Using Action Learning

Last Updated Jan 3, 2008 2:28 PM EST

Reg Revans (1907–2003) pioneered Action Learning as a management and organizational development tool. It's based on the premise that people learn best when they focus on a problem together. By sharing their prior knowledge and experience and by asking good questions based upon what they don't know, people can both solve a problem and learn from the experience.

The Action Learning equation is written as L = P + Q where L is the learning that comes out of a combination of P—programmed or prior knowledge—and Q—insightful questioning.

What You Need to KnowIn what circumstances is Action Learning used?

Action Learning was originally used across different organizational settings where managers with specific problems came together to benefit from collective knowledge and exploratory questioning. More frequently, Action Learning is used within a single organization where a team or group of people come together to solve a shared problem or tackle an organizational issue. Generally speaking, Action Learning takes place in Action Learning Sets that are facilitated by someone external to the problem or situation.

What are the learning outputs of an Action Learning Set?

Members of an Action Learning Set learn on many levels. Firstly, they learn about the problem and how to resolve it. Secondly, they learn about themselves, their approach to problem solving, and the way they respond to their colleagues in a team setting. Thirdly, they learn about learning itself. Action Learning is considered to be "double loop learning"; a term coined by Chris Argyris to mean that the learning is not merely superficial and easily forgotten, but that it changes the knowledge base, through action, of the individual.

What argument would I use to encourage my organization to adopt Action Learning?

Action Learning is a powerful tool that enables both individuals and organizations to learn and grow. In today's current economic climate, it is essential that organizations outstrip their competitors in terms of their rate of learning so that they can position themselves ahead of the change curve, rather than behind it.

Are there any limits to the situations in which Action Learning can be applied?

By its nature, Action Learning is a way of accelerating people's learning and building capability for handling challenging situations to bring about change. If a change is desired, and the means by which the change should take place is unknown, then Action Learning is a good way to proceed. This approach has been used in many organizations from different industry sectors as well as in educational environments where it is extremely effective.

What to Do

Reg Revans believed that "there is no learning without action and no action without learning." He also believed that by using the power and focus of the collective mind, it is possible to tackle problems fast and effectively.

Action Learning, therefore, is a way of generating novel solutions and ideas for tackling issues that exercise the minds of problem holders. It is a powerful form of problem solving which brings about change in individuals and organizations while encouraging and building learning. As it is based on "real-world" problems that are being addressed in "real time" by people in organizations, it cuts to the heart of what needs to be done. By using a process facilitator, the Action Learning Set can be both efficient and productive.

Action Learning can be applied to many different situations. Here are some of the contexts in which it can add value:

  • Rapidly changing organizations that are encountering unprecedented challenge from the market or competitors. This challenge could come from new economies that are entering the market or from new technologies that could replace the organization's current product range.
  • A crisis or an urgent and complex problem in which a wide range of expertise and views are essential to coming up with a novel way to proceed.
  • A learning organization in which the development of teams into highly successful units is both desirable and essential to success.
  • Flat or matrix organizational structures where project teams—or Action Learning Sets—must form, learn, deliver, and disperse in rapid cycles.
  • Organizations that seek to change their culture in response to an internal or external impetus.

Here are the steps to achieving Action Learning.

Form the Action Learning Set

At the outset of the Action Learning activity, the Action Learning Set is formed. This comprises between four and six people who will meet regularly to explore a problem. They may be volunteers or they may be elected to join the Action Set. Whichever, it is best if the Action Set is comprised of a mix of people who can bring different knowledge bases and questions to the forum. The problem that they are focusing on may be a collective one or each member of the Action Set may bring a problem of their own. Both permutations work well. It is preferable to have an external person facilitating the process who will begin by clarifying the purpose and objectives of the Action Set and the terms of engagement for each gathering.

Present the Problem

In order for the Action Learning Set to be effective, its destination needs to be made clear at the outset. Therefore, the problem that is being brought to the Action Set needs to be presented and the success criteria determined. It should be noted that Action Sets are most effective when the problem or issue that they are focused upon is open-ended. They should not be presented with a problem that has a specific answer. The culture of an Action Set is open, exploratory and original. This is the spirit in which a problem should be presented.

