Action learning in action
Wright, N. (2004) 'Using Action Learning to Support Individual & Organisational Reflection in an International Development & Relief Agency', Action Learning, Revans Institute for Action Learning & Research, Vol1, No1, April, pp81-89.
The dramatic rise in popularity of Action Learning (AL) over recent years has provided opportunity and impetus for various applications of this approach to be developed and tested in practice. This article describes one organisation’s experience of AL, demonstrating that it can be effective in terms of stimulating and supporting reflective practice at individual and organisational levels. The article also argues that AL is best conceived as an overarching approach than a specific methodology, capable of embracing a variety of models, each contributing to sustainable development of both individuals and organisations. Finally, the writer concludes that the success of AL in any specific context is influenced critically by a variety of individual and organisational cultural factors. Action recommendations are included at the end, taking these factors into account and providing foundational principles for others engaged in this approach.
AL in Action
DevAid is a Christian, international development and relief agency working in some 80 countries around the world. Our forages into action learning (AL) territory signal a strong desire to achieve positive engagement, impact and change, not simply the creation of abstract theory. In DevAid’s terms AL is, in its various forms, an important means to achieving transformation.
This kind of learning-through-action takes place corporately through on-going mutual processes of sharing, experimentation, reflection and evaluation. For instance, DevAid shares its knowledge with partners around the world, partners use that knowledge to inform their practice, partners share with DevAid what they learn on the basis of in-situ experience, DevAid revises and disseminates its own knowledge/practice accordingly, and the process goes on. Within DevAid itself, we’ve tried all kinds of approaches to AL. I’ll describe these below, dividing them into 7 distinct but nevertheless interlinked models. Some of these models originated in groups with an individual-learning orientation, others as part of a drive towards wider organisational learning and development. I’d like to say that these models represent, collectively, a planned, coordinated organisational strategy for AL, but that wouldn’t be strictly true.
In practice, our AL activities have evolved organically in different parts of the organisation and at different times. Any sense of coherence at this stage is definitely more emergent than planned. Nevertheless, moves are underfoot to achieve a greater degree of learning convergence. Increased co-strategising between teams responsible for (a) staff development on the one hand and (b) knowledge management on the other represents an important first step in this direction.
An AL spectrum
The AL models that we have developed and/or adopted in DevAid to date are:
Individual reflective practice
Applied learning seminars
Action learning sets
Professional development groups
Communities of practice
AL and Culture
You may imagine that the cross-cultural (e.g. national/professional) aspects of DevAid’s work and its organisational context should provide just the right kind of diversity of experience and perspective to enable thinking outside of the proverbial box, creative problem-solving and the buzzing spirit of innovation that AL typically seeks to generate. Why, then, the need for all these AL mechanisms in an organisation of this type?
I will offer my own reflections as DevAid’s Learning & Development Manager, responsible for staff development strategy and support against a wider organisation development backdrop. I will do this by commenting on what I consider to be key, influencing factors that impact on AL’s effectiveness in DevAid in the belief that parallel factors may well apply in other types of organisations too. Quotations will be included from fellow AL practitioners within DevAid.
Pausing for thought
Our use of AL in DevAid is intended primarily to stimulate and support the development of reflective practice at individual, team and organisational levels. We have adopted this particular type of mechanism because DevAid staff report that it is, in practice, very difficult to step back mentally and emotionally from the day-to-day pressures of work in order to reflect and draw learning conclusions for the future.
“I believe wholeheartedly that learning is an essential part of effective practice. In spite of this, I somehow find so little time to do it!” (Project Leader)
I guess this is a classic example of the proverbial ‘spirit is willing, flesh is weak’ dichotomy. I’ll explain various factors that compound this problem in DevAid, starting with the observation that our work is driven by two underlying core imperatives:
Mission: To serve Jesus Christ by changing the world for the better
Values: To serve Jesus Christ to the best of our abilities
These drivers, both of which are open-ended, engender a remarkable sense of internal dynamism in the organisation, fuelled by staff who work for DevAid because of the alignment between its corporate, and their personal, mission and values. The result? Tremendous commitment and productivity on the one hand but continual risk of disillusionment and burnout on the other.
“I’m really committed to DevAid’s mission but sometimes feel frustrated that my immediate workload prevents me from doing those things that I think would bring longer-term benefit.” (Team Administrator)
The solution to this dilemma is rooted in our theological beliefs as an organisation and expressed, in part, through a commitment to AL. By creating and implementing formal AL groups as part of our busyness-as-usual, we legitimise institutionally the space to reflect and learn that would otherwise be driven out by more ‘urgent’ activities.
“The fact that DevAid not only sanctions but actively encourages us to get involved in these AL activities means that I’ve been given impetus and permission to step back from my work that I might not have given to myself.”
(Partner Liaison Officer)
Personal & professional values
AL has worked most effectively in DevAid when there has been consistency between the personal and professional values of those involved and those assumed by AL itself. Insofar as AL relies on inter-activity, AL is effective when practitioners are prepared to participate actively, not only to enhance their own learning but also that of others.
“Six months on, the AL set felt split between those who were prepared to commit to the group only if they got something out of it and those who believed that the principle commitment should be to supporting the learning of others.” (Personnel Officer)
Where there is a genuine commitment to shared learning, an AL group can become a vibrant forum for individual and organisational development. Participants act as peer-consultants for one-another, providing human contact as well as support of a more technical nature.
