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Action learning is an approach to solving real problems that involves taking action and reflecting upon the results, which helps improve the problem-solving process, as well as the solutions developed by the team. The action learning process includes:
- a real problem that is important, critical, and usually complex,
- a diverse problem-solving team or "set",
- a process that promotes curiosity, inquiry, and reflection,
- a requirement that talk be converted into action and, ultimately, a solution, and
- a commitment to learning.
In many, but not all, forms of action learning, a coach is included who is responsible for promoting and facilitating learning as well as encouraging the team to be self-managing. In addition, the learning acquired by working on complex, critical, and urgent problems that have no currently acceptable solutions can be applied by individual, teams, and organizations to other situations. The theory of action learning and the epistemological position were developed originally by Reg Revans (1982), who applied the method to support organisational and business development, problem solving and improvement.
Action learning has many educational applications. Because action learning has been demonstrated to be very effective in developing a number of individual leadership and team problem-solving skills (Leonard and Marquardt, 2010), it has been used extensively as a component in corporate and organizational leadership development programs. Because complex problems require many skills, individual team members can develop a customized learning agenda for themselves. This strategy is quite different from the "one size fits all" curriculum that is characteristic of many training and development programs.
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.
People had to be aware of their lack of relevant knowledge and be prepared to explore the area of their ignorance with suitable questions and help from other people in similar positions.
Later, Revans made this more precise in the opening chapter of his book (Revans, 1980) which describes the formula:
Q uses :
- "closed" questions:
- "objective" questions:
- how much or how many?
- "relative" questions:
- "open questions
Although Q is the cornerstone of the method, the more relaxed formulation has enabled action learning to become widely accepted in many countries all over the world. In Revans' book there are examples from the United States, Canada, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia-Pacific.
International Management Centres, the action learning professional association where Revans was inaugural president, have proposed extension to this formula with the addition of R for "reflection". This has also been proposed by Michael Marquardt:
L = P + Q + R .
In this expanded equation, R refers to reflection. This additional element emphasizes the point that "great questions" should evoke thoughtful reflections while considering the current problem, the desired goal, designing strategies, developing action or implementation plans, or executing action steps that are components of the implementation plan.
The proven power of the action learning process originates in its theoretical underpinnings (Waddill & Marquardt, 2003). Waddill and Marquardt demonstrate the link between adult learning theory and Marquardt's action learning approach in their article entitled "Adult Learning Orientations and Action Learning".
Use in organizations
Today, action learning is practised by a wide community of businesses, governments, non-profits, and educational institutions.
Writers on the subject have included Mike Pedler, Alan Mumford and Richard Hale in the United Kingdom & Australia, Yury Boshyk in Canada, Garry Luxmore in Australia. Ng Choon Seng in Singapore, Ira Cohen and Kevin Hao in China, and Michael Marquardt, Skipton Leonard, Arthur Freedman, Robert Kramer,and Joe Raelin, and Dr. Verna Willis (a pioneer in action learning and co-author with Robert L. Dilworth, as well as an award recipient with the Annual Global Forum on Action Learning in the United States.
Action learning is being applied using the Action Learning Question Method (Hale) to support organisational development (OD) capability development across central government in the UK Civil Service supported by OD specialists Mayvin (Hale & Saville, 2014). As such this is combining action learning with organisational development as reported at the 2014 Ashridge Action Learning Conference and Action Learning: Research and Practice, October, 2014.
An action learning approach has been recognized as a valuable means of supporting the Continuing Professional Development of professionals in emerging professions. The Action Learning Question approach has been applied with, for instance the emerging professional field of global outsourcing as reported by Hale ('Actual Professional Development', Training Journal,2012). This supports the idea that powerful learning can occur at the boundaries of organizations as proposed by Wenger in his work on 'Communities of Practice'.
Organizations may also use action learning in the virtual environment (Waddill, Action E-Learning, Human Resource Development International, 2006). This is a cost effective solution that enables the widespread use of action learning at all levels of an organization. Action e-Learning (AEL) – as defined and implemented by Waddill (2004) – provides a viable alternative for organizations interested in adapting the action learning process for online delivery with groups where the members are not co-located.
ARL, MiL and WIAL models
As with other educational processes, practitioners have built on Revans' pioneering work and have adapted some tenets to accommodate their needs. One such branch of action learning is Action Reflection Learning (ARL), which originated in Sweden among educators and consultants under the guidance of Lennart Rohlin of the MiL Institute in the 1970s. With the so-called “MiL model”, ARL gained momentum with the work of LIM, Leadership in International Management, under the leadership of Ernie Turner in the USA. The WIAL (World Institute for Action Learning) Model was developed by Michael Marquardt, Skipton Leonard, Bea Carson and Arthur Freedman.
