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Action Learning

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Learn by Doing: The Action-packed Approach to Problem Solving


In the realm of organizational development and training, Action Learning emerges as a powerhouse, blending problem-solving with learning in real-time. Rooted in the belief that the most profound learning emanates from doing, Action Learning focuses on real problems, working on them in real-time, and learning as a team in the process. Conceived by Professor Reg Revans during the 1940s, this approach emphasizes the 'Q' (questioning) to the conventional 'P' (programmed knowledge). As organizations grapple with unprecedented challenges, the significance of Action Learning has amplified. It's no longer about knowing the answer but about asking the right questions in the face of uncertainty. This methodology promotes critical thinking, fosters teamwork, and instills a culture of continuous learning. Let's embark on this action-packed journey and unpack the nuances of Action Learning.


Transforming Knowledge into Action

  • Real-time Problem Solving: Tackles pressing organizational issues while promoting learning.

  • Enhances Team Dynamics: Encourages diverse perspectives, fostering collaboration and mutual respect.

  • Cultivates Critical Thinking: Stimulates questioning, pushing boundaries of conventional wisdom.

When to Use

Engage, Enact, and Evolve

  • Organizational Transition: Navigating shifts, mergers, or restructures.

  • Innovation Drives: When brainstorming new products, services, or strategies.

  • Skill Enhancement: Cultivating leadership, critical thinking, or cross-functional capabilities.

OD Appliation

Action Learning: A Dynamic Approach to Organizational Development and Growth

In the realm of Organizational Development (OD), various methodologies and approaches have been developed to foster organizational growth, learning, and transformation. Among these, Action Learning stands out as a robust, hands-on approach that focuses on real-time problem-solving and learning concurrently. It is a process that involves a small group working on real problems, taking action, and learning as individuals, as a team, and as an organization. It bridges the often-seen gap between theory and practice, making it a favored tool for many OD consultants and practitioners.

Deep Dive into Action Learning

Action Learning is founded on the principle that the most profound learning arises from doing – from taking action. It emphasizes the importance of reflecting on actions and results to glean insights and lessons. This cyclical process of action and reflection ensures that learning is continuous and anchored in real-world experiences.

The core of Action Learning is the "set" or team, a small group of individuals who come together to address a complex problem. The process generally involves the following steps:

  1. Problem Identification: A real, urgent, and significant problem is identified. This problem should ideally be one for which the solution isn't readily available or known.

  2. Formation of Action Learning Set: A diverse group of individuals forms the set. Diversity ensures varied perspectives and richer discussions.

  3. Problem Solving: The set collaboratively works on the problem, seeking solutions. The emphasis here is not just on finding a solution but on the learning derived from the problem-solving process.

  4. Action: Solutions or interventions are implemented in the organization.

  5. Reflection: Post-action, the set reconvenes to reflect upon the results, the process, and the learning derived.

  6. Continuous Learning: Insights and lessons are documented, and this learning is applied in subsequent Action Learning cycles or other organizational contexts.

Impacts on Well-being

Individual Level

1. Personal Growth:Action Learning provides individuals with a platform to challenge their thinking, confront biases, and evolve both professionally and personally.

2. Enhanced Skills:Participants hone their problem-solving, collaboration, and critical thinking skills. They also develop greater emotional intelligence, given the interpersonal dynamics and reflections involved.

3. Sense of Achievement:Tackling real-world problems and seeing tangible results provides a deep sense of accomplishment.

Team Level

1. Strengthened Team Dynamics:Working closely on complex challenges fosters stronger bonds, better communication, and mutual respect among team members.

2. Shared Learning:The collaborative nature of Action Learning ensures that learning is shared, creating a collective pool of insights and knowledge.

3. Enhanced Collaboration:The diversity within the set fosters a culture of inclusivity and mutual respect.

Impacts on Organizational Prosperity

1. Innovative Solutions:Given the diverse perspectives involved, solutions derived are often innovative and well-rounded.

2. Organizational Learning:The insights and lessons aren't confined to the set but are disseminated throughout the organization, fostering a culture of continuous learning.

3. Improved Problem-Solving:Over time, the organization becomes better equipped to tackle challenges, given the skills, insights, and methodologies imbibed through Action Learning.

Guidelines for Implementing Action Learning

1. Choose the Right Problem:The chosen problem should be complex, real, and significant. It should be something that compels the set to think deeply and innovatively.

2. Ensure Diversity in the Set:Diverse teams bring varied perspectives, leading to richer discussions and more comprehensive solutions.

