Academic journal article Human Resource Planning

The Design of the Action Project in Work-Based Learning

Academic journal article Human Resource Planning

The Design of the Action Project in Work-Based Learning

Article excerpt

This paper attempts to remedy the inattention heretofore paid to the action project in the work-based learning literature. It begins with the assertion that there can be no substitute for real-time experience in human resource planning and development programs. Action projects afford real-time experience by involving participants in concrete actions typically in their own organization. The projects are designed to have strategic value, thus contributing to or even challenging the goals of their organizational sponsor. While working on their project, participants engage in both individual and collective learning, results deemed as important as the business outcomes of their project intervention. The article goes into considerable detail noting the benefits but also the pitfalls of action projects.

We are entering a new era of human resource development in which corporate educators are beginning to return learning to its natural location--to the workplace itself. Referred to as "work-based learning," this new approach expressly merges knowledge with experience by allowing managers to reflect upon and learn from the artistry of their own action. There are many programmatic features in any work-based learning program, but perhaps the most notable is the action project. Whatever theories, competencies, or practices participants are exposed to, their ultimate learning may actually depend upon their trying things out at work. There is a benefit to having participants test their newfound skills in a simulated setting, but ultimately there can be no substitute for practice in the midst of real life experience. Only then will participants know whether they can change their assumptions and behaviors in real time. Only then will they know whether a particular conceptual theory might help them wend their way thro ugh an operating problem or whether they may need to devise a new and alternative practice theory to help them make sense of their tacit behavior.

This paper characterizes the design of the action project in more detail than previously covered in the literature. But first it might be helpful to set the stage for the action project by demonstrating its intimate connection to human resource development and education programs characterized by work-based learning.


Those of us concerned with management education live in two worlds, speaking two different languages and occasionally coming together to exchange views. Although we talk to one another, we are hardly aware that we are not sharing our conceptions of reality. We tend to part company thinking that we had a mutual exchange, but we then go back to our respective worlds for the most part unaffected by our encounter.

We come from the two worlds of theory and practice, and, with few exceptions, we have not figured out how to merge them, how to speak in a language that not only informs each other but also advances our mutual preferences. Theory is depicted as the world of thought and practice refers to the world of action. Other depictions are less dispassionate. Theory is often construed by practitioners as impractical or as "academic" or "ivory-towerish." Meanwhile, practice is viewed by academics as banal and atheoretical. In normal science, the dominant approach to inquiry is represented by a strategic separation of theory, testing, and practice. Theoreticians are charged with developing hypotheses, empiricists take on theory-testing, and practitioners apply the results.

We are becoming more aware that knowledge through theory, for example, need not be split from our activities in the world. Indeed, knowledge (and especially its more dynamic agent, learning) is an ongoing process and part of our everyday life. As Wenger (1998) suggests, if we believe that knowledge is something stored, whether in a library or in a brain, then it makes sense to package it and present it without distraction in a succinct and articulate way to captive students. …

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