“As a new leader, I expected that my practice would improve by bringing case study material to the group. What I hadn’t expected was how much I would grow in confidence as a result of open sharing with others who had experienced very similar difficulties in the past.” (Team Leader)
DevAid has reaped additional rewards as a result of its investment in AL too. The interactive aspects of AL create a platform for relationship-building between staff in different parts of the organisation and between different organisations. These relationships, in turn, provide an excellent basis for on-going sharing, learning and collaborative working in the future.
Inventing the wheel
DevAid, like many voluntary sector organisations, is able to operate with a relatively high degree of independence and, therefore, has opportunity to develop and pioneer a significant number of fresh, cutting-edge initiatives.
“I’ve noticed that we never seem content with the status quo. There’s always somebody asking whether there might be another way to do this.” (Fundraising Officer)
DevAid does tend to attract individuals characterised by an innovative spirit. One might expect that this would provide an ideal organisational environment for AL since, with its pooling of experience in the context of practice, AL provides a great mechanism for shared learning and development of new ideas and approaches.
Our experience suggests, however, that certain innovators of a strongly pragmatic and/or activist disposition may be reluctant to lose the thrill and adrenalin high of inventing the proverbial wheel by learning from others first, even if a little re-invention becomes necessary along the way.
“I know that, in theory, I ought to chat with colleagues and read through review documents from previous similar projects before I start. Nevertheless, I still find myself instinctively avoiding the reviews until I’ve tried out my own ideas first.” (Project Leader)
DevAid’s way of avoiding the potential difficulties and resource waste that this could create has been to encourage pragmatists/activists to start with their own ideas first and then to pause and review learning documents before moving on to final implementation stages. So far, this is working.
Slipping and sliding
The corresponding problem we have encountered to the ‘wheel inventers’ (above) is that certain AL models attract participants of a strong reflector and/or theorist-orientation and, thereby, drift away from AL (in its pure sense) towards a simple distillation of ideas.
“We started out tackling case material with a problem-solving approach and the whole thing felt very active. By the end of our first year together, however, we realised that so many issues had been raised on route that the orientation of our meetings had shifted markedly into ‘theorising’ mode.” (Development Specialist)
The means we are introducing currently to tackle potential drift are as follows:
Provide each AL group with an initial induction, comparing and contrasting its purpose and methodology with
other AL models.
Include, where possible, an ‘external’ facilitator/moderator whose principle role is to keep the group on track.
Conduct a formal review and evaluation with the group 3 months and then 1 year after its first meeting.
Dissolve each AL group after 2 years unless there is very good reason for continuing with its existing
composition and/or model.
DevAid relies on good relationships with partners for its own learning as well as to support the reciprocal development of its partners. Considerable effort is committed, therefore, to maintaining relationships spiritually, relationally and technically. AL, similarly, relies on a considerable degree of openness and trust between participants, whether within an organisation or even between organisations, to be effective.
One dimension in DevAid’s work creates its own problems in this respect - the dynamics inherent to a grant-funding relationship.
“We provide partners with grants to help build their internal capacity and capabilities. The degree to which a partner is dependent on grant funding can, however, place considerable pressure on the partner to be ‘economical with the truth’ when reviewing progress together. This is especially so when things are failing – ironically, the point at which such experiences could provide the greatest opportunity for mutual learning.” (Partner Liaison Officer)
DevAid has, therefore, experimented with a number of models to help resolve this systemic paradox. These have included the channelling of funds through 3rd party agencies or provision of capacity-building support through independent parties. We are now engaged in re-evaluation at a corporate/global level in order to determine various options for the best way forward in the future.
AL groups, fulfilling a de facto action-research function, have helped both identify key difficulties and inform potential solutions.
Conventional learning methods have tended to enhance learning of the individual but often contributed little to wider organisational learning & development – unless, by some means, the learning of the individual has been grounded in the consciousness of the wider organisation. AL, in contrast, provides a practical mechanism for achieving radical and sustainable change at both individual and organisational levels.
Our experience at DevAid has revealed a number of valuable insights for the successful use of AL as a transformational tool. We have learned that, in addition to direct learning benefits, AL can shed important light on organisational-cultural factors and dynamics that could support or inhibit development as a whole. We have learned, too, that allowing a variety of AL models to emerge and develop naturally has enabled achievement of a broad range of benefits that might not have been possible through a more tightly-controlled, prescriptive approach.
Consistent with the spirit of AL, we offer the following learning from our practice for others who may be considering exploring this path:
Select an AL model that best suits your learning aims.
Think beyond individual learning to consider wider (e.g. team/organisational) learning aims.
Consider personal, professional and/or organisational factors that could support or limit AL’s success.
Allow AL models to emerge naturally alongside those that are planned, capitalising on the creative insight,
energy and various motivations of groups to achieve learning goals.
Provide consultancy/training support for those running and/or engaged in AL groups.
Review and evaluate AL process/progress at regular intervals.
 DevAid is a pseudonym for a real organisation.
 This is consistent with the notion of praxis, a term popularised in the 1970s (see Freire, P (1972): Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and, for those who are interested, the word translated ‘Acts’ in the Christian New Testament.
 The enhancement of good practice through application of conscious, explicit learning from theory and experience.
 Jesus Christ insisted that his disciples reflect on their experiences with/of him in order to recognise and act upon their spiritual significance and practice implications. See New Testament: Mark 6:30-52; 8:1-21.