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Action learning revisited

Bookcover

The Action learning handbook by Ian McGill and Anne Brockbank, Routledge Falmer, 2004.
Learning with colleagues by Erik de Haan, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Abstract

Linked summaries of these two books are provided, with an introduction to Action Learning and the work of Reg Revans. The handbook is a practical guide on how to make action learning happen, with particular regard to establishing and maintaining learning sets.
Learning with colleagues considers action learning as organised joint reflection by professionals and describes how to get such mutual learning going.

(Reviewed by Edgar Wille in April 2005)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

Introduction to the summaries and discussion

Action learning is experiencing a resurgence recently, sometimes under different labels, such as Erik de Haan’s "peer consultation". It is significant that two new books have appeared recently on the action learning approach, whatever it is called. They are individually summarised here, with some comment comparing their approaches, both on where they complement each other and where they highlight different facets.

There are several objectives in the summaries and reviews we provide. One is to enable you to know whether you would like to buy or borrow the books. Another is to stimulate readers to critical analysis and synthesis of management ideas. We don’t want just to say "Here is a good book; you may like to read it on the basis of our sample". No book is the final word on any topic. We want to involve you in dialogue and even debate on the issues raised, so that you can apply what you learn in actual practice.

We use italics to indicate when we are commenting. Also there is inevitably an element of selection and interpretation in a summary. We try to do justice to the authors’ overall thrust, as well as encouraging reflection and action on the part of the reader. If, inadvertently, we make any errors we will correct them on this site.

Before the actual summaries we offer some introductory comments on action learning - its birth and growth - to help readers evaluate the summaries and, if they read them, the books themselves. Obviously, a summary is no substitute for reading a book, but there is a limit to anyone’s reading time.

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An introduction to action learning

Action learning was introduced just after the second world war by Professor Reg Revans as a new approach to collective learning. Following a career which included work as a Cambridge physicist and then for Essex County Council in Education, he became Director of Education for the newly formed National Coal Board in Britain. (He also found time to be an Olympic long jumper).

At the Coal Board, he persuaded a number of colliery managers to get together in groups, later described as sets, and in a regular and disciplined, yet flexible, way share their problems and search for solutions. This was not puzzle solving, where there is one answer somewhere, but problem solving, where there are usually a number of possible answers, depending on the situation and context.

Reg Revans saw learning as best derived from mutual reflection by "companions in adversity" on live issues, where the owner of the problem would ultimately have to do something about it, helped by the discoveries he and his colleagues made together and the perspectives they acquired. To him, and to those who were convinced, this was more useful than experts coming along and filling empty vessels with knowledge in the creation of which they had no part. And in practice it worked - small groups of managers learned with and from each other as they "confessed their failures and expanded upon their victories". They met their actual needs and were not subjected to knowledge input unrelated to their actual experience and practical concerns. They learnt as they tried things out at the coal face (literally and metaphorically) because they needed to cope with situations in the real world. They would not learn so deeply if they just followed the instructions of experts .

Revans went on to take action learning to Nigerian small mills, to Australian Government departments, to a network of Belgian universities and companies, to the British National Health Service, to educational and business institutions in Egypt. A number of management educationists were convinced of the approach and two of them, David Casey and David Pearce, persuaded Arnold Weinstock of GEC of its value and implemented it in the company. A number of converts contributed to a book, Action Learning in Practice, (Gower 1983 Ed.M.Pedler), which also gave space to the practicalities of setting up action learning groups both within and between companies and institutions.

Reg Revans himself saw the necessity of some simple format to ensure that the "sets" worked fruitfully, but he was always concerned that the spirit of mutual aid and practical outcomes should not be overwhelmed by procedures. He was often so insistent on this that he was sometimes accused of being the final judge of what did or did not count as action learning. Mike Pedler, in Action Learning in Practice, comments: "The ‘Reg-centricity’ of action learning is both a bulwark against packaging and a block on the spread and growth of the idea." Like many great men, Reg could both inspire and infuriate.

(I came to know him well in the 80’s, when I was Head of Management Development at the same Coal Board that Revans had served thirty years earlier. In spite of his eccentricities, and even because of them, he remains a significant influence on my thinking. Sadly, he died in his mid 90’s whilst the first of the books we summarise was being written. EW.)

In approaching books on action learning we find ourselves keen to keep close to the original Revans vision of action learning, but not to present it as a theology or a patented technique which cannot be modified to suit circumstances. One must be grateful for what it is and can be, as well as the indirect influence its philosophy has had in the changes which have occurred in management education in many places. In the first essay in Action Learning in Practice Reg Revans expresses what we believe the authors of the two books summarised below are seeking to do:

"There are many different options open to the designer of action learning programmes, but all must be characterised by two criteria. [First] the set, in which real managers, tackling real problems in real time, are able freely to criticise, advise and support their fellows, helped, as the participants feel appropriate, by external specialists. [Second] the field of action, wherein the real problem exists to be treated by other real persons in the same real time.

In other words, action learning demands not only self-disclosure of personal perception and objectives, but [also] the translation of belief and opinion into practice. All that goes on in the set must have its counterpart in the field of action; and the progress of the counterpart activity is constantly reviewed within the set.

Thus action learning not only makes explicit to the participant managers their own inner processes of decision, it makes them equally attentive to the means by which those processes effect changes in the world around them."

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The Action Learning Handbook

What action learning sets are looking for

Bookcover

This book is very much in the spirit of the above quotation from Reg Revans, but also takes note of the developments in 60 years of using the approach. It also goes into some detail to enable those who may be attracted by its potential, to turn their responsiveness into action. It is a handbook, though it never loses sight of the principles on which action learning is based.

A book that starts with a story always attracts instant attention and this book is no exception with both authors relating the practical ways in which they discovered action learning. Ian was looking for an approach to post graduate learning which would be applicable to the students’ world of work. Anne was already involved in facilitating experiential learning when she accidentally came across More than Management Development by David Casey and David Pearce (Gower, 1977), and found that it opened up new avenues of helping groups to learn.

