The Future of Action Learning – What Kind of Action Learning do you Practice?

While attending the World Institute for Action Learning (WIAL) Global conference in Washington, DC in late October, I started to consider a new set of questions for AL. Ordinarily, our questions in AL are based on questions such as: What is working? What can be improved? What changes do we need to make? As I listened to the many stimulating presentations at the conference, the questions that emerged for me related more to the history and direction of the AL movement: Where is AL now in relation to where it began? What is the direction for the future of AL? Ultimately, what will that future look like?

The Past

While the process we call Action Learning (AL) has been around for at least 50 years, it has had prime visibility in much of the world in only the past 10 to 15 years. In the early years, AL was highly experimental, unstructured, and often undisciplined. The overarching belief was that teams could learn their way to success without the need for external direction and guidance if norms could be established that supported inquiry, action, and learning. The improvement in problem solving when this team culture was developed and nurtured was striking and the productivity of problem-solving teams was remarkable. Unfortunately, improvements in problem solving and the resulting solutions were not reliably obtained; despite some notable successes, in many cases, teams displayed a lot of action but not much learning or improved problem solving.

The Present 

The present status of AL was prominently displayed at the recent WIAL conference. Many attendees and presenters subscribed to the disciplined approach to AL proposed by Dr. Mike Marquardt and promoted by WIAL (and LTA, as well): (1) all work must be rooted in the framework of inquiry – e.g., statements are always preceded by questions, (2) all discussions must result in action, (3) all action must be processed for learning, and (4) team roles must be created (e.g., a  team coach) to make sure effective ground rules and procedures are followed. A central tenet of the WIAL approach is that coaches should serve as catalysts for change rather than as facilitators. In other words, coaches only ask questions to foster and support reflection, action, and self-management and should not lead, either directly or indirectly, or promote any particular belief or action.

The discouragement, if not prohibition, of team leadership or facilitation by the coach, however, was not supported by a significant portion of conference attendees. In a number of the sessions, presenters suggested that coaches offer specific training or recommendations for team procedures or norms. Others, while agreeing that a spirit of inquiry was desirable, did not support holding to the primary ground rule in the WIAL method – statements always follow questions – in all, or at least in some cases. Still others defined AL in only the broadest terms – AL is the process of having a team develop a solution to real and complex problems with the belief that this experience will result in transformational and practical learning for team members. In these programs, facilitators or coaches do not need specific AL training except in the basic precepts of behavioral science.

The Future

While WIAL sponsored this conference, it was clear to me that the community of AL is not marching in lock-step with the WIAL method for AL and that there continues to  be a healthy debate about AL theory and practice. Furthermore, if you follow, as I do, the messages and comments posted in AL-related LinkedIn groups such IFal (International Foundation for Action Learning) and AL Forum, it is clear that many AL practitioners do not abide by, much less support, the full WIAL methodology.

Upon deep reflection, I believe that it is time to recognize the reality that there are deeply held disagreements about what constitutes AL as well as the principles and methods that are fundamental to AL. If anything, the fissures between AL theorists and practitioners are growing, not narrowing.

A Possible Resolution

I have been very clear in previous blogs, articles, and books that I support the fairly pure version of AL that we developed at WIAL. With client support, I am quite confident that the coach as catalyst, not facilitator, and the basic WIAL ground rule – statements always following questions – create the necessary and sufficient for highly successful  AL programs. An important advantage to the WIAL process is that the disciplined methodology produces excellent results very reliably. In addition, limiting the coach role to asking great questions maximizes individual, team, and organizational learning and lessens dependence on the coach for defining what should be learned or how the team should manage its own process.

I am also very aware, however, that other AL coaches who use varying degrees of facilitation and who are less strict about adhering to WIAL’s basic ground rule also get excellent results. Furthermore, many organizations are not receptive to, or supportive of, an AL process that doesn’t provide a more structured and facilitative problem-solving process. Consistent with an old consulting axiom, we need to start “where the client is” – what the client expects, is looking for, or is comfortable with.

Let’s acknowledge, therefore, that there is a spectrum for acceptable and effective AL. On one end of this continuum is the WIAL method that has been demonstrated to be very effective when the client understands and has “bought into” the benefits and restrictions of WIAL’s disciplined approach. In these environments, the organization is willing to tolerate a certain amount of process wondering and “groping around” in pursuit of deep and transformative learning. Let us also accept, however, that many clients can substantially benefit from a more relaxed AL process when they aren’t willing to “sign on” to the full WIAL treatment. We also need to acknowledge that many coaches or facilitators who have reservations, or even profound disagreements, with the WIAL approach can also get good results and client satisfaction with  alternative approaches to AL. In this broadened perspective, we can then recognize what unites all of AL practice: (1) People learn best when working on real problems with accountability; (2) norms of inquiry and the valuing of diversity of ideas and viewpoints dramatically improve creativity and team performance; (3) learning should be generated by team members rather than facilitators or coaches; and (4) individual and team sell-management should be encouraged as much as possible.

Let me know what you think the future of AL looks like.

Skipton Leonard, PhD
Master Action Learning Coach
Managing Director

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