The Purpose of Action Learning

Carter McNamara (Authenticity Consulting, LLC) started a discussion recently challenging AL coaches and practitioners to define AL. The discussion so far defines AL as a facilitated, self-managed group process that promotes the learning that is necessary for taking effective action to solve real problems. This thinking, it seems to me, is going in right direction.

In doing some basic research on the definitions of AL, I happened to look at the latest version of article on AL available in Wikipedia. I was quite disturbed and concerned with what I saw. The very first sentence in this article defines AL as “an educational process whereby people work and learn together by tackling real issues and reflecting on their actions.” 

I believe that this definition is both contrary to the history AL as well as to the best interests of our field. In my reading of our history, the purpose of AL has always been to solve real problems. Reg Revans, the father of AL,  found that the process of solving critical, urgent, and complex problems required learning and innovation that came as the result of inquiry and reflection. It was quickly realized that AL was also a great tool for promoting learning. As a result, AL has gained great traction in the world of leadership development and other applications requiring complex learning. 

We must not forget, however, that the primary purpose of AL should be to develop great solutions. Revans objected to the use of AL to teach or promote the views of experts or teachers (often the same). He advocated for a coaching role that encourages self-management and limits the ability of a coach/facilitator or expert to provide answers or direction for the team.

The importance of focusing on the problem-solving process in  learning was noted by Dewey when he observed that effective thinking only occurs when anchored by an important problem. For him, all other thinking is unfocused “daydreaming or superficial rumination.” The purpose of the AL process must not be perceived by the participant as an exercise or device to demonstrate or practice something that the coach wants team members to learn. AL coaches must “walk the talk” and display genuine interest in generating a solution that the organization will implement if the solution is better than other options available. 

There is another danger in viewing AL primarily as an educational process. In my experience, the perceived value of any organizational process is inversely related to the degree that it is associated primarily with support services such as training. Said another way, when AL solves the critical problems and furthers, in a meaningful way, the strategic priorities of line management, it gains support throughout the organization. Training and HR organizations can capitalize on the success of AL in solving critical and strategic problems by providing AL services widely in the organization from directly solving problems to using AL as part of a leadership development process. Training and HR departments, however, should not make the mistake of presenting AL as primarily an educational tool like so many other training methodologies.

So, let’s keep the focus in AL on solving problems so that it does not become just one more training method du jour, popular today but ignored next month.

Skip Leonard, PhD
Master Action Learning Coach


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