The McGill/Brockbank book begins by contrasting the approach which inculcates learning where the lecturer or trainer has all the authority and expertise with action learning. The latter brings "life experience to the fore as the single most important resource in enabling the individual to move and learn and develop with the support of others". And within the first few pages we are being guided in how to establish the approach in practice.

People who have organisational or personal business concerns come together voluntarily (possibly at the invitation of their employers) in groups of no more than eight, which are usually referred to as "sets". Each member takes a turn to present their issue (problem or opportunity) to members of the group, who, in an atmosphere of confidentiality and trust, ask questions to diagnose the matter more clearly and begin a search for possible answers. Reflecting together on the issue is paramount, rather than jumping to answers; reflection also embraces the process of working together, which can then become a potent force for self-development.

Action learning is distinguished from formal meetings, seminars, teams, counselling or therapy groups. The set provides the space in which individuals can resolve or reframe the problems they face in carrying out their tasks. The aim is to enable the individual to take responsibility, decide action and move on. Feelings can be expressed and worked through, with significant effect on business outcomes and personal progress.

Having enough time is important and ideally a meeting of the set should not be less than half a day. A whole day is better still, and at least once a month, when each member reports briefly on progress on issues during the previous month. Presenters own their issues and it is they who have to do something about them. Hence the "action" in action learning. Participants have to learn in order to do and do in order to learn. A little time is also reserved at the end of each meeting of the set to reflect on how the process went at that meeting.

The values attached to action learning are highlighted in eight pages at the start of this book. They include its voluntary nature, and the need for confidentiality and trust. It recognises all aspects of learning - knowing, doing and feeling. It favours personal autonomy and yet is rooted in mutuality, with learning as a collaborative and social process. It puts the spotlight on what people have to offer, rather than on what they lack. In supporting, it also challenges, displays empathy, listens well with careful attention. It recognises that progress takes time and, above all, it fosters unceasingly the spirit of enquiry.

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Types of action learning

Action learning sets may be independent groups or may be initiated by an organisation, with otherwise minimum interference. They may be self-facilitated or have a facilitator who helps to hold them together, without telling them what to think and say. Particularly if a company is supporting the set with time and space, a company development officer will help to negotiate the extent to which the members will be working on primarily management, personal or project issues. It should of course be recognised that personal issues are always present to some extent, because human relationships are always involved in management activity.

Management issues may include a marketing director concerned about the erosion of customer loyalty; a CEO embarking on a modernisation programme, but meeting strong resistance to change; a human resource director designing and developing a new staff development policy; an operations manager assessing the feasibility of introducing new working methods. The more senior people will often be members of a set drawn from several organisations. Where the set members are all from the same company it is desirable normally to avoid having people who are in a line relationship to each other.

Sometimes an issue will be largely personal, but with business implications, or there may be personal matters that stem from discussing business ones. Difficult colleagues, balance of life and work, understanding the political environment, finding that one is always reacting or lacks a sense of direction in life. Any of these may arise or even for some be the issue. The more personal they are the more there is a need for trust in the set.

The members of self-facilitated sets take it in turns to act as facilitator; they all work to ensure that the process succeeds. Great self discipline is required, but the experience can be valuable in creating or enhancing a collaborative ability. There has to be agreement on procedure, timing, note-taking and process review, in such circumstances. If action learning is part of continuous professional development, there needs to be an agreed process for supplying evidence of learning gained, even if this is easier where there is a facilitator. Some self facilitated sets prefer to use the term "self managed action learning" to describe their activity. Two later chapters in the book go into detail on how to be a facilitator.

Varying approaches to action learning are offered. Kolb’s learning cycle: action - reflection - theory - theory testing in practice: is often at the root of the learning activity. A deeply critical approach to the reflection phase involves looking closely at the assumptions and beliefs that shape practice. They need to be brought out into the open. Perspectives drawn from life experience may be flawed, through having been filtered through unexamined views, which may distort the interpretation of a situation.

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Introductory workshops

The speed with which an action learning set will begin to reap its benefits can be enhanced by carefully prepared introductory workshops, which include some mini action learning experience. The authors prefer a full day workshop, but consider that an hour and a half session can provide a useful start.

Where action learning is being introduced into a company, the workshop will be informative and persuasive with both explanation and demonstration which moves from brief triad discussion, with presenter, enabler and observer, on to a full experience, within the time, of what goes on in an action learning set.

Such workshops will be a matter of experimentation before commitment. They reach a large number of potential action learning set members and offer the opportunity for self screening, whereby the number who join sets and then leave, because it is not for them, is reduced. Well done, it can stir up an enthusiasm to work on full scale action learning.

Where there is a liberal allowance of time for a workshop, the participants can be divided into real action learning sets of five or six to work for an hour or two on some small real issue, with a wandering facilitator and time for reflection on the process.

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Starting a set

After discussing these workshops, the authors move on to how to start a set in its learning journey. The usual ice breakers "who I am and what I do", are followed by more imaginative sharing. This can include such ideas as "what could make me not want to be here", "what I would like to bring" and "something about myself that no one else knows and I am willing to share here and now".

Next, the ground rules are agreed and must be owned by the members, not imposed by the facilitator. They should refer to confidentiality, responsibility to share, to be non judgmental, non discriminatory, freedom to say "I", commitment, good timekeeping, one person speak at a time, silence is OK, really listening, constructive feedback, legitimacy of naivety and readiness to admit weakness or error.

Then into action, with the first presenter volunteering and the rest asking questions with a view to clarifying the presenter’s thinking and their own understanding. No instant solutions! The day ends with a short discussion of how things went and whether they felt the set was beginning to gel.

At the second meeting there is a quick round to bring any members up to speed who had not been able to attend the first meeting. Then the presenters from the first meeting report on any progress with the issue they had described. The same procedure is then followed as at the first meeting, including the process review, which is part of the learning from action.

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Dialogue and collaborative learning

Spending the first 80 pages on the simple ideas about how to run an action learning set works well. For when the authors subsequently present theoretical underpinning, readers pick it up more quickly, due to having already been where it happens in practice. They have experienced dialogue, second hand at any rate.

"Dialogue" itself as a word is not just between two people. The "dia" part of the word means "through", not "two", and the second part is derived from the Greek for "word" and "meaning". According to Bohm it suggests "a stream of meaning flowing among us and through us and between us".

