Is action learning the solution to poor learning in organizations?

The concept of Action learning sometimes known as “learning while doing” was developed by Professor Reginald Revans.



With Action Learning you start with a problem or issue and in the process of tackling it the participants experience learning which may not have been anticipated but it is often more profound than the learning which is predetermined.

So in a sense it is the opposite of formalised training a development where the likely learning outcomes have been predetermined. This type of learning can work well with individuals but works best when working with others.The more powerful learning emerges from within the individual based on their real experience, and as a process of reflection through the learning group.

What is the business benefit of Action learning?

This type of learning is about:

  • using the day to day work experience as a learning vehicle
  • .
  • It is about working on real management and leadership issues that make a difference to strategy implementation and performance.

  • That is pretty attractive from a learning perspective as employees can be more motivated to work on key relevant practical business issues rather than theory and the idea of getting some of your business outcomes achieved and learning at the same time is also attractive. In fact the idea that learning is somehow separated from “real work” is a major challenge I often see in organisations.

    This is how you can spot it just ask people about their views on learning and if you get something back like “learning and development is really important but…” or “I am going to work on my development plan as soon as I get past this busy project” chances are learning is perceived as a nice to have and not a core activity. Well action learning is one of the ways that those beliefs can be influenced.
    Learning comes from action and learning is a social process. Training is for where there are specific skills to be learned and they can be taught. In this sense the training agenda is predetermined.

    action learning


    More on learning theory here
    More on defining action learning here

    So what is action learning?
    Action type 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”
  • Essentially work or learning groups (sometimes called sets) work together with or without a facilitator on a selected work based project for a defined period, say for example an 100 days. Each set is facilitated by a “Set Adviser” and each set holds intermittent meetings over a fixed period


    The group report back to organisational leaders on what they have done and importantly what they have learned. They will also provide specific recommendations on the project issue, but these must not become more important than the action and learning

    As a part of their working the learners:

  • target the realities at their own field level
  • must take action to resolve the problem
  • are exposed to appropriate risk and “stretch”
  • learners are helped to understand how adults learn and what their learning preferences might bework in the set in a supportive social process
  • proceed via questioning, conjecture and refutation
  • can take advantage of training and other interventions as the need arises
  • report final results to the sponsor(s)

    ,p>9strong>Key notes of the learning by doing approach is:
  • Reflection and review processes are systemised into the work programme
  • Proving learning is an integral component of consolidating learning
  • Other people can add tremendous value to the learners reflection and insights
  • Often the learning is unexpected and not always what was intended,/P>

    Action orientated Learning through Mentoring and Coaching
    We believe that coaching and mentoring can be an extremely effective method of helping people get into action on the “real” business issues. By working with their teams, their Manager and their customers, development is seen as an essential and useful activity for the learner. In addition, coaching and mentoring is a highly individualised activity which takes account of the learner’s circumstances and needs providing support, accountability and structure for participants to help them complete their developmental goals.

    Action Learning through Work and Learning groups
    By providing participants with an understanding of adult learning and the action learning process, they are empowered to support each other whilst working on work based projects.

    Learners can record their actions and learning as they go. Here is an example of how that might work:
    (1) The work situation – this requires a clear description of the problem, or opportunity, and the stakeholders.
    (2) The action – this involves an outline of what was done by whom, when and the reasons for the action.
    (3) The learning – this is a record of what was learned about the task, and also what the individual learned about themselves andothers en route.
    (4) The applications – this is an outline of what applications occurred as a result of the learning and the implementation of the action plans

    You can download a free action learning log right here

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