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Overview

The journey of Action Learning begins with the insightful work of Reg Revans, who, in 1998, offered a foundational perspective that has since shaped the understanding and application of this experiential learning method. At its core, Action Learning operates on the simple yet profound equation L = P + Q, where 'L' stands for learning, 'P' signifies programmed instruction, and 'Q' denotes the questioning insight that propels individuals and groups towards deeper understanding and practical solutions. This equation underlines the dual nature of learning that combines traditional knowledge acquisition with the dynamic exploration of real-world problems through reflective questioning and collaborative effort.

Action Learning is more than a methodology; it's a philosophical approach to learning that champions the belief in learning by doing and reflecting on what has been done. Its essence lies in tackling actual tasks within small teams or learning sets, fostering not only problem-solving and leadership skills but also promoting the development of teamwork and facilitation abilities that are crucial for organizational success. The unique attribute of Action Learning is its adaptability, allowing for various applications by adjusting elements such as the project's scope, the degree of facilitation, and methods of encouraging reflection, thereby making each implementation distinctively suited to the organizational context it serves.

The relevance of Action Learning in today's organizational landscape cannot be overstated. In an era marked by rapid change and complex challenges, the ability to adapt and learn from real-time experiences is invaluable. Action Learning facilitates this by merging action with reflection, thereby equipping individuals and teams with the skills necessary to navigate and thrive in dynamic environments. It answers the call for methods that not only solve problems but also build the capacities of individuals to deal with future challenges innovatively and collaboratively.

Guiding principles of Action Learning are deeply rooted in the conceptual traditions of experiential learning, organizational behavior, and social psychology. It emphasizes the importance of 'not knowing' as a starting point for inquiry, fostering an environment where participants feel empowered to ask questions, explore their assumptions, and collectively seek solutions. This approach aligns with adult learning theories that advocate for the engagement of learners as active participants in their learning processes, contrasting with traditional didactic methods.

Moreover, Action Learning's value system is built on a foundation of mutual respect, open-mindedness, and a commitment to personal and collective growth. These values resonate with the humanistic traditions of organizational development, emphasizing the potential of individuals to contribute meaningfully to their organizations while also achieving personal development.

Conceptually, Action Learning draws from a rich tapestry of theories, including double-loop learning (Argyris & Schön, 1978), which encourages learners to reflect not only on actions and outcomes but also on the underlying assumptions and beliefs that guide their decision-making. This reflective practice is at the heart of Action Learning, promoting a culture of continuous learning and adaptation within organizations.

As organizations face an increasingly unpredictable future, the principles, values, and conceptual traditions underpinning Action Learning provide a powerful framework for developing the capabilities needed to navigate the challenges ahead. It offers a pathway to not only address immediate problems but also to cultivate a learning-oriented culture that values curiosity, collaboration, and innovation.

In summary, Action Learning stands as a testament to the enduring importance of learning through action and reflection. Its roots in the work of Reg Revans, coupled with its alignment with key principles from organizational behavior and social psychology, underscore its significance as a tool for organizational development and individual growth. As we look to the future, the principles and values of Action Learning offer guidance for creating resilient, adaptable organizations capable of thriving in an ever-changing world.

Uses & Benefits

Action Learning, as an experiential learning methodology, has found its place across various organizational contexts due to its practicality in addressing real-world problems while promoting learning and development among participants. Its versatility allows it to be effectively applied to a wide range of organizational challenges, from strategic planning and process improvement to leadership development and team building. Specifically, organizations navigating through complex change processes, or those seeking to foster a culture of continuous improvement and innovation, can significantly benefit from implementing Action Learning programs.

One of the primary organizational uses of Action Learning is in tackling complex, ambiguous problems that do not have straightforward solutions. These problems often require a deep understanding of the context, critical thinking, and collaborative efforts for resolution. Action Learning sets—small, diverse teams working on real problems—provide a structured yet flexible framework for exploring these issues. They bring together different perspectives and expertise, encouraging a holistic approach to problem-solving. This collaborative process not only leads to the identification of viable solutions but also enhances the problem-solving capabilities of the participants, making it particularly valuable for strategic planning and innovation initiatives.

