Adaptive management is essentially about learning how to better manage complex ecological systems to meet multiple objectives. Argyris and Schon (1978), experts in organizational learning, coined the terms "single loop learning" and "double loop learning" to describe ways that organizations learn. Most of us apply "single loop learning;" adaptive managers apply both.
"Single loop learning" occurs when you correct errors and solve the immediate problem you are faced with (e.g., how to hit the management target), based on existing assumptions about how the system works. "Double loop learning" means addressing the more basic questions of why a problem occurred in the first place and whether the management target is correct.
It means questioning the assumptions that underlie both common practices and management objectives. Chris Argyris uses a thermostat to illustrate the difference between single and double loop learning. "A thermostat is a single loop learner. It detects when the air around it is too hot or too cold and corrects the situation by turning the heat on or off." 1 Double loop learning means figuring out why the air is too hot (is the sun shining in the east-facing windows?) or too cold (did someone leave the door open again?) and then correcting the basic problem. In some cases, this may also mean adjusting the management target (perhaps maintaining a constant temperature of 208 C is not the most economical way of keeping the room comfortable). In this example it is easy to see how double loop learning can save money - you close the door to reduce heat loss instead of burning more oil in the furnace. Such "savings," whether economic, ecological, or social, could also be achieved by applying double loop learning to resource management.
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Updated November 14, 2008