Action learning is a process in which employees work together in small teams, called ‘action learning sets’, to reflect on their own actions and experiences in order to improve performance. The originator of the concept of action learning is Professor Reginald Revans, based on work he conducted with the Coal Board in the 1940s. He encouraged managers to meet together in small groups, to share their experiences and ask each other questions about what they saw and heard.
Action learning works best when the participants have some responsibility for the introduction of new ways of working or the achievement of complex tasks. For this reason, the approach is a common ingredient in leadership development programmes. The effectiveness of action learning can be measured through the changes that participants make in their work and the practical results of these changes.
- To be successful, action learning requires participants to buy-in to the ground rules:
- All set members are equals.
- The discussions must be kept confidential.
- Each participant has a responsibility to learn and to help the development of others.
- Air time must be shared equally.
To help ensure these rules are followed, action learning sets will sometimes be moderated by a facilitator. In an action set meeting, it is typical for one of the participants to present a current issue. Other participants then ask open questions to help the presenter come to a deeper or different understanding and so be open to new solutions, attitudes and behaviour changes. The participants should not give advice, pass judgement or shift attention to their own situation. The set helps the presenter review their options and decide on action.
Revans’ vision for action learning was endorsed by that most contemporary of companies, Google, at the 2007 conference of the Association for Learning Technology. Google’s Peter Norvig told the conference that most education should be centred on engaging, real-world projects, and explored in teams. He may not have used the term ‘action learning’, but that’s what he was describing.
Action learning is:
- at its best when the participants have the power to act on their conclusions, when the participants are at the same level in the organisation, when the ground rules are adhered to;
- best avoided when the focus shifts away from the learning to the task itself, when a vocal minority dominates the meetings.