Action learning - how to take a new approach to business problems

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During recent weeks, we have been talking about the difference between coaching and mentoring.

I wanted to explore a  type of coaching:  ‘action learning’.  This is where a panel or group of colleagues, typically at the same seniority, can help unlock the experience that each group member has, helping participating individuals to approach their complex business problems differently, or with a wider appreciation of the context in which the problems have developed. Space and time is provided for an individual in the group to explain the problem, receive feedback on what the group has heard, and reflect back to the group through Q&A areas where they might be able to change their approach. The set facilitates this process and set members need to be skilled facilitators (or at least experienced interviewers) in their own right to work well. It is a powerful way of changing organizational culture.

Action learning is based on the idea that learning is more effective when people have to find a solution to a real issue or problem that they face. Action learning is best used where there are multiple issues that are complex or multi-layered. It is not appropriate for a problem – such as a puzzle – that has a pre-determined solution.

Action learning follows a particular process. The three main components of this process are:

  1. People who accept the responsibility for taking action on a particular issue.
  2. Problems or tasks that people set themselves.
  3. A ‘learning set’ of six to eight colleagues who meet to support and challenge each other with the aim of tackling the issue.

There are a variety of ways to run an action learning set: one example is the ‘five-step’ method, which you find with a quick ‘Google’.
Action learning can:

  • Help break down a large and undefined problem into its constituent parts, making it possible for participants to find a solution
  • Reveal how things are done elsewhere, either within the organisation or externally, and thus promote new ideas
  • Enable participants to better respond to new or changed circumstances
  • Play a pivotal role in the development of skilled leaders
  • Help achieve corporate cultural change and solve complex and urgent organisational issues or problems

Have you tried action learning? How did it work? Do you agree with benefits that I have suggested above?

Read more from Robert and the People SIG.

Rob Blakemore MAPM is an experienced Civil Servant and project manager. He acts as a mentor to another project manager within his business unit, and actively participates in a Civil Service ‘Action Learning set’ which is helping to change the management culture within his Department. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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