Posted: June 21st, 2022

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LDRS 310: Unit 1 Notes | Mark Halvorson, 2020

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Unit 1: The Action Learning Organization [Draft]

Guiding Question: What is the “action learning” organization, how does it work, and why
does it matter?

This course is a practical study of the leadership work of collaborating with others
to make sense of complex problems and create innovative solutions. This study will
be reflexive, meaning our study of this leadership work will reflect back on itself. We
will be examining how to collaboratively solve complex problems while at the same
time collaboratively solving the problem of how to solve problems collaboratively.

Why Action Learning Organizations?

The human endeavour to learn—that is, to gain knowledge about the world and new
abilities to cope with its challenges—is central to our lived experience. Essential to
human success is our ability to adapt to dynamic environments by way of our
individual, and more importantly, our collective intelligence and ingenuity. By way of
learning, we prepare for future action using our knowledge of the past. We reflect on
present action and improve upon what we already know. We consider what we
don’t know, or what we think we know (but don’t really know) to estimate emerging
opportunities, imagine the impossible, and devise new capabilities. Our unique
capacity for collective learning is made possible by human language, which over the
ages, has enabled us to share what we’ve learned and make it a part of our collective
memory. In this way, human ideas outlast the individuals who formulate them,
allowing our collective knowledge to accumulate from generation to generation.

We are “the learning species” writes Kolb (1984) and “our survival depends on our
ability to adapt not only in the reactive sense of fitting into the physical and social
worlds, but in the proactive sense of creating and shaping those worlds” (p. 1). On
the surface human learning is an adaptive process—that is, 1) we preserve what is
essential for our continued success, 2) discard what no longer serves our needs, and
3) develop new abilities to flourish in new ways and in new environments. However,
as Kolb adds human learning is also a generative process. That is, the heart of
human learning is our response to the natural tension generated by the gap that
exists between our understanding of the world as it is and our envisaging of the
world as it could be. Senge (1990a, 1990b) refers to this aspect of learning as
creative tension, which he defines as the gap generated between reality (what is) and
vision (what could be). Initiating and sustaining creative tension is what leaders do.

Senge (1990b) found the inspiration for his creative tension concept from Martin
Luther King, who wrote, “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a
tension in the mind, so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and
half truths . . . so must we . . . create the kind of tension in society that will help men
rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism” (p. 9). While King’s intention was
societal change, Senge’s intended context is individual and organizational learning.

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Our ancestors’ process of adapting to new situations, including those problematic
situations we generate through the creative tension we bring forth as a species, has
continued throughout the course of human history and into our present day. This
pattern of collective learning broadly explains how we developed the staggering
technological, social and intellectual complexity we now experience daily in our
contemporary world. Our learning has brought forth “a world that is increasingly of
our own creation—a world paved in concrete, girded in steel, wrapped in plastic,
and positively awash in symbolic communications” (Kolb, 1984, pp. 1-2). We have
created a world in our own image; characterized by an increasing rationalization of
what we know and do, individualization of our sense of being, secularization of our
values, industrialization of our work, urbanization of our dwelling, capitalization of
our economic activity, and nationalization and globalization of our societies.

When we observe the contemporary world we now inhabit, we may characterize
our collective human learning outcomes in both conservative and progressive terms.
To illustrate, consider how we both sustain and revolutionize our human societies
through the social institutions, we inhabit and maintain. On one hand, each society
continues to reproduce itself according to a shared image. Each society creates and
sustains what Taylor (2007) calls a social imaginary, which brings forth a particular
social order through a relatively persistent system of social institutions, patterns of
interactions and customs, capable of continually reproducing those conditions
essential for its own existence. These essential organizing conditions—which
remain relatively constant over time—include both structural arrangements, such
as, property, exchange and power relations, and cultural forms, communication
relations and ideological systems of values. This social order is grounded within
people’s deeply held belief in, what Schön (1973) calls, a stable state—“the
unchangeability, the constancy of central aspects of our lives, or belief that we can
attain such a constancy” (p. 9). Simply put, human beings don’t like uncertainty.
Consequently, the collective learning outcomes within our social institutions often
exhibit “dynamic conservatism,” or “a tendency to fight to remain the same” (p. 30).

