Here is yet another example of branding and bandwaggoning, but that should not be taken as a disparagement of its importance or effectivness
In many respects Action Learning (AL) is simply a description of how most people go about solving problems, with a group dimension added. Reg Revans, its originator (or perhaps “systematiser”) was always keen to emphasise the normality of the process. He was a physicist by discipline, who worked in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in the 1930s shortly after its “glory days” with great names such as Ernest Rutherford and JJ Thompson. He was impressed by the approach to problem-solving and hence learning in the team, and particularly by the process of scrutiny of both success and failure, so he set out to bottle it in the form of Action Learning.
He later developed and applied his approach in many settings, perhaps most notably with hospital managers (1972). It has proved very popular in management education, although the label (brand) has been hi-jacked by a number of training organisations — such as those offering adventure training and team-building experiences — which owe little to the “orthodox” approach. If you search the web for "action learning" you will find more on this than on the original method.
Action Learning is a form of Problem-Based Learning, but it goes further in insisting that the problem(s) being worked on must be real, in that no-one knows the answer already. They should preferably be non-technical (or at least non-specialist: too much specialisation limits the potential contribution of other members of the “set”), and evaluation refers pragmatically to whether the solutions work, rather than to the extent to which participants arrive at a pre-determined optimum solution. (Problems to which the answer is already known are referred to as “puzzles”, and although they may have their uses, they are not part of action learning.) Even so, arriving at a solution is not the whole story: AL sets differ from task forces or project teams in that the process is managed in order to maximise the learning as well as the outcome.
This can raise the thorny question of what constitutes learning: how do I know (perhaps more important in the business context, how does the boss know?) that I have learned something over and above arriving at a solution to the problem?
Participants need to have some investment in finding the solution, so most will bring real problems which they are currently encountering in their work-place. The programme may of course impose limitations on the nature of the problems tackled, so that there can be cross-fertilisation of learning between the participants, and so that any taught input (if any) has some relevance to all members of the set.
Participants work together in an AL “set” of from four to six members: they may all be working on the same problem, as would be the case in a task force created by an organisation, or they may each have their own problems, and simply meet in order to work as a set.
- The set is usually a closed group, meeting regularly (say once every two weeks, depending on the proportion of time participants are working on their problem) for several months.
- Most meetings take the form of individual members taking it in turn to present an update on their work, and then being questioned on it by their fellow-members: members act as consultants or mentors to each other.
- The nature of the questioning is regarded as central: it is open-ended and inquisitorial rather than adversarial, and intended to promote reflection and planning. The experiential learning cycle provides a useful structure here.
- At the conclusion of each individual slot, the member outlines an action plan for the next time period.
Each set has the services of an "advisor", who is experienced in the use of the approach, and whose role is:
- To establish the procedural ground rules and to get the set working together.
- To model the questioning process, and to help the others to develop their skills in this area: this promotes the non-specific or "learning how to learn" element.
- To point members in the direction of appropriate resources and models, and even to deliver "just in time training" if required.
Generally speaking the advisor will be more active at the beginning of the set's life.
REVANS R (1980) Action Learning: new techniques for management London; Blond and Briggs
McGILL I and BEATY L (1995) Action Learning; a practitioner's guide (2nd edn.) London; Kogan Page