Action Learning Sets: What have learned in action about Action Learning?
Having been familiar with action learning during my 20 years in UK higher education, the question raised has provided me with much more motivations as I was forced to undergo and examine the past the present and the future. Being a great supporter of the concept of soft systems and learning in action I designed a degree programme in 1988 with the help of a number of senior managers and using action learning focus group. In 30% of the course content the students were allowed to find out what they should learn based on what the industry challenges were and what the student may be interested to learn together. Assessment was based on what the students perceived they have learned. As the Head of a Department we faced many difficulties in getting Validation at that time. Eventually after our first cohort of students achieved a 100% employment by the middle of the final year, we could feel that we were on the right track (the course won the Coopers’ Partnership Trust Award, 1993).
Now that I read so many articles in action learning and all it has to offer, I feel pleased and think that what an important contribution Revans (1945, 1983, 1991 …) made to the life of many learners of all kinds. What level of motivation and commitment he must have had to forget the glory of the traditional and challenge those, even knowing he will have been under scrutiny of the ‘Traditional’? So for me the first part of the question forced me to think critically and imagine so many questions regarding how perhaps I can contribute to this concept (Paul, R. & Elder, L, 2004).
As we become more experienced and repeat the past actions we find it easier to see everything as a procedure, and thus repeating procedures make us perfect. This is at least what the ‘X theory’ and Fordism required. As we have developed our stance in the postindustrial era we have been forced to recognize that the person at the top of hierarchy can not think for all the others and that because of the speed of change, the organization must develop its adaptability to the external environment. So learning is a part of improving (Cowan, 1995). Some senior managers perceive this power intrusion as a threat (Garratt, 1997). I see action learning as ‘ learning to learn about questions in your mind, and sharing your inadequacy to solve them, by getting participation from others who have also not thought about them’. This will allow us to loose our defensiveness and arrogance and motivates others to do the same. Action learning will allow developing a sustainable learning capability within the organization and developing our leadership capability by practicing ‘Leading by Consultation and Dialogue ‘or’ Leading by Collaboration (Raelin, 2006).
What is central to the concept of action learning is the notion that how to create the motivation or triggers to imagine questions which we like to explore and share with other people questions (Weinstein, 1995)? Adult learning theories (Merriam, Caffarella, 1991) all use action learning, but it is important for us to understand how we apply these in our learning sets. All learning theories of Cognitivist, Behaviorist, Humanist, Social learning, and Constructivist can help us to learn how we can create environments which promote questioning minds. So action learning is a process and a mind set. The learning set must develop how to think, how to enquire, how to see opportunity or problem, how to gel, how to value openness, how to share learning, how to develop self others’ confidence and trust, and taking responsibility for the total process without creating ‘group think’ environment.
I think all the theories of the leadership have over the years been forced to modify their stand from thinking that problems are solved from the above. They have accepted the concepts of action learning but with other names, such as Continuous improvement process, total quality, competency based leadership, transformational leadership, and consultative based leadership.
The concept of action learning leadership needs further research and perhaps meta structure have to be formed. Organisational leadership requires more solid framework if we wish to develop it in to a leadership ability and mechanism. As we are majority of research has helped to see action learning as critical support for effective leadership and not leadership style. Perhaps we should marry the collaborative Leadership, Consultative Leadership, and Transformational Leadership with the action learning and consolidate what we mean as Action Learning Based Leadership.