What is the Difference Between Developmental and Applied Action Learning

Originally, the purpose of Action Learning was to develop highly effective and creative solutions to very complex problems. The process involved involving teams of individuals with diverse skills, backgrounds, and interests in a unique problem-solving process that was based upon inquiry, reflection, and learning (generally, in that order). In these cases, since the primary purpose of the team’s activities is to come up with great solutions, we term this category of Action Learning, “applied” Action Learning.

Over time, it became apparent that Action Learning could also be employed as a very effective method for developing individual problem-solving and leadership skills. For this reason, especially in the past decade, Action Learning has been included in a large proportion of leadership development programs. It has been estimated that 75% of leadership development programming in global corporations include Action Learning components. In these programs, the learning takes prominence; the primary focus in these Action Learning programs is the learning that results from taking responsibility for solving critical and urgent organizational problems. We have termed this category of Action Learning, “developmental” Action Learning.

A primary difference between the two categories of Action Learning is the composition of the teams. In applied Action Learning programs, a high priority is placed upon getting a very diverse team that includes primary stakeholders and solution end-users as well as team members who can provide unique perspectives even if not significantly affected by the problem or the solution. An ideal team would include members from different parts of the organizations, present or potential clients/customers, as well as members with varying degrees of status and rank. It is also frequently useful to have someone who knows nothing about the problem, the so-called “pizza man” in the lore of the World Institute for Action Learning.

The composition in Action Learning teams within leadership development programs is generally more constrained. While, these programs enroll rising leaders, often termed “high potentials” (i.e., “hi-po’s”), from all parts of the organization, by definition, the status, rank, age, and tenure of members is similar. Team members may also be as interested in developing leadership skills and useful relationships as in solving the problem at hand. Program managers may also encourage the Action Learning coaches to focus strongly on the leadership development outcome of the process.

Whether the program has an applied or developmental focus, however, the importance of generating both great solutions and learning must be emphasized. Taking responsibility for developing a great solution is a necessary precursor for achieving great learning. Conversely, great solutions cannot be achieved without great learning!

Skip Leonard, PhD
Master Action Learning Coach


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