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Action Learning – the way forward


This is the transcript of the special guest workshop on 'Action Learning – the way forward' conducted by TrainingZONE on 4 July 2000 with special guests Richard Hale, Anne Christie and Vicky Revell of the Action Learning Institute and IRDC.

Tim Pickles, TrainingZone: We're changing the format slightly for this workshop. I'd like to welcome our guests from IRDC and the Action Learning Institute. We plan to 'interview' them with some questions about action learning to lead off the debate; then others are welcome to join in with their own questions.

Richard Hale: Hi - this is an interesting new medium... by way of intro I am Richard Hale - a specialist in management development and author of 8 books on management and organisation development. Currently I am director of action learning forums with the Association of International Management Centres (IMCA) which is a new action learning based route to management qualifications.

Anne Christie: Ok Tim. fire away and we'll do our best.

Tim Pickles, TrainingZone: Can I start the ball rolling? Richard - how would you define 'action learning'?

Richard Hale: Revans said as far back as the 1940s that learning comprises questions and programmed knowledge. I think this simple and elegant explanation holds true today - arguably even more so. In fact much of the debate since Revans' original formulation has been about how much Q (questioning) versus how much P (programmed knowledge).

Anne Christie: My turn, I'm Anne Christie. I work mainly in publishing for International Management Centres Association and I am also currently undertaking an MBA action learningprogramme

Tim Pickles, TrainingZone: I'm a strong supporter of Revans work and the evolving knowledge of experiential learning. In practical terms, how do you see the action learning model translating this into practice?

Richard Hale: Welcome to Phil Reed who I met recently at Thames Valley Police - glad you could make it

Phil Reed: Hello everyone. I'm a police officer in Thames Valley Police - and am a co-author of a National (Vocational) OCR Diploma in Police Service Communications and Control. I've also developed STAF (Staff Training and Assessment Files) computer software which manages the evidence gathering and assessment for the diploma/other standards - and I train and help implement the scheme in the various police forces. I'm here as I've recently read Reg Revans' ABC of Action Learning - which I found very pertinent to my own experience/aspirations - and I'm at present exploring the possiblity of going further with the Action Learning Forums.

Phil Reed: Thanks for the welcome Richard

Tim Pickles, TrainingZone: Thanks for the helpful intros. We'd like to focus for a few moments on the practicalities of action learning, particularly for new users. What advice do you have for people coming to the approach for the first time?

Richard Hale: I would say action learning is an often misused term where people mean various things such as activity based training etc. but the real definition is as I mentioned above

Anne Christie: Tim asked how does the action learning model translate into practice. Action learning programmes allow students to consider theory and current thinking but apply that to real workplace issues.

Richard Hale: I speak very much as a pragmatist and would say that action learning in practice means individual or group learning agendas being defined by and addressed by the learning set or forum

Phil Reed: Can I come in?

Tim Pickles, TrainingZone: Sure Phil

Phil Reed: I know that Action Learning is much more than 'Learning by Doing', - and that it can be especially effective in pioneering work projects/change management. How would one best explain this to the (busy) manager with no training/learning background - but who is authorised to evaluate the business case/release funding for Action Learning ?!

Richard Hale: A strong argument is to present the evidence of how action learning has impacted upon business results. IMCA have lots of such case studies and of course it is best to hear from the participants themselves (individuals and organisations). I think action learning methodologies actually help address the perrenial problem of how do you evaluate learning - it is evaluated by evidence of application of learning in the work environment not the classroom

Phil Reed: Thanks - that makes good sense to me!

Tim Pickles, TrainingZone: Richard's point is a good one. Managers can 'see' training courses, but the benefits of the process of action learning may be more difficult to explain, even though the longer-term impact on business productivity is greater.

Richard Hale: Spot on about action learning being a process (if not a philosophy) something I was stressing to the directors of a company recently when we were looking at how they might allocate budget to action learning - I had to stress that though this might becoming from the 'training budget' it is not just another training course.

Tim Pickles, TrainingZone: Richard - you mentioned earlier the idea of individual action learning programmes. I have only come across AL programmes in a group context where the group provides both the medium and the accountability. How are these issues supported with an individual AL programme?

Richard Hale: I am currently working with Dr Charles Margerison on the launch of the new route to qualifications which is based on action learning questions. People come together in virtual and face to face forums and share learning as they tackle the questions they consider relevant to themselves. So far we have launched Forums in Australia, the UK and the USA with all sorts of different focus - from continuing professional development, to consulting, coaching and mentoring. They build credit for post-graduate professional qualifications ranging from certificate, diploma, masters to doctorate.

Anne Christie: Onmy MBA Set (group of students), we are all working on our own individual projects but support each other through regular contact and sharing of ideas. We work for different organizations and come from different backgrounds but our problems are similar.

Tim Pickles, TrainingZone: Welcome Hadyn - use the link below to see the earlier conversation in this workshop

Richard Hale: So Anne is it fair to say action learners do not have to be tackling the same questions but there is the ability to share learning regarding content and the process of learning

Victoria Reevell: Yes, I would agree with that Richard

Tim Pickles, TrainingZone: So its the group which provides the support to the learning of its members. How important, then, is it for AL group members to have physical contact (!) with each other? Will technology make it easier for electronic AL networking, or is the personal contact of critical importance?

Anne Christie: Yes, it has taken a little while for my set to 'open up' and share issues but we tackle all sorts of issues now, recommend texts, discuss ways of problem solving. It's very useful to have friends out there to turn to for advice.

Hadyn Ingram: Hi all, I have just reviewed Michael Marquardt's new book about action learning in which he says that, although around since the 1940s, AL is not well know. Why do you think that this is the case?