Furthermore, Action Learning is instrumental in leadership development programs. By placing participants in situations where they must work together to address real organizational challenges, Action Learning fosters essential leadership qualities such as empathy, effective communication, strategic thinking, and the ability to lead through influence rather than authority. These experiences are crucial for preparing emerging leaders to navigate the complexities of organizational leadership in a dynamic business environment.

In the context of team building and enhancing organizational culture, Action Learning plays a pivotal role in breaking down silos, promoting cross-functional collaboration, and building trust among team members. By working on real projects that contribute to organizational goals, participants develop a shared sense of purpose and accountability. This collective learning experience not only strengthens team cohesion but also cultivates a culture of learning and adaptability, which are critical for organizational resilience and growth.

Benefits of using Action Learning include:

Enhanced Problem-solving Skills: Participants learn to approach problems holistically, considering various factors and perspectives, which enhances their ability to tackle complex issues effectively.

Improved Leadership Capabilities: Action Learning provides a platform for developing and practicing leadership skills in a real-world context, preparing participants for future leadership roles.

Increased Collaboration and Teamwork: By working in learning sets, participants experience the value of diversity and collaboration, leading to improved teamwork across the organization.

Cultural Transformation: As teams engage in Action Learning, they start embodying the principles of continuous learning, openness, and adaptability, contributing to a positive shift in organizational culture.

Organizational Alignment and Engagement: Working on projects that align with organizational goals fosters a sense of purpose and engagement among participants, enhancing overall motivation and commitment.

Personal and Professional Growth: Action Learning offers participants opportunities for reflection and feedback, facilitating personal and professional development.

Innovative Thinking and Creativity: The iterative process of questioning and reflection in Action Learning sets encourages out-of-the-box thinking, leading to innovative solutions to organizational challenges.

Agility and Adaptability: Participants learn to navigate uncertainty and change more effectively, making the organization more agile and responsive to external pressures.

In summary, Action Learning is not just a tool for solving problems but a holistic approach to development that benefits individuals, teams, and the entire organization. Its applicability across various contexts, coupled with the significant benefits it offers, makes it a valuable asset for organizations striving to navigate the complexities of the modern business landscape.

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OD Application

Case Study 1: Healthcare Organization

In the challenging environment of a healthcare organization, where the balance between quality patient care and operational efficiency is paramount, Action Learning can serve as a vital tool for addressing complex issues. A common challenge is improving patient satisfaction while managing resource constraints. An Action Learning set composed of cross-functional team members—including nurses, doctors, administrative staff, and patient care specialists—can be tasked with developing innovative solutions to enhance patient experiences without increasing costs.

The process begins with the team identifying specific areas of concern through patient feedback and performance data analysis. They might focus on reducing wait times, improving communication between healthcare providers and patients, or enhancing the overall patient environment. Through the Action Learning process, team members question existing assumptions, share insights from their diverse areas of expertise, and collaboratively develop strategic interventions.

Each characteristic of the Action Learning method—real problem-solving, reflection, collaborative learning, and action-taking—contributes to uncovering insights and devising practical solutions. For instance, the team might implement a pilot project to test a new patient triage system designed to reduce wait times. Throughout the process, the team reflects on their learning, assesses the impact of their actions, and iteratively improves the solution based on real-world feedback.

The solutions developed through Action Learning are conceptually linked to the tool by their grounding in real organizational challenges, reflective practice, and collaborative learning. The outcomes not only address the immediate problem of enhancing patient satisfaction but also contribute to building a culture of continuous improvement and team-based problem-solving within the organization.

Case Study 2: Technology Organization

A technology company facing rapid market changes and the need for constant innovation presents a fertile ground for the application of Action Learning. A common challenge is accelerating product development cycles to maintain competitive advantage. An Action Learning set, comprising members from R&D, marketing, product management, and customer support, can be formed to tackle this issue.

This diverse team embarks on a journey to identify bottlenecks in the product development process and explore opportunities for leveraging technology to enhance efficiency and innovation. Through the Action Learning process, they engage in deep questioning to understand the root causes of delays, share knowledge across functional boundaries, and experiment with new approaches to product development.

The Action Learning set might pilot an agile development methodology, integrating customer feedback early and often throughout the development cycle. This approach allows for rapid iteration and improvement, significantly reducing time to market. The team's reflections and learning are continuously integrated into their actions, leading to sustainable improvements in the product development process.