On the other hand, members of a society are continuously imagining and reimaging
what they want the society to be. [Need an example of social revolution here.] The
persistent problem with seeking the ideal of a stable state is that “the only certainty
is uncertainty” (Nonaka, p. 96). Indeed, organizations must continuously make sense
of a changing operating environment by either assimilating external changes to fit
their existing structures, or accommodate their existing structures to fit new
realities. That is, organizations need to continuously transform in response to
changing social situations and requirements and act as learning organizations.

We must, in other words, become adept at learning. We must become able
not only to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and
requirements; we must invent and develop institutions which are ‘learning
systems’, that is to say, systems capable of bringing about their own
continuing transformation. (Schön, 1973, p. 28)

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This notion of the learning organization is historically situated within the idea of a
learning society. That is, our previous observation that “our society and all of its
institutions are in continuous processes of transformation” (Schön, 1973, p. 28).
Hutchins (1968) adds that a learning society emerges as the necessary consequence
of two intertwined societal phenomenon: “the increasing proportion of free time
and the rapidity of change” (p. 130). What is most significant here, he argues is that
“the latter requires continuous education; the former makes it possible” (p. 130).
For Hutchins, the initial archetype of the learning society is ancient Athens where:

education was not a segregated activity, conducted for certain hours, in
certain places, at a certain time of life. It was the aim of the society. The city
educated the man. The Athenian was educated by culture, by paideia.
(Hutchins, 1968, p. 133)

What made the ancient Greek learning society possible? It was slavery, which gave
citizens the time to participate in the cultural life of the city. What currently makes
our modern learning society possible? Hutchins’ (1968) argument is “machines can
do for modern [people] what slavery did for the privileged few in Athens” (p. 133).
Technological change is merely one of the eight environmental forces Marquardt
(2011) identified, compelling organizations to either learn or face extinction.

• Globalization and the global economy
• Technology and the Internet
• Radical transformation of the work world
• Increased customer power
• Emergence of knowledge and learning as major organizational assets
• Changing roles and expectations of workers
• Workplace diversity and mobility
• Rapidly escalating change and chaos (p. 2)

Forces, such as, economic globalization and the rapid exchange of technological
innovation are driving the world toward increased integration, and creating new
tensions with the enduring nature of social, political and cultural differences that
identify peoples, communities, and institutions. In the midst of these tensions lies
the domain of leadership, which on one hand faces the pressure for change from the
technical development of the global economy, and on the other hand, people’s desire
for social stability and wellbeing afforded by established values and structures.

Our present socio-economic reality is recognized by many to be the dawn of a new
age— that is, an age centred on a knowledge economy. It is a paradigm shift made
possible by standing on the shoulders of industrial age schools. Yet, the very success
of these industrial schools in educating the masses and churning out generations of
“experts” has generated a whole new set of concerns. Most unsettling for those who
lead is the fact that being an “expert” today is a short-lived advantage and having the
“answers” is often a disadvantage when what is needed today is the ability to make
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sense of what is emerging. Indeed, as the former CEO of GE insightfully observed:
“an organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is
the ultimate competitive business advantage” (as cited in Slater, 1999, p. 12).

The nature of the problems we now face individually, in our organizations and
communities, and broadly as nations and as a species is shifting before our eyes. In
the late twentieth century we witnessed the rise of wicked problems. Rittel and
Webber (1984) famously argued many of the problems we now face are inherently
unstable, ill-defined, ambiguous, circular, stubborn, and even aggressive in nature.
What this means is each wicked problem we encounter—in a wide range of fields—
is unique, is often the result of other problems, has consequences that are difficult to
imagine, has no criteria for knowing when it has been solved, has numerous
intervention points, is resistant to change, and has solutions that are good or bad.

