Latest Thinking - Action Learning
A multi-purpose tool to turn decisions into actions;
to drive Knowledge Management and Sharing; to develop
the Learning Organisation; and to increase individual
What is it?
Action Learning is a method for learning-by-doing, with
the added benefits of sharing experiences and supportive
analysis, which speeds up the learning.
It is applicable to implementation of a strategy, a
project, a change process - in fact, any circumstance
where there is a real issue to be resolved.
Part of the method is to explicitly identify what the
learning has been, and then to share it with the
rest of the organisation.
The power of Action Learning comes from releasing and
reinterpreting the accumulated experiences of the people
who make up an organisation or community. It concentrates
on managing risks and uncertainties, and on learning
from individual experiences for the benefit of all the
stakeholders of the organisation or community.
When used in conjunction with a development programme,
Action Learning helps to anchor the learning of
new skills and competencies. Members of the Action Learning
Set share their experiences of applying their learning,
and receive help and support in return.
How does it work?
Participants work in Action Learning Sets to
learn with and from each other in a small, facilitated
group - typically, 4-6 people. Meetings are held
regularly (we find every 6-8 weeks is best), maintaining
the momentum of the process and ensuring regular monitoring
of individual’s project and of the unfolding future.
Participants start to learn when they discover that
no one person has all the answers, but each can help
the other to find his own solution.
In an Action Learning Set, participants meet together
to work through real problems.
Discriminating questioning is at the heart of
Action Learning. The Set is there to answer three
- What are we trying to do?
- What is stopping us from doing it?
- What might we be able to do about it?
In the process the group will reflect on what they are
doing, what they have learned and where they are now.
The group agrees their ‘boundaries’ including
confidentiality rules, and they agree they are all allowed
to freely criticise, advise and support each
other within the group meeting, since they will be tackling
real-life problems, in real time, in the real world.
This is the basic process that we use when facilitating
Action Learning Sets. Of course one must be flexible,
but it may help you to get a clearer understanding of
what a Set meeting is like.
Each person has an equal amount of ‘air time’ for their
issue and for each person the process would be:
Step 1 understand the problem
- Participant introduces a work problem they are having,
explains how it came about and what they have done up
to the point where they became ‘stuck’ and can
see no way forward
- The Set members seek clarification - but can
only ask questions - What have you tried? What happened
when you tried…? (i.e. they are not allowed to say ‘You
ought to…’ etc).
- Through the questioning, the “problem holder” finds
a clearer, more objective view of the issue. This in
itself can be a revelation to the “problem holder”,
whose subjective point of view may have prevented
from seeing the true issue
- Facilitator checks that everyone understands the
problem and what has happened so far
Step 2 explore options
- The group brainstorms the problem, but can only
ask questions, i.e.: What would happen if…? Have you
tried this? Could you try….? (NB: no ‘If I were you”,
“You should do…” etc)
- The “problem holder” moves from “no way forward”
to a choice of directions and options. Enthusiasm is
rekindled to tackle the problem.
Step 3 action to implement
- From the options now available, the ‘problem holder”
chooses the next step they will take towards a solution.
They commit to the group what they will do and promise
to report back at the next meeting.
Step 4 highlight the learning
- The facilitator takes the group out of the ‘problem
solving’ activity to review the process they have gone
through and identify both successful and unhelpful approaches.
What helped it go well? What slowed it down?
- Participants take a step back from subjective involvement
and take objective view - analyse lessons learned.
Step 5 before the next meeting:
- The “problem holder” takes their chosen action back to
the their real problem in the work place and puts it
into practice. They see the practical effects of new
action. They note the results for next Action Learning
Step 6: at the next meeting
- In Step 1 each person reports on the action they
committed to, i.e.: how they went about it; what resulted;
how they felt about it; what they plan to do next and
what they have learned
- The next steps are re-iterated as needed by the
problem holder. They may choose to introduce a
different problem if the initial problem has been solved.
Step 7 distinguish process from issue
- The facilitator helps the group review what they
have learned about the work issue and the
solution finding process.
- Each participant learns both aspects in their own
particular context: they have seen how the process was
able to help them unlock solutions to their own problem,
and how they are now able to take practical action to
address their own real issue
- At the same time, each participant has been a supporter
to the other “problem holders” and understands the value
of the process as both “giver” and “receiver”.
- Real problems are addressed; issues are identified
- Several possible solutions are aired and evaluated
- Participants make decisions and commit to action
- Learning is put into practice; lessons are learned
and shared with the group
- Possibility of cascading the learning throughout
the organisation (depending on the make-up of the group)
- Participants feel supported during the meetings,
as well as throughout the Action Learning Programme
- Participants experience increased confidence in
their decisions, and in their actions
- Participants experience renewed energy and enthusiasm
for their work, their team and the organisation
- Strong relationships are built within the group,
based on trust, honesty and shared learning experiences
- The organisation benefits directly from:
- the lessons learned - actions taken
- shared learning (Knowledge Transfer)
- increased performance and confidence of individual
- renewed individual commitment to the organisation
- team building - strong relationships within
the Action Learning Group
- increased enthusiasm by the group to work together
to the benefit of the organisation or community
At LASA we have been using Action Learning
as a key development process for almost two decades.
We have seen just how powerful is the act of sharing
learning in a supportive, creative environment.
Action Learning is a valuable tool to any business or
community wishing to become a mature, learning organisation.
It is an effective and economical way of expanding learning
(and the resultant improved performance) from a small
group to the larger whole.
We know of Action Learning Sets who are still meeting
up regularly, more than 10 years after the initial programme
ended, and when participants have moved on to different
organisations and countries.
The learning those participants shared has been multiplied
through its transferences to every new organisation
each participant touched - such is the power of Action
© Patricia Lustig, 2008