Action learning is learning with others through doing and reflecting on outcomes, both intended and unintended.
Action learning had its origins in the UK in 1946 when Reg Revans worked with managers in the mining industry and nurses in hospitals to improve the operations of those industries.
Reg believed that the best way to solve organizational problems was to get managers together to share their “here-and-now” issues and to work collaboratively to solve them. He reckoned that people who had experience in managing the work and had responsibility for the outcomes, were best placed to resolve the issues confronting the organization.
For instance, he believed that mining managers were better placed to resolve the issues of mining than a Professor of Mining who had never been down a mine. His ideas were vigorously attacked by the University sector in the UK who saw themselves as the “experts”.
At the heart of action learning is what I have described as “supportive challenge”. Support without challenge serves to maintain the “status quo”, while challenge without support can be self-serving – designed to build up yourself and knock down the other person. So supportive challenge is a fundamental norm of the collaborative learning entailed in action learning.
Action learning is designed to enhance self-development and create organization improvement. Thus manager development and organization development work hand-in-hand through action learning.
Typically, action earning is undertaken on a project basis with a specific area of improvement/innovation in mind. Managers work together to advance the project by sharing their knowledge, skills and resources.
Action learning is very congruent with the way managers learn. Managers have a natural bias-for-action, they want to get things done and improve their operations. What action learning adds particularly is an emphasis on collaborative learning and reflection. So action learning is typically described as an iterative cycle involving three phases in each cycle, plan-act-reflect.
Many of the Top 500 companies in America use action learning for manager development and organizational development. General Electric (GE), for example, has been using action learning at Crotonville for more than 20 years to develop their global managers. Ten of the top companies in the world, including Shell and GE, meet once a year in a different location to share their insights gained through action learning.
Action learning has now spread through the public sector, private sector and education sector worldwide. It is a highly effective way to develop managers and improve organizations if designed and facilitated properly.