Posts Tagged ‘single loop learning’

Controlled Vocabulary

August 4, 2010


Language is a powerful thing, it’s not only a prime medium of expression, but it in turn shapes concepts and thinking – terminology frames concepts and makes some ideas more expressible and others less so – it emphasizes or diminishes in turn. Some ideas flow naturally from the syntax and terminology of the language in use and others are not even expressible.

In real terms an argument or proposal resonates better if it is expressed in the dominant terminology, and seems weaker and off-key if it doesn’t, and due to concision effects and psychological set, it allows or limits innovation.

Inconsistent use of jargon and terminology results in higher cost of translation and localization, less effective training and education materials, and raises the cost of product support.

The Foundational Nature of Language

From an Organizational Psychology point of view, Language in the form of endemic jargon, special terms and terminology, and accepted forms of speech and protocol are part of the social structure of an organization.

For example, Chao (1994) proposes six dimensions of Organizational Socialization:

  1. History

  2. Language

  3. Politics

  4. People

  5. Organizational Goals and Values

  6. Performance Proficiency

Language deserves a special mention though because it is through language itself that the other dimensions are expressed and how strongly they are communicated. Historical narratives are elevated or decreased in prominence according to the terminology used to relate them, and so too are the organizational politics detailed and distributed according to the rules and parameters of internal language.

Organizational goals are couched in terms of organizational metaphors, and proficiency itself is measured according to articles of the organizational terminology.

Language thus forms part of what topics are allowable by means of both the “correct” protocols, but also at a more fundamental level by means of the terminology itself.

In this sense, Single-Loop Learning and Type I homeostatic systems in an organization (Argyris1987) are strongly influenced and delimited by the vocabulary that is allowable.

User Experience

A major part of user satisfaction is the feeling of confidence they feel in the product (whether that be using a transit system or a software suite), and in many cases also the degree to which use requires mental computation. Unwelcome processing or decision-making requirements result in low satisfaction.

A major part of this in turn is the continuity of the information architecture – the way terms confirm expectations and make sense, and are used where and when expected. While most suppliers of products take care about simple things such as a hyperlink anchor text being immediately visible on the landing page, many do not consider how multiple designers and engineers may use different text for the same meaning in different parts of the product, its documentation, its sales collateral, its training, and in communication related to the product.

Encountering terminology in unfamiliar context undermines and attenuates information scent, and reduces the user’s confidence and overall satisfaction.

OD & L10N/I18N

Cost-effective Internationalization (I18N) and Localization (L10N) depend on the source language usage being tightly controlled and not having a significant degree of equivocation and ambiguity. The more a single term is used for multiple meanings or multiple terms used for the same meaning, the higher the complexity of translation, the higher the bulk of terms to be translated, and the lower the coherence of the final translated text.

Machine Translation is powerless to fix this, and simply multiplies the variances – requiring lengthy and costly human involvement each time.

Inconsistent terminology equates to duplicated effort and difficulties when it comes to translation of product, documentation, and training materials – greatly increasing the complexity, time, and cost of translation. Creating meaningful Translation Memories when the terminology is overlapping and inconsistent is very difficult, and tends to lead to an even worse degree of inconsistency in all the translated languages.

Likewise, training becomes more costly and less effective when terminology is used with any significant degree of variation in meaning.

Knowledge Management

Most Knowledge-bases rely on keyword searches, and the more sophisticated systems also use tagging, which at heart is still a keyword search and in its best form gathers tags from a Folksonomy.

Unfortunately the power of search-engines in this situation results in very high retrieval but low precision. This results in infoglut and lower search effectiveness, and thus a significant impediment to use of Knowledge-bases to augment knowledge-workers such as customer-support staff, and lowers effective re-use of knowledge.

Since a major component of cost-reduction and quality-improvement in customer-support hinges on use of knowledge-bases, terminology control is a significant factor.

Branding and Market Mastery

Part of gaining mastery or dominating a market niche is having a degree of control over the terminology and therefore the expressible concepts – The degree of influence one player has over the terminology translates directly into their freedom of movement within the domain, the cost incurred in terms of effort to thrive, and the extent to which discourse tends to be channeled in their favor.