What is changing is we are reaching a point in our collective history where our time-
tested success strategy—that is, learning from the collective wisdom of our elders—
is no longer sufficient to our continued flourishing. A frequently cited way of
conceptualizing this emerging situation is with the acronym VUCA, created by the
U.S. Army War College to describe how the multilateral world that resulted from the
ending of the Cold War has become more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

The consequence of our VUCA world, according to Canadian scholar Homer-Dixon
(2003) is that humanity now faces an ingenuity gap. The essence of his argument is:

The complexity, the pace, and often the unpredictability of events in our
world are soaring, as is the severity of environmental stress. If we are to
meet the challenges we face in this new world, we need more ingenuity. But
we cannot always supply the ingenuity we need at the right times and places,
and the result is an ingenuity gap. (p. 6)

In localized contexts this reality is not new; the limits of human ingenuity have been
reached time and again, as evidenced by the rise and fall of numerous civilizations.
What has changed, as the futurist Alvin Toffler (1980) is often quoted as saying, is
“the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but
those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”1 We need leaders and organizations
who are not only able to learn, but able to increase our capacity to learn together.
Increasingly, it is no longer sufficient for the leader alone to learn for everyone else.
Consequently, today’s leaders must create, sustain, and grow learning communities
to support their leadership work of moving people toward a shared purpose.

Today when we speak about the idea of the learning organization and its associated

1 This oft quoted phrase is actually a paraphrase of the original text: “By instructing students how to
learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to education…Tomorrow’s
illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.”

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practices and processes, people more often use the term innovation. What exactly is
innovation? Put simply, it is the action or process of innovating—that is, making
changes in something established. Indeed, the key characteristic of innovation is
“newness”, but this concept is relative. To begin with, an “innovation can be
[broadly] considered [something] new to an individual adopter, a group or team, an
organization, an industry or the wider society” (Damanpour & Schneider, 2006, p.
216). In some cases, this means a truly new creation, adaptation, or adoption. And in
all cases, it is something either new to an incremental degree, or radically different
than what preceded it. Innovation occurs in products, services, systems, strategies,
and processes (such as, how people in organizations work together). Innovation in
organizations is a multi-stage process, often involving multi-disciplinary expertise.
Organizations typically innovate in response to changing (internal and external)
environments. Undeniably, as marketplaces globalize, technologies proliferate,
social patterns shift, and ecologies wither the strategic significance of innovation
has steadily increased. Innovation is important, because it plays the central role in
creating and sustaining growth. As Baregheh, Rowley, & Sambrook (2009) put it,
innovation is the “process whereby organizations transform ideas into
new/improved products, service or processes, in order to advance, compete and
differentiate themselves successfully in their marketplace” (p. 1334). Nevertheless,
at the heart of innovation is learning, and to innovate organizations still need to
become learning organizations, so it is this underlying pursuit we shall consider.
What is the Action Learning Organization?

What is the learning organization? The first notable definition was an organization
with the ability to detect and correct errors, and iteratively resolve mismatch of
outcome to expectation (Argyris & Schön, 1978). Levitt and March (1988) added the
idea that learning organizations intentional encode lessons learned into routines
that guide behavior, including policies, procedures, and their underlying beliefs.

Senge (1990a), who popularized the learning organization in his book The Fifth
Discipline, described the concept as place “where people continually expand their
capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of
thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are
continually learning how to learn together” (p. 3). Nonaka (1991), similarly,
imagined the learning organization as a “knowledge-creating” place where people
“consistently create new knowledge, disseminate it widely throughout the
organization, and quickly embody it in new technologies and products” (p. 96).
Moreover, he suggested that “to create new knowledge means quite literally to re-
create the [organization] and everyone in it in a nonstop process of personal and
organizational self-renewal” (p. 97). Huber (1991) brought further attention to the
processes and practices of acquiring, distributing, interpreting and retaining the
information that organizational units recognize as potentially useful. Expanding on
Huber model Garvin (1993; 2000) in a very pragmatic way defines the learning
organization as a collective skilled at two critical activities: 1) “creating, acquiring,
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interpreting, transferring, and retaining knowledge” and 2) “purposefully modifying
[its collective] behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights (2000, p. 11).

