Action Learning and its effect on long term performance

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Action learning is a continuous process of learning and reflection for individuals and managers. It will help improve long-term performance and allow organizations to adapt better in unstable economic conditions.

Due to the economic recession, the rate of change in a business is so fast. Therefore, the previous means of undertaking action learning by taking time out to learn and then to reflect have become very difficult and almost out of date. Managers need to find innovative solutions to business problems and they cannot afford to stand still. Thus, action learning can make significance difference to this fundamental problem.

Action learning will make a significant contribution to any organization in the long-term by achieving a coaching culture. It can help promote organizational change in a positive manner by identifying issues earlier on and taking immediate action. In addition, by developing the individual it will help the organisation meet its organizational goals by achieving goal congruence.

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This essay aims to explore "Action Learning" with the support of relevant academic literature and research. The essay will outline the principles of action learning and the costs and benefits to the individual and the organisation. In addition, there will be an analysis of a case study associated with Action Learning which will allow the reader to interpret the significance of Action learning in a real organisation. Finally, there will be a reflective review of the group work.

Action learning has always existed but as the numbers of organizations become aware of the benefits of action learning, the more organizations embrace it. Action learning is flexible and easily adaptable and can be used to help meet organisational goals and develop individuals.

It is difficult to precisely define the term "action learning" as the term can vary in a different context. However, one way of describing it can be "Action learning happens with the support of a group or 'set' of colleagues, working on real issues. The set provides an opportunity for each individual to report their actions and to reflect on the progress they have made. A facilitator will be present to clarify and help individuals decide what actions they can take by asking challenging questions and creating a supportive climate." (McGill I, Broackbank A: 2004).

"Action learning is a continuous process of learning and reflection, supported by colleagues, with an intention of getting things done. Through action learning individuals learn with and from each other by working on real problems and reflecting on their own experiences." (McGill and Beaty: 1995)

Marsick and O'Neil (2007) have provided a very useful typology of Action Learning, which classify four "schools" of action learning. There are four schools of Action Learning; Tacit, Scientific, Experiential and Critical Reflection. Although, they do not exist in practice, it can be a useful method for identifying the philosophy behind action learning.

Source: Understanding Action Learning by (Judy O'Neil, Victoria J. Marsick: 2007)

The "Tacit School" focuses on action and results through the project. They assume that learning will take place as long as carefully selected participants work together (team work can be achieved). Information will be provided by experts within and externally to the company. Explicit attention is irrelevant here and hence the process of learning is primarily tacit and incidental (Judy O'Neil, Victoria J. Marsick: 2007).

Another school of action learning is the "Scientific School" led by Reg Revans who described his method for achieving managerial objectives through a formula. Learning occurs through asking questions, which leads Revans to a learning formula L = P + Q. Where L is learning, P is programmed knowledge and Q is questioning to create insight into what people see, hear or feel (Judy O'Neil, Victoria J. Marsick: 2007).

Another school of thought is the "Experiential School" which introduced Kolb's learning cycle as it is a theoretical learning base. Kolb emphasizes the cognitive approach and learning and reflecting will occur through experience (Judy O'Neil, Victoria J. Marsick: 2007).

Practitioners in the "Critical Reflection School" believed that action learning needed to go beyond simple reflection. When people reflect on their experience, their perception may be flawed because they are filtered though different factors such as beliefs, attitudes and feelings. People will think more strategically rather than expressing themselves (Judy O'Neil, Victoria J. Marsick: 2007).

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From an individual perspective they would want to undertake action learning because it will enable them to boost their self-confidence and improve their networking and communication with people. There will be flexibility for the individuals as they will be able to learn whilst working. People will be able to learn faster through action learning compared to the traditional methods of learning. In the long term, it will develop them and encourage them to be more independent. For example, in an action learning set, the set will discuss a real life scenario. They will reflect on their past experiences and discuss possible methods of handling the situation. By the end of the workshop, the individual will be more confident as they will be able to solve the problem. They will be aware of what procedures to take if they come across the situation in practice.

The individual gets the benefit of being coached, but not by one person but by a small trusted group of people that have different experience and expertise compared to you. Whilst undertaking the role of a coach trying to help the individual solve the problem, the mentor will receive live feedback. In every session there is a facilitator. The facilitator's role is ensuring the whole process works and is also there to provide the individuals with critical feedback on their contribution. The facilitator will observe the set in action rather than working in a reflective way. Every session ends in an evaluation; First of the client, then the group as a whole and then the facilitator. In action learning you are building a strong network of like-minded people when working in a non-competitive environment (Changing Post: 2011)

There will be experimentation before commitment. Individuals at the workshop may not yet have fully committed themselves to joining or starting a set. Therefore, they can obtain a close understanding of the process before fully committing themselves (McGill I, Broackbank A: 2007).

