Action Learning

by Steve Roche

Starting an Action Learning Set

An Action Learning Set must be started well in order to deliver on its promise.

There are three key areas to consider:

  1. Purpose: Be clear about purpose

    • What are the desired objectives or outcomes?
    • How will you know they are being achieved?
  2. Stakeholders: Identify the stakeholders and determine what each will want from Action Learning and what you will need each of them to contribute. Major stakeholders may include:

    • Set members and their managers
    • Organiser
    • Facilitator
    • Sponsoring organisation.
  3. Style: With the purpose and stakeholders in mind, what is the appropriate style?

    • What kind of set (purpose, scope, composition) would satisfy the needs of the stakeholders?
    • What sort of interactions within the set would make the investment of time and effort worthwhile?
    • What level of facilitation is needed?
    • Will the proposed set attract sufficient support from the organisation
    • Will people be willing to join it?

The examples in What is Action Learning? show that sets are created for varying reasons. They are run in different ways, and the benefits differ according to the purpose of the set and the level of people involved.

The founders of an internal coaching programme created a set to encourage managers to develop and practise their coaching skills by working with real managerial issues. In this example, the members were fairly senior and took the initiative in creating a set that was largely self-facilitated. Much of the benefit to individuals came from learning and refining their coaching and facilitation skills within the set.

A set was created for a team of customer care workers who were experiencing difficulties with working relationships and with implementing procedures. In this example, the set was created on behalf of its members and run throughout by an external facilitator. The main benefits in this case came from the work done on active problem-solving.

Before enlisting support for formation of the set, be ready to answer these questions:

  • What are the objectives of the set?
  • Who might be available to facilitate it and at what cost?
  • What commitment is needed from set members?
  • Will admission be by interview, selection criteria or self-selection?
  • How will effectiveness of the set be evaluated?

Encourage people to think about their reasons and their success criteria for participation; the more specific the criteria the better. What is the evidence they need in order to understand that their outcomes are being achieved?

Ensure that outcomes of set members are aligned with the outcomes of the set, so there is no tension between what the members want and what the sponsor wants.

To assess the ultimate value of the action and learning, look at the effects on individual tasks and on the organisation as a whole.

Ground rules

At the beginning, each set should establish its own ground rules, governing behaviour inside and outside the set.

  • Confidentiality – matters discussed in the group are not to be taken outside
  • Commitment – to making the time to attend a minimum number of sessions
  • Punctuality – start and finish on time
  • Safety – it is safe here to admit to needs, weaknesses and mistakes.

Note that these ground rules may need to change, or be added to from experience as the set matures.