Sometimes we can get so close to a problem, that every solution we apply seems to make no difference to the results. It’s important to take a step back and really understand what’s going on.
For example, have you ever had an argument with a thermostat? It’s a universal issue that transcends both the home and the office, and if you haven’t had the pleasure, picture the scene:
A thermostat is programmed to turn on once the temperature dips below 15 degrees, but the room’s still cold. The homeowner keeps programming and reprogramming and nothing changes.
This is single-loop learning, something we’re all familiar with. We know what we want to achieve, and we try our best to get to that result based on our understanding of the system in question.
This issue was explored by Greek business theorist Chris Argyris as part of his ongoing investigation into ‘Learning Organisations’. “The trouble arises,” he states, “when the technology is not effective and the underlying objectives and policies must be questioned.”1 For me, the same principle can be applied to ensuring effective strategic internal communications.
Double-loop learning defined
His response, double-loop learning, is to take a step back and explore the governing issues that have helped to set the desired action in the first place. In the example of the thermostat, the homeowner hasn’t been made aware that the heating system was built in America, and so is set to Fahrenheit instead of Celsius. Without this crucial piece of information, the desired result can never realistically be achieved, as the room would need to get as cold as -9 before it turned on.
“Most organisations,” Chris continues, “often without realising it, create systems of learning that suppress a double-loop inquiry and make it difficult for even a well-designed information system to be effective.”2
In this TEDx video, hear from Roderic Yapp, a former Royal Marine, as he applies the theory in Double-loop learning: a case study from the front-line. After all, there can be few more important scenarios for effective strategic internal communications and questioning every variable than in planning a life-or-death firefight.
The strategic internal communications context
Leaving thermostats and military combat to one side, we can easily see how double-loop learning can be put into practice in our industry every day.
One of the most important facets of what we do is measuring the impact of the communications we create. That’s exactly why our mission at 44 is to create worthwhile communication that makes a lasting and positive difference.
If the action is to measure the impact of a magazine, video, or event for example – are we always sure we’re taking into consideration the governing factors around that action?
For examples, if you were measuring the impact of a historically well-read and well-regarded print magazine and noticed that its uptake had dropped, it might be natural to examine the quality of content, the imagery, the positioning and more. However, it may actually be an environmental factor, such as a drive in the business to reduce paper-use, that’s causing the change in behaviour.
One suggestion for double-loop learning
There are lots of ways we can help you explore double-loop learning, and maybe the quickest opportunity is to widen your measurement view.
In our Five Step Value Framework, we explore the idea that the impact of what we do as communicators should exist beyond the uplift or response to a single channel or even a series of channels. Employee communication shouldn’t just be measured in how colleagues interact with it, but in how the experience of that employee improves. That might be increased working efficiencies, reduced sickness days or improved company profitability, for example.
So, when we’re trying to achieve our strategic internal communications goals, we should always ask ourselves, where was the thermostat actually made?
1 2 Organizational learning and management information systems, Chris Argyris, 2002
Image credit: ‘Double-loop’ learning, adopted from Argyris and Schön (1974)
For help and support resetting your (employee engagement) thermostat, get in touch.