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Do you value learning in your organization? 

May 21, 2020 07:00 am | Bob Tiede 

Guest Post by Dr. Eric Zabiegalski and Dr. Craig Filipkowski

Note from Bob:  You may already know the story of how my journey to “Leading With Questions” really began in 2006 when I discovered Dr. Michael Marquardt’s book “Leading With Questions.”   What you might not know is that Mike is also the modern day father of Action Learning.  In December 2016, I, along with 20 of my Cru colleagues, were privileged to spend a week with Mike and his colleague Dr. Bea Carson as they trained us in Action Learning!  Today I am thrilled to be able to introduce you to Action Learning via this terrific “Guest Post” by my friends Eric Zabiegalski and Craig Filipkowski.  Please don’t miss the invitation at the bottom for you to particate in a virtual Community of Practice (CoP) on June 2, 2020 from 1:00-2:30 pm Eastern to learn more about Action Learning and the possibility of becoming an Action Learning Coach.

Learning organization is a popular buzzword today and many organizations think they have them. However, do you have a learning organization, and would you value one if you had it?  Learning Organizations are defined as organizations where people continually learn how to learn together, and they experience emergent, spontaneous learning often directed from the ground up. There’s a desire today for learning organizations that learn and share learning at all levels. However, tools and techniques to realize these practices are often not apparent or don’t resonate with leaders. The following blog post will provide you with tools, questions, and resources that leaders can use to build and maintain an effective learning organization.

Use Action Learning in YOUR Learning Organization

What is Action Learning?  It’s an amazing learning process which simultaneously: solves urgent organizational problems, develops leaders of every participant, and builds high performing teams.  A deceptively simple tool harnessing the power of questions, Action Learning uses a certified coach, two ground rules and six components to produce results that change cultures. When all the elements are in place, Action Learning is like a magic card trick; it works every time.  Action learning is rooted in the work of Reginald Revans who created it to help coal miners of Wales and England in the 1940s. Revans leveraged the idea that listening, reflecting, and learning through a shared professional dialogue was beneficial to learning. Over the past 80 years, action learning has been practiced in all industries to solve virtually any problem.   Action Learning makes Questions Safe. Somewhere along the line, asking questions fell from favor, even to the point of becoming unsafe.  Michael Marquardt, modern-day father of Action Learning and first president and co-founder of the World Institute for Action Learning (WIAL) would say this point happens in early adolescence when society tells us as children to “stop asking so many questions”, the inference being questions are bad. Mike has dedicated more than 30 years refining this tool he learned from Revans which is now used by organizations around the world.  Perhaps most remarkable, Action Learning creates heterogeneous learning cultures in record time set upon the highest norms with no destructive storming.

The first ground rule of Action Learning, “Statements can be made only in response to a question”, completely change the dynamics of meetings.  Common questions asked by Action Learning coaches during a session include:

  • How do you feel we are we doing as a group so far?
  • What are we doing well? What could we do better?
  • I am observing someone in the group interrupting or displaying xx behavior. What is the impact to the group as a result of this?
  • Do we have agreement on the problem, yes or no?
  • What actions are you going to take as a result of this meeting?

Action Learning changes lives and may even make a critical course correction going all the way back to childhood. Check out the World Institute for Action Learning (WIAL) to put this valuable tool in your toolbox.

Consider a CLO

A strategy to champion Action Learning in your organization may include the introduction of a Chief Learning Officer (CLO) position to your C-Suite.

Many companies are making room for a position known as the CLO, Chief Learning Officer. This position gives learning an equal ranking in the organization alongside performance and represents a desire to keep learning from taking a back seat to performance. The reason why learning so often takes a back seat is because performance shows a direct link to profit while learning only has an indirect link via performance. Is this your organization? CLO’s can interpret complex dynamics of social and organizational interactions while helping members and leaders alike understand the why behind the what. The intent is to enrich understanding that bolsters motivation and buy-in. Think of them as your learning champion and coach along the side lines. If this truth is explored deeper, leadership may see the value in evaluating how they approach learning.

Ask yourself these questions when considering a CLO:

  • What would be the value of enacting a Chief Learning Officer (CLO) position?
  • What would such a person do and what would our organizational chart look like?