The main differences between Revans’ approach to action learning and the ‘MiL Model’ in the ‘80s are :
- the role of a project team advisor (later called Learning Coach), which Revans had reservations about;
- the use of team projects rather than individual challenges;
- the duration of the sessions, which is more flexible in ARL designs.
The MiL Model evolved organically as practitioners responded to diverse needs and restrictions. In an experiential learning mode, MiL practitioners varied the number and duration of the sessions, the type of project selected, the role of the Learning Coach and the style of his/her interventions.
ARL evolved organically through the choices and savvy intuitions of practitioners, who informally exchanged their experiences with each other. It became a somewhat shared practice, which incorporated elements of design and intervention that the practitioners adopted because of their efficacy. In 2004, Isabel Rimanoczy researched and codified the ARL methodology, identifying 16 elements and 10 underlying principles.
The WIAL Model incorporates six elements: (1) problem or challenge, (2) group of 4-8 members, (3) reflective inquiry, (4) development and implementation of strategies and actions, (5)individual, group and organizational learning, and (6)an action learning coach. The model starts with 2 simple ground rules that ensure that statements follow and are related to questions and provide the authority for the coach to promote learning. Team members may develop additional ground rules, norms, and roles as they deem necessary or advantageous. Addressing Revans' concern that a coach's over-involvement in the problem-solving process will engender dependency, WIAL coaches only ask questions that encourage team members to reflect on the team's behavior (what is working, can be improved, or done differently) in efforts to improve learning and, ultimately, performance.
"Unlearning" as a prerequisite for "learning"
Robert Kramer (2007a, 2007b, 2008) pioneered the use of action learning for officials in the U.S. government, and at the European Commission in Brussels and Luxembourg. He also introduced action learning to scientists at the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen and to officials of the Estonian government at the State Chancellery (Prime Minister's Office) in Tallinn, Estonia.
The process of learning more creative ways of thinking, feeling, and being is achieved in action learning by reflecting on what is working now and as well as on actions that can be improved. Action learning is consistent with the principles of positive psychology (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2001) by encouraging team/set members to build on strengths and learn from life's challenges. In action learning, there is no need to unlearn what has worked in the past. Reflecting on what has not worked helps team/set members unlearn what doesn't work and invent better ways of acting going forward.
Unlike other writers in the field of action learning, Kramer applies the theory of art, creativity and "unlearning" of the psychologist Otto Rank to his practice of action learning. Rank was the first to see therapy as a learning and unlearning experience. The therapeutic relationship allows the patient to: (1) learn more creative ways of thinking, feeling and being in the here-and-now; and (2) unlearn self-destructive ways of thinking, feeling and being in the here-and-now. Patterns of self-destruction ("neurosis") represent a failure of creativity, not, as Freud assumed, a retreat from sexuality.
In action learning questions allow group members to "step out of the frame of the prevailing ideology", as Otto Rank wrote in Art and Artist (1932/1989, p. 70), reflect on their assumptions and beliefs, and reframe their choices. The process of "stepping out" of a frame, out of a form of knowing – a prevailing ideology – is analogous to the work of artists as they struggle to give birth to fresh ways of seeing the world, perspectives that allow them to see aspects of the world that no artists, including themselves, have ever seen before.
The most creative artists, such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Leonardo, know how to separate even from their own greatest public successes, from earlier artistic incarnations of themselves. Their “greatness consists precisely in this reaching out beyond themselves, beyond the ideology which they have themselves fostered,” according to Art and Artist (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 368). Through the lens of Otto Rank’s work on understanding art and artists, action learning can be seen as the never-completed process of learning how to “step out of the frame” of the ruling mindset, whether one’s own or the culture’s – in other words, of learning how to unlearn.
Comparing the process of unlearning to the “breaking out” process of birth, Otto Rank was the first psychologist to suggest that a continual capacity to separate from “internal mental objects” – from internalized institutions, beliefs and assumptions; from the restrictions of culture, social conformity and received wisdom – is the sine qua non-for lifelong creativity.
Unlearning necessarily involves separation from one’s self-concept, as it has been culturally conditioned to conform to familial, group, occupational or organizational allegiances. According to Rank (1932/1989), unlearning or breaking out of our shell from the inside is “a separation [that] is so hard, not only because it involves persons and ideas that one reveres, but because the victory is always, at bottom, and in some form, won over a part of one’s ego” (p. 375).
In the organizational context, learning how to unlearn is vital because what we assume to be true has merged into our identity. We refer to the identity of an individual as a “mindset.” We refer to the identity of an organizational group as a “culture.” Action learners learn how to question, probe and separate from, both kinds of identity—i.e., their “individual” selves and their “social” selves. By opening themselves to critical inquiry, they begin to learn how to emancipate themselves from what they "know" – they learn how to unlearn.