At the very least, a clear brand and value proposition relies on message consistency across the many external communications an organization makes – be they the deliberate marketing efforts, training materials, or even HR recruiting information. The terminology used by Recruiters should for example be consistent with those of Sales and Training Materials, and so on. Any one department or group that injects noise will reduce the brand coherence and effectiveness.

Gaining Control

Influence over terminology is not something one can beg, buy, or steal – it can only be attained by thought leadership. In other words, good knowledge management practices around intellectual expression.

It is determined by who is disseminating authoritative information, who provides attractive ideas, and who is leading in thought value – and who gets to saturate the frame of reference and the concept terrain.

An early step in gaining more control over the influence of language is to formalize usage and to self-consciously construct a lexicon detailing what terms mean and where they are used, and it sets the stage for searchable knowledge-bases, single-sourced documentation, and consistent branding.

A low-cost approach is to establish an internal terminology wiki along the lines of wikipedia, and to build and refine a corporate lexicon in three phases of limited crowdsourcing:

  1. Open invitation to internal staff

  2. Invitation to business partners (and industry luminaries) to contribute

  3. Invitation to customers to contribute

Step 1 requires some preparation to identify people who are influential in terminology as well as obtaining buy-in from content-owners and domain experts.

Steps 2&3 are a Marketing bonanza that yield many spinoff benefits.

Making the terminology visible in this manner is not just a step in protecting against erosion of meaningful terminology but also forms part of a knowledge-management approach to organizational-learning.


If an organization is inconsistent in its use of terminology and language, if it vacillates on meaning and implication, if terminology is used hesitantly and passively – then the information scent attenuates, and the audience becomes uncertain and less likely to agree with the message or see the source as trustworthy or authoritative. In addition it leads to escalating costs and loss of effectiveness in training & development, and significant barriers to cost-effective translation & localization.

To get in a position where you influence the discourse and the frame of reference in your market niche you must settle on a controlled vocabulary, use it strongly, and use it consistently over every part of your products, documentation, and communications.

The place to start is inside the company – to practice, refine, and then deliver.


Two areas I left out but deserve mention are the effects on Content Management and Health &Safety.
Inconsistent terminology can be a significant safety risk, and this is a topic that deserves its own paper.

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 & Schön D (1987) Argyris C & Schön D. “What is an organization that it may learn”. (1987) : .

Chao G, O’Leary-Kelly A, Wolf S et al. (1994) Chao G, O’Leary-Kelly A, Wolf S et al.. “Organizational socialization : its content and consequences”. Journal of Applied Psychology (1994) 79: pp. 730-749.


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.

Knowledge Management and the Novice’s Mirror

July 7, 2010

The focus of Knowledge Management is usually on the folks with all the Knowledge and Experience, the people who have been with the company for years and in the industry for decades – and this is hardly surprising, since they are the ones who have most of the good ideas, know how to do stuff, and have all the tips, tricks, and war-stories.

We are focused on the Experts because that’s where the goodies are for the most part.

However, experts are also those who have best learned to put up with stuff and the Jerry-rigged quick-fixes that were put into place as a short-term stop-gap five years ago but just blended into the stream of history at some point. They have also forgotten many of the things that initially bugged them, and have accumulated a host of bad habits and habits to protect them from the embarrassment of all those bad habits.

This is one of the ways that “ single-loop” learning mechanisms start up, and how we wind up protecting ourselves from evidence that things are wrong. As Chris Argyris explains it, not only does the problem itself become unmentionable, but the very fact that it is unmentionable is unmentionable!

It is simply bad manners to even hint about it, so over time people learn to unconsciously avoid certain subjects, issues, and facts.

A second problem with expertise is that we no longer notice how we do things – much of what we do is autopilot and runs fast and smooth on well-oiled rails. We effortlessly and unconsciously glide over shortcuts, detours, and work-arounds that are so well practiced that they are all but invisible.

Expertise and its learned-behavior hides problems that more expertise is almost powerless to break and to whom the problems are as invisible as a vampire’s reflection.