Two types of knowledge involved in dialogue are described. "Separated knowledge" is the academic kind, where knowledge is arrived at by argument, even an adversarial stance, as when a student has to "defend" his or her thesis. In contrast, "Connected knowledge" involves suspending judgement until you have understood where the other is coming from, until you have some sense of how they experience what they are speaking about. In action learning, the first reaction is to ask questions to get inside the presenter’s world where the issue arises. This helps the person with the issue to clarify it and the other members are able to empathise and think of the problem as if it were their own, yet with freedom from the presenter’s own subjective baggage. And it works, even in environments where you would not expect it to work.

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Action learning as a reflective process

The chapter dealing with this theme draws on Schon’s The Reflective Practitioner. We know facts, which may have been instilled in us during professional training: these give us propositional knowledge in our minds. In practising our profession this may become "knowing-in-action", which may be tacit, yielding results apparently by intuition. When we describe our actions and thoughts, knowledge-in-action becomes explicit and useable by others.

It is also useable by ourselves as we reflect subsequently on what we have been doing. This may be called "reflection-on-action", when we draw out the things that were happening in our minds and hands. This has a significant role in action learning sets, where the presenter is encouraged by colleague questioning to put into words his or her reflections on the actions so far experienced.

There may also be discussion of an even deeper part of the experience: "reflection-in-action", that is, reflection on features in the work which were reflected upon while they were happening, eg "Why did that happen this time? Did I do something different?" When the presenter reports on the "reflection-in-action’, yet more profound collective reflection is opened up. The set is getting to the heart of things, both cognitively and emotionally. This is where action learning makes provision for a learning, which whilst it needs facts, approaches the very soul of activity - understanding at the deepest level, involving feeling as well as doing.

This level of reflection may lead to reframing of issues. Double loop learning may take place, where you don’t just try to solve the problem, but take a further step of asking why you were doing whatever it was in the first place, or why you were doing it that way. It may include a challenging of the values being expressed in the doing. This would be a move from corrective action to paradigm shift. New contexts, new meanings and new actions may have emerged. A new awareness of the feelings involved may equally be a revelation to the presenter and to the colleagues, enabling them to see beyond the outward issues into the inward reactions, which are often crucial, but untouched in propositional knowledge learning.

The opportunity action learning gives for reflective learning is probably its greatest strength. It opens up the opportunity to deal with personal issues which a merely logical appraisal of an issue might leave alone, yet which are at the root of many of the problems business always faces. An example would be the extent to which power perceptions and struggles enter into the life of any organisation. The action learning set where trust has been developed, provides a safe forum for the opening up of these issues in a highly personal way.

In this reflective approach people are revealing themselves to themselves and to set members as whole persons, not just as people doing a job in which their personalities are little involved. (This realisation links with the humanist teaching of the mid-twentieth century of people like McGregor with his theory Y - people like to achieve and to be appreciated.) The action learning approach can be the difference between learning about things outside yourself that have to be manipulated, and forces within yourself which are more difficult to define and to change, including your "shoulds" and "oughts". And because it is undertaken in a collective or social context, the learning penetrates mutual relationships and faces up to power relationships operating in an organisation.

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Facilitating action learning

This is the theme of Part III of the book. It looks at some of the psychological factors of which the facilitator needs to be aware. Set members may project their own anger into the story the presenter is telling or they may transfer emotions from childhood into the situation. If the facilitator is aware of these unconscious forces he or she can intervene to cool any excessive anxiety, recognising them as defence mechanisms.

A group also generates its own dynamics so that to some extent it may perform like a person, with specific characteristics which impact on the individuals comprising the group. If these get out of hand, the facilitator may have to remind the members of the ground rules they agreed at the start, such as no attacking, challenge constructively, don’t dismiss the feelings of others, accept diversity, and listen to others when they speak. The facilitator needs to avoid any impression that emotion is being suppressed and needs to work in a way which keeps dependence on him or her to a minimum. The facilitator has feelings too, and must be aware of them, so that they do not obtrude into the situation, except in some circumstances where it is appropriate to be open about them.

Part of the process review, as well as of the ongoing concern of the facilitator, is to acknowledge the part played by feelings in the dialogue and to recognise that this is an inherent part of management activity. (See Goleman on Working with emotional intelligence).

Facilitators have a difficult job to avoid imposing their own ideas and preferences on the group and thereby impeding the learning which comes by discovery. Where a group is self facilitating and all take a turn to be the facilitator, there may be a lack of expertise, but because all know their turn will come there can be some very real learning. It may help if they all know that action learning is not counselling or group therapy, which are professional activities in their own right, though some similar benefits may be gained in the course of the process.

Where a company imposes action learning as a method, the job of a facilitator may present a tremendous challenge, particularly if the members obviously don’t want to be there. This is why the pioneers of action learning insisted that membership of a set should be voluntary.

Ideally a facilitator is a role model, exemplifying in action the ground rules the members have agreed to. The authors offer a good summary of action learning as part of their discussion of the role of the facilitator:

"Action learning is a voluntary and professional activity freely entered into by individuals who seek to learn by a repeated cycle of reflection and action, with the support of a set. Set members are there to support each individual in moving forward with their issue and they are there to challenge each other with care. The set may provide a place where members can explore personal issues but..... should not be offered therapy for psychological problems."

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Being a presenter

The facilitator should, at the beginning of the life of a set, help the members to understand their role as presenters of issues, which each of them will be in turn. The story method is recommended, allowing authentic self-disclosure and reaching the listener by being direct and using "I" rather than the impersonal "one" or "we". It is different from the presenter impartially telling the history of an issue. This is more analytical and factual, and doesn’t reveal the person of the presenter, who remains detached.

Story telling is also more interesting and provocative of thought for all the members. Any presenters who do present a mass of detailed factual material with no personal life, should be carefully challenged as to its value. This will be easier if the facilitator has introduced the story idea at the beginning.

