Development Needs for Action Learning in 2016


With the coming of a new year, it is customary to take stock of ourselves and to make resolutions for improvement – to examine how we are doing as well as where and what we would like to be doing better. Although most of our resolutions are not completely achieved by year’s end, the process helps us to reassess our goals and redirect our efforts. What is useful for individuals is also valuable for fields of professional practice. It is in this spirit that I offer the following development needs for Action Learning.

Development of a common definition of Action Learning (AL) – On some issues there is broad agreement about the components of AL:

  • teams working on real problems
  • the requirement that action follow research and discussion
  • an emphasis on inquiry before advocacy
  • periodic interventions to gather personal, team, and organizational learning

There is much less agreement, and even fiercely held disagreement, about what constitutes AL. Here are just a few of the debates under discussion;

  • the necessity or desirability of using team coaches or facilitators
  • the role of the coach – Is the coach a catalyst who only asks questions or a facilitator/trainer who guides and assists the team when necessary?
  • the appropriate balance between action and learning the necessary qualifications for team coaches if they are used.

As I noted in my last blog (The Future of AL), the gaps in the positions AL professionals hold on these and other issues do not seem to be narrowing with the development of our field. One approach to creating a definition that is broad enough to cover most AL practice without becoming so generic as to be of little value is to identify the possible variants in permissible AL practice with guidelines for applying these practice components, depending upon

  • the goals of the process
  • the readiness of the organization
  • the sophistication and maturity of the participants
  • the resources of the organization
  • the skill, preparation, and orientation of the coach or facilitator

The pros and cons of including or excluding each variant in practice should also be identified to help the coach or program manager decide whether to include, or insist upon its inclusion, in the AL process.

Improved methods for developing leadership and effective teaming skills – A common method for developing individual leadership or team problem-solving skills is to have individuals identify a skill or behavior that they want to work on during an AL session and to use these goals to focus feedback for team members during periodic debriefing sessions. While some coaches may use more structured exercises to provide feedback, most of the methods currently used suffer from the following issues:

  • face-to-face evaluations are notoriously inaccurate – people give “soft” feedback and are reluctant to provide honest feedback unless they believe their feedback is anonymous
  • giving comprehensive face-to-face feedback is very time-consuming, reducing the time available for deeper analysis of team and organizational issues
  • the individual feedback process becomes repetitive if conducted after each session and provides diminished returns as the process unfolds

Coaches need to have a variety of methods to provide processing and feedback regarding personal learning goals. In addition to having some debriefing questions that can be done in a small amount of time, other feedback options need to be more anonymous. For instance, coaches could extend the debriefing process into the time between sessions by having team members provide feedback anonymously via an internet application. This approach could be used effectively to augment AL that is done as part of a leadership development program.

More effective integration of leadership strategy into the AL process – Demonstrating the effective use of individual leadership skills or competencies is not the same as demonstrating effective leadership. Leadership skills are the building blocks for being an effective leader. We now understand that leadership is situational. For example, the skills that make an effective team supervisor are not the same skills required to be an effective executive. Being an effective leader requires an effective leadership strategy – applying the right skills in the right situations. Particularly in leadership development programs, the debriefing process for AL needs to include opportunities for discussing leadership strategy as well as behavioral competency.

More emphasis on solution-focused AL programs – The majority of AL programs in the US and global organizations have a primary focus on developing leadership skills. Recent estimates indicate that 75% of corporate leadership development programs have an AL component. Even if the AL teams work on problems that the organization considers priorities, the programs, unfortunately, are considered training/learning programs. As a result, AL is often identified as a training rather than a solution-development process. By placing a greater emphasis on solution-development programs (what my colleague, Arthur Freedman, calls applied AL), we can shift the perception among line managers regarding the practical value of AL. This shift, in turn, will increase the demand for including AL in leadership development programs. By creation sure that we place the horse before the cart, we can stimulate both applied and learning-focused AL.

Better outcomes research demonstrating the value of AL – AL is one of the few development (organizational as well as personal) programs for which it is possible to assess the return on investment (ROI) or return on expectations (ROE). Unfortunately, most programs only assess participant satisfaction scores – level 1 in Kirkpatrick’s (1998) assessment model. There would be a huge benefit to AL (e.g. selling solution-focused AL would become far easier) if we were able to convince organizations to invest in assessment at level 2 (participant learning), level 3 (participant application of what they learned to the workplace), and, especially, level 4 (organizational results). I well know that convincing organizations to invest in assessment at these levels is not easy. But the benefits to AL would be enormous. How about creating a prize for every ROI analysis for an AL project, regardless of the results? My bet is that these analyses would, in the vast majority of cases, demonstrate that Al provides a significant financial benefit to the organization. How many leadership development programs can demonstrate a direct benefit that can offset the cost of the program? Wow!

I am very interested in what you believe are the most important development needs for AL.

Kirkpatrick, D.L. (1998). Evaluating training programs: The four levels. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Skipton Leonard, PhD
Master Action Learning Coach

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