Action Learning for Change

Action Learning for Change

All change by its very nature is really about ‘learning something new’. Change is generally viewed by the people in the workplace negatively in the first instance, however, in our private lives it is not so clear cut! Afterall we can have a happy or a sad change!

Nigel Leach

DMs. M.A. MSc. Fifl

Why make use of Action Learning now?

In many organisations/businesses a new change initiative starts before the current one has even been properly embedded. 

Of course, change is often very necessary and beneficial for organisations/businesses, but there can be real downsides too.  If not managed well it can seriously damage the productivity of teams and individuals.  In organisations this may lead to increased stress levels, greater absence, higher costs, deteriorating employee relations and engagement, and poor performance. 

Most of us know it’s important to lead/manage change effectively – but how?  It’s still something that can be poorly handled.  Organisations/businesses don’t always learn from experience and people have long memories about all the change programmes that didn’t work!   

Helping employees to cope with change takes both time and effort.  When working with organisations I’ve found that people generally respond very positively to opportunities to talk through issues with others and then consider how they can make change work for them.  Having time out to talk in a safe environment is something that’s often not readily available in many workplaces. This is where Action Learning really comes in to its own.  It provides the opportunity for individual learning and support that is more enduring than simply going on a training course. 

Most of all, Action Learning helps makes change personal. 

Strategic Thinking by Nigel Leach
Action Learning for Change by Nigel Leach

What is Action Learning?

Action learning is not new – it has been around since the 1940s. Its core principle is that people learn best when reflecting on and resolving their own problems with support from a group of colleagues and a skilled facilitator working in what is known as a ‘learning set’.

People agree to meet for a fixed period of time at regular intervals and agree clear outcomes about what they want from the sessions. In this respect it resembles other learning programmes.

Action Learning works because people who take part have more ownership and receive support from colleagues.  Participants can learn at their own pace from their own starting point and in a way that suits them best.  Although there may be shared learning among others in the learning set, what every participant actually gains from an Action Learning programme is likely to be different. Programmes tend to work best when attendance at these meetings is voluntary.

Paramount to the success of Action Learning is developing a safe and confidential environment for people to share and explore issues.  It’s really important for each set to have a skilled facilitator to guide participants through the process and manage the group so that everyone has the opportunity to participate and keep to the agenda.  I have found it is better to have someone facilitating who is not the line manager of people participating in the learning set.

The key features of successful Action Learning we have identified are:

  • a focus on bringing about change for the better
  • Individuals take ownership of their problem or issue and their resolution (or ways of resolving them?)
  • participants offer support to others in the learning set without telling them what to do
  • Individuals reflect and learn and so does the group as a whole.

It offers opportunities for individuals to:

  • develop greater self-awareness and confidence
  • change their behaviours
  • Improve their skills and knowledge.

In 2011 I was privileged to co-author a book with a friend & colleague, Lynne Butler who has also contributed to this article. The books title is Action Learning for Change

There are other books about action learning and many others about how to manage change. Our book combines the principles of action learning with the effective management of change.  We have set out a very practical approach with busy managers in mind.  Action Learning is not suitable for every type of development.  We provide guidance and examples in the book on where and when to use it to best effect.  For example, we have successfully used Action Learning to support taught leadership and management development programmes.