The Johari Window is used to illustrate reactions to a presenter. In the presentation there will be elements which are known to the self and to others, some which are known to the self but not to others, some which are unknown to self but known to others and some which are unknown to self and to others. The last of the four is probably not suitable for action learning set attention, but all the others can yield interesting perceptions.

Self-disclosure can be valuable, but the authors advise against an excess of it, which can become embarrassing and therefore counter productive. Here again the facilitator can be a role model by the style and limits of their own self disclosure. Emotion is probably more easily and suitably expressed in an action learning set, if its ground rules of empathy and trust have taken root, than in the normal context of business life. This can be one of the benefits of action learning as a place where emotions can be explored before they explode.

How to maximise the benefit of feedback is discussed. Of first importance is the necessity of listening to it and not immediately rebutting it. The best next step is to seek clarification: "So if I‘ve understood you, you think that it would be better if...." You are then under no obligation to accept or reject the feedback, and if you reject it, it might be better to check it out with others before comment.

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Being a set member

This has already been partly covered by discussion of the ground rules for a set. Active listening comes in for extended discussion. Listening is not so easy as it sounds. An amusing cartoon illustrates this. A has an idea and formulates it; then communicates it to B. B listens to only about half of it and then decodes the half he has really heard and on that basis interprets what is left of A’s message. In the end very little of A’s message is left.

Whatever immediate reactions listeners may feel stirring within them, they should try to hear what the presenter is really saying. Listening can be helped by noticing body language and should not be concentrated on what is to be disagreed with, though there should be some analysis and some categorisation of what is being said. At the same time we are invited to hear a whole person talking. Evaluative listening, filtered listening, distracted listening, listening with an excess of sympathy, interrupting, are all to be avoided. Restating or summarising when the presenter has finished can be helpful, especially if different listeners have heard it differently.

Empathy is desirable and is described by the authors as "an understanding of the world from the other’s point of view, her feelings, experiences and behaviour, and the communication of that understanding in full". It can be expressed by the use of a language form which says: "You feel....because...." or "You feel....when....because....". Both feeling and logic are recognised, but mere cliches should be avoided.

The use of open questions is illustrated, avoiding closed questions which yield only a Yes or a No. Questions should elicit information. So What? Who? When? How? Where? - all demand specific answers. So does "Why?", but that can seem a little threatening and needs careful phrasing.

Feedback can only be of use if the presenter can accept it, if they can understand it and if they can use it. It should be owned by the giver: "I believe...." not "You are...". It should start with the positive, be specific, not general, offered one piece at a time, focus on behaviour not the person, be concerned with something which is capable of being changed or addressed, be descriptive rather than evaluative.

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Being a facilitator

This has already been covered to a large extent, but has a chapter of its own to bring suggestions together. Initially the facilitator will tend to exercise a hierarchical mode, instructing the members in the meaning, method and attitudes required in a successful action learning set. The aim is to leave the hierarchical mode as soon as possible and to adopt a cooperative mode and ultimately the autonomous mode.

The facilitator needs to model all the qualities the set members require: empathy, feedback skills, sharing feeling in the best way, being good at questions which elicit the views of others, managing conflict, confronting in a non aggressive manner, which, however, makes its point. Opening sentences for confrontation are offered, such as "Can I just check if you realised...", "I recognise your view here Mark, but.....". The need to deal with some situations in the here and now, rather than leaving it to later, takes both courage and skill.

The facilitator remains the expert on process and so tends to guide the process review at the end of a meeting of the set. The aim is for the members to reveal their view of the value of what has been done, in terms of learning achieved, practically and emotionally, and making sure that all members are clear on the action they are going to take before the next meeting. There is also a specialist chapter on training available for those who want to become facilitators.

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Evaluating action learning

Part IV has two chapters, the first on the process review at the end of a set meeting, and the second an appraisal of action learning as a whole.

The process review will look at the following of the ground rules, at the actual learning, of how people felt. It will stand back and look at the session and apply reflection on action, gathering up the "reflection-in-action" that has been happening. There needs to be consideration of how the session flowed and held together. Important learning takes place in the process review, which can enter into our way of thinking and reflecting upon action in future. Little things with large consequences can emerge in the process review, which had not been noticed sufficiently during the work of the set that day. Or it may be something as simple as how a senior person came alive when she moved to the flip chart to clarify issues which had been obscure in her more formal "history lesson".

How the members forgot the ground rules can be discussed, preferably at their initiative, rather than that of the facilitator. Such questions could be covered as to why at a certain time they all talked at once, and whether it was helpful when a member took over the presenter’s talk with a long illustration of his own. "Could we have used questions rather than statements?" (in specific instances). "For whose benefit was such and such a question and discussion?" These are examples of the kind of review which can address specifics as well as the general mood and purpose of the session and its contribution to the overall action and learning of the set. The review is also sometimes the occasion for recognition of cooperation opportunities to help each other in the achieving of the action objectives. The presenters also get the chance to describe their feelings and learning. Again an example is given of a presenter who was so involved in detailed facts and figures that he could not see the bigger picture. Questioning, some of it unnecessarily harsh, eventually caused a broader picture to emerge, and possible solutions previously lost in the morass.

An example is given of an approach (not the only one) to the meeting review, where everyone expresses their experience:

  • What I have gained from being in the set today;
  • What I have learnt about the way the set works;
  • What I would like the set to consider that I am not sure about;
  • Something I want to share that I have difficulty with when I am presenting or when I am a set member supporting a presenter;
  • Something I want to share about the set, myself, the facilitator, other set member(s).

When a whole cycle of set meetings has been completed there should be a review of the whole cycle, with questions about the whole learning process, benefits received and future possibilities. Three specimen answers are illuminating:

  • "I now enable staff to work through problems rather than providing solutions."
  • "Trust grew in the group. This helped me and others open up and deal with things I felt vulnerable about."
  • "As a group we became more powerful - powerful in the sense that we are better equipped to provide solutions to problems rather than just moaning. It has also been useful for individuals to tackle problems after sharing them in the group."

The evaluation of action learning as a method and an approach is given a chapter which is a case study of the use of action learning in the British National Health Service (NHS). It is too detailed to summarise, but it is an example of a large organisation which derived a great deal of benefit from action learning, particularly in relation to cross boundary relationships.

