Ivey Business Quarterly, Ivey Business School, Western University, Canada, September 1997

Action Learning: Worth A Closer Look

Peter A.C. Smith & V. John Peters, XEC Development International Ltd.


Introduction: a new approach

Everywhere we see firms challenged to deliver more for less; add value; focus on the customer. To meet these challenges, progressive organizations seek intimate and constant customer contact, using this deep knowledge in designing products and services, sometimes involving customers themselves in this design process.

What we present in this article is a methodology by which human resource professionals can embrace some of these principles of value-adding and customer-centricity in their training and development activities. We are, in fact, proposing a whole new way of thinking about training and development. The good news is, it has been around and been used for the best part of fifty years by some of the world’s best business educators and most far-sighted organizations, although only recently has come into common currency. This methodology is called action learning, and our contention is that, whatever your role in an organization, it is worth a closer look.

Today’s training and development agenda

Time was when training and development was seen as “nice to do”; something which could be picked up when times were good and spare cash was plentiful, and put down again when times were tougher. But as competition has become more intense and more globalised, and customers have become more choosy and more aware, effective people development has become a strategic priority, a “need to do” rather than a “nice to do”. And the corpses of organizations who chose not to invest in learning, education and development provide evidence of this kind of short-sightedness. For unless an organization’s people are both knowledgeable, and have the capability to harness relevant knowledge in a meaningful way, events will overtake it. The capability to deal with change is the capability to interpret, react to, adapt to or influence your environment. In other words, to learn, both on an individual and a corporate level.

There are three important consequences of a deficiency in this capability. Firstly, unless the general management and executive population are helped to continually re-address and update their skills and knowledge, organizational efficiency quickly erodes. Processes become complex, rooted in tradition, self-serving rather than outward-looking. Secondly, a lack of value-laden development programs for the senior management and executive community critically reduces the effectiveness of the organization as strategic ability dwindles. Thirdly, if the special development needs of the organization’s future leaders, the “high-potentials”, are ignored or poorly addressed, the organization’s future survival comes into question. Finally, there is leadership erosion in all these communities. This is not the charismatic leadership of the smokestack era, but rather the personal ability to think and act ‘outside the box’, challenge old patterns, and spearhead new ones, at all levels in the organization.

If we were simply talking about traditional-style investment in skill training and knowledge acquisition, the problem would be less tricky. But we all know, for example, the successful technician who turns out to be hopeless as a manager; the highly efficient operational trouble-shooter out of his or her depth as a strategist and leader; the know-it-all business graduate who has a hard time finding that real practice does not unroll as cleanly as theory says it should.

In other words, the skill of being an effective manager is to be able to operate effectively in context, whatever that context might be. If the context is a bureaucratic, closed culture; a changing customer base; a lack of technological capability when the ability to harness technology has become key - the effective manager must be able to work with what he or she has, within the environment he or she is in. Figure 1 lists out some of these needs.

                                Figure 1 - Today’s Management & Executive Development Agenda

        Lead and manage in an appropriate style

        Act with courage in conditions of complexity and risk

        Confront old patterns and spearhead new ones

        Implement current strategy whilst designing the future

        Identify critical problems and ask the right questions

        Think global and act local

        Get things done within the organization’s culture

        Capitalize on diversity

        Build and leverage networks

        Manage knowledge

        Contribute to organizational learning

        Self-develop through business and social experience

        Practice personal mastery

At the same time as these capabilities are being developed, there are other important issues and pressures which come into play. Some of these are listed as Figure 2.

Figure 2 - Issues Facing Managers & Executives

Members in this community:

        Have no “spare time”; there is only time that can be prioritized in different ways

        Have essentially no answers for the questions they are facing day after day, only more questions

        Have no clear idea what “leadership’ is, or how it can be practiced in real-life situations

        Are trying to make sense of their own personal stresses whilst advising their subordinates

        Have no convincing history of nurturing one another

        Have no safe place to practice new skills even  after nascent development

        Face uncertain job security

        Face enormous pressures to simply “play the game”

High-potentials are traditionally a very difficult community for organizations to deal with. If we add their needs to the mix, the development challenge looks even more daunting. If an organization doesn’t meet their needs, this community gets very frustrated. Some of their characteristics are listed as Figure 3.