This is where the Novice’s Mirror enters the picture.

A new-hire presents a perfect opportunity to make invisible reflections show up again briefly – until they are assimilated and acculturated and the images fade from their consciousness.

A novice can reflect to us things that have become invisible in two ways

  • Where they do not yet know how things are done and will be able to question things that have no apparent reason. It is this “why” that can fleetingly bring something back into view, and if we keep our natural instinct to defend or distract under control, we will get a brief opportunity to snare a bad habit.

  • Secondly, we can learn a great deal from what a new-comer gets wrong. When they stumble over a task step, or can’t find something, or something doesn’t make sense, it is a red flag that we may have built an invisibility shield around something that was wrong but for which had we evolved ‘tricks” to get past.

Quite often the original reason for the tricks might have resolved itself or simply become irrelevant, but the “tricks” to circumvent it may still be in operation long after their need had gone. – A novice often shows us a reflection of ourselves by what they trip over or what they do wrong.

In the choices they make that strike the expert as wrong, they in fact articulate the shape of the expert’s assumptions in all three areas of tacit, explicit, and cultural knowledge.

I have used this notion of the Novice’s Mirror in varying degrees of success in several different organizations over the years.

For example, in one case customers following the download and installation instructions of software components and fixes would often interpret the instructions “incorrectly” and perform steps out of sequence.

The customers had come to believe that our fixes were fragile, and they often needed to call on us to manually assist them in loading the fixes. If the fixes worked fine when we loaded them, they wrote this off as being just another example of the mysterious and unpredictable nature of our fixes.

To us of course it was clear that customers were just lazy or unqualified and didn’t follow instructions.

It took a newbie to point out that in many cases the order of steps to fit a fix was important, but that we didn’t say so in the instructions. The instructions were in fact quite unclear on this point and many others once you looked at them from the novice point of view. Some steps required a strict order, others not, some steps were seemingly trivial, but weren’t.

The newbie had tried to fit a patch themselves as part of training and had skipped a step that was unclear with the idea that they would find out later what it meant.
The resulting failure made them wonder if we had meant that the steps were strictly sequential and were all necessary.

Luckily the experts caught the implication and examined what had gone wrong rather than simply laughing it off as newbie stupidity, and from then on we had far fewer calls for “bad fixes” because we henceforth clearly stated if steps were to be taken as sequential or not, and which were crucial and which were there for comfort or cosmetics.

The opportunity to glimpse in the Novice’s Mirror was very brief, and could have just as easily been dismissed and lost. If the newbie had been taunted rather than really listened to, they would simply have learned to do it “our way”, and also have “learned” that pointing out faults was not welcome in that organization.

I apply this idea to any new-hire or visitor, requesting them to take notes whenever they are unsure of an instruction or document, cannot find something, or don’t know who to ask for assistance – the “novices mirror” shows us assumptions and inbuilt problems or obstacles that are invisible to the experts.

A very effective way to use the Novice’s Mirror, is to build it into a constant-improvement philosophy such as the Japanese quality control concept of Kaizen. In this way workers and management are made curious about failure and become more likely to seek causes, rather than simply assign blame or to ignore the problem.

That is my story, and I am sticking to it.

Knowledge Management Issues: Dealing with Failure.

March 13, 2010

Professionals often excel at dealing with expediencies, but perform quite poorly when it comes to deeper root-causes. This may be a side-effect of their expectations of success – having rarely failed throughout their educational and professional backgrounds and careers. When single-loop strategies do not perform as expected, these persons often become defensive and seek a ‘scapegoat’. This is discussed in relation to the broader concept of organisational learning.


Both Science and Business systematically pay more attention to successful outcomes than unsuccessful outcomes due to structural mechanisms which drive this behaviour. One particular author noting the bias towards success and who is cited across many domains of practice is Chris Argyris, whose depiction of “double-loop learning” involving learning about learning has had great influence.
Argyris details the psychological tendency for people to remain cemented in “single-loop” strategies and the risks that  poses.
A recent trend to correct the “winner” bias can be seen in various domains where efforts are underway to use failures as warning signals to trigger the double-loop learning and Model-II strategies as described by Argyris. The greatest benefits of this reflexive corrective action, and the focus on what does not work are perhaps less wasted effort, and a protection against systematically faulty reasoning.