Case Study 3: Non-Profit Organization

In a non-profit organization striving to increase its impact while dealing with limited resources, Action Learning can be a powerful tool for strategic planning and resource optimization. A challenge such as expanding services to underserved communities without increasing operational costs can be addressed through an Action Learning set comprising members from program management, fundraising, volunteer coordination, and community outreach.

This team works collaboratively to explore innovative approaches to service delivery, such as partnerships with local organizations, volunteer-driven programs, or the use of technology to reach more beneficiaries. Through the Action Learning process, the team questions traditional models of service delivery, harnesses the collective wisdom of its members, and experiments with new approaches.

One potential solution could involve launching a pilot program that leverages technology to provide virtual training sessions for community members. This approach allows the organization to reach a broader audience without the need for additional physical resources. Throughout the process, the team reflects on their experiences, learns from successes and failures, and refines their strategy to maximize impact.

In each of these case studies, Action Learning enables organizations to address specific challenges through a structured process of action, reflection, and learning. The solutions are directly linked to the insights gained through the Action Learning process, demonstrating its value in fostering innovative thinking, collaborative problem-solving, and strategic action across different organizational contexts.

Facilitation

Facilitating an Action Learning program requires a thoughtful approach that emphasizes creating a supportive yet challenging learning environment. The facilitator plays a crucial role in guiding the process, ensuring that participants engage deeply with the method and derive maximum benefit from their experiences. This section outlines a step-by-step approach to facilitating Action Learning, integrating a modern example to illustrate key concepts.

Step 1: Setting the Stage

Before the Action Learning set begins, the facilitator meets with potential participants to explain the purpose, process, and expectations of the program. This meeting is critical for building understanding and buy-in. For example, in a healthcare organization looking to improve patient care processes, the facilitator might share how Action Learning has helped similar organizations tackle complex problems collaboratively and effectively.

Step 2: Forming the Action Learning Set

The facilitator carefully selects participants to form a diverse and balanced team, considering different perspectives, skills, and levels of experience. Diversity in the team, such as including both clinical and administrative staff in a healthcare context, enriches the learning and problem-solving process.

Step 3: Establishing Ground Rules

In the first official meeting, the facilitator helps the group establish ground rules that will govern their interactions. These might include confidentiality, respect for all contributions, and a commitment to constructive questioning. The facilitator emphasizes the importance of these rules in creating a safe and productive learning environment.

Step 4: Introducing the Process

The facilitator outlines the Action Learning process, highlighting the roles of presenting a challenge, questioning, reflection, and taking action. Using a real example, such as improving patient wait times, the facilitator demonstrates how the process can unfold, from identifying the problem to implementing and evaluating solutions.

Step 5: Guiding the Questioning Process

As the group begins to work on challenges, the facilitator guides the questioning process, encouraging participants to ask open, insightful questions that deepen understanding and explore the challenge from multiple angles. The facilitator intervenes as needed to keep the discussion focused and productive, steering the group away from jumping to solutions prematurely.

Step 6: Encouraging Reflection

After each session, the facilitator leads a reflection on both the content discussed and the process itself. This reflection helps participants internalize their learning, understand the dynamics of their interactions, and improve their problem-solving and teamworking skills over time.

Step 7: Supporting Action and Learning

As participants identify actions to address their challenges, the facilitator helps them plan and implement these actions. The facilitator encourages the group to consider what they hope to learn from each action and how they will measure success.

Step 8: Closing and Evaluating

At the end of the program, the facilitator leads a final reflection and evaluation session. Participants share their learnings, discuss the impact of their actions, and consider how they can apply their insights beyond the Action Learning set. This closure helps solidify the learning and ensures participants understand how to continue applying the principles of Action Learning in their work.

Throughout the process, the facilitator must balance providing structure with allowing enough flexibility for the group to navigate their own learning journey. Effective facilitation requires keen observation, active listening, and the ability to ask powerful questions that prompt deeper thinking and learning.

Introducing Action Learning to a New Client

Email Introduction: Before the first face-to-face meeting, the facilitator sends an email to introduce the concept of Action Learning. The email outlines the benefits of Action Learning, what participants can expect from the process, and how it has helped organizations similar to theirs solve complex problems and develop their teams.