Figure 3 - Characteristics of High-Potentials

Members in this community:

        Seek visibility and active leadership opportunities

        Won’t just “Carry out a job” and want to contribute to the “Heartbeat” issues

        Are creative, learn fast, see problems as opportunities

        Seek variety, challenges, intellectual stimulation

        Display high commitment  and drive to  excel

        Do  supra-normal amounts of work and achieve their goals in short time-frames

        Treat work as a primary source of satisfaction

        Challenge “Glass ceilings” and other barriers faced by to non-traditional managers

These various agendae can seem very daunting, and it is small wonder that we have, in trying to address them, often conceded that “It can’t be done”, and reverted to what we know. In other words, investing in training and development as a kind of staff perk; investing in “feel-good” programs such as generic communication skills, with no real hope that anything much will change; hoping that salvation will arrive through luck or inspiration rather than the hard work of disciplined learning.

But we believe the answer is “Yes, it can be done”, and we aren’t just dreaming. Action Learning is a proven vehicle to satisfy such diverse requirements. A variety of notable organizations have utilized action learning to advantage, and it is very widely practiced throughout the world. Exceptions among the developed nations are the USA, where action learning is still in limited use, and Canada where it has been little used at all. Notable N. American companies successfully practicing action learning are shown as Figure 4. In practice, action learning appears in many variants, much like the automobile is available in all manner of makes and styles whilst still being recognizable as an automobile.  We will see that action learning has the ability to fulfill an organization’s divers development-related objectives, and the elasticity to fulfill requirements for virtual availability. In particular, by linking capability development directly to business demand dynamics, action learning keeps management and executive capability ahead of business demand. 

Figure 4 - Notable N. American Companies Who Have Used Action Learning


                        Hewlett-Packard          GE                                           GM

                        Ameritech                     MCI International                     AT&T

                        Corning                        Whirlpool                                 GTE

                        Motorola                      Coca Cola                                Dow

                        Digital Equipment          Cigna IPC                                Exxon

                        Gulf                              Northern Telecom                    TD Bank

Action Learning

Success as a manager or an executive depends on far more than acquiring technical knowledge and management concepts. It comes from an understanding of and a feel for factors such as organizational politics and culture, the art of influencing others, the ability to delegate, the skills of timing, presentation and selling ideas, not just having them. These are the qualities we expect from organizational leaders, and without a developmental strategy for gaining such qualities, the emergence of effective managers and executives will continue to be a hit-and-miss affair.

Action learning is a win/win individual and company approach to learning and development which at the same time is capable of resolving significant business, organizational and social problems. It is a form of learning through experience, “by doing”, where the job environment is the classroom. It is based on the premise that we can only learn about work at work, just as we can only learn how to ride a bicycle by riding a bicycle. It permits risk taking within a psychologically safe environment, much like the safe practice area we choose when learning to ride a bike. Again like riding a bike it emphasizes personal responsibility for learning, although supportive but challenging learning partnerships are made available. Nothing else feels how action learning feels. No traditional training program can prepare a person for the first time they fire someone, or are blocked by a politically motivated colleague, or are confronted with an angry customer. In the end, we can only learn about it by doing it, and then reflecting carefully on what happened, making sense of the lessons, and working through how the learning can be built on and used next time around.

I is well known that experience itself is a very slippery teacher; most of the time we have experiences from which we never learn.  But even so, experience, albeit combined with a deep understanding or requisite theory, is the only valid teacher. Action learning is such an experience-based group learning process which provides this mix of practice-field experience using real issues, combined with a drawing-down of theory where appropriate. In this way it accelerates learning and personal development whilst providing on the job leverage of participants’ competencies.

Action learning has a framework designed to capture and build on what is, rather than operate in a pure, detached, analytical and rational world of what should be.  It maps over existing structures and development plans, and supports the aspirations of non-traditional managers. By promoting reflection and insightful inquiry with perceptive partners in situations where solutions are not always obvious, and by leaving responsibility for implementation of the solution in the participant’s hands, it is particularly suited to enhancing leadership capabilities. Since Action Learning is intended to add little if anything to the participant’s in-tray this approach effectively resolves the dilemma which management faces when development opportunities are offered; where to find time to learn to drain swamps when up to here in alligators.

Action learning programs are built around the points shown in Figure 5. A program starts with syllabus determination, rather than a given syllabus. The syllabus can only be the key issues facing an organization and an individual within it. From there, people are encouraged to draw  from the body of knowledge - books, journals, other people, company literature, other firms - appropriate, targeted and contextualised information. This approach is elicitive, in that it elicits relevant information, rather than disseminates what a  trainer or designer thinks is good for the participants.