Identify the Crux of the Problem

Members of the Action Set will discuss the problem and distill the issues until the crux of the problem has been identified and articulated. This will help focus the discussion on what is of most relevance and importance. It is often found at this stage that the real problem is not what was assumed but something quite different.

Set the Goal

Once the problem has been outlined and clarified, the endpoint or goal needs to be determined. At this point, key success factors are identified and agreed on, and boundaries are set around the problem so that the discussion can be kept on track.

Develop Some Action Strategies

As a result of the discussions that take place in the Action Set, strategies will be developed for some action(s) pertaining to the problem. This is the "bread and butter" of Action Sets, and often the discussions are lively and inventive. It is important that a positive atmosphere of inquiry and suggestion be created so that nothing of the discussion is lost.

Take Action

This is the part of the process where the ideas that have been conceived in the Action Set are put into practice to see if they bear fruit. It is the outcome from this implementation that is brought back to the group for analysis and further discussion, whereupon, the cycle starts again.

Capture the Learning

One of the key outputs from Action Learning is the learning that is derived from the actions. Therefore, it is important to capture this rather than merely languish in the afterglow of success. Learning can be distilled at any point during the Action Learning process, usually as a result of an intervention by the facilitator who will draw attention to something that holds valuable learning. It is useful to have the learning points documented so that the learning is made concrete and can be made available to others. It is useful also to reflect on the process to see if it could be refined and made more effective another time—although it is hard to generalize learning from groups, as the configuration of a new group is bound to elicit different learning points.

Although powerful, Action Learning can be perceived to be time consuming and labor intensive, particularly when there is urgent and important work to be done—although urgent and important problems are, in fact, oil to the wheels of Action Learning Sets. But once the process becomes embedded in the organizational culture, the feeling of contrivance goes away, and it is often recognized that ingenuity, speed of process, and quick results emerge from Action Learning Sets. Much, however, depends upon the expertise of the facilitator in balancing the discussion with the output—not letting one eclipse the other—and knowing when the objectives have been met.

What to AvoidYou Fail to Choose a Suitable Project

If the project that is presented to an Action Learning Set is not urgent and important, it will not motivate set members to address it nor will it stimulate creative and exploratory thinking. It is important therefore to choose a suitable project that will benefit from the collective attention of lively minds that have a desire to make a difference. Although not all solutions that an Action Learning Set comes up with will be implemented, there should be explicit support for the process and good reasons why ideas are not used. It is a good idea to have the sponsorship of someone in the senior tier of the organization so that political blocks or barriers are removed.

You Choose a Facilitator Who Is Not Attuned to the Process

Facilitators who are not attuned to the process can get in the way and derail the Action Learning Set. The main function of the facilitator is to ask good question and ensure that the discussions remain on track. They are not there to offer ideas nor are they there to absent themselves completely. Facilitators have enough to do with keeping an eye on the process, listening attentively to what is going on, and intervening on process issues when it is necessary. A skilled facilitator can make all the difference to the creativity and outputs of a diverse and well-formed Action Learning Set.

You Fail to Set Clear Goals

If the goals of an Action Learning Set are not clear from the outset, they will not be productive and meet the expectations of those desiring a solution to the problem. The Action Learning Set has a role in pinning down the goals and expectations precisely to ensure that they can be successful. If they feel that they lack the clarity to take a problem forward, they should offer suggestions and alternatives so that these can be discussed and agreed on.

You Fail to Get Sufficient Support for the Process

Commitment to Action Learning has to permeate the organizational culture. If there is not sufficient support from all stakeholders, there is a danger that the Action Learning Sets will not enjoy a full complement of members when they meet. This can lead to the collapse of the process and the absence of good solutions. It is no good being half-hearted about learning through action.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

McGill, Ian, and Anne Brockbank, The Action Learning Handbook: Powerful Techniques for Education, Professional Development and Training. Routledge Falmer, 2003.

McGill, Ian, and Liz Beaty, Action Learning: A Practitioner's Guide. Kogan Page, 1992.

Senge, Peter M., The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Currency, 2006.

Web Sites:

International Foundation for Action Learning-USA: www.ifal-usa.org/index.htm

12MANAGE: www.12manage.com/methods_revans_action_learning.html

Action Learning Associates, Inc: www.action-learning.com

Human Resources Development Council: www.humtech.com/opm/grtl/OLS/ols2.cfm