Feb. 18, 2004

Action Learning

A Powerful New Training Tool for Developing Individuals, Teams and Organizations

By Michael J. Marquardt

Action learning has suddenly emerged as a key training and problem-solving tool for companies as diverse as Nokia, United Technologies, Motorola, Marriott, General Motors, the US Department of Agriculture, Deutsche Bank and British Airways. These and hundreds of companies around the world now employ action learning for strategic planning, for developing managers, for identifying competitive advantages, for reducing operating costs, for creating high-performing teams and for becoming learning organizations.

What exactly is action learning? Simply described, action learning is a dynamic process that involves a small group of people solving real problems, while at the same time focusing on what they are learning and how their learning can benefit each group member, the group itself and the organization as a whole.

Perhaps action learning’s most valuable capacity is its amazing, multiplying impact to equip individuals, especially leaders, to more effectively respond to change. Learning is what makes action learning strategic rather than tactical. Fresh thinking and new learning are needed if we are to avoid responding to today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions while tomorrow’s challenges engulf us.

Components of an Action Learning Program
Developed by Professor Reg Revans in England in the middle of the 20th century, action learning was slow to be understood and applied until Jack Welch began using it at General Electric. Over the past 20 years, various approaches to action learning have appeared, but the model that has gained wide-spread acceptance is the Marquardt Model, which incorporates the successful elements of both European and American forms of action learning. This model contains six interactive and interdependent components that build upon and reinforce one another.

1. A problem (project, challenge, opportunity, issue or task)
Action learning centers around a problem, project, challenge, issue or task, the resolution of which is of high importance to an individual, team and/or organization. The problem should be significant, urgent and be the responsibility of the team to solve. It should also provide an opportunity for the group to generate learning opportunities, to build knowledge and to develop individual, team and organizational skills. Groups may focus on a single problem of the organization or multiple problems introduced by individual group members.

2. An action learning group or team
The core entity in action learning is the action learning group (also called a set or team). Ideally, the group is composed of four-to-eight individuals who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution. The group should have diversity of background and experience so as to acquire various perspectives and to encourage fresh viewpoints. Depending upon the action learning problem, groups may be volunteers or appointees, may be from various functions or departments, may include individuals from other organizations or professions, and may involve suppliers as well as customers.

3. A process that emphasizes insightful questioning and reflective listening
Action learning emphasizes questions and reflection above statements and opinions. By focusing on the right questions rather than the right answers, action learning focuses on what one does not know as well as on what one does know. Action learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action. The focus is on questions since great solutions are contained within the seeds of great questions. Questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness, generate innovative and systems thinking, and enhance learning results.

4. Taking action on the problem
Action learning requires that the group be able to take action on the problem it is working on. Members of the action learning group must have the power to take action themselves or be assured that their recommendations will be implemented (barring any significant change in the environment or the group’s obvious lack of essential information). If the group only makes recommendations, it loses its energy, creativity and commitment. There is no real meaningful or practical learning until action is taken and reflected upon; for one is never sure an idea or plan will be effective until it has been implemented. Action enhances learning because it provides a basis and anchor for the critical dimension of reflection. The action of action learning begins with taking steps to reframe the problem and determining the goal, and only then determining strategies and taking action.

5. A commitment to learning
Solving an organizational problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the company. The greater, longer-term, multiplier benefit, however, is the learning gained by each group member as well as the group as a whole and how those learnings are applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization. Thus, the learning that occurs in action learning has greater value strategically for the organization than the immediate tactical advantage of early problem correction. Accordingly, action learning places equal emphasis on the learning and development of individuals and the team as it does on the solving of problems; for the smarter the group becomes, the quicker and better will be the quality of its decision-making and action-taking.

6. An action learning coach
Coaching is necessary for the group to focus on the important (i.e., the learnings) as well as the urgent (resolving the problem). The action learning coach helps the team members reflect both on what they are learning and how they are solving problems. Through a series of questions, the coach enables group members to reflect on how they listen, how they may have reframed the problem, how they give each other feedback, how they are planning and working, and what assumptions may be shaping their beliefs and actions. The learning coach also helps the team focus on what they are achieving, what they are finding difficult, what processes they are employing and the implications of these processes. The coaching role may be rotated among members of the group or may be a person assigned to that role throughout the duration of the group’s existence.

Action learning power is at its peak when all six of these components are in operation. In addition to these six components, the Marquardt Model of action learning has two ground rules: (1) statements can only be made in response to questions, and (2) the action learning coach has the power to intervene whenever he/she sees an opportunity for learning. Action learning, when systematically implemented, can effectively and efficiently solve problems with innovative and sustaining strategies, develop teams that continuously improve their capability to perform and apply valuable knowledge at the individual, group and community levels.

Michael J. Marquardt, professor of human resource development and international affairs, GSEHD, has written two books on action learning — Action Learning in Action and Optimizing the Power of Action Learning.

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