Learning: know-how (single-loop learning) and know-why (double-loop learning)

In your working experience you likely have accumulated knowledge about ‘how things are done’. The assumptions you make and the organisational routines you use probably work well, otherwise you would not use them anymore. In other words, you have a considerable amount of know-how at your disposal.

However, taking a moment to think about ‘why’ these routines or procedures are in use can be valuable: it can help you challenge the prevailing assumptions or conceptions and the habitual routines and procedures of your organisation. You can then reconsider which actions would be best in each situation and start to improve and tailor the different skills, strategies and procedures you use. Better insight into the ‘know-why’ has positive impact on the ‘know-how’ as well.

Learning has been defined as consisting of two aspects:

  1. The acquisition of skill or know-how , which is the ability to perform effectively. This type of learning is also called 'single-loop' learning.
  2. The acquisition of know-why , which is the ability to understand why that action was useful and successful, i.e. when it should be applied. This type of learning is also called 'double-loop' learning.
In the CHANGING BEHAVIOUR project we have identified the importance of ‘double-loop’ learning (know-why) in addition to ‘single-loop’ learning’’ (know-how) in promoting energy efficiency.
  • ‘Single-loop’ learning is concerned with finding the solution to a technical or practical problem: which approach or instrument works best or most effectively in solving the problem? It is therefore closely related to know-how and grows with experience.
  • ‘Double-loop’ learning, on the other hand, is concerned with underlying conceptions, assumptions, beliefs, norms and values. You might, for example, redefine the nature and causes of the problems you are trying to solve. Double-loop learning relates to the know-why , which helps you understand your own organisation and role and those of your target group and project stakeholders better.

How to create double-loop learning

The more traditional ‘single-loop’ learning aims to evaluate progress towards a set of pre-set goals and to estimate how effective a certain instrument or action was in achieving these goals. ‘Single-loop’ learning hence helps you to identify practical problems in your project and points you to alternative approaches, actions or instruments to improve the progress and outcomes of your project.
The section Evaluate and Learn in this toolkit contains elements that help you to integrate ‘single-loop’ learning into your work. Additionally, each step supports ‘double-loop’ learning by focusing on the assumptions, beliefs, norms and values underlying certain actions or expectations:
  1. Step 11: Define Progress and Manage External Expectations helps you to understand the expectations of all actor groups involved in your project.
  2. Conflicting values can be negotiated and common objectives established by responding to the feedback you get (Step 12: Get some Feedback).
  3. Evaluate and Improve encourages you to keep your project flexible and allow for changes based on careful evaluation.
  4. Develop a Learning Culture aims at challenging your own assumptions and routines. Therefore, all activities also contain one or several elements of ‘double-loop’ learning.