Figure 5 - The “Typical” Action Learning Program

                        Action learning usually involves:

        Tackling real problems in real time in a tight learning community

        Executives and/or managers sponsored to small stable groups called a “Set”

o       each set is facilitated by a “Set Adviser”

o       each set holds intermittent meetings over a fixed program cycle

        Set members who

o       are challenged to resolve an individual or a group problem set by the sponsor(s)

o       target the realities at their own field level 

o       must take action to resolve the problem

o       are exposed to appropriate risk and “stretch”

o       work in the set in a supportive social process

o       proceed via questioning, conjecture and refutation

o       can take advantage of training and other interventions as the need arises

o       report final results to the sponsor(s)

        Whole person development

        Natural mentoring

        Defined and accidental learning

By these means, action learning seeks to throw a net around slippery experiences, and capture them as learning, i.e. as replicable behavior in similar and indeed differing contexts. An action learning program of development forces reflection. The individual makes sense of an experience by conceptualizing it and generalizing the replicable points; and plans for future actions based on the learning gathered. The set provides the forge in which an individual’s actions are shaped through their own personal reflection and the questioning insight of fellow set members.

A key point is that actions and outcomes still remain the responsibility of the individual participant . Action learning provides the safe environment or ‘practice field’ for learning to occur, whilst recognizing that real responsibility lies outside any classroom environment: it lies with the participants who must own the business outcomes. What is more, in using the organization itself as a learning laboratory, it does not require any special set of conditions to be in place before it can be effective. Action learning works well in a bureaucracy, in a flat organization, in a firm culturally hostile to education and development, in a firm encouraging self-actualization. It does so because its whole ethos is learning about the surrounding context, and learning to be effective within it, thus leveraging the prevailing culture to its own advantage.

As a result, the development needs of  the organization’s managers, executives and high-potentials are satisfied through activities which are focused on the articulated significant current and future needs of the organization. This leads to the justifiable charge of action learning as a narrow (but deep) learning agenda, rather than a broad but superficial one. This is development addressed as a business service provision; geared to provide in a precisely targeted way what is required, when it is required, where it is required, in the form in which it is required.

The distinction between an emergent, elicitive syllabus and a trainer-directed one is a profound one, going deeper than a change of tone. In designing action learning interventions we admit that we do not hold all the answers. In this sense we become one with the business climate of today. Whilst the job of the skilled action learning architect will be to create the conditions for learning to take place which delivers the expectations of both individual learner and organizational client, in the end, learners themselves must adopt, own and ultimately live with the consequences of their program. Irrelevance does not exist within the well-designed action learning intervention, albeit that learners can (in some circumstances) create irrelevant outcomes for themselves, of their own choosing. In other words, “it effectively separates sheep and goats”. Not all of those in an organization, or even in an organization’s fast-track stream, will have the inclination or will to make it as leaders.

An effective leader in today’s organization is able to work alone and as part of a team. We ignore these two facets at our peril. Executives schooled solely as team players may never learn to take personal responsibility, and can find themselves unable to act, only to advise. But likewise, the lone wolf executive schooled to think and act alone will find him or herself increasingly alienated in organizations calling, rightly, for shared vision. Action learning recognizes that future managers and executives must develop self-direction and self-reliance. At the same time, action learning programs always work with groups which encourage participants to discuss, share, pool their ambitions and experiences, and therefore create something else, a gestalt, where the group yields a better result than individuals could.

Does this developmental methodology provide the key to an organization’s requirements for customer value-laden management and executive development? We believe it does. Does this development methodology provide the key to the development requirements of high-potentials? Again we believe it does. Action learning fulfills the development expectations of these various communities whilst also fulfilling the organization’s expectations. Some of the benefits associated with action learning programs are shown as Figure 6.

Figure 6 - Benefits of Action Learning Programs

        Programs designed to suit the organization

        Brightest people challenged to solve critical problems  

        Contributions are visible, practical, and active

        Emphasizes getting things done in the organization

        Leadership is naturally developed

        New hires and seasoned individuals develop together

        Mentoring and nurturing skills develop instinctively 

        Network of current and future leaders is matured

        Diversity is addressed naturally

        Capability/career assessment is based on real results

        Development is rapid

Action Learning in Practice

Probably no two organizations use action learning in the same way. Action learning is used worldwide, in large and small companies, and in a multitude of forms. Companies as varied as Volvo in Sweden, Prudential Insurance Company in the UK, and Hewlett-Packard in the USA have run extensive action learning programs which they all found appropriate to their businesses.