Anne Christie: That's a good one Tim. My set is a'cyber set' with members spread around the world. We recentl demanded to meet up. people get curious. The face to face week we organised in Canada recently was very worthwhile. I have to say, most IMCA sets are grouped closer together and may have weekend tutorials

Richard Hale: Hi Haydyn - one issue is about how the terms has been bastardised as I mentioned above - without people really understanding what is essentially a philosophy as a well as a practical process

Victoria Reevell: Richard, what do you think are the main advantages to Action Learning based programmes versus traditional academic studies?

Hadyn Ingram: OK Richard, I understand that, but why have more firms not used it. We both know that action learning is both powerful and simple.

Tim Pickles, TrainingZone: Maybe it goes against company hiarchies? The idea of bringing people together from different departments in the workplace seems to be a relatively new one.

Richard Hale: On the technology issue - of course the development in internet technologies open up lots of opportunities but also present challenges. I think with Internet technologies developing as they are a new emphasis will emerge - in other words as the individual is more able to acquire the P(programmed knowledge) from on line libraries, virtual conferences, e-mail etc. traditional custodians of P (old style universities and business schools) will need to reinvent themselves in order to keep up with the demands of the customer/learner. The learner will dictate the methodology and design their own syllabus.The more I speak to people the more I se eof them having to make academic study fit in with the out of dat constraints of an academic tradition. I do not see management as an academic subject.

Hadyn Ingram: Vicky, I think that action learning is much more challenging than traditional methods because the emphasis is on the learner rather than the curriculum.

Phil Reed: Hadyn - I'm not a professional trainer - rather a possible user of AL. Perhaps the fact that it is so simple - and yet potentially powerfull has been the problem - people don't like change, esp when it can change behaviour ?!

Hadyn Ingram: Richard, how did you hit on action learning?

Anne Christie: True. the organization must back the student to get the best results. for example, access to company information, the ability to speak with other teams/functions within an organization is key.

Hadyn Ingram: Phil, I agree entirely that people do not like change, especially educationalists. I speak as one!!

Phil Reed: Same for the 'recipients' Hayden - yet they like recognition and awards

Tim Pickles, TrainingZone: Organisations often seem reluctant to allow staff to devote work time to learning, although 'quick fix' courses are okay!

Phil Reed: Might that work against Action Learning -that managers and learners are too impatient for 'that certificate' that industry award, or the like ..?

Hadyn Ingram: Right everyone, we all seem to agree that action learning is great but it is little known. How could be go about converting the world?

Anne Christie: Phil, you're right. If action learners are to make a difference, then they will probably end up challenging their own organization and its practices

Richard Hale: Re Hadyn's question about why do not more know about and do it - I am not sure - it seems common sense to me and there is a great business argument for it. Maybe there has been too much emphasis on selling it to HRD folk (of which I was one) rather than CEOs. Training Managers and HR managers have traditionally thought in terms of a training 'school ' 'series of courses' etc which is easier to see touch define and cost (though harder to evaluate the benefit of)

Hadyn Ingram: Richard, I agree that the focus should be on people at the top because they can see the benefits and outputs of action learning results.

Phil Reed: Being optimistic Richard - I do sense a real change in the workplace - towards work relevant, tailored learning

Hadyn Ingram: Anne, as one who is doing and action learning course, how do you think this compares to a traditional MBA offering?

Tim Pickles, TrainingZone: Those 'people at the top' definitely need educating about the benefits of something which is more long term but as a result, more beneficial than traditional 'training' courses.

Richard Hale: Interesting use fo the word 'convert' Hadyn - I do see that people ge tconverted to it as a philosophy (in that it influences how they behave and conduct them self in an educational sense). It grabs people at different stages of their life - for me (to answer your question of me) it was borne out of disillusionment with operating as a stand up trainer/speaker/presenter who was able to make people happy and make them feel they had learnt but I knew that tha their behaviour was not changing long term - it felt fraudulent to putting myself up as the authority when often others have the right questions answers and knowledge. I like the democratic principles of action learning - that I guess is what appeals.

Hadyn Ingram: Tim, I think action learning sits at the 'practitioner' end of the education continuum and, as it is often not supported by universities, it is seen as somehow out of the mainstream.

Jennifer Bowerman: I think that action learning, because it is about real work, rightfully "belongs" to those people at the line. One of the problems wih going through HR or even HR training courses at the university is that they really are "middle people."

Anne Christie: Well, for a start it as a working mother, I couldn't justify time away from home and workplace to study for a degree. Although I would argue that this is not the easy option, it makes so much sense to me. Managers face prblems at work every day and action learning is about solving problems. I can read what the gurus say but apply new knowledge to my work.

Jennifer Bowerman: Jennifer Bowerman - Sorry - that last message was from me. I'm just getting the hang of this!

Tim Pickles, TrainingZone: It's a natural conclusion to the trend to ask employees to take more responsibility for their own learning.

Hadyn Ingram: Richard, you are right that a movement to action learning is often born of disillusionment, and it was in my case. The problem is that it is often not a first choice educational methodology. My experience is that once the students/ associates understand it it can help sole problems and support teamworking in organisations like no other method I know.

Phil Reed: Richard - your comment above rings true with me. The better / more inspiring a traditional training course is, the more frustration there is on returning to the workplace .. when it dawns on you that the theories/ideas that you have learnt will not be understood/valued by those 'not privilaged' to have been sent on the same course!

Phil Reed: Carrying on Haydns' point rPlaying devils advocate here (!) for an individual tasked with introducing formal Quality Assurance standards (for example) - in what additional (easily argued) ways could the Action Learning Forum route benefit the implementation of, say - ISO


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