Action Learning is an educational process whereby people work and learn together by tackling real issues and reflecting on their actions. Learners acquire knowledge through actual actions and practice rather than through traditional instruction.
The Action Learning process is typically done in conjunction with others, in small groups called action learning sets. It is proposed as particularly suitable for adults, as it enables each person to reflect on and review the action they have taken and the learning points arising. This should then guide future action and improve performance. Some variations of definitions for Action Learning are:
- A process for bringing together a group of people with varied levels of skills and experience to analyze an actual work problem and develop an action plan. The ad-hoc group continues to meet as actions are implemented, learning from the implementation and making mid-course corrections. Action Learning is a form of learning by doing.
- An approach to individual and organizational development. Working in sets or groups, people tackle important organizational issues or problems and learn from their attempts to change things. Traditional instruction, or “programmed knowledge”, is appropriate when we are faced with “puzzles” – challenges that have a right answer. However, when we are faced with “problems” – challenges that have no right answer – we need critical reflection or “questioning insight”. Action learning encourages such reflection by providing the support to enable people to learn from challenges as well as from themselves and the process itself. The benefits of learning on all these levels are that the knowledge is more likely to be transferable to other situations and participants will be engaged in “double loop learning” where they not only receive feedback on their actions, but will find their underlying assumptions and mental models under scrutiny.
- An experience-based approach to developing people that uses work on meaningful problems as a way to learn. Action learning programs involve small groups that meet regularly to take action on critical, real problems while explicitly seeking learning from having taken that action. Usually, the learning aspect is facilitated by a learning coach who is skilled in using the collective experience of group members to create learning opportunities.
Action Learning typically comprises the following activities
- Experiential learning.
- Creative complex problem solving.
- Acquiring of relevant knowledge.
- Co-learning group support.
Each of these activities can be regarded as a necessary component, but insufficient by itself, to be considered as Action Learning.
Characteristics of Action Learning
- An emphasis on learning by doing.
- Conducted in teams.
- Addressing company / organizational issues.
- With participants placed into problem-solving roles.
- Where team decisions are required.
- Formalized into presentations.
Origin of Action Learning
Professor Reginald Revans is the originator of action learning. Revans formative influences included his experience training as a physicist at the University of Cambridge. In his encounters with this talented group of scientists – several went on to win Nobel-prizes – he noted the importance of each scientist describing their own ignorance, sharing experiences, and communally reflecting to learn. He used these experiences to further develop the method in the 1940s while working for the Coal Board in United Kingdom. Here, he encouraged managers to meet together in small groups, to share their experiences and ask each other questions about what they saw and heard. The approach increased productivity by over 30%. Later in hospitals, he concluded that the conventional instructional methods were largely ineffective.
Action Learning Formula
Reg Revans described Action Learning with the formula L = P + Q, where Learning (L) occurs through Programmed knowledge (P) and insightful Questioning (Q)
Usage of the Action Learning
- To address problems and issues that are complex and can not easily be resolved.
- To find solutions for underlying root causes of problems.
- To determine a new strategic direction or to maximize new opportunities.
- Generating creative ideas.
Steps in Action Learning
- Clarify the objective of the Action Learning group. Presentation of the problem or the task to the group. A group may handle one or many problems.
- Group formation. The group can consist of volunteers or appointed people, and can work on a single organizational problem or each other’s department’s problems. Convene a cross-section of people with a complementary mix of skills and expertise to participate in the Action Learning group. Compare: Belbin Team Roles. Action Learning groups may meet for one time or several times. Depending on the complexity of the problem and the time available for its resolution.
- Analyze the issue(s) and identify actions for resolving them.
- The problem owner presents the problem briefly to the group. He can remain involved as a member of the group, or withdraw, and await the group’s recommendations.
- Reframe the problem. After a series of questions, the group, often with the guidance of the Action Learning consultant, will reach a consensus on the most critical and important problem the group should work on. The group should establish the crux of the problem, which might differ from the original presenting problem.
- Determine goals. Once the key problem or issue has been identified, the group seeks consensus for the goal. The achievement of the goal would solve the restated problem for the long-term with positive rather than negative consequences on the individual, team, or organization.
- Develop action strategies. Much of the time and energy of the group will be spent on identifying, and pilot testing, of possible action strategies. Like the preceding stages of Action Learning, strategies are developed via reflective inquiry and dialogue.
- Take action. Between Action Learning sessions, the group as a whole and individual members collect information, they identify the support status, and they implement the strategies developed and agreed to by the group.
- Repeat the cycle of action and learning until the problem is resolved or new directions are determined.
- Capturing learning. Throughout and at any point during the sessions, the Action Learning consultant may intervene. He can ask questions to the group members, which will enable them to:
- Clarify the problem.
- Find ways to improve their performance as a group.
- Identify how their learning can be applied to develop themselves, the team, and the organization.
After a period of time, reconvene the group to discuss progress, lessons learned, and next steps. Document the learning process for future reference. Record lessons learned after each phase of learning.
Strengths of Action Learning
- Offers an intelligent and creative way to act and learn at the same time. This has become essential in a work environment that is rapidly changing and that faces evermore unpredictable challenges.
- Can help to solve complex, urgent problems.
- Instrumental to develop skilled leaders, or to develop teams.
- Can help to transform corporate culture, and to create learning organizations.
- Produces tangible outcomes as a return on investments in education.
- Adults are most motivated for learning when it is immediately relevant to their lives. Participants can test the utility of frameworks and techniques on tangible problems, and are able to see for themselves what can be usefully applied, and what can not be usefully applied.
Limitations of Action Learning
- Necessary to organize multiple Action Learning events, to make it effective.
- The design and content of the Action Learning program is crucial to its success.
- The accomplishment of the example task or project can potentially overwhelm the reflective learning process. Without reflection and feedback, Action Learning is similar to a normal day on the job.
- In teams where a single individual or a single functional perspective dominates, the group tends to produce outcomes that are not very innovative or insightful. (Compare: Groupthink).
- Good and objective facilitators are needed.
- Risk of poor follow-up on project outcomes.
Source: R.W. Revans – Action Learning: New Techniques for Management
Source: Michael Marquardt – Action Learning in Action: Transforming Problems and People…
Source: Michael Marquardt – Optimizing the Power of Action Learning: Solving Problems and Building Leaders…Business frameworks like Action Learning are invaluable to evaluating and analyzing various business problems. You can download business frameworks developed by management consultants and other business professionals at Flevy here.