Nevis, DiBella and Gould (1995) shifted the focus back to competences and
processes within an organization that maintain or improve performance based on
experience. Marquardt (2011) summed up a decade of evolving definitions with his
observation that the essence of a learning organization is its “[ability] to harness the
collective genius of its people at the individual, group, and system level” (p. 2). Then
more recently, Marquardt, Banks, Cauweiler, and Seng Ng (2018) simply defined the
learning organization as “organizations that continuously learn and improve and
thereby successfully adapt to the rapidly changing environment” (p. 24).

A critical observation we can make about all these definitions is that they seem to
reflect two different categories of thought, one being descriptive and the other one
being prescriptive. Within this two stream categorization of organizational learning
literature, “the descriptive strand would be the study of learning processes, while
the prescriptive strand would focus on building an organization that learns” (Sun &
Scott, 2003). Hence, the ground-breaking work of Argyris and Schön (1978) that
described iterative error detection processes can be understood as a descriptive
definition. Whereas, Senge’s (1990a) work that promoted a generative vision of
learning is more characteristic of a definition that is prescriptive. This distinction is
important, because it represents two unique dimensions needed to form a complete
and practical definition of organizational learning. First, a valid framework for
understanding organizational learning must define, “the learning process used in
the organization… [dealing] with the question of how individuals in the organization
learn” (Sun & Scott, 2003). Second, a valid framework must also deal with how
learning transfers, “from individual(s) to collective(s) to organizational to inter-
organizational, and vice versa, and [how it] ‘must’ result in changes in behavior”
(Sun & Scott, 2003) to ensure that genuine knowledge transference has taken place.

When the body of descriptive and prescriptive theories are all taken together as a
whole a common set of “action imperatives” emerge. Thus, we might reasonably say
learning organizations: (1) create continuous learning opportunities, (2) promote
inquiry and dialogue, (3) encourage collaboration and team learning, (4) establish
systems to capture and share learning, (5) empower people toward collective vision,
and (6) connect the organization to its environment (Watkins & Marsick, 1993).
When we consider the learning organization as a set of action imperatives it
becomes clear it is not really a type of organization at all. It is better characterized as
a leadership methodology that strives to make all organizational practices, systems,
and the supporting culture an intentional, integrated, and wise learning process.

Conceptualized in this way the learning outcomes of this leadership methodology is
to create an organized body of people with a particular purpose (that is, an
organization) that: 1) knows what to do by creating, acquiring, interpreting,
transferring and retaining knowledge; 2) does what it knows by purposefully
modifying its collective behavior to reflect new knowledge; and 3) expands its
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capacity to create the results it truly desires by way of continuous individual and
collaborative reflection, which clarifies its collective aspirations (what could be, and
what we want it to be) and sees the systems shaping its current reality (what is).
From a leadership perspective, the work of creating learning organizations may,
then, be distilled into three essential action imperatives. That is, learning-oriented
leaders help others (individually and collectively): (a) know what to do, (b) act on
what they know, and (c) grow their capacity to create the results they truly desire.

How do Action Learning Organizations Work?

At the most basic level of analysis learning is personal. Therefore, to understand
collective learning we first need to understand individual learning, because as Kim
(1993) argues, “organizations ultimately learn via their individual members” (p. 37).
Moreover, our conceptualization of organizational learning is in fact “a metaphor
derived from our understanding of individual learning” (p. 37). Consequently,
leaders seeking to build learning organizations must first understand individual
learning if they are to understand organizational learning and how to influence it.

The formal definition of “learning” denotes the phenomena is both a product
(something learned) and a process (the act of learning). In each case “learning” is
attributed to an agent (that is, the learner). Learning signifies the act of acquiring
“knowledge of (a subject) or skill in (an art, etc.) as a result of study, experience, or
teaching” (OED). The word comes to us from the Old English (c.450-c.1100) word
leornian, which meant “to get knowledge” or to “be cultivated.” The history of the
word learn also has ties to the word lore, from the Old English word lar, which
referred to “learning” in terms of “that which is taught” or “a piece of teaching”
(OED). These definitions raise two questions for us: (a) how do humans beings learn,
and (b) what is the nature of what we acquire as a result of our learning process?

