George Washington University
Michael Marquardt is a professor of human resource development and international affairs and the program director of overseas programs at George Washington University. Marquardt also serves as president of the World Institute for Action Learning.
Renowned as an expert in action learning, Michael Marquardt is the author of 24 books and more than 100 professional articles in the fields of leadership, learning, globalization, and organizational change. His books include Action Learning for Developing Leaders and Organizations, Optimizing the Power of Action Learning, Leading with Questions, and Building the Learning Organization (selected as Book of the Year by the Academy of HRD). His latest book is Breakthrough Problem-Solving with Action Learning. Marquardt has served as an editor and adviser for several leading professional journals around the world, and has been a keynote speaker at international conferences in Australia, Japan, Philippines, Malaysia, South Africa, Singapore, and India, as well as throughout North America.
He has been honored with numerous awards, including the International Practitioner of the Year Award from ASTD. He holds a doctorate in human resource development from George Washington University and a master's and bachelor's degree from Maryknoll College.
How did you first get interested in the learning and development field?
Interestingly, I was studying to be a Catholic missionary priest, but I decided I did not want to be celibate. When I met my wife-to-be, who is from Switzerland, I said, "I really don't know about this being a missionary."
But I never lost my desire to educate adults and to develop them spiritually as well as economically. After I first left the seminary, I taught at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Graduate School. I was teaching group dynamics, and I really saw how much I enjoyed working with adults, particularly building groups and developing leaders. Around that time I discovered that George Washington University had a doctoral program in human resource development—the only doctoral program in the area. It was the perfect degree for my interest.
Your specialty is action learning—how did that come about?
I became a professor at George Washington University in the early 1990s. I had been working globally for 20 years in adult education and human resource development and I was asked to become a professor at George Washington University for their executive leadership program.
The first course I was given to teach was action learning because the previous professor of that course had retired. Being a new professor, I did not know what action learning was, but they gave me a textbook and a syllabus. And with that guidance, I divided the executives into five groups. And in each group, one of the members was asked to choose to work on a problem from his or her organization. The other group members developed a strategy to solve the problem, and at the end of the semester, members wrote a team learning and action paper.
Although I was kind of thrown into action learning, I really got excited about it. This is really a wonderful way to learn while working on a problem. They learned how to work as a team and developed new leadership skills.
And what is it about action learning that gets you so excited about it?
After conducting leadership development, team building, and organizational change programs for 20 years, I quickly discovered that action learning was better than any other methods. It was the best way to develop leaders, the best way to develop groups, the best way to develop organizations, [and] the best way to solve problems—all at the same time.
Action learning recognizes that you cannot develop a leader unless that leader is solving a problem. You cannot solve a problem unless you work in teams. You cannot change an organization except through solving the problems within the organization. Action learning is a very systematic way of doing all four things very well. It is better than any other methodology in that it has significant, long-term impact on individuals, groups, and organizations.
What are some of the common misunderstandings about action learning?
The common misunderstanding is that action learning occurs when a group is working in an experiential way. Action learning for some is outdoor adventures, case studies, discussion groups, and anything that's experiential in some way.
But action learning has to be built on solving real problems. True action learning is where you learn while in action and you learn after the action. In reality, probably only 1 or 2 percent of organizations use action learning. And unless you have an action learning coach to ask questions to get the group to reflect on what they're doing, how they can do it better, what kind of skills they're applying, how they can apply their skills, and what they have learned, you end up generally getting only action and little or no learning.
The methodology that you developed related to action learning has to do with having the coach, is that correct?
That's right, yes. Over the years, there have been different forms of action learning that have included a facilitator or an adviser. What I did was give great skill and theory and power to the coach so that the coach, through his or her questions, enables the group to improve its performance and to develop leadership and team skills.
Several years ago, a number of colleagues and I created the World Institute for Action Learning, a nonprofit organization that has two main purposes. [The first is] to promote what we call blended action learning, in which you have learning as well as action. It includes the coach as well as the other elements of the action learning. And the second purpose [is] to promote high-quality action learning around the world by developing and certifying action learning coaches.
What one change would you like to see in the overall approach to workplace learning?
Obviously, I'd like to see much more true, blended action learning in which groups that work in teams not only work on the problems, but they develop their leadership skills or team skills while they are working on the important or urgent problems of the organization. And they take that mindset, that recognition, value, and appreciation that they learned while they were acting and making decisions in a group into their day-to-day lives. There would be a recognition that learning is part of life, which is the joy of life. Learning is not just when you're in a classroom; learning is reflecting on the experiences and decisions and actions that one makes. Ideally an organization would have a corporate culture in which learning and action cannot be separated.
Any new books and projects youâ€™d like to share?
I just finished my 24th book, Breakthrough Problem-Solving with Action Learning with Stanford University Press. I'm also editing now some global journals with special issues on action learning. There are two special issues of International Journal of HRD and Management that are on action learning, and I worked with a number of authors from all over the world. We're getting, I think, some really good research and writing beginning to appear on action learning as more cases and organizations are committing to it.
What do you do for relaxation?
I really enjoy the time we spend with our grandchildren. I have six grandchildren with a seventh on the way. My wife and I also ski and plan to do some skiing in Switzerland, where my wife happens to be from. I like to stay active—I ride the bike every day and lift weights. I'm originally from the Green Bay [Wisconsin] area so I'm very much a Green Bay Packer football fan. I love all sports, and follow the local sport teams, like the Washington Capitals and the Nationals.