The idea is simple; a CLO position is enacted to make sure “learning” has an equal seat at the decision-making table alongside performance. Remember that direct/indirect link between performance, learning, and profit? Organizations will often only allow their “star quarterbacks” to be sent in each time an activity is considered important while everyone else is relegated to the back of the bus. Before long, every activity is considered important and your star quarterback would likely not disagree. Repeated patterns like this one wreak havoc on your organization’s culture and its members’ ability to learn. The CLO position works closely with HR’s training and development arm but is not part of HR chain; this is an independent position.

Rather than developing just your star quarterback, they invest across the entire team. Answer the following questions: 

  • For our organization, what is the relationship between learning, performance, and profit?
  • Are you (we) part of an organization that proclaims a bottom up approach?
  • What system(s) do we have in place to encourage shared responsibility?
  • What system(s) do we have in place to ensure a voice from all employees?
  • Is your organization a safe place to learn and share learning struggles?

Build a Learning Organization

In their book Organizational Learning, from World-Class Theories to Global Best Practices, David Schwandt and Michael Marquardt suggest that ambidextrous organizations bridge a gap from organizational learning to the learning organization. What are ambidextrous organizations? In The Rise of the Ambidextrous Organization, the secret revolution happening right under your nose, they are defined as one type of learning organization that utilize and refine existing knowledge but also pursue new knowledge, they effectively exploit, and explore their environments in learning ways. Schwandt and Marquardt say learning organizations practice “learning in action,” in which knowledge, combined with questioning, reflection, and group learning, support performance.

In another book by Marquardt, Building a Learning Organization and its corresponding program outline four types of learning that can occur in Learning Organizations. Let’s look at these types while asking our organizations the following questions:

Adaptive learning: individuals and organizations learn from experience and reflection. This can be through single-loop learning which focuses on retaining and maintaining existing systems, or it can be through double-loop learning in which the systems itself is questioned and modified.

  • How can we improve our (existing system) to better meet the needs of the customer?
  • Does our (existing system) still meet the needs of the customer or should it be replaced?
  • Do we practice double-loop learning? Do we “act”, reflect on the action, modify as necessary based on prior learning and then act again reflecting on modified action?

Anticipatory learning: happens when the organization learns by examining their anticipation of the future

  • Given the COVID-19 climate and the uncertainty of traditional workplaces, what are easy changes we could put in place to reduce impact in the event of a pandemic resurgence?

Generative and Creative learning: linking new ideas to old knowledge

  • Does our organization value divergent thinkers as well as convergent thinkers?
  • Does our organization value “slow” or “gritty” learners and mistake makers?

Action learning: where a group or team works on real, relevant problems, implementing solutions, and taking the time to focus on the learning that occurs during this process.

  • Do people in our organization often interject or make declarative statements rather than ask questions to solve problems? If so, why and how does that make others feel?
  • How does it make you feel when someone asks you a question? Do you ask questions?

Find a CoP…(You are actually invited):

Finally, there’s a lot of talk these days about Communities of Practice (CoP’s). These helpful forums give patrons a vehicle for talking about and learning about their special interest, and Action Learning is a great one!   Next month, WIAL-USA will be holding its quarterly virtual Community of Practice (CoP) on June 2, 2020 from 1:00-2:30 pm Eastern. This particular CoP is for those interested in finding out more about Action Learning and the possibility of becoming an Action Learning Coach. Click HERE to register for the June 2, 2020 CoP with a keynote by Dr. Bea Carson and a “Coaches Corner” led by Dr. Eric Zabiegalski.

In this blog post we have provided you with tools, questions, resources, opportunities and experiences they can use or direct leaders to use in order to build and maintain an effective learning organization.  We hope you have had as much fun reading it as we have writing it!


Eric Zabiegalski and Craig Filipkowski

Author of The Rise of the Ambidextrous Organization, a book about building innovative learning organizations, Dr. Eric Zabiegalski, first became passionate about Action Learning when introduced to it by his dissertation chair Dr. Michael Marquardt, co-founder and first President of the World Institute for Action Learning (WIAL). Eric works as a program analyst and research practitioner for industry and teaches HR training and development for Webster University. Eric is a certified action learning coach and the Director of Learning Solutions for WIAL-USA .  You can read Eric’s monthly articles on LinkedIn  and you can contact Eric at

Through his doctoral research in educational leadership, Dr. Craig Filipkowski became intrigued with the idea of Leading with Questions. It was this concept that led him to the World Institute for Action Learning (WIAL) where he is currently the Vice Chairman of the WIAL-USA affiliate. He is also the founder and President of Action Learning Solutions LLC and can be found on LinkedIn. Email him at

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