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Conclusion

A short chapter on endings discusses how to end a set meeting, including some precise action points and how to end a cycle of set meetings. The latter is usually a goodbye occasion, yet doesn’t neglect to underscore what has happened to the participants during their time together. Some ways of having fun, which are yet instructive, are suggested, such as each member giving to all the other members a "present" of a "billet doux’ on which is written what they gained from the other. It might sound silly, but it is probably powerful, and evidence of the trust that has grown.

Action learning sets don’t have to be perfect, but their resurgence in the last few years suggests that their value is being recognised and we are likely to hear more of them. Action learning does not replace knowledge based courses, though even here, its philosophy is changing the shape of much of what goes on in the lecture room. There is also an increasing tendency to use action learning in parallel with expert knowledge. The spirit of the relationships in action learning is also reflected in many approaches to management in general. But a major value of action learning is that it involves personal relationships of a group of people, which can be a microcosm of a whole organisation.

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Learning with colleagues: An action guide for peer consultation

     Introduction
     The scope of peer consultation
     The level of intervention and the art of asking questions
     "Consultation" methods
     The role of the facilitator
     Preparation
     Exploration and choosing a method
     Contributing issues
     Asking questions
     Exchanging ideas, views, problem definitions, etc.
     Elaboration
     Evaluation
     Timing
     Creating conditions for mutual learning
     Giving feedback
     Keeping an eye on the mirror: Working with different "realities"
     Encouraging development
     Handling difficult moments
     Authorities on learning
     From consultation groups to learning networks

Bookcover

A copy of this book can be ordered online via the Ashridge e-bookshop

For those who need some down-to-earth, practical guidelines for implementing action learning but also want to gain a deeper understanding of its possibilities, Erik de Haan, a Senior Consultant with Ashridge Consulting, provides a very useful "action guide" which offers both practical and theoretical perspectives. Facilitators of action learning groups will find it a particularly valuable resource.

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Introduction

The author places his ideas in the context of the changes that have taken place in the role of work in our lives as a result of new technologies and broader social and organisational changes. We increasingly look to work to seek to provide opportunity for self-development and fulfilment, for reflection and doing things that really matter to us. We feel a greater need to talk to colleagues about our personal development and even to work with them towards it.

Action learning, more usually described in this book as "peer consultation", or just "learning with colleagues", goes much further towards meeting these changes than traditional forms of training because it involves:

  • Entering into a deeper relationship with colleagues in order to learn from them
  • Being vulnerable and openly discussing your strengths and weaknesses
  • Finding the limits of your expertise and exploring the territory beyond those limits together with your colleagues
  • Seeing the process as an integral part of your work.

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The scope of peer consultation

The author defines peer consultation as ‘organised, joint reflection by professionals’. Submitting their approach and assumptions to critical assessment allows participants to share insights and experiences, about their work issues. They can also experiment with new or unorthodox methods without customers or other parties being inconvenienced by the risks. Colleagues discuss problems in a methodical manner in a non-judgemental way, generating a wide range of views on possible courses of action in the situation under review.

Sessions are not therapy groups where people delve deeply into their own or other people’s personalities - although it may be useful to consider how the person contributing an issue deals with it personally and the extent to which aspects of his or her behaviour may be causing or prolonging it.

The scope of action learning or peer consultation covers three main areas:

  1. Issues where content and specialist knowledge are at the centre, to be applied in specific, difficult situations. These are often "what" questions e.g. "What would you - colleagues - do in such a situation?"


  2. Issues with a content-related component, but where the way in which the issue holder acts and handles the content is important. These are often "how" questions e.g. "can you - colleagues - help me decide how to do or approach this?"


  3. Issues where the personal approaches of the issue holder are at the centre. Because these are more personal questions, they can also be asked as "who" questions e.g. "Who really is this issue holder as a person?"

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The level of intervention and the art of asking questions

Because there is a personal component, it is important for participants to become aware of the impact of their actions and to consider alternatives open to them. Colleagues will help them to do this by clarifying the issues. The author provides useful guidelines for assessing the appropriate level of "intervening" and questioning the issue holder. The level of intervention will range from surface interventions where the issue is relatively content-related ("what" issues) to in-depth interventions where the issue is relatively personal ("who" issues). ("Intervention" here simply means members joining in and questioning or commenting).)

While "what" issues can be handed over to someone else to solve, "who" issues are problems in which you have to be involved in solving, because you are part of them. As questions approach the "who" end of the scale, the level of intervention deepens. Thus, at the "what" end of the scale, questions may consider content-related issues about knowledge and its application or about working methods and problem-solving. Towards the "who" end of the scale, questions are likely to increasingly concern forms of collaboration and working relations with others, interpersonal issues (the way in which interactions and relations with others are structured), and intrapersonal issues about motives, standards and values, conflicts, internal resistance, etc.

The person contributing an issue - the issue holder - can be viewed as a client by the rest of the group. Often the appropriate level of intervention will only become clear when they start to tackle the issue. The appropriate level is often clear from the behaviour of the issue holder. If the issue holder is very relaxed, the discussion may be taking place at too superficial a level. If, on the other hand, they are ill at ease or if they give evasive answers, the group may be working at too deep a level. Finding the right level of intervention is a matter of trial and error, influenced by the issue holder’s reaction.

The aim is that the issue holder, (called the "presenter" in McGill and Brockbank), should make progress with addressing his or her problem and develop the ability to take action on it. Fact and feelings may well both be explored.

In situations involving knowledge or transfer of experience, closed and specific questions can be appropriate. Where the personality - the way in which they work - are part of the problem, open questions are more appropriate. Open questions can focus on exploration, diagnosis, alternatives and consequences, and confrontation (the author provides examples). Certain types of question must be handled with care. ‘Examples are chain questions’ (asking different questions in the same breath) which are liable to confuse the respondent, and leading or rhetorical questions which put an answer into the respondent’s mouth (though the latter may perhaps be used to provoke someone and draw them out). Besides questioning, structuring or summarising what the learning colleague is saying, using their own words or paraphrasing, can be very effective as it gives everybody a chance to assess whether a topic has been exhausted, and shows that you are paying attention and listening to the issue holder.