3. Facilitate, Don't Direct:A facilitator or coach can guide the set, ensuring that the process remains focused on both problem-solving and learning. However, they should avoid directing or influencing the set's decisions.

4. Emphasize Reflection:Post-action reflection is where a significant chunk of the learning happens. Ensure that adequate time and importance are given to this phase.

Determining the Need for Action Learning

1. Complex Challenges:If the organization is grappling with challenges that don't have straightforward solutions, Action Learning can be beneficial.

2. Need for Innovation:When traditional problem-solving methods aren't yielding results, and there's a need for innovative solutions, Action Learning can be the answer.

3. Skill Development:If there's a felt need to enhance the problem-solving, collaboration, and critical thinking skills of employees, Action Learning can be a potent tool.

Observing the Impact

Individual Level:Look for enhanced skills, increased confidence in problem-solving, and a deeper sense of achievement among participants.

Team Level:Observe for improved team dynamics, better communication, and a culture of shared learning and collaboration.

Organizational Level:Monitor for innovative solutions to challenges, a culture of continuous learning, and improved problem-solving capabilities across the organization.

In a rapidly changing business environment, organizations must be agile, innovative, and continuously learning. Action Learning, with its emphasis on real-world problem-solving and concurrent learning, provides organizations with a framework to address complex challenges while continuously evolving and growing. It's not just about solving problems; it's about learning from the process, making both individuals and organizations more resilient, adaptive, and forward-looking.


Healthcare: Treating with Teams

A metropolitan hospital, facing patient flow issues, assembled multi-disciplinary teams. Using Action Learning, they identified bottlenecks, implemented solutions, and improved patient care, all while enhancing team collaboration.

Technology: Debugging with Dialogue

A software giant, dealing with a complex product glitch, employed Action Learning with a diverse team. They not only resolved the bug but also identified ways to enhance user experience.

Non-Profit: Mission with Learning

An environmental NGO, aiming to enhance community engagement, tapped into Action Learning. They crafted campaigns that resonated better with local communities, all while learning about diverse cultural nuances.

Facilitator Notes

How to Introduce Action Learning

  • Bridge Theory and Practice: Emphasize its hands-on approach.

  • Highlight the Power of Questions: It's about asking, not just telling.

Sample Introduction Script

"Today, we're diving into a transformative journey where we don't just learn; we act. Action Learning isn't just about solving problems; it's about growing together as a team, asking the right questions, and turning challenges into learning opportunities."

Helpful Facilitator Questions

  1. What questions have we not asked yet?

  2. How can we turn this challenge into a learning experience?

  3. What assumptions are we operating under?

Anticipating and Overcoming Resistance

Stepping into the Action Arena


  • Fear of Failure: Hesitation due to potential mistakes.

  • Sticking to Status Quo: Resistance to trying new approaches.


  • Frame failures as learning opportunities.

  • Showcase the long-term benefits of embracing Action Learning.

Recognizing Successful Facilitation

Actions Speak Louder

  • Tangible Outcomes: Clear solutions to presented challenges.

  • Enhanced Team Dynamics: Greater collaboration and mutual respect.

  • Elevated Questioning Skills: Teams asking deeper, more critical questions.

Deep Dive

Related Theories

Experiential Learning (Kolb) Field: Education Rooted in the belief that experience is the primary source of learning, closely aligning with Action Learning's ethos.

Problem-Based Learning Field: Pedagogy Focuses on real-world problems as a context for learning, mirroring Action Learning's approach.

Group Dynamics (Lewin) Field: Social Psychology Understanding group behavior, essential for Action Learning's team-based methodology.


  1. How has our approach to problem-solving evolved with Action Learning?

  2. What new insights have we gained about our team dynamics?

  3. How can we make Action Learning a staple in our organizational culture?


Learning in Action

  1. How does Action Learning impact long-term organizational innovation?

  2. Can Action Learning be effectively scaled for larger organizations?

  3. What are the cultural nuances of Action Learning in global contexts?


  1. "Action Learning for Developing Leaders and Organizations" by Michael Marquardt: A comprehensive guide on the principles and practices of Action Learning.

  2. "Action Learning in Practice" by Mike Pedler: An anthology of experiences, showcasing diverse applications of Action Learning.

  3. "The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter" by Juanita Brown & David Isaacs: Though not strictly on Action Learning, it delves into collaborative dialogue, essential for the methodology.


Action Learning is more than a method; it's a mindset. In a world where challenges are multifaceted, it offers a beacon, guiding teams to ask, act, and learn. As we steer our organizations into the future, Action Learning emerges as a compass, blending problem-solving with continuous learning. Dive into its realm, and transform challenges into opportunities.

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