action learning

Change and action learning

Years of teaching teenagers and training adults convinced me that the most effective form of training is action learning.  I originally put the following thoughts together in 1993 – but they still seem just as relevant today!

The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage

Change is the only constant, the only certainty. In business, it is happening more rapidly today than ever before.

  • “Business is now being conducted in a global village in which we are competing not just with our neighbours but with our peers all over the world” [Tom Peters]
  • ‘Information at your fingertips’ transforms the nature of competition. 80% of what any firm does today can be done equally well by another. Added value comes from what you do with information not from owning it.
  • Organisations change shape dramatically and repeatedly. Companies ‘down-size’, ‘right-size’, ‘out-source’. Monolithic corporations give way to networks, alliances, partnering deals. Product life-cycles get shorter.
  • 30-year career paths are a thing of the past. If you don’t agree, try to define the precise nature of your own firm in 30 years’ time. Now write job descriptions for the top 10 positions and define a neat, orderly career path to get today’s new recruit into one of them. For many people the new reality is multiple careers, multiple jobs.

Change is a ‘dangerous opportunity’. Learning and change are closely linked. In the Information Age more than ever, organisations must learn faster than the rate of change in their environment if they are to survive.

Why then are training and R&D budgets the first to go when the chips are down?

Blockages to learning abound. Despite its fundamental importance, learning has an image problem.

  • In many people’s minds it conjures up pictures of classrooms, programmed teaching, and boring bookwork.
  • In the competitive ‘can-do’ world in which we live, problem-solving is highly lued. Saying “I need to learn about this” may be seen as a sign of weakness. Willingness to learn is often missing.
  • Time to learn seems impossible to find when the swamp is full of alligators. When organisations need to learn most quickly is, by definition, the time when managers can least readily be spared to go on courses.
  • Traditional didactic training makes only a limited contribution to resolving real development needs.
  • Directors and Managers often find it hard to identify the current state of corporate competence. They get little help to think about their ability to develop positive company approaches to change, communications, relationships, teams, risk taking, and customer focus. Long-term goals get lost in short-term pressures.

When everything is changing, there are no more right answers – only good, insightful questions

As an alternative to conventional training methods, more and more organisations are taking action learning initiatives to introduce innovative styles of managing which have their roots in the principles of adult learning:

  1. adults are motivated to learn as they experience needs and interests that learning will satisfy – so start by looking at what managers need in their work
  2. adults’ orientation to learning is based on real life situations not academic subject areas – so focus on tasks for which the manager is personally accountable
  3. experience is the richest source for adults’ learning -  so use analysis of experience as the core methodology
  4. adults have a deep need to be self-directing – so treat learning as a process of enquiry and exploration
  5. individual differences among people increase with age – so allow for differences in style, time, place & pace of learning

At its simplest action learning can be defined as learning by doing

Action learning is about change. It is a dynamic process where a small group of people solve real problems, but at the same time focus on what they are learning. Its most valuable feature is its potential multiplier effect, when individuals’ learning can help them respond effectively to change within a network.

Action-learning programmes have the following key characteristics:

  1. Task-orientation: focused on real issues that need to be resolved urgently, and that will generate learning opportunities.
  2. An action learning set: composed of up to eight individuals with diverse background and experience to encourage fresh viewpoints.
  3. Questioning and listening: focused on the right questions rather than the right answers, on what we do not know, as well as on what we know.
  4. Action: reframe the issues around things for which participants are responsible, set goals and priorities, and take action in small steps.
  5. Commitment to learning: as much emphasis on group learning as on solving problems – the smarter the set becomes, the better will be the quality of decision-making and action.
  6. An action learning coach: to help the set members reflect both on what they are learning and how they solve problems, and to intervene when learning opportunities arise.

Action learning is learning at work, put to work

“The behaviours that define learning and the behaviours that define being productive are one and the same. Learning is not something that requires time out from being engaged in productive activity; learning is at the heart of productive activity. To put it simply, learning is the new form of labour.” [Shoshanna Zuboff]

Or to put it another way…

Learning not training