A case for Action Learning

Organizational systems and subsystems deliver various products to their various customers or consumers. Products include both goods and services. Consumers could be external to the organization as recipients of the organization’s outputs or internal as subsystems that are linked together in networked or supply chains where each subsystem is both a consumer of and a supplier to other interdependent subsystems. Organizations require access to human, fiscal, and physical resources to realize their intended purposes. How an organization uses its resources is determined by its strategic and tactical plans. The plans become the basis for determining such elements as the requisite technologies, equipment, material, structures, values, and the number and variety of employees. Plans also determine the steps that members are expected to take to achieve their goals. Performance management systems are intended to assure that organizational members contribute to the realization of its purposes in a reliable and predictable manner. Once these elements prove themselves to be reasonably effective, they tend to become institutionalized and quite resistant to change.

Organizations may choose or be forced to change – e.g., when existing systems break down, when useful but disruptive new technology becomes available, when new marketing opportunities present themselves, or when the economy fluctuates wildly. When one organizational element changes, all other elements are affected. Change or the threat of change result in disturbing stresses and strains. Particularly when the organization’s history has been stable and predictable, these disturbances are exacerbated because organizational leaders and members are unfamiliar with and unskilled in dealing with unprecedented, discontinuous change. At such times existing managerial mechanisms for identifying and solving problems are not likely to achieve desired results because they were designed to cope with stable, predictable circumstances.

A new approach is required. Action Learning is one such approach that is designed to enable organizations to deal with discontinuous events and circumstances. Action Learning also marries well to large, complex IT projects (e.g., ERP or CRM planning and implementation projects) and organizational change efforts. It is a process that enables small teams of four to eight organizational members to specify critical, current, important, complex problems that keep organizational leaders up late at night. Action Learning team members may reframe problems that their organizational sponsors present to them. Then, they set goals or describe desired states that, once achieved, would solve or eliminate the problem. Based upon systematic problem analysis, the team develops action steps that, combined, would constitute a recommended plan for a solution. The plan is presented to executive management for their approval. If they agree, the plan is ready to be implemented.

Arthur M. Freedman, MBA, Ph.D.
Master Action Learning Coach


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