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Is Action Learning Stuck?

by Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD of Authenticity Consulting, LLC

(This article appeared in the January 2000 issue of the International Federation of Action Learning's newsletter Action Learning News.)

Attention to the action learning process has increased dramatically over the past ten years. The amount of applications and literature has increased accordingly, yet their focus has remained largely the same. We seem stuck in how we think about and use action learning. Perhaps it is time we reflect on the status of action learning, take actions to further evolve the process and reflect on what we learn.

Limited Focus of Applications and Literature

Books do a wonderful job of describing basic elements, core learning theories and how to implement programs. Articles analyze dynamics of action learning with reference to the learning equation, adult learning theories, systems theory, etc.

Descriptions of applications, whether in books or articles, are almost always in the context of management development in large organizations. Each description briefly addresses the nature of the client organization, design and composition of sets, types of projects and structure of meetings. Primary emphasis is on various outcomes from the application.

To Evolve Action Learning ...

1. Develop More Guidelines for Designing Programs and Groups
Action learning literature tends to gloss over critical questions of program design. As programs expand to more practitioners and venues, we need guidelines to answer questions, such as: Should we have a part-time or full-time program? Use a single-project or open group program? Use horizontal- or vertical- or diagonal-slice sets? Use familiar or unfamiliar settings and problems?

2. Reach Low-Income and Rural Areas
Action learning literature should place more focus on features of action learning that make it so highly accessible. People can start their own groups at very low cost. They can schedule their own meetings and locations. They can incorporate free materials from the World Wide Web. The wide accessibility of action learning makes the process ideal for application with low-income groups and people in remote areas away from training centers. Action learning “starter kits” could freely be made available on the World Wide Web.

3. Provide Framework for Support Groups
Action learning purists tend to focus primarily on skills in reflection and inquiry, and problem solving. The role of support is sometimes minimized. Yet, there is tremendous pain in many organizations today as they struggle to remain viable in an ever changing marketplace. Action learning can provide ongoing support to participants without minimizing the role of actions and learning. There are few other processes that can provide badly needed support, while integrating ongoing actions and learning.

4. Cultivate Communities for Change
The concepts of popular and folk education are expanding rapidly across the globe. Their purpose is to help people raise consciousness about their roles in the world, cultivate shared meaning and vision, and implement strategies to enhance the quality of their lives. Key values are that the people hold the answers within themselves and that solutions must start from them as well. Key group techniques include ongoing actions, inquiry and reflection. Action learning holds tremendous promise as highly accessible means to developing local learning communities for social action and learning. (For more information about folk education, www.goddard.edu/feaa/ on the World Wide Web.)

5. Offer Local Learning Clusters
Action learning can be straightforward means for self-directed learners to organize local learning clusters. Members can download free materials from the World Wide Web, hold open discussion about the materials, and then go into an action learning format to deepen and enrich learning around the materials. For example, members can download materials from the Free Management Library, which includes 600 well-organized topics about personal and professional development. (See www.managementhelp.org/topics.htm on the World Wide Web.)

6. Research On-Line Sets
We must find suitable means to carry out sets over the Internet/Web. This venue has its limitations compared to face-to-face sets. However, the wide expansion and accessibility of the Internet/Web make it a critical medium for expanding the use and impact of action learning. More research must be conducted in this venue.

7. Integrate with Other Programs
Too often, action learning is portrayed as a standalone program. However, the process can be used to enrich other forms of development as well. As Reeves (1996, p. 6) points out, “If action learning is to come of age, it is time that its practitioners stopped sniping at alternative modes of management learning and instead embraced their complementary strengths. Otherwise, action learning really will be marginalised as a cult.”

8. Ally With Coaching and Peer-Helping Practices
Personal and professional coaching is fast becoming a major service to individuals and organizations. The nature of this coaching and action learning are somewhat similar. Both believe the agenda should come primarily from the client. Both place strong emphasis on the roles of ongoing inquiry, reflection and actions. Action learning provides a time-tested framework in which to conduct group coaching.

Peer-helping services are highly efficient means to low-cost sharing of services and materials. Perhaps the best example is peer-counseling and peer-mediating programs in schools. Action learning certainly is certainly another powerful example. Yet the process is rarely mentioned in peer-helping organizations. Action learners would benefit from association with other peer organizations. For example, see Peer Resources at www.peer.ca and the National Peer-Helping Association at www.peerhelping.org on the World Wide Web.

A Call to Action -- And Learning

My doctoral work focused on developing and evaluating a national action learning program, a program I have directed for the past five years. I have spoken to numerous action learning practitioners and clients. Clearly action learning has achieved almost mythical status among many of us. The process is practical, basic and timely, and yet theoretical, abstract and eternal. We have strong perceptions of what action learning should and should not be, and what it should and should not include. Our perceptions may have us stuck.

Fifty years ago, Reginald Revans fought hard against the dogma of traditional educational institutions. At that time (and still too often now), learning was interpreted only as that which was conveyed by an expert in a classroom. Universities and colleges were viewed as the keepers of our learning.

With the help of pioneers, such as Revans, Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, we have come to realize that without practice there is no knowledge. One hopes we will learn that the broader the range of that practice, the broader the range of our learning.

Reeves, T. (1996, May). Is action learning a cult? Action Learning News, 15, 2, 6.