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"Consultation" methods

During peer consultation it is important to ensure that the conversation progresses in a methodical manner and to allocate the available time effectively. This avoids too many digressions, keeps the participants involved, and fosters an open, safe environment.

De Haan offers a number of detailed methods by which the facilitator may guide the group. Some of them give the facilitator very much a managing role with less room for the participants to choose their own way forward. The methods range from those that focus primarily on the profession ("what" issues) to methods focusing primarily on the individual ("who" issues).

The approaches are systematised as 14 methods, each with a distinctive style and even mechanism of their own. (Erik de Haan offers a rather more "disciplined" approach then some action learning practitioners, but any action learning group has to find its own appropriate balance between structure and freewheeling. This would probably combine elements from all de Haan’s approaches according to need, letting them emerge from the situation. Any approach needs to give scope for each participant to share their issue, often in the form of a story; then for them to be questioned on it in a way which may bring out new perceptions; these will in turn lead to content and personal reflection, and ultimately to action. The group has to agree on some time constraints, but these should not be too rigorous. An action learning group is not just another meeting.)

Both books agree on the pre-conditions for peer consultation or action learning which are important to address and monitor. They are expressed by de Haan as follows:

  • Freedom - participants themselves largely determine the agenda and how deeply they discuss matters. The ‘client’ (the issue holder) decides what to do with the advice from his colleagues.
  • Openness - peer consultation should be an open invitation to reflect, prepare action, and learn.
  • Safety - participants should refrain from prescriptive, denigrating or judgemental comments. The action learning group should avoid developing hierarchical relationships within the group. The group should devote attention to preparation and after-care.
  • Trust - different confidentiality arrangements are possible. One possibility is for arrangements to be fully open - participants trust each other to share information outside the sessions and outside the group. If minimally confidential, participants may continue the consultation outside the sessions. If strictly confidential, matters discussed during the sessions are not discussed outside it.
  • Expectations - it is important to manage participants’ expectations concerning both the aims of consultation and practical matters about how sessions will be conducted.
  • Relevance of issues - issues should not be too complicated, nor too simple. They should be current, genuine (not hypothetical), and relevant to the working practice of the issue holder.

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The role of the facilitator

The facilitator plays a critical role in action learning. Any experienced member of an action learning group is eligible to act as a facilitator. The facilitator operates as a sort of "super team member" - he or she does the same things as other group members (asking questions, reframing, giving feedback, etc), but does them less often because of their additional responsibility for the course of the session. (Where a group is self managed they may take it in turns to facilitate, according to McGill and Brockbank). This part of the book, by dealing with the role of the facilitator has much to say about the whole process involved in action learning.

Facilitation entails taking in what goes on both within the group and within oneself - in order to make sense of the issue and the session, in order to intervene, and in order to find new relevant data to take in. In this continuous cycle of taking in, sensing and intervening it is important not to venture too far into interpretation, as this could disrupt the learning if it is inaccurate or biased.

Facilitation of action learning consists of facilitating giving, facilitating receiving, clarifying the various processes and methods of action learning, and helping others take over these tasks as much as possible. During a session, the facilitator’s role includes the following:

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Preparation

  • Go through your notes of the previous section to try to picture again what it was like and what was achieved.
  • Check with participants before the meeting to see what issues they want to raise.

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Exploration and choosing a method

  • Before the conversation starts, ask how the issue holder from the previous session has used the reflections and perspectives gained.
  • Clarify with the group what is to be discussed during the session, including the issues individuals want to explore and why they want to introduce it now.
  • Decide with the group how they would like to work.
  • From time to time, reflect on how things are going and, if necessary, agree a revision of the arrangements. Remember that exploration is a continuous process.

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Contributing issues

  • After the issue holder has described his or her issue, reiterate the problem to ensure it has been properly understood.
  • Write down the problem on a flip-chart sheet so everyone can see what it is about (although the issue holder may already have done this).
  • Pay attention to how the situation is presented to gain an idea of the issue holder’s perceptions and how they are dealing with the situation.

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Asking questions

  • Observe the issue holder to gauge the level of intervention. Decide whether to interrupt if it is inappropriate.
  • Observe the consultants (the other participants) to judge the quality of their questions (are they open/closed, etc ?).
  • Encourage a measured, thoughtful pace by summarising and making sure questions are asked one at a time.
  • Make sure each of the consultants is participating in the process and, if they are not, whether there are reasons which can be addressed.

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Exchanging ideas, views, problem definitions, etc.

  • Allow enough time for reflection.
  • If necessary, present your definition of the problem - but only if it is really different from the others.
  • Write the ideas, views and problem definitions on a flip-chart.
  • Allow the issue holder enough time to let everything sink in.

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Elaboration

  • Allow enough time for the consultants to react.
  • If appropriate, elaborate on a perspective that seems to appeal to the issue holder.
  • If no usable perspectives or recommendations are generated, ask the consultants to explore the factors in the situation or the personality of the issue holder that are inhibiting progress in tackling the problem.
  • If appropriate, keep a record of the questions asked and perspectives or recommendations given by each consultant. Are they clear, understandable? What values and assumptions does each consultant appear to hold? (This list can be used in the evaluation at the end.)

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Evaluation

  • Ask the issue holder and the consultants to evaluate the process - considering their experiences, the effects of group members’ contributions, etc.
  • Round off the issue at hand, looking ahead with the issue holder at action planning, and move on to another issue.
  • At the end, the facilitator evaluates his/her own role and contribution.

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Timing

  • Allow an hour to an hour and a half for each issue holder.
  • Intervene in the event of repetition or unnecessary detail.

(Use of the word "allow" suggests that the facilitator is very definitely in charge. Many action learning practitioners would prefer a less mandatory approach, where, for example, timing is agreed, rather than imposed, and where the facilitator exercises less control.)

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Creating conditions for mutual learning

The facilitator focuses on two aspects of learning. On the one hand, they are concerned with the holder of an issue and will attempt to see that their needs are satisfied and that they see a way forward. On the other hand, the facilitator is also concerned with the quality of the consultation process and that this is a mutual learning process. The person raising an issue makes progress with it if things go well; they can compare their own approach with those of colleagues. The other participants can learn from the way in which they acted as consultants, and from how the issue holder experienced their input; they can experiment with or expand their consulting skills and receive personal feedback.