Individual Learning

How do we learn? We learn through experience—our own and the experience of
others. Ackoff (1999) argues “knowledge can be obtained either from [our own]
experience—for example, by [our own] trial and error—or from someone who has
obtained it from experience, their own or that of others” (p. 15). The American
pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (1933/1998) describes this experiential
learning process as a cycle of action and reflection. That is, we act, and then reflect
on, and give meaning to our action. Dewey (1933/1998) defined reflective thought
as “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of
knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to
which it tends” (p. 118). For Dewey, the reflective act of the learning cycle begins
with: (a) “a state of doubt, hesitation, perplexity, mental difficulty, in which thinking
originates,” followed by (b) “an act of searching, hunting, inquiring, to find material
that will resolve the doubt, settle and dispose of the perplexity” (p. 12). Put simply,
reflection in learning is an activity in which we “recapture [our] experience, think
about it, mull it over and evaluate it” (Boud, Keogh and Walker, 1985, p. 19). Doll
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(1993) adds learning reflection involves a critical and creative thinking process,
which “reconstruct[s] … actions taken” and “re-look[s] at meanings made” (p. 141).

What is the outcome of our learning experiences? That is, what do we acquire in our
learning process? Memories, certainly; but what is their nature? Our memories are
mental representations, or models. That is, cognitive psychology suggests that
people have an internal world of mental models that represent what they know,
generate their behaviors, and reflect their expectations of others. This internal
repository of mental models is the content of a person’s intelligence, defining the
limits of their capacity to understand the world in which they operate and their
resourcefulness in coping with its challenges. This conceptualization of the mind’s
internal world has a long history in psychology and philosophy, beginning with the
writings of Plato (notably, his allegory of the cave in the Republic). In everyday life,
people simply refer to these mental models as ideas, but for our discussion it is
helpful to be more specific. Gardner (2004) identifies four kinds of mental models
that are common to most human learning: concepts, stories, theories and skills.

Gardner (2004) defines the concept as the mind’s elementary unit of representation,
a model of things having common characteristics, generalized from particular
instances of those things. Stories build on concepts through narratives that tell the
particulars of an act or incidence or course of events over a period of time. Theories
are generalized stories that explain the causal processes responsible for some
phenomena observed in the world. And skills are essentially procedural stories that
result in the performance of tasks. Concepts, stories, theories and skills embody the
contents of the mind and serve as the products of learning. Hence, at the most basic
level of our memory, learning can be defined as a change in a person’s mental models.

Collective Learning

Building on two decades of best practice research Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino
(2008), propose “three broad factors that are essential for organizational learning
and adaptability: a supportive learning environment, concrete learning processes
and practices, and leadership behavior that provides reinforcement” (p. 3).

Supportive Learning Environment

According to Garvin et. al. (2008) for learning to occur within an organization its
social environment must be characterized by:

1. Psychological safety: To learn, people cannot fear being judged by others for
being naïve, incompetent, or for holding a minority opinion or idea.
2. Appreciation of difference: Learning requires exposure to difference—a
different opinion, idea, point-of-view, or experience of some kind.
3. Openness to new ideas: Learning is not merely a trial-and-error process, but
involves imagination, experimentation, and discovery of new and novel ideas.
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4. Time for reflection: In addition to exposure and application Learning also
involves reflecting on new experiences and making sense of what they mean.

Concrete Learning Processes and Practices

Organizational learning (that is, a social group learning as a whole) is ultimately
based on individuals who learn. Thus, building a learning organization begins with
establishing and nurturing effective individual learning practices throughout the
whole organization. Building upon these distributed individual learning practices
are concrete collective processes acting to coordinate the generation, collection,
interpretation, and dissemination of data, information, knowledge, and wisdom.

