Your Study Guides and Strategies content starts here!

Judge a man
by his questions
rather than
by his answers.
Voltaire, 1694 - 1778
French Enlightenment writer

Action learning


Action learning is a learning and problem-solving strategy for organizations, whether commercial, government or non-profit.

The focus is to increase employees learning capacity within an organization
while responding to a real world challenge in a cross-departmental team.
Reflection is an important part of the experience. Your small, mutually supportive group:

    • Takes advantage of its members’ own actions and experience
      The experience of "exchange" can generate fresh approaches across departmental lines
      (networking), and help build systemic innovation and learning capacity within the organization.
    • Begins with a period of strategic questioning of the problem
    • Sets action items and goals
    • Regroups to analyze progress
    • Reflects upon, and documents, the process

Groups are formed to solve real problems, not to make recommendations.
They are empowered and trusted with the necessary resources to take on the issue,
and as a derivative can present the organization with new procedures
that build the productive power of the organization

The context:
Organizations, whether commercial, government, or non-profit.
Since action learning is intended first to increase the learning capacity of employees,
then to resolve a real problem in an organizational context,
it is not intended as classroom learning experience, or academic exercise.

The situation:
Action learning begins with a clearly defined organizational opportunity or problem.

Its objective, set by the admininistration, should be clear and significant.
The team is fully empowered to bring the challenge to a successful conclusion.

The team:
An ad hoc action team of four to eight people, voluntary or appointed,
with diverse backgrounds, skills and experience.
Team members:

    • Are expected to first understand the objective,
      then commit their energy and expertise to the team process
    • Participate as equals, empowered and encouraged to contribute,
      no matter what participants' rank or role is within the organization.
    • Share with, and learn about, fellow team members early in the experience.
      What are our backgrounds, range of expertise and skills?
      How can these contribute to resolving the situation?
      (Diversity ensures that team members will discuss and contribute out of their strengths, and in so doing teach each other on various points)
    • Establish procedures common to group learning and process,
      as with active listening; accessible communication and meeting times; assigned administrative tasks; recognition of emerging leadership
    • Insightful questioning and reflective listening.
      The key is to start with fresh questions, not with constructs from the past.1
      Focus first on the right questions rather than the “right answers” and clarify the exact nature of the problem. Explore what is known and unknown. (The more challenging the questions, the better will be your learning experiences and strategies. The more potential resources are identified, either relevant/irrelevant, available or needed, a more comprehensive strategy will evolve.
      The questioning phase also builds dialogue within the team, and generates an innovative and cross-disciplinary approach to strategic resolution.

      After this phase of questioning and reflection, action items are identified.
    • Journaling
      Keep journals and logs that will later facilitate documentation for the organization,
      as well as your personal progress. Lessons are often recorded throughout the process of active learning, and at its conclusion, benefit
      • team members in documenting responsibilities and timelines, as well as reviewing actions: for what is going right and what not-so-right; for situational and holistic self-awareness in learning
      • individuals in reviewing their own experience and growth in the problem-solving process
      • organizations in documenting the processes for future reference, as well as building a program of implementation throughout the organization, whether for organizational review, entrepreneurial activities, …
    • Action items
      Your action items
      Strategies of resolution will frame all action items.
      Group members divide tasks, set timelines, and individuals or sub-groups return to their respective work environments to implement them.
      Individuals will be challenged and trusted to use their range of expertise, as well as stretch their ability to implement them.
    • Team mid-course reviews
      At scheduled points in time, the team should reconvene to process individuals’ feedback, discuss progress, confront problems, set next steps.
      If assumptions are proven wrong, a period of re-questioning is implemented, taking care to view the situation afresh; objectives and timelines are re-set if necessary.
      Progress and lessons are journaled for future analysis.
      There is no penalty for reconsidering the process and action items until the problem is resolved, or team refers the issue back to administration for further analysis.
    • Concluding team reviews; institutional review
      With reflection on the concluding process, individuals should gain from self-awareness
      within the process of experiential learning
      Organizations should realize an immediate benefit in resolving the issue, as well as multiplier effects in enhancing employees’ learning/problem solving skills, cross-departmental communications, and alternative processes that emerge in engaging with problems.
    • Coaching
      Reg Revan, founder of action learning, believed that team members
      are their best coaches, facilitators or leaders.
      If the team does not have either the experience with reflective or group processes, experiences problematic participants, or needs outside direction, an outside facilitator can be sought to assist the team, much as any other resource is brought to bear.
      A coach again will use a “questioning” approach to facilitate reflection and focus on the issues. Coaching can also be a task assigned within the group.
Revan introduced action learning in the mid-1940’s as Director of Education for the British National Coal Board, and continued to develop and promote its principles until his death in 2003. It is used by a broad range of organizations, for-profit and non-profit, national and global. The process can be simplified with the formula L = P + Q where L is learning, P is programmed (traditional) knowledge and Q is questioning to create insight.2

1. Dilworth, R. (1998). Action Learning in a Nutshell. In ITAP International. Retrieved July 25, 2008, from http://www.itapintl.com/actionlearninginanutshell.htm.

2. WIAL: Action Learning Overview. In World Institute for Action Learning. Retrieved July 30, 2008, from http://www.wial.org/actionLearning.shtml.