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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the previous methods of undertaking Action Learning, by taking time out to learn and then to reflect have become almost out of date. Therefore, managers cannot afford to stand still and need to find innovative ideas to resolve this issue. Thus, Action Learning can make significant difference to this fundamental problem.
In the long-term, Action Learning can play a substantial role for any organization because they can achieve a coaching culture. Furthermore, it can help promote organizational change in a positive manner, by identifying issues earlier on and then taking immediate action on it. In addition, by developing the individual, the organisation can achieve goal congruence.
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 stakeholders. In addition, there will be an analysis of a case study associated with Action Learning which will allow the reader to interpret the importance of Action Learning in a real organisation. Finally, there will be a reflective review of the group work.
Marsick and O'Neil (2007) assumed that Action Learning has always existed, but as more organizations become aware of the benefits of Action Learning, the more organizations embraced it. Action Learning is flexible and easily therefore 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 and Broackbank: 2007).
Another definition of Action Learning is, "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)
A "set" of colleagues that work together is known as an "Action Learning Set". In an Action Learning set, the individual will get 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 them. Whilst undertaking the role of a coach trying to help the individual solve the problem, the mentor will also 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 participant, then the group as a whole and then the facilitator. Action Learning will allow the individual to build a strong network of like-minded people when working in a non-competitive environment (Changing Post: 2011)
Marsick and O'Neil (2007) have provided a very useful typology which classifies Action Learning into Four "Schools" (See figure 1). These are; 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.
Figure 1: Shows the Schools of Action Learning
The "Tacit School" focuses on action and results through the project. They presume that learning will take place as long as carefully selected participants collaborate. Information will be provided by a professional, within and externally to the company. Learning will be more focused on tacit knowledge rather than explicit knowledge. (O'Neil and Marsick: 2007).
The "Scientific School" is led by Reg Revans. His method for achieving managerial objectives was through a formula: L = P + Q (See figure 2). Where L is Learning, P is Programmed Knowledge and Q is Questioning to create an insight into what people see, hear or feel (O'Neil and Marsick: 2007).
Figure 2: Action Learning formula by Reg Revans
Another school of Action Learning is the "Experiential School" which introduced Kolb's Learning Cycle. There are four main areas in Kolb's cycle; these are Concrete experience, Observation and Reflection, Abstract concepts and Active Testing (See figure 3). Kolb emphasizes more on the cognitive approach. He suggests that learning and reflecting will take place through previous experiences (O'Neil and Marsick: 2007).
Figure 3: Kolb's learning cycle
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 their experiences can be filtered though different factors such as beliefs, attitudes and feelings. People will think more strategically rather than expressing themselves (O'Neil and Marsick: 2007).
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 participants 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 were to come across the situation.
By improving the individual the organization can benefit from it too. Action Learning will be more cost effective for the organization in reaching a wide number of audiences, in particular, individuals and managers (McGill Broackbank: 2007). An organization would undertake Action Learning because it will enable them to achieve goal congruence. Action Learning is a results-driven learning process (O'Neil and Marsick: 2007).Therefore, it is essential that there high leadership skills in order to drive the organization forward in achieving its goals. By finding areas of weaknesses in the business and then to find solutions to their problems, the organization can immediately measure the impact on organisational results and thus can implement short term changes. If this is successfully employed, then the firm will gain several benefits from this bottom-up approach.
Nevertheless, there could be the possibility of "Group-Think" (Mullins: 2010). This form of behavior should be discouraged and ensure there is equality within the group. Facilitators 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 beneficial to supporting continuous development.
It may be necessary to organise multiple Action Learning events, in order to monitor the progress and to see whether Action Learning is successful or not. If it is not successful then further steps would need to be taken (12manage.com).
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 (12manage.com).They would need to identify areas that need improvement and take action on that. Facilitators need to make sure that there is enthusiasm within the groups as it will motivate others and help boost others confidence.
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 that cannot be easily resolved. This can help them to develop a new strategic direction for the problem, by generating new creative ideas to solve the problem or to maximize new opportunities. 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 (O'Neil and Marsick: 2007).
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 for individuals and the organization in the long-term.
Organisational Case Study
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.
By analyzing KPMG's situation it can be said that there is a combination of all four schools of Action Learning. By adopting Action Learning, KPMG discovered 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 the participants were reflecting from their previous experiences. 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, the limitations of Action Learning as identified above are present in KPMG. If Action Learning is not sufficiently designed, it can lead to complexity for the organization. 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 acknowledged in KPMG's project. There was; time pressure, bonding between team members and commitment issues. The participants were applying the learning to their daily roles and therefore, KPMG had to ensure stretched their abilities further and worked on their development needs.
The project was a success to some extent because KPMG had achieved their objectives because the project allowed them to self-manage their team's therefore individuals was more independent in resolving issues. In some cases, leaders just emerged which showed that the group took their own roles and responsibilities. The groups became task orientated and organized themselves efficiently by ensuring that the critical points were discussed. Â
This project allowed managers to learn that they needed to engage people more to ensure that project tasks were being met. This has also been true in the ongoing learning sets.
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. 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.
When I first started university, in my first year, I was assigned to a group and it did not go as I expected. I had to do majority of the group work and there was poor communication between group members. I preferred to do independent work than group work, because I felt that I could not depend on others. However, from my experience with working with the A-team, my expectations of group work has changed. 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. All group members participated in the presentation. There was good attendance from all group members at the meeting, and if anyone was absent co-operated and communicated with each other and told whether they would come in or not. Absent members were told by e-mail what work they needed to complete and they also completed it on time for the next meeting.
In Week 11, we did a practice rehearsal before the presentation. We confirmed beforehand that everyone who needed to get materials/aids got them (for example, paper, scissors and doughnuts). Our group presentation was exceptional. I was very satisfied with the outcome. However, one complication that occurred during the presentation was that one of our facilitator who was meant to be facilitating a group was replaced by another member. And this member had been absent for all our meetings. So due to this barrier of communication it took up some extra time. Therefore, next time we need to ensure that beforehand that everyone knows what their roles and responsibilities are, as we did not tell him this.
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.
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 individual other commitment, attitudes and feelings.