Peter Senge’s five disciplines. In the 1990s, Senge (2006) proposed a set of five
integrated practices and processes, or disciplines, that were “converging to innovate
learning organizations” (p. 6). He believed “each provide[d] a vital dimension in
building organizations that can truly ‘learn,’ that can continually enhance their
capacity to realize their highest aspirations” (p. 6). Senge’s five disciplines are:

Personal mastery. Personal mastery is the discipline of articulating a coherent
image of one’s vision—the results a person most want to create in their life—
alongside a realistic assessment of the reality of their life today. This produces
creative tension on personal level that when cultivated, can expand a person’s
capacity to make better choices and to achieve more of the results they have chosen.

Shared vision. This collective discipline establishes a focus on mutual purpose.
People with a common purpose can learn to nourish a sense of commitment in a
group or organization by developing shared images of the future they seek to create
and the principles and guiding practices by which they hope to get there.

Mental models. This discipline of reflection and inquiry skills is focused on the
conceptual practices of developing awareness of attitudes and perceptions—your
own and those of others around you. Working with mental models can also help you
more clearly and honestly define current reality. Since most mental models in
organizations are often un-discussable and hidden from view, one of the critical acts
for building a learning organization is to develop the capability create safe spaces
where you can talk productively about risky and discomforting subjects.

Team learning. This is a discipline of collaborating with others. Specifically,
learning how to learn with others. Through such techniques as dialogue and skillful
discussion, small groups of people transform their collective thinking, learning to
mobilize their energies and actions to achieve common goals and drawing forth an
intelligence and ability greater than the sum of individual members’ talents.

Systems thinking. A system is any perceived whole whose elements “hang together”
because they continually affect each other over time. In this discipline, people learn
to better understand interdependency and change and thereby are able to deal more
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effectively with the forces that shape the consequences of their actions. Systems
thinking is a powerful practice for finding the leverage needed to get the most
constructive change. Systems thinking causes people to think more deeply about the
relationships and interplay of events, looking for patterns, and root systemic causes
(that is, structures) that will help get to the heart of the matter.

After Action Reviews. The practice of After Action Reviews (AARs) is a simple and
proven way of engaging learning from everyday work experiences. The AAR stems
from the U.S. Army’s intentional integration of individual, team, and organizational
development into everyday training, aiming “to capture learning in common duties,
ensure timely feedback, and allow reflection and analysis” (Shinseki & Cavanagh,
2004). The essence of the AAR is a, “professional discussions of events, focused on
performance standards that allow participants to discover for themselves what
happened, why it happened, and how to sustain strengths and improve on
weaknesses” (Shinseki & Cavanagh, 2004). After a field exercise an observer will
facilitate an AAR dialogue throughout by asking questions such as: “What were the
conditions that caused you to do this? Why did you make that decision? Knowing
what you know now, what would you have done differently?” (Tichy, 2002).

Action Learning. A process of group problem-solving, integrated with team,
leadership, and organizational development practices. The approach was initially
devised by Reg Revans, inspired by his work in the 1940s at the University of
Cambridge and his observations of how a group of physicists he worked with—
several who became Noble Laureates—self-organized their collaborations. He
applied these insights to his work with coal miners and later hospitals in the United
Kingdom, where he encouraged managers to meet together in small groups, to share
their experiences and ask each other questions about what they saw and heard. Revan
(1980) called this emerging learning model of self-management “action learning”,
which he stated, “is the Aristotelian manifestation of all managers’ jobs: they learn
as they manage, and they manage because they have learned—and go on learning”
(p. 64). Marquardt et al. (2018) later observe that since the introduction of action
learning in 1940, “there have been multiple variations of the concept, but all forms
of action learning share the elements of real people resolving and taking action on
real problems in real time and learning while doing so” (p. 3). While many processes
and practices are possible in our course we will focus on action learning, because as
Marquardt et al. argue, action learning teams are “mini-learning organizations that
model perfectly what a learning organization is and how is should operate” (p. 19).

Leadership that Supports Learning

For organizations to learn leaders must take responsible for other’s learning. First,
leaders must become disciplined learners—practicing personal mastery. Second,
leaders must model personal mastery for others. Third, leaders must encourage and
support the learning of those they lead. Lastly, leaders must share the work of
leadership across the organization.

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