What is Action Learning? Action Learning is an approach or framework to problem solving and learning in groups, using real work-place problems as issues for the person who ‘owns’ the problem to present to a small group or ‘set’ in a safe and confidential setting. The set members enquire and challenge the presenter without giving them advice – unless it is specifically requested. The framework deliberately gives time for the presenter to think and reflect and each set member is given equal opportunity and space to present their issue. The Action Learning Set then provides an opportunity for the presenter to report back on the results of their actions so that they and the whole group learn from the experience. The set will also reflect on its own process and learn from it. Sets can be internal within an organisation or an external group with set members from various organisations.
What’s good about it? So often, we as individuals, teams and organisations devalue time and space to reflect on problems. We tend just to act rather than learn from experience – simply because we don’t make time to do the learning. We also tend to follow a model of learning that is fairly abstract rather then work-place centred, with an ‘expert’ telling us what is right and wrong rather than value our own competence to work through our own problems.
How do we do Action Learning? A group or set that wants to do Action Learning must be made up of volunteers – no one can be forced to do Action Learning and it still work. A set is more than 3 and normally less than 8 people. Ground rules need to be discussed and agreed, the main two being confidentiality of anything said and equal uninterrupted opportunity given to each presenter. Groups can be facilitated externally which can help to make it happen although at a cost or self-facilitated, which requires more self and group discipline.
How long and how often should it happen? Most sets meet for 2-3 hours and allow 30-40 minutes for each presenter. Sets need to meet regularly enough to create a learning community feel and a sense of continuity: six weeks is a helpful interval between meetings. Action Learning Sets tend to contract with each other to meet for about 6 months and then negotiate to continue if mutually agreed.
Will it work for me or in my organisation? There are some useful questionnaires to help you and your organisation decide if it is likely to work and be beneficial. Practical guides include the Action Learning Handbook and Weinstein’s book both available through the 3D HR Bookstore. CIPD members can access a useful introductory factsheet.
How do I find a facilitator if I need one? There is a useful website with a facilitators’ directory. Or find an HR consultant with relevant experience – which may include 3D HR.
Edmonstone, J (2003). Action Learner’s Toolkit. Gower, London.
McGill, I & Brockbank, A (2004). Action Learning Handbook. RoutledgeFalmer, Abingdon.
Weinstein, K (1999). Action Learning: a guide. Gower, London.
This work by Peter Kenworthy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.