In preparation for a presentation I’m doing on how the learning function can introduce more informal learning services to their repertoire, I’ve been exploring methods that build on the Natural Learning cycle that I mentioned in this post. Action Learning is one such method. It is essentially the process of reflective learning while solving real problems.
My personal experience has been helping quality and process improvement teams use variations of the plan-do-study-act cycle to identify and solve process issues. The methods of Action Learning offer a similar facilitated approach to help develop leaders and professionals through the natural learning that occurs while solving real business problems.
The method has many variations but the general process as described by the World Institute for Action Learning is based on six important components. They are:
1. A Problem (project, challenge, opportunity, issue or task)
The problem should be urgent and significant and should be the responsibility of the team to resolve
2. An Action Learning group or team.
Ideally composed of 4-8 people who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution. The group should be diverse in background and experience.
3. A process of insightful questioning and reflection
Action Learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action. Questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness, generate innovative and systems thinking, and enhance learning results.
4. An action taken on the problem
There is no real meaningful or practical learning until action is taken and reflected on. Action Learning requires that the group be able to take action on the problem it is addressing. If the group makes recommendations only, it loses its energy, creativity and commitment.
5. A commitment to learning
Solving an organizational problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the company. The greater, longer-term multiplier benefits, however, are the learnings gained by each group member and the group as a whole, as well as how those learnings are applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization.
6. An Action Learning coach
The Action Learning coach helps the team members reflect on both what they are learning and how they are solving problems. The coach enables group members to reflect on how they listen, how they may have re-framed the problem, how they give each other feedback, how they are planning and working, and what assumptions may be shaping their beliefs and actions. The Action Leaning coach also helps the team focus on what they are achieving, what they are finding difficult, what processes they are employing, and the implications of these processes.
You can see the how the process builds on the natural cycle of taking action on a problem, observing and monitoring the consequences and impact of the actions, making adjustments and trying again. My own biases lead me using the method for continuously improving business processes and have a results focus, but the method can be used in all areas of organizational life.
Technology can help
The small group nature of the process does not restrict the process to a physical location. Collaborative technologies, e-workspaces or dedicated communities of practice would in fact enhance the process by capturing the emerging practices and making knowledge and reflective processes visible.
Emerging best practices can also be used to build learning simulations for broader training purposes and disseminating learnings across the organization.
Challenge and reward
Learning functions could do worse than hiring or developing Learning Consultants to use the action learning process to work closely with teams, professionals and leaders to solve sticky problems, generate best practices, and build organizational capability. Consultants will need to be effective and respected to earn the trust of the organization. They will be positioned in the middle of real problems, with real constraints and experience real human behaviour. Not for the weak of heart–but the learning and performance benefits will be superior to more easily implemented classroom learning programs.