Facilitator’s Talking Points for the First Meeting:

Framing Action Learning: The facilitator begins by framing Action Learning as a powerful tool for real-time problem-solving and learning. They emphasize the dual focus on achieving organizational goals and personal development.

Relating to the Audience: The facilitator shares stories or examples of Action Learning successes, specifically those that resonate with the client’s industry or current challenges.

Getting Started: Discussion on how Action Learning works, including the structure of the sets, the process of questioning and reflection, and the roles participants will play.

Creating Comfort: The facilitator addresses common concerns, such as time commitment and fear of sharing in a group setting, reassuring participants of the supportive nature of the process.

Exploring the Characteristics and Areas Explored: Detailed explanation of the characteristics of Action Learning sets, including the emphasis on real challenges, the power of reflective questioning, and the commitment to taking action based on learning.

Facilitating Deep Reflection Through Questions

A skilled facilitator uses questions to elicit deep reflection and insights. Here are ten questions that can be used during Action Learning sessions:

What assumptions are we making, and how do they affect our understanding of the challenge?

How does this challenge relate to our broader organizational goals or values?

What have we learned from previous attempts to address similar challenges?

How do our individual perspectives influence our approach to this problem?

What might we be overlooking or underestimating in our current approach?

How can we leverage our diverse skills and knowledge to find a novel solution?

What potential barriers might we encounter, and how can we preemptively address them?

How will we measure the success of our actions, and what does success look like?

What impact could our solution have on other parts of the organization or on external stakeholders?

How can we ensure that our solution is sustainable and adaptable to future changes?

These questions encourage participants to explore underlying assumptions, consider the broader context, and think creatively about solutions. They help uncover hidden perspectives and foster a comprehensive understanding of the challenge at hand.

Addressing Potential Challenges

Introducing Action Learning can come with its set of reservations or challenges from participants or the organization. Common concerns include skepticism about the effectiveness of the method, fear of open sharing in a group setting, and concerns about the time commitment required.

To mitigate these concerns, the facilitator should:

Provide clear examples of how Action Learning has effectively addressed similar challenges in other organizations.

Emphasize the structured nature of the process, which ensures productive and respectful discussions.

Highlight the commitment to actionable outcomes, demonstrating the practical value of the time invested.

Foster an initial atmosphere of trust and confidentiality, reassuring participants that the Action Learning set is a safe space for sharing and learning.

By addressing these potential challenges upfront and throughout the process, the facilitator helps create a positive and open environment that maximizes the benefits of Action Learning for participants and the organization.

AI Assist

To enhance the application and integration of Action Learning within organizations, particularly for consultants or facilitators, embedding an AI-powered script into an individual GPT can provide a highly personalized and scalable tool. This script would guide users through the process of setting up, facilitating, and evaluating an Action Learning program tailored to their specific organizational context. Here is a step-by-step GPT prompt that, when executed, walks any user through a practical use of the Action Learning tool:

Introduction to Action Learning

Prompt: “Begin by explaining what Action Learning is and why it’s beneficial for organizations. Highlight the principles of learning through action and reflection.”

Identifying Organizational Challenges

Prompt: “List the current challenges your organization is facing that could be addressed through Action Learning. Consider areas such as leadership development, process improvement, or team collaboration.”

Forming an Action Learning Set

Prompt: “Based on the challenges identified, describe the ideal composition of your Action Learning set. Include roles, expertise, and any diversity considerations.”

Defining the Problem

Prompt: “Choose one challenge from your list. Guide the user through defining the problem in detail, considering underlying factors and the impact on the organization.”

Questioning and Reflection

Prompt: “Provide guidance on generating insightful questions related to the chosen challenge. Offer examples of open-ended questions that encourage deep reflection and exploration.”

Developing Action Steps

Prompt: “Assist the user in outlining potential action steps to address the challenge. Emphasize the importance of achievable and measurable actions.”

Implementing and Evaluating

Prompt: “Explain how to implement the action steps within the organization. Include tips on monitoring progress, gathering feedback, and making adjustments as needed.”

Learning and Sharing

Prompt: “Guide the user in reflecting on the learning outcomes from the Action Learning process. Suggest ways to document these learnings and share them with the wider organization.”

