Action Learning

– Co-authored by Peggy Jessome and Myriam Laberge

Premise: An action learning approach can be adopted by an internal facilitator pool, or community of practice, to enhance individual and collective facilitation confidence, skill and success over time.

Background: For organizations as diverse as Motorola, British Airways, General Motors and Marriott, a new approach to training and problem solving has emerged as a way to stay ahead of the pack. This approach, Action Learning, moves learning from a separate activity that occurs in the classroom to one that is fully integrated into the work that is carried out by the organization.

The power of this approach lies in its ability to increase the organization’s capacity to respond to change. It does this by creating a framework that enables individuals and groups within the organization to systematically learn from their experiences within the workplace. The Marquand Model identifies six components of an Action Learning system that build upon and reinforce one another. These are described below, followed (in italics) by how each would be applied to build the competencies and capability of an internal facilitation pool and/or facilitation community of practice.

Elements of Action Learning (Applied to Facilitation):

1. Team
The team is composed of four to eight individuals, preferably with a diversity of background and experience, which has responsibility for dealing with the problem or project. (This would be the internal facilitator pool or facilitation community of practice.)

2. Focus
For Action Learning to be effective it must start with an important outcome, need, problem, or project not previously encountered, attempted or solved and that is both urgent and important to the team or organization. (Choose an upcoming, important to high stakes, complex meeting, session or workshop.)

3. Process (Meeting Scoping & Design)
The Action Learning process is focused on insightful questioning and reflective listening. Questions are at the heart of Action Learning and are used both to solve the problem and to reflect on the solution after it has been implemented.

(The process begins in the Meeting Scoping by asking Scoping questions to clarify the nature of the outcome/need/problem before determining the meeting/session purpose, goals, deliverables, objectives, or generating a possible meeting design. Focusing on questions enables the team to identify what it doesn’t know as well as what it does know, and opens up the possibility for innovative and systems thinking. Once the team is on the same page regarding the focus, the team moves into Meeting Design and co-designs the detailed meeting process/agenda, including facilitation methods/processes, etc.)

4. Action
It is essential that the team commit to, and be able to take action on the outcome/need/problem it is working on. Action grounds the learning in reality. (Consistent with the detailed Meeting Design, one or more members of the team then facilitate the session.)

5. Commitment to Learning
Action Learning places equal importance on learning and the achievement of the outcome. It is the learning gained by members and the team, and more importantly, their application on a system-wide basis throughout the organization that significantly increases the organization’s capacity and to respond to change.

(After the meeting/session has been facilitated, the team convenes again and engages in the critical learning dimension of after-action reflection, by asking and answering three broad questions:

  • What? What did we set out to do? What did we actually do? What were the results and experience? 
  • So What? What have we learned that can enhance our future facilitation skill, confidence and performance? 
  • Now What? What will we do differently in the future? What do we need/want to learn now?

6. Action Learning Coach
Coaching is essential to ensure that the team focuses on learning as well as solving the problem. It is the coach’s role to ask the questions that move the team through the action learning cycle. This role may be rotated through the group, or assigned to a specific person.

(As the facilitation pool/facilitation community of practice starts off, it is often helpful to call upon the knowledge, experience and insight of a professional facilitator, to act as a subject matter expert, and provide further just-in-time learning, coaching and mentoring.)

Call to Action:

Facilitation skills are key to bolstering productivity, innovation and morale. As a result, businesses and organizations are making facilitation a core competency in their leadership development and corporate effectiveness programs. Read more about how we can deliver virtual and -in-person courses at your workplace and help you to apply Action Learning as part of our In-House Delivery and Follow Up.