Advancement of Action Learning: Breaking Stability
© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, Ph.D., Authenticity Consulting, LLC.
(This article appeared in the January 2000 issue of the International
Federation of Action Learning’s newsletter Action Learning News.)
Attention to the action learning process has increased dramatically over
the past ten years. The amount of applications and literature has increased
accordingly, yet their focus has remained largely the same. We seem stuck
in how we think about and use active learning. Perhaps it is time we reflect
on the status of action learning, take actions to further evolve the process, and reflect on what we learn.
Limited Focus of Applications and Literature
Books do a wonderful job of describing basic elements, core learning theories, and how to implement programs. Articles analyze the dynamics of action learning
with reference to the learning equation, adult learning theories, systems
Descriptions of applications, whether in books or articles, are almost
always in the context of management development in large organizations.
Each description briefly addresses the nature of the client organization,
design, and composition of sets, types of projects, and structure of meetings.
The primary emphasis is on various outcomes from the application.
To Evolve Action Learning …
1. Develop More Guidelines for Designing Programs and Groups
Action learning literature tends to gloss over critical questions of program
design. As programs expand to more practitioners and venues, we need guidelines
to answer questions, such as: Should we have a part-time or full-time program?
Use a single-project or open group program? Use horizontal- or vertical-
or diagonal-slice sets? Use familiar or unfamiliar settings and problems?
2. Reach Low-Income and Rural Areas
Action learning literature should place more focus on features of action
learning that make it so highly accessible. People can start their own groups
at a very low cost. They can schedule their own meetings and locations. They
can incorporate free materials from the World Wide Web. The wide accessibility
of action learning makes the process ideal for applications with low-income
groups and people in remote areas away from training centers. Action learning
“starter kits” could freely be made available on the World Wide
3. Provide Framework for Support Groups
Action learning purists tend to focus primarily on skills in reflection
and inquiry, and problem-solving. The role of support is sometimes minimized.
Yet, there is tremendous pain in many organizations today as they struggle
to remain viable in an ever-changing marketplace. Action learning can provide
ongoing support to participants without minimizing the role of actions and
learning. There are a few other processes that can provide badly needed support
while integrating ongoing actions and learning.
4. Cultivate Communities for Change
The concepts of popular and folk education are expanding rapidly across
the globe. Their purpose is to help people raise consciousness about their
roles in the world, cultivate shared meaning and vision, and implement strategies
to enhance the quality of their lives. Key values are that the people hold
the answers within themselves and that solutions must start from them as
well. Key group techniques include ongoing actions, inquiry, and reflection.
Action learning holds tremendous promise as a highly accessible means of developing
local learning communities for social action and learning. (For more information
about folk education, see www.goddard.edu/feaa/ on the World Wide Web.)
5. Offer Local Learning Clusters
Action learning can be straightforward means for self-directed learners
to organize local learning clusters. Members can download free materials
from the World Wide Web, hold open discussions about the materials, and then
go into an action learning format to deepen and enrich learning around the
materials. For example, members can download materials from the Free Management
Library, which includes 600 well-organized topics about personal and professional
development. (See managementhelp.org/topics.htm on the World Wide Web.)
6. Research Online Sets
We must find suitable means to carry out sets over the Internet/Web. This
venue has its limitations compared to face-to-face sets. However, the wide
expansion and accessibility of the Internet/Web make it a critical medium
for expanding the use and impact of action learning. More research must
be conducted in this venue.
7. Integrate with Other Programs
Too often, action learning is portrayed as a standalone program. However,
the process can be used to enrich other forms of development as well. As
Reeves (1996, p. 6) points out, “If action learning is to come of age,
it is time that its practitioners stopped sniping at alternative modes of
management learning and instead embraced their complementary strengths.
Otherwise, action learning really will be marginalized as a cult.”
8. Ally With Coaching and Peer-Helping Practices
Personal and professional coaching is fast becoming a major service to individuals
and organizations. The nature of this coaching and action learning are somewhat
similar. Both believe the agenda should come primarily from the client.
Both place a strong emphasis on the roles of ongoing inquiry, reflection, and
actions. Action learning provides a time-tested framework in which to conduct
Peer-helping services are highly efficient means for the low-cost sharing
of services and materials. Perhaps the best example is peer-counseling and
peer-mediating programs in schools. Action learning certainly is certainly
another powerful example. Yet the process is rarely mentioned in peer-helping
organizations. Action learners would benefit from association with other
peer organizations. For example, see Peer Resources at www.peer.ca and the
National Peer-Helping Association at www.peerhelping.org on the World Wide
A Call to Action And Learning
My doctoral work focused on developing and evaluating a national action
learning program, a program I have directed for the past five years. I have
spoken to numerous action-learning practitioners and clients. Clearly, action
learning has achieved almost mythical status among many of us. The process
is practical, basic, and timely, and yet theoretical, abstract, and eternal.
We have strong perceptions of what action learning should and should not
be, and what it should and should not include. Our perceptions may have
Fifty years ago, Reginald Revans fought hard against the dogma of traditional
educational institutions. At that time (and still too often now), learning
was interpreted only as that which was conveyed by an expert in a classroom.
Universities and colleges were viewed as the keepers of our learning.
With the help of pioneers, such as Revans, Myles Horton, and Paulo Freire,
we have come to realize that without practice there is no knowledge. One
hopes we will learn that the broader the range of that practice, the broader
the range of our learning.
Reeves, T. (1996, May). Is action learning a cult? Action Learning News,
15, 2, 6.