A guide to Action Learning

WHAT IS AN ACTION LEARNING SET?

Action Learning is a learning process which can be applied to any number of different professional (and personal) issues and challenges. In Action Learning groups or ‘sets’ we meet regularly with others in order to explore solutions to real problems and decide on the action we wish to take. The emphasis is on learning from experience and then acting on that learning.

This is shown in the learning cycle (illustrated) which is fundamental to this methodology as an experimental approach to learning. Simply put, the Action Learning Set approach provides a structured way of working in small groups which can provide the discipline we often need to help us learn from what we do, and improve our practice as a result.

WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?

A typical Action Learning Set will consist of 5 or 6 people who commit to work together over a period of at least six months. The set meets regularly for a day or half a day. At each meeting, set members have an opportunity to introduce a challenge they are facing in their own practice. The group helps to work on the problem through supportive but challenging questioning – encouraging a deeper understanding of the issues involved, challenging underlying assumptions, and exploring ways forward. As well as reflecting on the issue and developing a plan, the set member is encouraged to report back to the group on progress next time they meet, which is a spur to ensuring that action is taken between meetings. The strength of this approach lies in its ground rules and disciplined process.

WHAT SORTS OF PROBLEMS DO PARTICIPANTS DISCUSS?

Action Learning Sets are best suited for people who are likely to face challenges at work that do not necessarily have a “correct” solution. They are particularly appropriate where the challenge is often complex and multi-layered. Although Action Learning Sets are now commonly used in workplaces to discuss work-related issues, the process can also be a valuable tool for freelance creative professionals.

WHAT ARE ITS KEY PRINCIPLES?

Action Learning Sets can be seen as the mental equivalent of going to the gym to get physically fit. They exercise “learning muscles” in a structured, safe and enjoyable environment. The key principles include:

  • Committing regular time to develop as an individual  
  • Learning to listen
  • Learning to ask more helpful questions
  • Not giving advice
  • Having individual space and time
  • Following the cycle of reflection, learning, planning, action, and then reflection again

HOW DOES A TYPICAL SET MEETING WORK?

  • Before the meeting, each member will think about the work-based issues that they wish to bring to the set.
  • Members have agreed to set aside the necessary time for the meeting. It should be held in a space where they will be free from distraction.
  • The facilitator might remind set members of ground-rules that were established during the formation of the set, and may re-cap some of the key principles of the methodology if required.
  • There will be a check-in with the group, and those who had an opportunity to explore their issue in the previous set will be asked to report back to the rest of the set on their actions since the last meeting.
  • One of the members will then have an opportunity to have their “airtime”, which is usually an hour. This begins with them taking as much time as they need to outline the work-based issue that they are bringing to the group. The other set members will then ask questions of clarification, moving into reflective and analytical questions and towards the end of the time, questions about future action.
  • During this process, the facilitator may sometimes “stop” the set, in order to raise awareness on matters of process, eg if people are giving advice packaged as questions.
  • At the end of the airtime, the person presenting an issue will offer feedback on how they experienced the process and what learning may have taken place. Group members also comment on their observations and learning on both the process and content.
  • This process of airtime will be repeated for as many members of the set as is possible in the time available. (Normally four in a full day meeting).
  • The logistical details of the next meeting will also be agreed.

WHAT EXPERIENCE DO I NEED TO JOIN A SET?

You do not normally need any previous experience, since you will learn the process alongside the other Set members from a qualified facilitator. If you want to learn more, you could read one of the books on action learning or research it further online. However, you are also welcome to contact Lucid for additional information.

FURTHER READING:

  • McGill, I., Beaty, L. (1995). Action Learning, A Guide for Professional, Management & Educational Development (2nd ed), Kogan Page.
  • Revans, R. (1982). The Origins & Growth of Action Learning, Chartwell Bratt.
  • Revans, R. (1998). The ABC of Action Learning.
  • Weinstein, K. (1995). Action Learning, A Journey in Discovery & Development, Harper Collins.
  • Weinstein, K. (1999). Action Learning. Gower Publications.
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One Response to A guide to Action Learning

  1. Hi Admin,

    Your post really helped me to understand the Action learning. It has great details and yet it is easy to understand.
    That’s what i was looking for. I will definitely share it with others.

    Thanks for sharing.

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