Effective learning needs to meet the needs of individuals. This is widely accepted. Really effective learning is driven by the individual. When individuals have an element of control over the learning experience, the learning outcomes become more potent. Peer-to-peer learning is also very powerful. This is also widely accepted. Combining a focus on individual needs with support from co-learners can lead to mutually beneficial, lasting benefits.
Action learning helps individuals to identify their own challenges draws on the ideas and experience of others to create solutions to these challenges. It is a valuable method of learning which benefits individuals, teams and entire organisations.
What is action learning?
Action learning is a dynamic process that simply put, combines action and learning. It involves a small group of people, known as an action learning ‘set,’ working together on real problems, taking action, learning how to overcome their challenges and learning about themselves. Action learning is very different from traditional training methods which focus on the presentation of knowledge and skills. It’s not like a formal meeting or seminar. Nor is it like counselling or therapy.
Action learning does not revolve around a “knowledge expert”. Everyone, including the facilitator, is a co-learner. Participant have a equal opportunity to tackle their own challenge. These challenges may be ones that others in the set share, but they don’t have to be. Others in the set help the individual to explore the challenge and plan what to do about it. It is important that participants come together voluntarily. Often they are invited by their organisation, but they need to want to take part rather than feel they have to. A typical set contains between four and eight people. One of these people is the facilitator. The role of the facilitator is described in more detail in the next section.
Participants take turns to present their challenge to other members of the set. Others ask questions to help define the challenge more clearly. These questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness and generate innovative and creative thinking. The group reflects together on the issue rather than leaping to conclusions. The simple rules of action learning encourage participants to think critically and work collaboratively. An additional benefit of the process is that it helps develop team working and leadership skills. Action learning can help solve dilemmas of all sizes. It can be particularly useful when addressing a complex problem which the individual finds difficult to solve using traditional methods.
The set provides space and support for individuals to resolve problems or issues. Feelings can be expressed and explored. This helps the individual to take responsibility, decide a course of action, and move on. A typical session lasts between a couple of hours or half a day. Conclusions do not have to be reached during one session. Often participants will spend time between sessions exploring options, reading and engaging in other learning and discussion. They may also communicate with others in the set before meeting up again formally.
Practical learning occurs once action is taken. Following the exploration and discussion, it is important that the individual identifies actions that they can take in the workplace to help progress, or even to resolve the original challenge.
Where did action learning originate?
Action learning was originated by Professor Reg Revans shortly after the second world war. Previously a Cambridge physicist, he had been appointed director of education for the newly formed National Coal Board in Britain. Revans encouraged some colliery managers to join together in small groups (later described as sets) to share their challenges and search for solutions. He stressed to them that there were no ‘right’ answers – this was an opportunity to explore a range of potential solutions .Revans believed that learning was best derived from mutual reflection on real issues, where the owner of the problem would ultimately have to do something about it, helped by discoveries made with others in the set. He was convinced that this type of learning was much more powerful than the ‘telling’ style of training which was prevalent at the time.
He saw that this new type of learning was beneficial to the colliery managers. Through open and honest discussion, they learned from each other and developed new strategies to cope with their challenges. This learning was addressing the managers’ actual needs. It was completely different from sending the managers to an external training course where much of the content would not relate directly to their individual challenges. Revans saw that through action learning, they learned to cope with real-life situations effectively .Revans went on to take action learning to other organisations around the world. As more and more organisations and academics became convinced of the benefits of action learning, its use became widespread. It became accepted as a valuable type of learning and was widely adopted.
As action learning became increasingly popular, Revans became concerned that some organisations and academics were focusing too much on the process, and undermining the spirit of mutually beneficial support and the importance of practical outcomes. Professor Mike Pedler commented in his book, Action Learning in Practice, that, “The ‘Reg-centricity’ of action learning is both a bulwark against packaging and a block on the spread and growth of the idea.” Revans died in 2003 and his ideas and techniques continue to be applied and developed by organisations and academic institutions all over the world. Professor Pedlar himself is based at The Revans Centre for Learning and Research at Salford University in the UK.
Why is Action Learning still relevant today?
Action learning is arguably more relevant today than ever before. Unlike traditional forms of learning, action learning has no “expert” input. There is no single person who plays the role of providing the correct answer. The challenges of 21st century organisations are increased ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty as speed of work, geographies, cultural differences and technology increase. In such conditions, who really is the “expert”? In reality, leaders and managers are simply looking for the best available ways to deal with the challenges of the day. Action learning starts from the premise that the people who work closest to the problems have the greatest stake in examining, exploring, developing and implementing new solutions to new problems. With the aid of a facilitator they learn and take action on the unique issues that the 21st century throws at them.
The role of the facilitator
The facilitator plays a critical role in action learning. The facilitator may be an external consultant or an experienced member of an action learning set. Because of the non-hierarchical nature of action learning, it is important that the facilitator does not dictate what happens or try to control the group. A good action learning facilitator is a role model, helping other participants to agree ground rules and exemplifying these. The facilitator does the same things as other participants – asks questions, contributes ideas and provides feedback – but may do so less than others because of his or her additional responsibility.
A good facilitator will:
Begin by clarifying with the group what is to be discussed during the session
Help build a safe environment of openness, trust and mutual respect
Clarify what processes the set is employing, and the implications of these processes
Help others reflect on both what they are learning and how they are solving problems
Explore what assumptions may be shaping participants’ beliefs and actions
Acknowledge the part played by feelings in the discussion
Help the team focus on what they are achieving and what they are finding difficult
Encourage a measured, thoughtful pace by summarising and making sure questions are asked one at a time
Ensure that everyone in the set is participating and if not, explore why not
Only ever interrupt if it another individual’s contribution is inappropriate
Allow time for reflection
Ask the set to evaluate the process by considering their experiences and the impact of others’ contributions
Ensure that an issue is resolved before moving on
Take notes and bring these to any future sessions.
Action learning is not a replacement for other types of learning. Rather, it complements them. The philosophy of action learning has had an impact not only on learning facilitators but also on learners themselves. Having experienced effective action learning, individuals are often more keen and more able to take responsibility for their overall learning journeys. The spirit of action learning – creating a safe environment, encouraging openness, exploration, creativity, mutual respect and shared problem-solving – is reflected in many of today’s forward-thinking management practices.
Article by: David Kesby