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How to Facilitate Action Learning Meetings

Published date: 2020/03

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Reflection on past actions in the workplace can be a valuable learning tool, particularly when implementing major business transformation, but how often do leaders sit down with their teams to discuss their performance in practical terms? Today, executives can be so caught up dealing with the present and immediate future, they don’t have the time to look back; yet often, this is the key to dealing with complex challenges and supporting ongoing innovation. The principle of “action learning” encourages everyone to pause, reflect and share their thoughts, enabling them to plan their next steps with confidence.

Here, we look at what action learning entails and how it can be integrated into an organisation’s learning culture.

What is Action Learning?

Pioneered by academic and management consultant Professor Reg Revans in the 1940s, action learning is widely used in organisations around the world today. It is a tried-and-tested method of learning by doing, where individuals and small groups are encouraged to reflect on real situations in the workplace, identify successful elements and areas for improvement, and then plan accordingly for their next steps. 

The benefits of focusing on learning and action at the individual and team level are many. They include increased employee engagement, cross-functional awareness and training, team confidence and cohesion and a shared sense of purpose, all of which contribute to enhanced organisational performance and success in the long term. 

The Action Learning Cycle

Action learning occurs in four phases: 

1. REFLECT

Individuals and groups are encouraged to reflect on what has been happening in the workplace, what has gone well and what could be improved. Each individual uses self-questioning to explore their own feelings.

2. LEARN

Reflection leads to learning, where individuals and groups examine and evaluate their actions. They explore the origins and impact of problems they have experienced. They also discuss their personal contributions to workplace situations.

3. PLAN

Planning is a direct outcome of the learning phase. Individuals and groups establish what they should start, stop and continue doing. They also discuss who will carry out the next steps and how, as well as timings.

4. ACT

This final phase is where individuals and groups put into motion their reflections, learning and planning in the workplace. Later, they will pause again to reflect on their actions as the action learning cycle starts over again.

Running an Action Learning Meeting

Before setting up an initial meeting, leaders should consider presenting the concept of action learning to their team. People can be resistant to change, especially when it requires their active participation. By explaining what the initiative will entail and its benefits, people will likely buy into active learning more readily. Leaders could also invite individuals to prepare for meetings in advance, such as by noting their responses to the first three phases of the cycle.

Here’s how to run an action learning meeting:

IDENTIFY THE ACTION

Make it clear to all participants which action(s) they will be exploring in the meeting. This might be a combination of actions that have occurred over the preceding month or week, a project or a client interaction. 

REFLECT & SHARE

Using the Action Learning Cycle, leaders should invite individuals to reflect on their individual response to the actions being explored, focusing on what went well and what could be improved. Individuals should then widen their perspective to consider the team’s response before gathering in small groups to share their thoughts and record them on a grid. Once all the small groups have completed this step, assemble them to present their findings to the whole group.

Throughout the first and the subsequent phases of the cycle, leaders should encourage a spirit of appreciation and promote a judgement-free environment with the group. This can help to build and strengthen successful teams, as well as ensure the smooth integration of action learning into the organisation.

LEARN & SHARE

Following a similar format to ‘Reflect & Share’, leaders should encourage individuals to reflect on their learnings. They should evaluate why certain aspects have been successful or why there have been issues from an individual perspective, as well as focus on their personal contribution. Next, invite them to consider the team’s response to the action(s) before asking them to join their small groups to share and record their thoughts. The small group then report back to the whole group, as in the previous step.

PLAN & SHARE

In this final phase, ask individuals to reflect on what they should stop, start and continue doing, as well as who will do what, how they will do it and when. Leaders should then request individuals to share their recommendations with the whole group and collate all the action points in a clear working document. 

To strengthen the action learning approach within the organisation, leaders may decide to facilitate regular meetings, both to address new actions and challenges in the workplace and to follow up on the outcome of previous meetings.  


Summary 

Action learning can hold multiple benefits for individuals, teams and organisations. Although the primary focus of the approach is on individuals and the team, leaders play an important role in driving and supporting its implementation within the organisation. 
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