It is important that the facilitator encourages the group to take the time to explore the holder’s issue thoroughly. What is actually at stake? Who is concerned? Is the problem a symptom of something else? What does the issue say about the issue holder as a person? What is the appropriate level of intervention? He should encourage the group to suspend judgement by allowing different levels of intervention to play a role, offering different perspectives, encouraging follow-up questions, and summarising regularly or asking others to do so. The facilitator should also strive for an open approach by asking open questions to understand the issue and the issue holder "from the inside".

Action learning often relates to issues that arise partly from the way in which people handle situations and their work. It is a way to explore the relationship between issue and issue holder and improve the issue holder’s awareness of that relationship. Often the art is to keep the conversation centred on the person raising an issue and so to investigate the relationship between issue and issue holder.

For mutual learning to occur, it is also useful to reverse roles from time to time and shift attention to the consultants. This is where the record of consultants’ interventions is useful; many facilitators keep a systematic account of what happens during the learning process. Did the consultants concentrate on the issue holder’s learning process or did they put forward their own views and opinions? Was their behaviour and attitude consistent with the ideas they suggested? Did they investigate parallels between what was taking place in the "here and now" and how the issue holder describes the situation with a client in the "there and then"? Did the issue holder give feedback on how they experienced the consultants?

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Giving feedback

Peers will frequently give each other personal feedback. The aim of the feedback is to help the recipient learn something about him or herself. It is information about your effect on someone else’s behaviour. To give feedback, you take the other person’s behaviour as your starting point and say something about its effects on yourself. The facilitator monitors whether the feedback is communicated effectively.

Like McGill and Brockbank, the author recommends using the "Johari Window" as a model for giving and receiving feedback. This helps us understand how we see ourselves compared to how others see us. It identifies the behaviour and feelings that others see in us and of which we are aware - our "free space". It also identifies behaviours and feelings that we may recognise and wish to keep hidden (our "private person") or behaviour that others see but of which we are unaware ("blindspots). Feedback should be geared towards increasing the "free space".

The author warns that feedback is only effective if a number of rules are observed. He provides a list of do’s and don’ts on giving feedback. For example:

  • Don’t offer vague hints. Be specific.
  • Don’t be judgmental. Be neutral.
  • Don’t relate only negatives. Relate positives as well.
  • Don’t bring up the past. Base it on behaviour in the here-and-now.

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Keeping an eye on the mirror: Working with different "realities"

Several different "realities" are always present at the same time in an action learning group. Something is happening in the "here-and-now" (the present ) that relates to something else that happens "there-and-then" (past or future):

  • "There-and-then" refers to the topic raised, as it has occurred and will occur, and to the relevant experiences, standards, values, expectations and wishes of all members.
  • "Here-and-now" refers to what is being discussed now about the topic and to the interaction between all participants during the session.

The facilitator must be aware of both these "worlds" in the conversation and bring them up for discussion, especially when he or she sees connections between them, because participants have to find their way in both worlds. Possible ways in which correspondences between here-and-now and then-and-there may manifest themselves include:

Through the eyes of the issue holder. The issue holder always reveals something of him/herself when raising the situation. Also, participants often forget that there are two sides to any issue raised - the situation or topic itself, and the point of view. Discussion of only one side will eventually prove unsatisfactory; the facilitator should ensure that both topic and point of view receive adequate attention.

The issue becomes the focus of recognition. When they recognise the issue, the consultants may identify with the issue holder and become involved in his or her situation. This "focus of recognition" needs to be explored so as to understand why the members became so engrossed in the situation.

Reflections on there-and-then. When a number of professionals are learning together, the meeting sometimes seems to be taking place in a "hall of mirrors". The course of the interaction between the participants is a reflection of what happened in reality, paralleled or mirrored by the presenter or the colleagues. So the situation in the group implicitly provides insight into the earlier situation. It is as if a film of the past is being replayed but with different actors in the various roles.

Lack of focus. The group is no longer devoting itself to the task in hand. Different, partly subconscious, wishes and desires are distracting the members from concentrating on being a work group. The facilitator has to avoid being dragged along by the prevailing behaviour and by careful reflection and questions encourage members to return to the task.

Reflections and connections between "here-and-now" and the "there-and-then" are essential for a successful peer consultation session as they give all participants, especially the issue holder, the opportunity to prepare themselves in the "here-and-now" for the future "then-and-there". The facilitator should point out the occurrence of connections.

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Encouraging development

A group of colleagues who want to help each other to become more professional by means of consultation should not only be "working well" but also "developing well" together. A variety of influences outside and inside the group, such as organisational politics or emerging dominant personalities, may inhibit the group’s concentration on work and development. The facilitator must be sensitive to the factors that both encourage and threaten work and development.

In order to encourage effective work, the facilitator must ensure that the issue holder introduces issues of personal relevance and that the consultants put the issue holder at the centre of the conversation. Routine and stress are the greatest enemies of such consultation work. The facilitator must find the right balance between the routine of automatic communication patterns and the stress from pressure of work and lack of time. The facilitator must also pay attention to any possible "political" component in the group that derives from work relationships between group members or from coalitions in the workplace. (This applies particularly where the action learning is taking place within one organisation.)

If a learning group is developing well, it evolves towards dealing with more sensitive and relevant issues, discussion shows higher-quality listening and better asking and reformulation of questions, more and better feedback leads to increased learning opportunities. There are visible effects on the group members’ own working practices, and there is a greater willingness to consider the development of the group itself. The facilitator can encourage the group in its development as a learning group by paying attention to the stages through which a consultation group typically progresses and the tensions that arise at each stage.

At the start, for example, it is often necessary to remove barriers arising from participants’ ambivalence about taking part. The "inclusion" stage ("Do I want to take part in this?") is often followed by a "control" stage in which the nature of the learning group itself is discussed ("What do we regard as appropriate or inappropriate issues?" "Do we all have to participate in the same way?") If these stages are overcome, the participants may move to an "affection" stage in which they start to appreciate the consultation’s value to their own working practice or personal development and begin to realise how important the other group members have become to their own learning process. However, a new risk is that differences will be suppressed, resulting in less provocative feedback.

