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In the age of rapid globalization, mind-blowing technology advancements, and growing consumer power, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: for a business to survive and succeed, it must become a learning organization first and foremost. Regardless of industry, size, age, or business model, every organization must forge ahead in learning better and faster in order to stay competitive.

“As more companies realize that the key resource of business is not capital, personnel, or facilities, but rather knowledge, information, and ideas, many new views of the organization are beginning to emerge.”        – Building the Learning Organization, Chapter 1

The big challenge, of course, is how to create a learning organization.

In Building the Learning Organization, author Michael Marquardt explains how a business can adapt and survive in a rapidly changing landscape and build a foundation for becoming a learning organization. Based on his experience with hundreds of learning organizations, Marquardt discovered that this can only be done when a company understands and develops five related subsystems. He created the Systems Learning Organization model and in this book, guides leaders through each subsystem with in-depth information, real world examples from successful learning organizations, and actionable ideas.

The Systems Learning Organizational Model

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Learning is the core subsystem of the learning organization. It takes place at the individual, group, and organizational levels. Marquardt drills down into the levels and types of learning that are crucial for organizational learning and skill development.


The organization itself, the setting and body in which the process occurs, is a subsystem of a learning organization. The author explains the four key components of the organization subsystem — vision, culture, strategy, and structure — and how they serve the learning organization.


The people subsystem includes managers, leaders, employees, customers, business and alliance partners, suppliers, vendors, and the surrounding community. Marquardt shows how each group is an important part of the learning organization and can be empowered and enabled to learn.


The knowledge subsystem is where the acquired and generated knowledge of the organization is managed. It includes the acquisition, creation, storage, analysis/data mining, transfer and dissemination, and application and validation of knowledge.


The technology subsystem encompasses supporting, integrated technological networks and information tools that allow access to and exchange of information and learning.

Action Learning

Action learning is an approach every organization can use regardless of size or budget to tackle specific problems such as reducing turnover, orchestrating a re-org, or improving information systems. Marquardt goes as far as to say it could be the most effective tool in building a learning organization, and he dedicates a chapter in the book to describing what it is and how a company can harness action learning to adapt to constant change and create a culture of continuous learning.

Action learning is a process that involves a small group people working on critical organizational problems with the goal of learning how to better solve problems, work as a group, and explore how its learnings can benefit the organization. Its power and benefits come from these six interdependent elements:

  1. A significant problem, project, challenge, issue, or task
  2. A diverse group of 4-8 individuals from inside, and possibly outside, the organization
  3. Reflective questioning to clarify the nature of the problem and possible solutions
  4. Taking action, implementing strategies and ideas
  5. Individual, group and organizational learning
  6. Coaching/facilitation to assist the group in focusing on learning and solving the problem at hand

“We learn most when faced with a real problem which we are obliged to solve.” – Lord Weinstock

Action learning was pioneered by professor Reg Revans in the mid-1900’s, and has been successfully adopted by hundreds of organizations around the world. It is being continually advanced by business management experts including Marquardt, and through organizations such as the World Institute for Action Learning (WIAL) and the International Foundation for Action Learning (IFAL).

Crucial Steps in Becoming a Learning Organization

While there is no single way to grow a learning organization, there are a number of common strategies and actions the world’s most successful learning organizations have adopted and developed. Here are a handful of the 16 steps in building a learning organization that Marquardt details in the last chapter of his book:

  • Commit to becoming a learning organization.
  • Form a powerful coalition for change.
  • Connect learning with business operations.
  • Establish corporate-wide strategies for learning.
  • Extend learning to the whole business chain.

More info, ideas and inspiration for learning leaders

Looking to build or evolve your learning organization? Below are a few more great reads, and a compelling video. If you’re a Safari member, you already have unlimited access to these titles. If you don’t use Safari and would like to try it for free or explore options for your organization, click here:

  1. Optimizing the Power of Action Learning, 2nd Edition by Michael J. Marquardt
  2. Leading with Questions by Michael J. Marquardt
  3. Hyper-Productive Knowledge Work Performance by Steve Tendon and Wolfram Muller
  4. Learning Models for Innovation in Organizations by Fawzy Soliman
  5. Building a Culture of Continuous Learning, Vanessa Hurst at OSCON 2014

Tags: Learning, Learning and Development, learning organization,

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