Action learning represents a process by which a culture of learning is cultivated in groups with the aim of generating positive action. Organizations as varied as the Peace Corps, Xerox, Motorola and the United Nations Development Program have engaged in action learning. The structure of action learning helps groups explore, define, act on and evaluate complicated problems.
Action learning takes place in cycles. Each cycle is comprised of four phases. In the first phase, the group must identify a problem that is relevant to the group at that particular moment. It must be a problem that the group has the ability to solve but which suggests no single appropriate action.
The next phase touches off the process of solving the problem. This begins with each member of the group reflecting on the problem. The group will discuss these reflections, examining in detail the language used during reflection and attempt to come to an understanding as a group on the meaning of the language employed and associated concepts.
The idea of this phase is to move away from a state of unawareness, anxiety, confusion and risk and toward an environment that is supportive and encourages questions and learning. Only in such an environment can the group move beyond its preconceptions toward posing and exploring questions that seem to increase in their insightfulness with every moment. The attention moves away from the individuals and toward their questions. In this atmosphere, it becomes possible to explore possible courses of action that might solve the problem.
In the third phase, the group hones in on the action that seems to be the most constructive, based on all that the group has learned in its exploratory question period, and this action is implemented. In the final, fourth, phase, the group evaluates the effectiveness of the chosen, implemented course of action. If the group assesses the action as having been less than effective or otherwise not meeting the requirements of the group, further action learning sessions are undertaken until it is clear that the problem has been resolved.
Action learning is made up of six integral parts: the problem, a group, a process of reflection and questioning, a decision to take action, a commitment by the group to the learning process and a group facilitator. The facilitator makes sure that the other five components are present, recognized and advanced by members of the group. The aim of the facilitator is to ensure a culture of learning in which participants feel safe to explore and develop thoughts beyond preconceived notions and what is already known.
In order for the group to gain the ability to move beyond preprogrammed safe thinking, there must be commitment to innovation. The prerequisite for innovative thinking is being open and honest. This is the background that allows the fertile flowering of critical thinking and expression. Developing innovative thought in this atmosphere helps form a bond between members of the group and strengthens them as a single thinking/working entity.
The facilitator will encourage the action learning group to develop certain attributes. This begins with a commitment to finding a solution to a problem. The individuals within the group take ownership of the identified problem, but instead of attaching personal blame, they focus on solving the problem as a collective. The implication here is to clarify what is and is not within the power of the group to control and to move toward a focus on only those aspects within the control of the group.
It is also the job of the facilitator to encourage participants to be good listeners, to question their own attitudes and those of others in positive ways that shed light and further the quest for insight on the problem at hand. The facilitator also inspires group members to allow for openness and to risk a state of vulnerability, so gaps in knowledge can be identified. Trust between group members is reinforced. A helpful atmosphere results in which participants assist each other in the learning process.
The facilitator encourages members of the group to show evidence of admiration toward others for expertise, knowledge, capacity for learning and points of view. At the same time, the facilitator asks for a commitment to action and for belief in the ultimate success of the group. A good facilitator helps develop the group and the individuals that make up the group, helping individuals gain self-awareness of learning potential and assisting the group in facilitating the professional development of individual group members.