Learning Ambidexterity in Organization: Understanding the Learning Organization

Picture this: you’re standing on a street corner in a city after a rain when a car speeds by, plowing through a large puddle just feet from where you’re standing, your pants are soaked through. You just learned something.  Learning in organizations can feel like this at times. It can be intentional and structured as in the case of planned training or it can be unintentional and unstructured as in where to stand on a city street after a rain.  The truth is learning happens every minute of the day and can come from anywhere.  In great organizations all learning is recognized, captured, shared, encouraged, and valued every bit as much as performance, learning never takes a back seat to performance, they are always together.

We started our discussion about organizational ambidexterity a few articles ago talking about the bottom line for organizations, organizational exploitation drives out exploration. As organizations exploit the market doing what they do best they consequently stop exploring and learning new things.  When they adopt this exploitive lather, rinse, and repeat mindset they lose their ability to leverage new learning and perform in ways that would guarantee their future success.  Learning is the hub of every successful company and today we will discuss the ways in which learning supports the ambidextrous organization.

Organizational Learning or a Learning Organization

“Organizational learning” processes do everything from correct errors and behaviors to conduct required training.

Words matter, so pick the ones which will define your organization very carefully.  The names we assign our processes and behaviors affect us in subtle, yet profound sub-conscious ways and it’s likely you are unaware of them. Take Organizational Learning, a familiar phrase synonymous with annual training and benefits briefings.  “Organizational learning” processes do everything from correct errors and behaviors to conduct required training.  It’s also a term which, if each word, organization, and learning, is considered individually, is an oxymoron, antithetical, and unless you’re an ambidextrous organization, impossible. When you consider the definition of the word “organization” you discover it denotes a “parsing down” of items to a selected exclusive few, whereas “learning” suggests a widening of the aperture, considering a larger selection.  Given these conflicting definitions, it’s no wonder organizational learning is so difficult to achieve at any except the smallest of incremental levels.

A learning organization by contrast does not carry the same contradictions. Learning organizations are organizations where people continually learn how to learn together, and experience emergent, spontaneous learning often directed from the ground up.  David Schwandt and Michael Marquardt suggest that ambidextrous companies because of their exploitive and explorative nature bridge a gap from organizational learning to the learning organization.  They practice “learning in action,” in which programmed knowledge, combined with questioning, reflection, and group learning, support and sustain performance.

Creating a Dynamic Learning Environment

If the single most important thing a CEO does for their organization is set the culture then the single most important thing culture does is create and protect a dynamic learning environment.  It’s not enough to allow and encourage learning, you must protect and defend it too. What can you do to promote a dynamic (ambidextrous) learning organization? Try these ideas for starters.

  1. Allow Workers to Behave in Risky Ways. Give workers the freedom to explore creatively, as Teresa Amabile says “explore the maze”.  Unless you’re sure your employees are about to burn the place down leave them alone and see what happens.
  2. Perturb Learning. In the article, Wellsprings of Creation: How Perturbation Sustains Exploration in Mature Organizations, the authors prescribe a culture that includes intentionally “shaking things up” or “perturbing” specialized exploitative routines to break cultural inertia (becoming too rigid in thinking and practice). This is a great technique for promoting new learning and exposing underperforming processes that on the surface may appear to be running efficiently.  Learning inside an organization must be greater than changes outside and an organization must learn faster than its competitors. By perturbing your own processes, you expose yourself to more learning opportunities than your competitors and experience a higher percentage of changes than would be encountered normally through routine operations.  Leverage perturbation to continually renew and refresh your learning processes.
  3. Make Questions Safe. Somewhere along the line asking questions falls from favor, even to the point of becoming unsafe. Michael Marquardt, modern-day father of an amazing tool known as Action Learning, 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 not a good thing.  Mike has dedicated more than 30 years refining this tool now used by organizations all over the world.  A deceptively simple process harnessing the power of questions, Action Learning uses a certified coach, two ground rules, and six components to produce results that change cultures.  With all the elements in place, it’s like a magic card trick and works every time to: solve urgent organizational problems, develop leaders, and build high-performing teams.  Perhaps most remarkably Action Learning creates heterogeneous learning cultures in record time.  Cultures set upon the highest, most inclusive, and respectful norms with no destructive storming in the process.  Action Learning changes lives and perhaps makes a critical course correction going all the way back to our childhood. Check out the World Institute for Action Learning (WIAL) and consider putting this tool in your toolbox.


Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski is a graduate of George Washington University in Human and Organizational Learning and has been researching and studying leadership, learning, and change for over 20 years. Eric has been on all sides of the leadership fence from leader and manager to employee and servant and has practiced leadership and served leaders in some of the most coveted and challenging places in the world. With an early professional history as a technical expert, Eric has gone from being a technical SME (subject matter expert) to being a people SME and considers the human mind, human behavior, and consciousness to be the next great frontier for discovery. It is in this realm where he combines his technical subject matter expertise with his human sociological and organizational expertise for the betterment of individuals, organizations, their processes, and humanity. With additional interests in emotional intelligence or "EQ", servant leadership and followership, neuroscience, complexity science, creativity and ambidextrous organizations, Eric has been driven to finding the right balance of qualities, efforts and behaviors in order to not only build better high performing and learning teams but also create a better world in which to live, love, and grow. Eric lives on the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay close to Washington DC with his wife, daughter, and Chow dog Wamu. Eric is the author of The Rise of the Ambidextrous Organization and Leading Ambidextrous Organizations, Part 1,2,3 (E-Books).

SOLD OUT! JOIN OUR WAITING LIST! It's not a virtual event. It's not a conference. It's not a seminar, a meeting, or a symposium. It's not about attracting a big crowd. It's not about making a profit, but rather about making a real difference. LEARN MORE HERE



  1. Interesting! Thanks for sharing.
    Successful Learning Organizations are supported by a collaborative learning culture, in which each person plays a decisive role. a mentality of “continuous learning”, self-reflection, to overcome differences of opinion that hinder progress, a “shared vision” that challenges assumptions, encourages self-reflection and sets an example for all members of the team. The shared vision must become a unifying and propulsive thrust for the realization of what emerged from creative reflection. The team needs to have the ability to think as a whole. This is achieved through continuous dialogue and the sound management of conflicts, which in this case become an opportunity for mutual knowledge, generating a collective intelligence (which exceeds the sum of that of individuals). The members of each team must be aware of the company’s training objectives and the desired results, collaborating to achieve them.
    At the same time, the collaborative culture develops from different perspectives, encouraging users to respect and confront the ideas of their colleagues. In this context, it is possible to implement social learning tools to promote and facilitate the sharing of knowledge.

  2. Hi, Eric.

    Mike Marquardt is a real character! When I first ran across his ‘stuff,’ I realized how much it connected to the world of mediation, since it relies on not just questions, but really great questions. I have woven his work into much of my group coaching practice, though I tend to be a little less formulaic and dogmatic about exactitude.

    In the broader sense, I move toward creating a better understanding of the power of framing to guide decision-making. A very cool guy once told me “Capabilities and relationships are two thing you build before you need them. You manage things, lead people. If you treat people like things, you’ll piss them off.” How I frame my role and goal at any given moment charts the decisions I make in that conversation. That moment, pause, of mindfulness is a critical leadership turning point,

    I especially appreciate your point about ‘risky ways.’ Bravo! We are so programmed to equate mistakes with failure that many of us learn two hideous lessons: it’s better to do nothing than risk error, and as long as you don’t get caught, you’re okay. OUCH.

    Here’s a couple of snacks for thought on that topic:

    Finally, please drop in and give a listen to the back2different podcast (including three episodes from Friendship Bench warmers):


salon 360°