Action learning is an approach to management development – its supporters would say that it is the only really effective way to develop managers . Not only does action learning achieve growth in individuals – it does it in a way that delivers direct benefits to the business as the development is focussed on overcoming challenges in the real work of the individual.
1. Experiential learning – take action to solidify learning and reflect on action to increase learning in a continuous cycle
2. Cooperative approach – people take turns to help each other with their problems. Working openly with colleagues helps the person to externalise their thinking and gain insights into the reality of their situation.
3. Questioning process – others are there to help the person understand their situation, their options and their choices. Colleagues are not there to give advice or direction –they act as a mirror to improve the quality of the individual’s reflection on their situation.
Participation in an action learning programme imposes three obligations on participants
- As ‘problem owner’, to take the challenging actions that have been agreed in the action learning set (ALS) meeting, so you actively experiment with new ideas and gain new experience.
- As ‘problem owner’, to reflect openly and honestly with others on the action that you have taken so that you can learn fully from the experience and plan further actions during the ALS meeting.
- As ‘supportive colleague’, to help others reflect on their actions by questioning and challenging what they have done and plan to do in a supportive manner, in the ALS meeting
Action learning programmes are run by the combined efforts of participants, for the benefit of participants. A collaborative partnership amongst all set members is essential for everyone to benefit and everyone must ‘pull their weight’ – by attending set meetings, by engaging with participants when at the meetings and by moving their own actions forward in between meetings.
The role of the facilitator:
- In establishing the set, the facilitator guides the formation of the participant group, helping in the definition of its purpose, the selection of its members, the engagement of stakeholders (especially line managers and sponsors), the preparation of participants – so they understand what they can expect from action learning and what they will be expected to give in return.
- At the first set meeting the facilitator will help participants to establish appropriate ground-rules, explain how the process within the set meeting interacts with activity outside the meeting to produce Action Learning, explain the way that dialogue should be handled within the set meeting, and explain how each person, at different times, takes on the role of ‘problem owner’ or ‘supportive colleague’ to create a powerful learning environment.
- Once the process has started, particularly after the initial meetings as participants gain confidence with the process and build trust in each other, the facilitator will intervene less and less. Their aim is to set up an environment where dialogue is driven by participants and outcomes are owned by the participants. It is common (and healthy) for established sets to meet without facilitation.
The role of the sponsor:
- As sponsor, your interest will be in the project or process that is to be the subject of the individual’s actions and reflection in the meetings. You will want to stay close to what is happening so that the organisation benefits just as much as the individual. And you will want to help the individual to benefit the organisation.
The role of the manager:
- As manager of the individual, you are interested in their development, their welfare, and their productivity. Balancing these three will need your support for the individual, in the (potentially) emotional cauldron of an action learning set where personal challenges are being confronted openly and perhaps for the first time. However, as senior-level people themselves, you will want to ensure that the individual takes ownership of their own development within action learning, engaging fully in what is being offered to them.