The approach has not been confined solely to individual in-company initiatives. In the  “Rolling Program” run in the UK, groups of companies nominate senior executives to work on projects in each other’s firms over a 6 month period. Companies experimenting in this way include Courage, Cable & Wireless, Foster Wheeler, & Southern Gas among others. In the public sector,  action learning has been applied in government and in healthcare. There is now widespread use of action learning in universities and business schools. This use of action learning in educational environments is a fast growing application of the approach.  A leading exponent in the US has been Noel Tichy who uses action learning as part of University of Michigan MBA student programs. The revised  McGill University MBA program in Canada, managed by Henry Minzberg, is based on the principles of action learning.

In N. America, as in the rest of the world, action learning development programs have been set up for many different reasons.  Dow Chemical Co. in Midland is reported to have introduced action learning programs for executive development because their needs seemed to be so “soft” that it was difficult to address them any other way. AT&T in Morristown uses action learning in “gap group” programs. AT&T’s aim is to surmount the gaps in performance or output that a division faces whilst developing its employees. In AT&T’s case, high-potentials bring in business problems which they work through with peers from other divisions and functions. Corning Inc. of New York actually offer courses in action learning to help its work teams apply the method. Corning also uses action learning for diversity training at its State College plant. In this example groups are gender and race balanced and deal with issues involving sexual and racial harassment. Cigna International Property & Casualty Corp. of Philadelphia includes clients in its action learning groups. Whirlpool Corp. in Benton Harbor utilizes an unusual extension of action learning; line managers include front-line workers in their action learning groups. In programs run by Digital Equipment Corporation in their Burlington operation both executives and supervisors participate. DEC’s programs are in part expected to help participants frame and solve problems more effectively. GE Medical Systems in Milwaukee mixes 2/3 stakeholders and 1/3 high-potentials in its action learning groups. Companies such as GE, Whirlpool, Coca Cola and Northern Telecom have successfully used action learning to facilitate global executive development and leadership.

In the early 90s, Boston College studied a number of executive development programs based on action learning. Two of the programs involved high-potential junior executives. Colleagues of the participants reported some significant changes. Among the research findings, participants increasingly questioned behavior, especially at the strategic level, developed a renewed openness to new experiences, and demonstrated greater sensitivity to others. Greater intellectual curiosity also seemed to be stimulated. These competencies are all related to leadership capability. The study concluded that these competencies were unlikely to be learned through a passive educational experience. After the programs, 87 percent of participants committed themselves to continue the learning process.

Worth a Closer Look?

When a development methodology has been in widespread use for some 50 years one can expect that there will be plenty of information available with regard to how to apply it, and that is the case here. An excellent source is The International Foundation for Action Learning (IFAL). IFAL is a not-for-profit organization based in the UK which is dedicated to furthering understanding and application of action learning. The foundation has established its Chapters worldwide, including in Canada and the US. Through IFAL’S library, practitioners can gain access to over 900 references dealing with action learning, many of which detail successful corporate and academic applications. The new Revans Centre for Action Learning & Research at Salford University in Manchester, UK now offers both British-based and international academic qualification and research on the topic.    

There are certainly experts in the field who like to cloak the approach in mystery and complexity, but in truth action learning is simply a form of natural learning, learning by doing. Just like riding that bike, you have to get on and try. Yes, if you want to ride in the Tour de France you are going to have to develop very sophisticated techniques, but remember, professional riders started off like everyone else, one pedal at a time. The reason most often offered for delaying getting on this bike is that “there’s too much going on right now”. Paradoxically, this is exactly the time action learning will return its greatest dividends.

There can be no doubt that there are numerous major companies worldwide, including N. America, who practice action learning and seemingly have identified competitive advantage in its use. Isn’t it worth a closer look?

Cotact the authors:

Peter A.C. Smith, Executive Director, IFAL – Canada (IFALC); Tel: +001 (905) 853-9553, e-mail pasmith@tlainc.com

IFALC Web: http://www.tlainc.com/ifalc.htm