


Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management expert and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge assets to work.

Externalization and Avoidance – How we ignore and avoid facing our own faults

September 22, 2010

Externalization and avoidance are key manifestations of how we ignore and avoid facing our own faults and project them onto others, and has ramifications in how organizational learning does (or doesn’t) take place.

The Problem

In a journal article about experiences with professional business-consultants, Chris Argyris describes a senior manager asking a group of business consultants what problems they encountered and what changes they could make to their practices to improve service. In response, several of the consultants explained what the customers could do to improve consultant’s access to information or client acceptance of advice. The manager tried several more times to solicit ideas on changes the individuals could make to their consulting practices, but was again given details on things customers and others could do.
The consultants seemed oblivious to how painstakingly they avoided discussing their own practices.

“As long as efforts at learning and change focused on external organizational factors—job redesign, compensation programs, performance review, and leadership training—the professionals were enthusiastic participants. Indeed, creating new systems and structures was precisely the kind of challenge that well-educated, highly motivated professionals thrived on.
And yet the moment the quest for continuous improvement turned to the professionals’ own performance, something went wrong.”
(Argyris 1991)

This externalization behavior is explained by the concept of “Single-Loop Learning” or “Model-1” behavior and defenses people employ to objections or errors in Model-I actions operating under single-loop learning processes, in which they “create defensiveness, self-fulfilling prophecies, self-sealing processes, and escalating error” (Argyris

Not only are the errors unmentionable, but the very unmentionability is unmentionable also, hence “self-sealing”. (Argyris 1999)

Argyris poses this as a defense mechanism against embarrassment and feelings of threat which is deeply entrenched, finely practiced, and in which the individual is highly skilled to the degree that the mechanisms are automatic, instantaneous, and spontaneous. (Argyris

When people are challenged about these self-sealing actions or an unmentionable is mentioned, they “become defensive , screen out criticism, and put the ‘blame’ on anyone and everyone but themselves” (Argyris 1999), and thus inclined to scapegoat rather than engage in either self-reflection or analysis of the “tried and true” methods of received wisdom.

An example of this in practice is a discussion on LinkedIn by self-declared HR professionals debating what they “really hate in a CV“.

Rather than the more pertinent question of how they should go about identifying and acquiring better human assets than their competition, they found fault with external actors and produced a long shopping-list of what applicants should be doing differently rather than what they should be doing to address the core challenge of obtaining better assets. Many framed the issue in terms of how the applicants should “sell” themselves, or in what self-promotion the applicants should engage – and thereby ignore the obvious question of what recruiters should do to ensure that they procure the best candidates in spite of obstacles.

If asked why they are critiquing the resume-writing skills of applicants rather than trying to change their own practices to increase hiring quality, they again turn the discussion to failings of the applicants and frame the discussion in terms of the shortcomings of applicant’s self-promotional techniques.

Further probing or argument about why they choose to focus on resume-writing errors rather than acquisition problems, leads predictably to complaints of rudeness, general defensiveness, and further explication of what applicants should do to be more acceptable to recruiters.

In short, ego-defenses.

What to do?

Argyris argues in his early works in much the same vein as Freud – that making people aware of their defensive mechanisms will lead to mastery over them and resolution – self-revelation as a therapeutic bulwark against systematic Model-1 behavior.

Unfortunately this has not proven to be a very successful approach, and as I discuss in an earlier blog entitled “Dealing With Failure”, escape is not at all easy since these are both deeply ingrained and perhaps inborn defensive mechanisms.

I propose three main approaches for mitigation

  1. Engineer the human out wherever possible
  2. Place procedural traps to trigger corrective actions
  3. Copy aspects of the scientific method of critical tests


This is an old trick that comes from safety & quality practices, and involves building processes and procedures that simply eliminate the human in situations where they are prone to error, or engineering the risk downwards by providing guards, interlocks, and other devices for keeping fingers away from blades, and eyes away from flying debris. Build processes that reduce the opportunity for human error.

Traps & Triggers

Stuff happens, and despite all your engineering, people will still have cognitive biases and be prone to avoid noticing them – so build traps in the procedures that will catch them in the act and trigger self-correcting processes. With all the will in the world, you cannot wish away your biases, but you can plan ahead by setting traps for yourself.

Critical Tests

Science has had the principle of critical tests for some 400 years now, perhaps the concept should be adopted in more areas of human activity. If you believe that your skills at sizing up character traits in job interviews gets you good employees, then you must record what you thought at the time and test against actual outcomes. It simply isn’t enough to believe it to be true – you must follow up with measurements that could theoretically prove you wrong. You must also test the converse; you must sample some of those candidates whom you rejected to see what became of them. If you don’t, you could well be systematically excluding the best candidates and would never know. If the people you rejected went on to become Nobel Laureates, CEOs, and celebrated practitioners of their craft, then perhaps you are biased in how you reject candidates – but if you don’t sample your rejects you would never know.


Simple discussion is incapable of penetrating the protective layers and well-rehearsed defenses of Model-1 behaviors, and to avoid embarrassment people will defend positions by use of well-oiled and very subtle mechanisms such as reframing the issue to externalize its causes. However, protecting processes by engineering out human biases, and exposing behavior to traps and triggers and subjecting it to critical tests, can significantly lower the risk of falling prey to the many cognitive and behavioral biases to which humans are prone.

Please contribute to my self-knowledge and take this 1-minute survey that tells me what my blog tells you about me. – Completely anonymous.


Argyris, C. (1990). Overcoming Organizational Defenses, Prentice Hall.

Argyris, C. (1991). “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.” Harvard Business Review
69(3): 99-109.

Argyris, C. (1999). On Organizational Learning, Blackwell.

Argyris, C. (2000). Flawed Advice and the Management Trap, Oxford Press.


Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management professional and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge to work.

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