Fulmer reports a study undertaken by the Dutch oil giant, Shell, which showed an average expected corporate lifespan of less than 40 years – caused in their view by corporate “learning disabilities” (Fulmer, 1998:8).

Among the common properties they discerned in those companies surviving beyond that average is the ability to tolerate novelty and innovation.

This creates a tension since with novelty and innovation comes a high risk of failure, and studies indicate that businesses are failure averse.

Aversion to failure

As a norm, we pay a lot of attention to success – we admire those who succeed, we publish those research projects which were successful, and those papers that describe successful experiments or findings. This amounts to a bias towards only documenting things that are successful.
An intolerance for failure (or admission of failure) may however prevent us from gaining new insights or saving us from future failure. This can become institutionalized and prevent leaders especially from seeing their own failing methods for what they are because they are unused to failure, and also because they are surrounded by people and structures that continue to obscure both the causes and results of maladaptive behaviour. (Burke, 2006)

This is not restricted to business, but is also present in science. For example The Royal Society of Chemistry which justifiably claims to be “the largest organisation in Europe for advancing the chemical sciences” states in its guide to authors that “In general there is no need to report unsuccessful experiments”[1].


In his earlier work on “Action Science”, Argyris noted a tendency of people for seeking out and selecting data to fit or confirm what they already believe, and are “predisposed to attribute the behavior of others (but not their own) to dispositional traits[2] (Argyris, 1985:96), this he tied to what he coined as embedded “Single Loop Learning” strategies.

In this Model-I archetype, he lists what he perceives as the operant rules or “theory-in-use” vs “espoused theory”:

–          Remain in unilateral control

–          Win, don’t lose

–          Suppress negative feelings

–          Act as rationally as possible

He describes the “Single Loop” process in terms of a thermostat in a heating system. Information is not solicited, nor is the system capable of self-awareness or of changing the control inputs or norms. If the temperature drops below a set threshold, action is initiated to return the temperature to nominal, but the nominal setting itself is persistent and the heating mechanism unchangeable.

In this sense, objections or errors in Model-I actions operating under single-loop learning processes “create defensiveness, self-fulfilling prophecies, self-sealing processes, and escalating error” (Argyris, 2000:5).

Not only are the errors unmentionable, but the very un-mentionability is unmentionable also, hence “self-sealing”. (Argyris, 1999:58)

Argyris poses this as a defense mechanism against embarrassment and feelings of threat (Argyris, 1990:10) 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, 1990 ch2)

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, 1999:127), and thus inclined to scapegoat rather than engage in either self-reflection or analysis of the “tried and true” methods of  received wisdom.

This externalization of blame or “an enemy out there” attitude is echoed in a parallel view given by Senge in his description of management teams and how disagreement with expectations it is usually demonstrated in a fashion that “lays blame, polarizes opinion, and fails to reveal the underlying differences …” (Senge, 1990:24).

To address these second-order problems where the norms or approaches need to be changed, Argyris proposes his Model-II “Double Loop Learning” in which he lists a new set of governing values (Argyris, 2000:98) :

–          Valid Information Seeking

–          Free and Informed Choice

–          Internal Commitment

This would seem like the solution and the end of the process, but drawing on his concept of “System Domain Defenses” Bain speaks of how organizations “… avoid change wherever possible…” and have a tendency for regression over time back to faulty operant behaviour even after corrective changes had been put into place. He attributes this to the fact that organizations are typically part of bigger communities of practice that support the original behavioural models, and that like organizations, they too are averse to change. (Bain, 1998:416).

This reluctance to change brings us back to the “Learning Disabilities” that de Geus of Royal Dutch Shell articulated with regard to failed companies.

If the first-order actions of Model-I Single Loop Learning are thus unable to solve second-order problems, and we require second-order Model-II “Double Loop Learning” but are also averse to the change and the effort cost, then clearly we would need a mechanism to trigger Double Loop Learning when needed, and cultural attitude to act on it.