Facilitators also need to be sensitive to individual dispositions to adopt certain roles within the group (such as responsibility, critical thinking, result orientation) which may affect group dynamics. Group members can share the facilitation process to an increasing degree. From time to time, the group as a whole may need an external coach to help it move through certain developmental stages.

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Handling difficult moments

Action learning can arouse ambivalent feelings - it has a valuable and "fun" side but can also generate feelings of uncertainty and tension. Difficult moments arise when it is hard to get sessions organised (people don’t show up or cancel), when it is hard to get sessions started properly (members talk about other matters, etc), when no one has any issues to raise, when the group lacks the patience to explore and the conversation won’t get off the ground, or when there is exaggerated behaviour on the part of the issue holder. The possible cause may be a response to tension or uncertainty, a protective measure against unpleasant or painful matters. A possible approach for the facilitator is to adopt an open and neutral manner, recount their own observations and ask the participants to explore in themselves what is happening at that moment. This means that the facilitator does not make the diagnosis - what he or she thinks is less important than what the participants think and feel.

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Authorities on learning

This is a theoretical section which contains an overview of a number of well-known and relevant learning models. Because the processes involved in learning are still so poorly understood, the chapters here are intended to invite the reader to think about the subject and give them a broader framework within which a wide range of learning activities can be placed. As the author says elsewhere, knowledge of theoretical concepts can help the learner to anchor and structure their learning.

He defines the learning dynamic by David Kolb’s four learning styles and movement between them: from concrete experience to reflective observation - divergence; from reflective observation to abstract conceptualisation - assimilation; from abstract conceptualisation to active experimentation - convergence; from active experimentation to concrete experience - accommodation. A good spread of these in the group will enhance the learning of all. The facilitator can also assist the learner toward a different learning style if appropriate.

Only by continuing to learn are we able to find answers to changing circumstances and new questions. That is why life-long learning is considered to be of increasing importance in most organisations. Kolb also proposed a longer-term, developmental model of learning which distinguished between three phases within each learning style - acquisition (from birth to adolescence), specialisation (adulthood) and integration (personal development and fulfilment). Here, learners strive for an ever greater balance between themselves and an increasingly complex environment, so becoming increasingly flexible and free in terms of their possible answers to questions posed by the environment. Kolb’s model and other similar models suggest increasing degrees of initiative and responsibility on the part of the learner and de Haan revisits the practical implications of these in the final chapters of the book.

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From consultation groups to learning networks

The advantages of learning within peer consultation include the peace and quiet to distance oneself from a sometimes hectic professional practice; the supportive nature of the consultation group and the open and safe learning climate; the sharing of frustrations about, and reflections on, problematic situations; the deep concentration that is possible; the focus that arises from taking time to think without judging or pressure to make decisions; and the reflective depth that can be achieved in the consultation group.

Despite its strengths, there are limits to what peer consultation can achieve because there may be insufficient attention to applying the learning in practice, lack of critical examination in the group, and inadequate attention to previously developed knowledge and relevant theory. If groups operate as action learning groups, application will not be neglected. There are some differences of emphasis between the two books we have summarised. Those who consider themselves action learning practitioners always stress that the aim is to DO something on the basis of what is learned and to discuss the doing at the next meeting.

De Haan discusses a number of "extensions" to peer consultation: short-cycle learning, project-based action learning, and self-managed learning and learning networks.

McGill and Brockbank imply that these need not be seen as something additional to action learning or peer consultation, but as ways of engaging in it. Action learning can use the full Kolb model, members describing their experiences and then reflecting together on them, leading to conceptual patterns and hypotheses to guide action. This action is reported on at the next meeting so that reflection on action can take place.

The same methods can be used in project groups, which can be extended action learning groups. They learn together as the project unfolds and feed this learning back into the work of the project, going through the Kolb learning cycle, and with individual members bringing the strength of their own preferred learning styles.

Project-based action learning requires a project with considerable relevance and urgency for group members. Responsibility for the project lies entirely with the group whose members share responsibility for both actions and learning. A sponsor is needed who, working in the background, takes care of connections and resources. A facilitator is always present and sessions emphasise reflection and action planning. Because there is pressure to complete the project on time, the project based action learning group will find a challenge not to be thrown off track and so lose the benefit of observing, listening, asking questions, deferring judgement and reflecting on learning. De Haan doubts the practicability of following the action learning approach too closely in the midst of turbulence and pressure. Some action learning supporters would say that this is just when action learning can deliver. But his point is well made. It is not easy, but worthwhile if achieved.

Self-managed learning and learning networks, "learning about learning" or "meta-learning" are also presented as desirable activities beyond the scope of action learning or peer consultation. (Many practitioners would see these of the essence of action learning at its most effective.) Self-managed learning is defined by de Haan as a way of learning and working in which participants themselves plan, organise and implement their own learning activities. He fears that fascination with meta-learning may detract from specific learning and practice. However many would see his description of participant responsibility as just what action learning at its most successful is about. If a group understands how it and its members learn and takes action on the basis of this knowledge then it could be said that you have an action learning or peer consultation group par excellence.

An example of self-managed learning in groups is the "learning network". Here, participants are colleagues from the same organisation or professionals from different organisations. Learning activities arise on the basis of work questions, participants link their activities with organisational objectives and with their long-term learning objectives, and learning activities take place as close as possible to the workplace. The intention is to learn from each other’s expertise and from each other’s management approach. Participants contract with their managers and staff. The network, in negotiation with management, controls and manages the group’s learning itself and may have its own budget. Participants chart the learning objectives themselves, programme learning activities and participate in them. (This idea is not far removed from some of the early action learning activity associated with Reg Revans.)

A number of helpful appendices round off de Haan's book, including observation forms, log books, the learning style inventory and the results of a survey on peer consultation. The final appendix provides a valuable case study of a peer consultation community: Action Learning at the BBC.

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