by Justin Standfield
I have been involved in Action Learning for a number of years as both a facilitator and a learner, and find it a powerful, fluid and affirming way to develop. During my career in learning and development, I’ve noticed that the term ‘Action Learning’ has been used by many colleagues to describe different activities and learning interventions. It seems that this could be a label that is applied to a range of development initiatives and potentially means different things to different people. Some of the activities referred to as Action Learning in organisations in which I’ve worked have appeared to be little more than problem-solving sessions, teambuilding days, brainstorming meetings and – at worst – a chat and a coffee.
It’s been said that Action Learning has ‘come of age’, with over 50 years having passed since its inception by Reg Revans in the early 1960s. In looking for a succinct definition of precisely what Action Learning is, the natural starting point would be to consult the work of its originator. Many sources cite Revans as being the founder of Action Learning, but strangely he’s never provided a single, comprehensive statement of what Action Learning actually is; instead, he’s gone to great lengths to categorise Action Learning by offering examples of what it is not. Revans proposed the following equation that he felt summed up the underpinning philosophy of Action Learning:
L = P + Q
‘L’ is learning
‘P’ is programmed knowledge (traditional tutor-led training)
‘Q’ is questioning insight (reflection, challenging your own assumptions)
Delving into the literature on this subject, it’s clear that there are some common characteristics that apply to Action Learning; that said, there are also some differences of opinion with regard to the nature of Action Learning in practice. From my own observations, I can’t help but wonder whether some of the interventions I’ve seen over the years even constitute Action Learning at all – despite being labelled as such by well-intentioned learning professionals. A number of authors have observed the label of Action Learning being applied to more than one type of learning and development intervention. Muriel Robinson acknowledges that the term ‘Action Learning’ has become part of learning and development jargon, but – as she puts it – ‘not everyone who uses it means the same thing’. Ian Cunningham also passes judgement on those who might be too quick to use the label Action Learning inappropriately and refers to this as ‘colluding with unacceptable practice’.
I trained as an Action Learning facilitator around 12 years ago and since then I’ve developed my practical skills alongside studying the topic. From my work with this learning methodology, a set of typical Action Learning characteristics have emerged from a review of the literature. Whilst not every text espoused an identical set of features common to all forms of Action Learning, there were broad areas of agreement about the general characteristics, which I’ve summarised as:
- Learners meet in a set of around six people, to discuss their problems
- Set membership should be voluntary
- Set members should be peers
- Information/training on Action Learning should be given at the beginning of the set
- Taking action is vital – not just planning it or reflecting on possible action
- Reflection is key to learning from experience
- Working on a clearly chosen project of importance to the set member
From my experiences as a member of assorted Action Learning sets over the years and from talking to a range of learning professionals, there’s a real sense that these characteristics are often interpreted in different ways. It seems that this depends on the expectations of the set members, the facilitator’s background, capability and style, and the organisation’s appetite for this method of learning. So, when we say we’re facilitating Action Learning with a group, sometimes we might be doing something quite different – possibly without even realising it.
If people are developing during a session like that, should it matter to us as learning professionals what we call it? Yes, I think it should. In an age of evolving developments in the field of learning and development – with each new learning methodology or programme seeming to bring its own set of jargon – I think it’s important for learning professionals to be clear when promoting our services and be comfortable that what we’re offering “does what it says on the tin”. I’d also encourage anyone who is embarking on an Action Learning facilitator role to undertake some training in this unique and rewarding method, as the facilitator provides a key function that contributes to the progress of the set.
If you’re interested in seeing how Action Learning could work for any leadership development or change management initiatives your organisation has planned, I’d love to have a chat with you. Contact me on 01489 287 267 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.