This discussion suggests an approach using external informational input to break through the organizational system domain fabric and to embrace failure as a “signal from nature” that the mechanism itself is in error. This approach is already mature in the sciences under the framework of theoretical falsifiability and critical tests

The Sciences

One of the foundations of modern science is the concept of falsifiability as articulated by Sir Karl Popper and embodied by the logical form of modus tollens (Kemerling, 2002).
In this form we discover a truth from the combination of a critical test (Thornton, 2006) and the failure of an assertion.

If my car is white, then no number of white objects in my parking bay can enable me to conclude that what is there must be my car, however if what is parked in my spot is not white, then I am sure that it cannot be my car.[3]


This allows nature to dictate and to break theories that are in error by providing information external to our system domain.

Looking for false outcomes is thus foundational to science, but we may ask if it is common amongst the scientists themselves?

In an experimental study, Kerns, Mirels, and Hinshaw demonstrated that a large proportion of career scientists were unable to identify valid propositional logic statements. (Kerns 1983) and were frequently unable to use modus tollens correctly.

We can see therefore how science itself is structured to combat this conformational bias and how it seeks external information and has an operant culture of reacting to falsification as suggested earlier, but that Bain’s regression process described earlier is driving this back into Model-I “skilled incompetence” (Argyris, 2006:41).

Several attempts are being made to address this by organizations in many different communities of practice ranging from Oncology (Kern, 2007), Biomedicine (Olsen, 2007), Computer Science (Prechelt, 2006), ecology and evolutionary biology (Blank et al, 2007), Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning (Dale et al, 2007), and Qualitative and Quantitative Results in the Social Sciences (Biesma et al, 2007).


Model-I behaviour is our natural highly learned and skilled state, and it may be difficult or impossible to maintain Model-II behaviour over long periods of time. When confronted with evidence of Model-I failures, our natural reaction will be defensive and to seek external agents to blame in order to maintain systemic homeostasis and avoid embarrassment and feelings of loss of control. It is however possible to use Double-Loop Learning to make systematic changes to address Model-I problems that Single-Loop Learning simply entrenches. One mechanism to engage Model-II activity is to place deliberate triggers in our processes either with quality procedures or with exposure to external thinking.

Further study is necessary into how effort-reduction may play a role in regression to Model-I behaviour archetypes and to bring neuropsychology and behavioural models into synch with Argyris’s views on Single Loop Learning, and with Bain’s observations that organizational changes tend to regress in time back to the dysfunctional but protective Domain Fabric.[1]

Further Reading

1.       “Does double loop learning create reliable knowledge?” 
Author(s):Deborah Blackman, James Connelly, Steven Henderson
The Learning Organization; Volume: 11   Issue: 1; 2004 Research paper

2.       “Transcending organisational autism in the UN system response to HIV/AIDS
in Africa”
Author(s):John G.I. Clarke
Kybernetes; Volume: 35   Issue: 1/2; 2006 Conceptual paper

3.       “The effect of downsizing strategy and reorientation strategy on a
learning orientation”
Author(s):Mark Farrell, Felix T. Mavondo
Personnel Review; Volume: 33   Issue: 4; 2004 Research paper

4.       “Towards a new approach to understanding service encounters: establishing,
 learning from and reconciling different views” 
Author(s):Mark N.K. Saunders, Christine S. Williams
Journal of European Industrial Training; Volume: 24   Issue: 2/3/4; 2000 

5.       “Circular organizing and triple loop learning”
Author(s):A. Georges L. Romme, Arjen van Witteloostuijn
Journal of Organizational Change Management; Volume: 12   Issue: 5; 1999 

6.       “A supplier development programme: the SME experience”
Author(s):Sharon Williams
Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development; Volume: 14   Issue: 1;

7.       “We will teach you the steps but you will never learn to dance”
Author(s):Jane Turner, Sharon Mavin, Sonal Minocha
The Learning Organization; Volume: 13   Issue: 4; 2006 Case study