Role of facilitator, coach and questions
An ongoing challenge of action learning has been to take productive action as well as to take the time necessary to capture the learning that result from reflecting on the results of taking action. Usually, the urgency of the problem or task decreases or eliminates the reflective time necessary for learning. As a consequence, more and more organizations have recognized the critical importance of an action learning coach or facilitator in the process, someone who has the authority and responsibility of creating time and space for the group to learn at the individual, group and organizational level.
There is controversy, however, about the need for an action learning coach. Reg Revans was sceptical about the use of learning coaches and, in general, of interventionist approaches. He believed the action learning set or group could practice action learning on its own. He also had a major concern that too much process facilitation would lead a group to become dependent on a coach or facilitator. Nevertheless, later in his development of the action learning method, Revans experimented with including a role that he described as a "supernumerary" that had many similarities to that of a facilitator or coach (Revans, 2011, p. 9). Revans, like many other action learning practitioners, noted that without someone dedicated to managing basic process norms as well as championing individual, team, and organizational learning, action learning often devolved into lots of action without much learning.
Pedler distills Revans' thinking about the key role of the action learning facilitator as follows:
(i) The initiator or “accoucheur”: "No organisation is likely to embrace action learning unless there is some person within it ready to fight on its behalf. ......This useful intermediary we may call the accoucheur - the managerial midwife who sees that their organisation gives birth to a new idea... ". (Revans, 2011, p. 101)
(ii) The set facilitator or “combiner”: “there may be a need when it (the set) is first formed for some supernumerary ... brought into speed the integration of the set ....” but “Such a combiner ....... must contrive that it (the set) achieves independence of them at the earliest possible moment...” (Revans, 2011, p. 9).
(iii) The facilitator of organizational learning or the “learning community” organiser: “The most precious asset of any organization is the one most readily overlooked: its capacity to build upon its lived experience, to learn from its challenges and to turn in a better performance by inviting all and sundry to work out for themselves what that performance ought to be.” (Revans, 2011, p. 120)
Hale (2003a, 2003b, 2004) suggested that the facilitator role developed by Revans (2011) be incorporated into any standards for action learning facilitation accreditation. Hale also suggests the action learning faciltator role includes the functions of mobiliser, learning set adviser, and learning catalyst (Hale, 2012). To increase the reflective, learning aspect of action learning, many groups now adopt the practice or norm of focusing on questions rather than statements while working on the problem and developing strategies and actions. Questions focus discussion and encourage the group to listen, to become a cohesive team more quickly, and to generate creative, out-of-the-box thinking.
Self-managed action learning (Bourner et al., 2002; O'Hara et al., 2004) is a variant of action learning that dispenses with the need for a facilitator of the action learning set. Shurville and Rospigliosi (2009) have explored using virtual action learning to promote self-management by the team. Deborah Waddill (2003) has developed guidelines for virtual action learning teams, what she calls action e-learning.
There are a number of problems, however, with pure self-managed teams (i.e., with no coach). Wellins, Byham, & Wilson (1991) have noted that self-managing teams (such as task forces) seldom take the time to reflect on what they are doing or make efforts to identify key lessons learned from the process. Without reflection, team members are likely to import organizational or sub-unit cultural norms and familiar problem solving practices into the problem-solving process without explicitly testing their validity and utility. Team members employ assumptions, mental models, and beliefs about methods or processes that are seldom openly challenged, much less tested. As a result, teams often apply traditional problem solving methods to non-traditional, urgent, critical, and discontinuous problems. In addition, team members often "leap" from the initial problem statement to some form of brainstorming that they assume will produce a viable solution. These suggested solutions typically provoke objections, doubts, concerns, or reservations from other team members who advocate their own preferred solutions. The conflicts that ensue are generally both unproductive and time-consuming. As a result, self-managed teams, tend to split or fragment rather than develop and evolve into a cohesive, high-performing team.
Because of these typical characteristics of self-managing teams, many theorists and practitioners (c.f., Marquardt, Leonard, Freedman, and Hill, 2009) have argued that real and effective self-management in action learning requires coaches with the authority to intervene whenever they perceive an opportunity to promote learning or improve team performance. Without this team role, there is no assurance that the team will make the time needed for the periodic, systemic, and strategic inquiry and reflection that is necessary for effective individual, team, and organizational learning.
Events, forums and conferences
A number of organizations sponsor events focusing on the implementation and improvement of action learning. These include The Journal of Action Learning: Research & Practice, the World Institute of Action Learning Global Forum, International Foundation for Action Learning events, the Global Forum on Executive Development and Business Driven Action Learning, and the Action Learning, Action Research Association World Congress. LinkedIn interest groups devoted to action learning include WIAL Network, Action Learning Forum, International Foundation for Action Learning, Global Forum on Business Driven Action Learning and Executive Development, Learning Thru Action, and Action Research and Learning in Organizations.
- Action research
- Experiential learning
- Inquiry-based learning
- Large-group capacitation
- Learning cycle
- Action Science
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