Double-Loop Organization Membership

The ESIP Federation Assembly meets every year to decide on a range of issues.

Double-Loop Organization Membership

Double-loop governed organizations place significant value on the rules and roles of membership. Whether the organization is a “purpose-led” corporation, such as Zappos, an open-source software community, such as Ubuntu, or a collection of research projects, such as the ESIP Federation: membership (or employee-ship) is important because members are tasked to create and celebrate the values and the vision of the organization and to work to fulfill its mission and goals. Members are inspired (rather than required) to commit to this vision. Membership is openly acquired and acknowledged, and its responsibilities are plainly spelled out. Somewhere in the shared rules and roles, an ability to rewrite the shared rules and roles is provided to all members.

This ability creates and supports a mode of reflexive learning. At the same time that members are working to solve certain problems—the solution for which is the mission of the organization—they are also evaluating this same mission. They are responsible not just for incremental success, but also for opportunities to pivot the entire organization into a different mission, one that resolves not just the problem at hand, but some underlying condition as well.

At Zappos, an internet shoe store (now a part of Amazon), employees in their first days of orientation are given the option of taking a $2,000 check to simply quit and walk away. “We want employees that believe in our long-term vision and want to be a part of our culture.”(Hsieh 2010; Kindle Location 2549). At winter ESIP Federation meetings all of the members present gather at Assembly meetings where fundamental issues (including the organization’s budget) and executive positions of the organization are brought up for discussion and a vote.


Single-loop organizations may also support membership, but membership for these is often perfunctory (e.g., a log-in account on the organization website), and may be loosely defined or changed without members having a say. The organization may simply use its membership as a list to broadcast (or request) information.

Here we might remember that the U.S. Government is (at least in spirit) a double-loop governed organization. Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution gives the Senate and/or the States a method to create a constitutional convention to rewrite the constitution. (After two hundred years since the first one, a constitutional convention would certainly produce some interesting new text.) A related power is given to amend the Constitution, a process that has been performed several times.

Similarly, Article 9 of the Constitution of the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners gives the membership the right to rewrite or amend its constitution. Because members can re-vision the organization, membership rules and roles are taken very seriously by the organization, and consequently, by its members. The governance charter of the Ubuntu organization provide precise rules and roles for managing that software development (See: ). Charters, statements of values, and constitutions are all indicators of double-loop governance, although the amount of double-loop capabilities rests in how much reflexive authority they give to the membership.

The vision statement, as Sinek reminds (2009) us, is the public statement about why an organization exists. Mission statements/business plans are Loop 1 outcomes. The mission statement tell us how the organization “intends to create [the] future” (Kindle Locations 2035-2045).  The “how” is firmly in Loop 1. This is further articulated in business and strategic plans, and then in policies that direct activities. The “why” lives in Loop 2, and is embodied in the values expressed through the vision statement. The why—the vision, expressed as values—is often described as the “culture” of the organization.

Tony Hsieh is famous for saying “your culture is your brand.” (2010, Kindle Locations 2529-2540). Your vision statement, including your core  values, is the center of your organization: “We believe that it’s really important to come up with core values that you can commit to. And by commit, we mean that you’re willing to hire and fire based on them.” (Ibid, Kindle Locations 2545-2566).  In a community-based organization, just as in a purpose-led company, double-loop governance—as difficult as this may be to bootstrap—forges a congruence between the words on the vision statement (whatever these are), and the quality of learning and knowledge management in the organization. When “your governance is your culture,” the members can more fully commit to the organization. This makes many subsequent (and consequent) tasks that much easier.

Done well, culture is not just an asset, it is an engine for double-loop learning within the organization, and that, in turn, is the foundation for knowledge management. Lehr and Rice (2002) make the following observation; “Double-loop learning is where knowledge is generated from information: more specifically, where the process of implementing information is evaluated, validated, verified, and adapted (p. 1062). Done poorly, “culture” becomes either decorative or punitive (something that employees are required to memorize, rather than something that could engage an active volunteer-base). Vision statements can and should be early Loop 2 outcomes. Single-loop organizations also have vision statements. What they lack is the built-in capability to question the underlying assumptions of these.

For a member/community-led organization the vision is what brings together all of the disparate intentions and backgrounds into one common, shared future. This vision should be visionary, it should announce with conviction the higher purpose that the organization will embrace (higher than profits or technological success). It needs to inspire the membership, and incite the impulse to leadership.


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