8.       “Narratives in ERP systems evaluation”
Author(s):Jonas Hedman, Andreas Borell
Journal of Enterprise Information Management; Volume: 17   Issue: 4;
2004 General review

9.       “Grief and educative leadership” 
Author(s):R.J.S. Macpherson, Barbara Vann
Journal of Educational Administration; Volume: 34   Issue: 2;
1996 Case study


  1. Argyris, 1985 “Action Science”, Chris Argyris, Robert Putnam, Diana McLain-Smith, Published 1985 Jossey Bass.
  2. Argyris, 1990 “Overcoming Organizational Defenses”, Chris Argyris, Prentice Hall 1990.
  3. Argyris, 1999, “On Organizational Learning”, 2nd edition, Chris Argyris, Blackwell 1999
  4. Argyris, 2000, “Flawed Advice and the Management Trap”, Oxford Press 2000
  5. Argyris, 2004 “Reasons and Rationalizations: The Limits to Organizational Knowledge”, Chris Argyris, Oxford Press 2004
  6. Bain, 1998 “Social defenses against organizational learning”, Human Relations, vol 51, no. 3, pp. 413-429
  7. Biesma et al, 2007 : Biesma, Regien et al website “The Journal of Spurious Correlations last accessed 5 Apr 07
  8. Blank et al, 2007 : Jochen Blank, Michael J. Stauss, Jurgen Tomiuk, Joanna Fietz and Gernot Segelbacher  “Journal of Negative Results” last accessed 5 Apr 07
  9. Burke, 2006, “Why leaders fail: exploring the darkside”, Ronald J. Burke
  10. Dale et al, 2007 : Dale, Robert  website “Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning last accessed 5 Apr 07
  11. Fulmer, 1998 “The second generation learning organizations: new tools for sustaining competing advantage”, Fulmer RM, Gibbs P, Keys JB, Organizational Dynamics, vol. 27, no.2, pp. 7-20
  12. Gough, 2006, “Women See Friends, Men See Foes”,Nancy Gough
  13. International Journal of Manpower; Volume: 27   Issue: 1; 2006
  14. Kemerling, 2002,  “Philosophy Pages Last accessed 5 Apr 07
  15. Kern 2007, Website “Journal of Negative Observations in Genetic Oncology” at last accessed 5 Apr 07
  16. Kern, 1993, “Scientists’ Understanding of Propositional Logic: An Experimental Investigation “ Leslie H. Kern, Herbert L. Mirels, Virgil G. Hinshaw
  17. Olsen, 2007 : Olsen, Bjorn Website “Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine” last accessed 5 Apr 07
  18. Prechelt, 2006 : Prechelt, Lutz Website “Forum for Negative Results” last accessed 5 Apr 07
  19. Sabrina M. Tom, Craig R. Fox, Christopher Trepel, and Russell A. Poldrack Science 26 January 2007 315: 515-518 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1134239]
  20. Science 2 June 2006 312: 1281 [DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5778.1281c]
  21. Senge, 1990 “The Fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization”, Doubleday 1990, pp. 19-25
  22. Social Studies of Science, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Feb., 1983), pp. 131-146
  23. Thornton , 2006, “Karl Popper”, Thornton, Stephen, In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), At, accessed last April 20, 2007.
  24. Tom et al, 2007 “The Neural Basis of Loss Aversion in Decision-Making Under Risk



  It may be interesting to examine why gossip or “informal social communication” is mostly about negative outcomes, and why traffic accidents get our attention. This is perhaps an evolutionary byproduct of attention to danger since ignoring one true danger can be fatal, whereas running away from a false alarm is usually not. This is evident by the asymmetry in the neurology of risk evaluation (Tom et al, 2007).

[1] See RCS author’s guidelines at Last accessed 7 March 2010

[2] This is also known as the “fundamental attribution bias”

[3] Sadly, Popper was undone in part by the Duhem-Quine thesis which showed that rejecting an hypothesis in this way was not foolproof, since other reasons may exist why it failed. In this case, perhaps somebody painted my car!


Matthew Loxton is the director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

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