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 organizations.
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 counseling or therapy. Action learning does not revolve around a “knowledge expert”. Everyone, including the facilitator, is a co-learner. Participants have 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.
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 summarizing 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.
The benefits of action learning
Action learning can bring real benefits to individuals, teams and organizations. Action learning:
Enhances team working and collaboration skills
Helps participants to build mutually beneficial and mutually respectful relationships with colleagues
Develops problem-solving and decision-making skills
Helps participants to relate research, theory and management concepts to real-life organizational challenges
Develops critical and analytical thinking
Positions inquiry at the core of organizational behaviour
Enhances participants’ ability to reflect on and learn from their individual and collective experiences
Develops awareness in individuals of how their behaviour, attitude and assumptions impact on their decision-making
Creates a solution to an organizational challenge which provides immediate benefits
Increases participants’ competence and confidence to discuss other organizational issues in everyday working situations
Can play an important role in talent development and succession planning by helping to prepare high-potential candidates for promotion
Provides participants in a set with the skills to apply action learning to other challenges in their working lives.
By David Kesby