All About Action Learning

Sections of this topic

    © Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

    This topic is about the group-based, Action Learning process in which members work together in a group (a “set”) on real-world priorities (called a “problem” by many practitioners) primarily by sharing questions and taking actions between meetings. Members learn from the reflection during and between meetings, especially regarding the actions they took to address real-world priorities. The process was founded by Professor Reginald Revans and is now widely used around the world for professional and organizational development. If you need help with Action Learning, consider Action Learning Source.

    (The Library provides a complete, online, free training program about Action Learning. Each video provides guidelines about each of the most important aspects of Action Learning. See the free video series, Action Learning Process, and Programs.)

    Sections of this Topic Include

    Understanding Action Learning

    Action Learning Components and Programs

    Context of Action Learning Programs — Learning, Development, and “Problem Solving”

    Related Resources and Topics

    Learn More in the Library’s Blogs Related to Action Learning

    In addition to the articles on this current page, also see the following blogs that have posts related to Action Learning. Scan down the blog’s page to see various posts. Also, see the section “Recent Blog Posts” in the sidebar of the blog or click on “Next” near the bottom of a post in the blog. The blog also links to numerous free related resources.

    Have a Question, Suggestion, or Resource About Action Learning?

    Understanding Action Learning

    What is Action Learning?

    Remember — Action Learning is a Framework Within Which There Can Be Variations

    It’s important to note, when reviewing the information on this topic, that the Action Learning process is a framework within which there can be variations, including where:

    • All members are from the same organization (an intact team) and work on the same priority.
    • All members are from the same organization and each member might work on a different priority different from other members.
    • All members are from different departments or organizations and work on the same priority.
    • All members are from different departments or organizations and each member works on a priority different from other members.
    • In these combinations, the priorities might be very familiar or unfamiliar to the members.
    • Sets can be externally facilitated or self-facilitated.
    • Members might meet face-to-face or via telecommunications.

    Practitioners often tend to favor one of the variations and refer to that as “Action Learning.” However, the reader will benefit most from continuing to remember the possible variations of the overall Action Learning framework.

    Basic Descriptions of the Process

    The following links are concise descriptions of the concept of Action Learning. The links in the next section are to more complete descriptions of the Action Learning process.

    Free Video Series

    Other Descriptions of Action Learning

    Overviews of Process and Program Components

    The following links are to resources that describe Action Learning, and most of them mention the key components of Action Learning. Keep in mind that, although some of the following resources might
    elaborate on a particular variation of Action Learning, there are many variations, as mentioned above.

    The following links are to resources that will give you a very good impression of considerations in designing and operating Action Learning programs.

    Some Theories Underlying Action Learning

    The Action Learning framework touches on so many aspects of personal, professional, and organizational development, that a list of related theories would produce a very extensive list. The following resources capture the unique theories, especially behind the “P”s and “Q”s of Revans’ core theory behind Action Learning.

    Some Different Models and Approaches of Action Learning

    The Action Learning framework also is so general in nature that numerous variations and refinements have been done, and many of them have general or commercial names. I apologize in advance if I have somehow mischaracterized a particular model or approach below. In some cases, I listed the home page of the organization so the reader can explore the site’s information about Action Learning. (Similar to other fields and practices, it’s natural for proponents of a particular model or approaches to refer to it as “the” model 🙂

    To enhance your understanding of different perspectives on Action Learning, we encourage you to see the 12-minute video Different Perspectives on Action Learning

    At least two of the above organizations assert that they are “the certifying body for Action Learning”; however, there is no organization that has wide consensus as being that body.

    Numerous Examples of Applications of Action Learning

    The following long list is to give the reader a strong impression of the varied applications of the Action Learning framework. Also, for the reader who is considering developing an Action Learning program the following stories will be useful in conveying the most important considerations and components to address.

    Action Learning Components and Programs

    Projects (Problems or Exciting Opportunities)

    The problem is the real-world priority that the Action Learning group (set) addresses. (Although the term “problem” is traditional to Action Learning literature, many practitioners might prefer to use the more appreciative term “priority.”) The problem should be a current, real, and urgent priority for the individual, team, program, or organization to address. Usually, there is no straightforward “solution” to the problem,
    and the more urgent the problem, the more likely it will generate useful and deep learning for the stakeholders (those who have a direct or indirect interest in the problem). The group is charged to clarify the problem, identify solutions, identify the most likely solutions, take actions to implement the solutions — and generating learning along the way. In single-project Action Learning, all members of the set work on the same problem. In multi-project Action Learning, each member brings his/her own problem to address.

    In single-project Action Learning, the problem should be closely aligned with the priorities of the organization. Those priorities might be the result of strategic or business planning, or the result of an organizational assessment. Similarly, the problem might be the result of assessments among individuals.

