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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Quality Time - the benefits of Action Learning

When time and money is short, how do you invest in developing people who need to lead change?

For many of us Action Learning is a good answer (there's never just one answer). There will be times when it will work better for some people if they have individual coaching or mentoring. There will be times when the Team as a whole will need coaching or facilitation to address particular issues.

How is Action Learning different from coaching and facilitation and when and for whom might it work?

For those new to Action Learning, the model offered by The Open Channel involves a group of 4-8 participants and an independent facilitator. Participants offer or 'pitch' issues for learning, and a schedule is agreed for the session (often half or a full day), allowing  time to suit the group and the issues. some people may pitch for a lot of time (say an hour and a half) to tackle a persitent challenge or sensitive issue, others may pitch for half an hour to 'run something past' other group members. There is a format, but it is personalised, and bespoke to the group

Action Learning is different from coaching and team facilitation in some or all of these ways:

  • There is a focus on individuals in turn in a group setting - it is not either individual or group, but both. This enables deep personal learning for individuals presenting issues and participant learning for the group members who are helping the presenter to identify solutions.
  • Action Learning allows time for an individual to present, listen, respond, reflect as in coaching, and for set members to question, challenge, probe and reflect, as individuals but in a group setting. A team workshop may facilitate discussion across the group, but if this were directed at one individual it would come across as threatening or greedy in terms of attention. In an Action Learning set an individual is the focus for their issue, they have attention which is facilitated and moderated to ensure it is constructive, non-threatening, challening but supportive.
  • There is space for a variety of methods of questioning and reflection in each action learning set, techniques which can be tailored to individual and group needs and taken away and used in the workplace. Coaches and facilitators may use a variety of techniques, but often over a longer time frame.
  • Action Learning can take place within an organisation, with sets of colleagues or peers, or it can happen across organisations, sectors and geography with people who have no knowledge of each other or shared background. 
  • Action Learning combines learning about oneself, with others, and learning from others through one's own participation and contribution.

In my experience, Action Learning comes in and out of fashion, and I'm not really sure why that is. I have benefitted from it over the last 15 years in a variety of contexts. At The Open Channel we believe it is particularly relevant now when resources and time are tight and challenge is everywhere. People leading change need time to reflect and space to work out robust solutions. Action Learning need take no more than three days out of the working year, but can provide a source of energy and focus which sustains leaders over weeks and months.

Learning is shared and so is cost - either across individuals within a Department, across Departments within and Organisation or across organisations and even sectors. If people need individual coaching or mentoring, Action Learning is not a cut price substitute. Use it alongside but not instead of team development if that's what is required. 

But do consider it for individuals who need to learn from and with others, who need a bit of safe space to reflect and grow, who could boost their creativity enormously for a modest investment. 

Happy to talk about it to anyone who's interested.



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