How do you like to learn?
Do you learn best from reading about theories and “how to” advice?
Or do you learn best through the process of doing. And then reflecting on what you did, what happened, and what might be going on under the surface, that you could learn from, and apply to the future?
There is a place for both approaches. But many people find their deepest learning and behaviour change comes from action and reflection.
For this reason, Action Learning is a powerful and potentially transformative method. It complements theoretical study, and is completely focused on what you, as an individual, need from the learning process.
This article introduces the principles and skills of Action Learning. It also evaluates the benefits of face to face versus virtual Action Learning Sets.
What is Action Learning?
Action Learning can be considered as a form of group coaching, where you get some ‘air time’ to think through a specific work or career challenge, with support from others.
The process of action learning involves a small group of people who meet on an agreed regular basis. Your group is referred to as your Action Learning Set. As a set member, you both work on your own challenges, and support others in turn.
You’re supported through a combination of attentive listening and insightful questions from fellow set members. Crucially, you then commit to specific actions or behaviour changes between set meetings.
Sets meet on repeated occasions so that members can review their actions and learning on an ongoing basis. Typically a set might meet monthly for six meetings, but this is variable.
Sets can be made up of managers from across an organisation. Or they can draw managers from a range of different organisations. In either case, the discussions in the meetings will be treated as confidential.
Sets normally include a facilitator, at least for the early meetings. The facilitator will manage the process and ensure the meeting doesn’t drift into a general discussion. Once you’re familiar with the process, sets may move towards self-facilitation.
Features of Action Learning
A The process involves taking action about a real work issue or a challenge.
C It requires you to be open to being challenged. Challenge takes plan within a supportive group environment with fellow leaners.
The process asks you to make a commitment to yourself to act on a situation and report this back to the set, so everyone can learn from it
T It’s about thinking and learning together. The learning comes from arriving at your own solutions and through hearing about other people’s issues and how they might handle things
I It helps you develop insight, through the skilful questioning of others in the set. And it builds your skills in asking insightful questions. In the longer term AL is about developing more independent thinking (and encouraging this in others). It helps you get better at making sense of things in your work and professional settings
O The process focuses on the needs of one person at a time, so it’s not the same as a general group discussion. Set members take it in turns to have air time.
N It’s not the only method of learning and development. Action learning might not suit everyone. It’s not suitable for some types of learning, for example where you do need specific expert input.
Develop stellar skills for supporting your team
During an action learning set, you not only work on your own challenges. But you also take time in the supporting role, to help your fellow set members to learn. To do this, you use two of the most important skills in a manager’s skillset:
- Listening with full attention
- Asking questions
So the process of supporting set members will enhance and fine tune two skills that you already use for supporting your team.
Regardless of your level of experience, the process will help you to become even more aware of using and developing these two fundamental skills.
Listening with Full Attention
Always be mindful of the power of empathic listening and attention giving.
As Nancy Kline puts it:
Everything we do depends on the thinking we do first
Our thinking depends on the quality of our attention to each other
A key feature of action learning is that we take it turns to give full attention to one person and their issue.
Action Learning Questions
There are a range of questions that you will use in action learning, and you’ll becoming increasingly conscious of the impact of different types of questions. Here are just a few examples:
These are often used at the start of somebody’s air time, to check you understand the issue, and are often closed questions e.g.
How often has this happened?
When did this happen?
Who else was involved?
What’s the key issue you want help with?
These are used during the majority of somebody’s air time. Insightful questions challenge a person’s thinking and help them to move forward. The questions are open and probing e.g.
What would success look like?
Is there another way of doing what you’re doing?
If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do?
How would the other person / the team describe this situation?
What would be the implications of doing that?
Questions to Develop Action Points
These are used at the end of the session to help the issue holder create concrete action points:
Which part of the issue or problem needs action first?
What is getting in the way of you doing what you know you need to do?
What are the first steps?
When will you take them?
Face to Face or Virtual Set Meetings
In the past, action learning has normally included face to face meetings and this has affected some of the conventions. For example, sets involving managers in different organisations may last a full day to keep the travel time proportionate.
There are benefits to meeting in person, but also many benefits to virtual sets.
Benefits of Face to Face Sets
A change of scene, and chance to reflect in a different physical location
Can give a sense of occasion and add more impact to the process
Allows for informal networking and relationship building in breaks etc.
Benefits of Virtual Sets
Sets can easily comprise participants from different parts of the country (and the world) so composition doesn’t have to be based on geography
Cost effective as no travel time / costs
Shorter meetings (3 hours instead of a whole day) and no travel time, so easier to accommodate comfortably within the working day
Improved focus and attention giving, due to sessions being shorter and more fit for purpose (in general face-to-face set meetings run for most of the day in order to make the travel time proportionate)
Screen layout, where you face the other participants squarely, contributes to attentive listening
Opportunities for use of breakout rooms to review learning and develop action points, can be done more smoothly and quickly than face-to-face
Chat function can be used to capture key points from participants as well as the facilitator, then saved and distributed
Experience Action Learning AND achieve an ILM qualification
If you’re interested in Action Learning and have any questions, please feel free to contact us for more information. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
 “Time to Think” by Nancy Kline 2011