By improving the individual the organization can benefit from it too. Action learning method will be more cost effective for the organization in reaching a wide number of audiences. In particular, individuals and managers (McGill I, Broackbank A: 2007). From an organizational perspective, they would want to undertake action learning because it will enable them to achieve their business goals. Action learning is a results-driven learning process. Therefore, it is essential that there is leadership traits as the leaders drive the organization forward in achieving its goals. By finding solutions to their business problems can provide immediate, measure impact on organisational results and there will be long-term development of individuals.

Action learning is a continuous process that builds and supports the development of individual and team competence through the solution of actual complex business problem. Continuous learning in necessary in today's environment and organizations need to be up-to date with information and beware of threats to their business (Judy O'Neil, Victoria J. Marsick: 2007).

However, whilst undertaking action learning the facilitator would need to ensure that the design and content and objectives of action learning is clear, as they need to focus on real-life problems which are related to the business, otherwise initiatives may fail. They would need to identify areas that need improvement and take action on that. Need to also make sure that there is enthusiasm within the groups as it will motivate others and help boost others confidence.

Also, there would be the possibility of Group think. This form of behavior should be discouraged and ensure there is equality within the group. Facilitators are required to have leadership qualities initially to direct and ensure the group is optimizing their learning individually amidst the group. Need to encourage learning in the organization in a positive way as many organisations do not make learning a priority and the culture that evolves is not conducive to supporting continuous development.

This essay will look at Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG). KPMG is a leading business advisory firm with over 9,400 staff in the UK and 100,000 worldwide. It offers clients audit, tax and advisory services. The purpose of the research was to challenge the KPMG staff and increase awareness of learning and turn it into a positive experience to take back to the workplace.

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By analyzing KPMG situation it can be said that there is a combination of all four schools of thought. By undertaking action learning KPMG revealed that people felt more motivated when they were more involved in the project. This shows that tacit learning was present. They shared their own experiences and built positive relationship amongst each other. This shows that experiential learning was taking place as there was reflection on experience. Scientific learning took place as they were discussing questions and receiving feedback on this information. This shows Revans methods are still active in today's world and are very useful to the organization. Also, there were aspects of critical reflection because the group were discussing and reflecting on their experiences.

However, as identified previous the limitations of action learning, we can see them in KPMG. If the action learning is not appropriately designed it may become complex. KPMG identified this as an area of weakness because action learning became complex and difficult to manage. There were other factors identified in the critical reflection school, which said that feelings, beliefs attitudes can be filtered into the learning process. This was another area that was identified in KPMG's project. There was; time pressure, bonding between team members, time for face-to-face contact due to geographical spread, commitment as they are applying the learning to their daily roles and ensuring participants stretched their abilities further and worked on their development needs.

The project was a success to some extent because they had achieved their objectives because the process required them to:

self-manage their teams,

recognize that, in some cases, leaders just emerged,

allocate the tasks fairly amongst themselves,

take responsibility,

Stick to their schedule and hit the critical points. 

Managers learnt that they need to engage people more to ensure that project outputs are reached. This has also been true in the ongoing learning sets.

Overall, there is an increase in the number of organizations tuning to action learning because it is perceived as a way of transforming a company's culture by having personal and organisational change. This is achieved by given that there continuous learning. It can be viewed as an opportunity for a learning organization. As it is based on real business like examples it can help the firm in the long term. It will boost participant's confidence by getting them out of their comfort zones. It will offer them a memorable experience. In particular, it is an excellent method of improving performance in the long-term.

Team working skills are of great importance. Before attending university, I did not have many opportunities to work in a team or participate in group activities and therefore my ability to work in a group was below a satisfactory level and as a result I preferred to work independently. However, during university I participated in several group assignments which enabled me to work with students from diverse backgrounds and as a result I have enhanced my team working skills.

I enjoyed working with the A-team, as this is the first group where everyone co-operated with each other. There was always clear communication between everyone and if anyone was unsure we always got each other to clarify it.

My role in the group was coordinator, as I was communicating with other group members and delegating roles and responsibilities. I was also note taking during meetings and making sure our objectives are being met.

Difficult if our group was one group member, who had other commitments so he never turned up to the meetings and had no contribution from him at all. There were barriers in communication and he took a free ride. This shows that even in reality/practical in a work organisation this would happen where not all group members would contribute.

Strengths

Commitment

Collaboration

Cooperation

Weaknesses

One group member other we had no weaknesses

I had one group member and we had no contribution from him and there was poor attendance. Although, he did not wok I always informed him of what we were doing. I spoke to him on the phone and gave him an ultimatum that if he does not turn up the meeting or gives no contribution then he will have to suffer the consequences (his marks will get affected). I also gave him recommendations for what he should do. (Research on these areas for the presentation work on something we have not covered). We received his work but it was to an unsatisfactory level. This shows that in practice there will be factors that can affect the group work, either individuals other commitment, attitudes and feelings.

According to Tuckman's Stages of Group Development (1965), we were at the "Forming" stage. (Mullins 2007:310). As my group members were unknown to me, so this was a good opportunity for me to work with new people, as I could adopt and develop new learning styles. This is strength of a pragmatic learning as I like experimenting.