Action Learning – Focusing on changing trends in how we work and learn

Wed 14 Aug 2019

Action Learning – Focusing on changing trends in how we work and learn

Action Learning is an approach to learning and development which, as its name suggests, focuses on learning through action. Whilst Dods workshops and training are already highly interactive, Action Learning adds immediacy because every participant works directly on a current workplace challenge.

Typically, Action Learning starts in an ‘Action Learning Set’ of four to six people working with a facilitator over a series of meetings. Each person has a turn thinking through an issue they’re grappling with, coming up with insights and fresh ideas for action. Set members ask questions to support and encourage reflection and planning. Reflection on the subsequent progress and impact of actions is usually the starting point for the next Set meeting.

Having worked with two Sets over recent months, I find that descriptions of the process don’t do justice to the power of action learning. So, for example:

  • Because people are working on issues that are important to them, they’re genuinely keen to find ways forward. Engagement is usually very high and attendance is good.
  • Similarly, because they’ve figured out the actions that feel right for them and their situation, people are more committed to those actions. They make real progress which in turn builds confidence and momentum. Over time, they get better and better at figuring things out for themselves.
  • The focus on questions rather than advice means Set members get better at listening and working out the right question to ask at the right time. Having honed these skills in the Set, they use them more and more with colleagues in other situations, helping them to build self-reliance and problem-solving abilities too.
  • There is as much to be learned from the process of an Action Learning Set as from its content. Participants pick up valuable insights into things like group dynamics which they put to good use in other meetings and conversations.

We’ve also been learning about how best to set things up for success. We’ve found it’s important that participants can relate to each other’s worlds and have a shared focus – recently we’ve been supporting junior policy staff working out how to build skills and influence, and senior leaders grappling with the challenges of policy leadership. At the same time, there needs to be confidentiality and respect so that people feel safe to share and think openly. It’s also vital to be clear right from the start about what’s involved, especially the focus on doing your own thinking as well as supporting others to do theirs. 

Overall, I’ve really enjoyed facilitating Action Learning Sets with Dods. I’ve seen Set members progress a long way in a short time, solving their immediate problems and also building the skills to solve future problems and support others to do the same.

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