Repeating the Process

Prompt: “Encourage the user to consider how they can apply the Action Learning process to other organizational challenges. Offer advice on maintaining the momentum of continuous learning and improvement.”

Feedback and Improvement

Prompt: “Finally, ask the user for feedback on their experience using the Action Learning tool with the help of this GPT script. Solicit suggestions for improving the process and the tool itself.”

By following this GPT prompt, users can navigate the complexities of implementing Action Learning in a structured and reflective manner. This approach not only ensures a practical application of the tool but also fosters a culture of learning and adaptability within the organization.

Theory

Action Learning, a powerful tool in the realm of organizational development, finds its theoretical underpinnings in several foundational theories. Understanding these theories not only enriches our comprehension of Action Learning but also deepens our appreciation for its application and impact within organizations. Here, we explore three significant theories that relate closely to Action Learning, elucidating how they inform and enhance our understanding of this dynamic learning process.

1. Experiential Learning Theory (Kolb, 1984)

David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory posits that learning is a process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. It emphasizes the central role that experience plays in the learning process, outlining a four-stage cycle of learning that includes concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Action Learning resonates with this theory as it encapsulates the entire experiential learning cycle. Participants engage in real-world tasks (concrete experience), reflect on their actions and the feedback received (reflective observation), derive generalizations and insights (abstract conceptualization), and apply these learnings to future actions (active experimentation). This theoretical framework underscores the importance of reflection and action in learning, reinforcing the efficacy of Action Learning as a method for organizational and personal development.

2. Double-Loop Learning (Argyris & Schön, 1978)

Chris Argyris and Donald Schön’s concept of double-loop learning explores the idea that effective learning involves not only correcting errors by changing actions (single-loop learning) but also questioning and modifying the underlying assumptions and policies that lead to the errors (double-loop learning). Action Learning integrates the principle of double-loop learning by encouraging participants to not only find solutions to immediate problems but also reflect on and challenge the organizational norms, values, and assumptions that underpin these issues. This deeper level of reflection fosters transformative change within individuals and organizations, making Action Learning a powerful tool for driving systemic change and continuous improvement.

3. Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977)

Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory emphasizes the importance of observing, modeling, and imitating the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others. It highlights the role of social context and interactions in the learning process, suggesting that people can learn from one another through observation, imitation, and modeling. Action Learning embodies the principles of social learning by placing participants in small groups (learning sets) where they can observe and learn from each other’s experiences and perspectives. Through collaborative problem-solving and reflection, participants not only learn from their own experiences but also gain insights from the actions and reflections of their peers, enhancing the collective learning experience.

Critique and Understanding through Questions

To critically engage with the theoretical foundations of Action Learning, we must ask probing questions that challenge and expand our understanding. Here are ten questions designed to deepen our theoretical insights:

How does the experiential learning cycle inform the structure and process of Action Learning sets?

In what ways does Action Learning facilitate double-loop learning within organizations?

How does the social context of Action Learning sets contribute to individual learning, according to social learning theory?

Can the principles of experiential learning be applied to virtual or remote Action Learning sets effectively?

How do the dynamics of power and hierarchy within an organization impact the process of double-loop learning in Action Learning?

What are the limitations of applying social learning theory to Action Learning in diverse cultural contexts?

How can facilitators ensure that all phases of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle are effectively addressed in an Action Learning program?

What challenges might arise in fostering a safe environment for double-loop learning, and how can they be overcome?

How does the concept of vicarious learning in social learning theory play out in Action Learning sets?

What role does reflection play in connecting the theories of experiential learning, double-loop learning, and social learning within the context of Action Learning?

Research Questions for Further Exploration

Exploring Action Learning through research can provide valuable insights into its application and impact. Here are five research questions that warrant further investigation:

How does participation in Action Learning sets influence leadership development among participants over time?

What is the impact of Action Learning on organizational culture, particularly in relation to fostering a culture of continuous improvement and innovation?

How do virtual Action Learning sets compare with in-person sets in terms of effectiveness and participant satisfaction?

In what ways can Action Learning be adapted to support diversity and inclusion within organizations?

How does the facilitator’s role and approach influence the outcomes of Action Learning programs?

These research questions aim to explore the multifaceted impacts of Action Learning, offering avenues for both theoretical advancement and practical application in the field of organizational development.



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