    Also, consider

    Group (Set)

    The set is the group of people, usually six to eight, charged to address the problem. The membership of the group depends on the problem. In a single-project application, the member would likely be from the same business unit, working on the same projects or priorities. However, the more diverse the values, opinions, and perspectives of the members, the more unbiased, probing, and generative might be the questions shared among members — and, thus, the more learning generated among members.

    In single-company Action Learning, all members are from the same company, and sometimes they work on the same business function or project (they are an intact team). In multi-company (or multi-department) Action Learning, each member is from a different company or department.

    Also, consider

    Coaching (Sharing Thoughtful Questions)

    A hallmark of the Action Learning process is the use of questions among members. In contrast to most problem-solving groups, where members start advocating their own opinions and advice, Action Learning members share questions — questions to analyze, understand, and solve problems. Questions generate deep thinking and reflection about the problem. They ensure each person is highly involved in — and aware of — his/her own perceptions, assumptions, and conclusions about the problem. Thus, each person more fully “learns how to learn,” that is, accomplishes continuous learning.

    One of the most important roles of the question is to clarify the real problem, rather than the symptoms. Many times, it’s more important to understand the real problem than to start suggesting various solutions that might solve it. Questions make each person accountable to be involved and, thus, they often generate more authenticity and involvement among members — authenticity is a critical element to any form of development.

    Depending on the model of Action Learning, members might only interact via questions and statements might only be made in response to questions.

    Also, consider


    Another hallmark of Action Learning is that set members take action to address the problem. (Some recent literature about Action Learning does not assert the need for actions among members. This “Americanized” Action Learning is not likely to generate the type of progress and learning so familiar to the more “European” Action Learning where set members are charged to take actions between meetings.

    The actions, not only “attack” the problem, but they generate experiences from which set members learn a great deal by reflecting on what they did, what happened, what worked and what didn’t, and how they can take that learning forward in life and work. A major value of the questioning is that it ensures that the
    actions are relevant and realistic, which is particularly important for very busy people in the workplace.

    Actions for Progress and Learning in Action Learning (video 11 minutes)

    Also, consider


    Learning, in Action Learning, comes especially from members’ reflection on the nature of the questions and answers among members, and also from the nature and results of the actions taken between meetings. The learning is not from analyzing and memorizing expert-based content brought to the group by outside experts (although, the “Americanized” Action Learning does tend to bring in more outside experts than the European version). Reginald Revans, the founder and original developer of Action Learning, often asserted that this kind of “programmed,” or expert-based, learning did not generate the ability to learn how to learn and, thus, should be minimized as much as possible.

    One of the early tasks of an Action Learning program is to orient set members to the nature of learning, that it is not always the result of listening to experts, memorizing their content, and getting a good grade. Members are reminded that some of the most important learning in their lives is from experiencing and thinking about significant events, people, and experiences in their lives. Another task is to help members recognize learning when it happens — that’s one of the major roles of the Action Learning coach.

    Also, consider

    Facilitation of Meetings and Learnings

    (It’s ironic to realize that the founder of Action Learning, Reginald Revans, did not want Action Learning to be “packaged” into seemingly inaccessible models or that the role of “facilitator” become professionalized such that the Action Learning process seemed too complex for those who are not professionals in the process. Yet, with the increasing importance and popularity of Action Learning and its focus on urgent problems, people are often more assured when using a highly trained external facilitator and they often end up using the particular model of Action Learning suggested by the facilitator.)

    Note that many practitioners might prefer this position as the “facilitator” and to the members as being “coaches.” In a self-facilitated set, the members are the coaches.

    The primary role of the Coach is to orient members to the Action Learning process and the nature of learning in Action Learning. The coach might initially work with the person, or sponsor, of the Action Learning project to clarify the problem, resources, timelines, and membership of the sets. The coach should help the set to establish ground rules, learn skills in presenting and listening and questioning, and recognizing learning. The Coach might intervene at various times to affirm a strong occasion of learning or affirm learning for a member of the set. Depending on the model of Action Learning, the Coach might be the only one to do that type of intervention.

    Also, consider

    Designing and Developing Action Learning Programs

    Each Action Learning application should be customized to the needs and nature of the person, group, or organization. The program designer should first know the basic Action Learning framework, which he/she can glean by reviewing the resources in Brief Description, some of those at Overviews of Process and Program Components, and each of the six components described above. The following resources provide complete guidelines, but they are guidelines — any detailed “procedure” would be highly unique to the particular program. Perhaps, in the nature of actions and learning, the program designer should start a program, learn from those actions, and then modify the program accordingly.

    Implementing and Evaluating Action Learning Programs

    Also, consider
    Evaluations (all kinds)

    Context of Action Learning Programs

    Other Methods of Reflection and Learning

    Understanding Learning and Development

    Many Forms of Development

    Practitioners in Learning and Development

    Related Resources and Topics

    Related Library Topics

    General Resources and Organizations


    Bibliographies About Action Learning

    Go to the main Training and Development page.

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    To round out your knowledge of this Library topic, you may want to review some related topics, available from the link below. Each of the related topics includes free, online resources.

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