Action Learning Sets: A Blog by Professor Mike Cook

Reg Revans , often referred to as the father of action learning, said ‘action learning takes so long to describe because it is so simple’.

Action Learning

I have been using action-learning sets with a variety of postgraduate students to support their research skills. I have modified the action learning approach I was taught to support real world research issues encountered by busy practitioners.

Having been ‘trained’ in action learning at a national healthcare think tank ‘ the Kings Fund’ I have used action learning with several groups predominantly on leadership courses. I was never totally satisfied with the approach and some participants also indicated their frustration.

This led to trying other approaches over several years and, being a participant in other action learning sets, I recognised some of the frustrations from a user perspective.

Having been asked to lead clinical research action learning sets I decided that another way might be worth trying. This led me to incorporate my own research experience into the sessions at selective times and to encourage others in the set to share their experiences. This leads to a more rapid learning exchange. It could of course be argued that this is not action learning at all, but an adapted form of learning. Either way it certainly helps busy clinical practitioners engage with their projects effectively.

What is an action learning set (ALS)?
It is a group of between 4 and 7 people, who meet regularly to support one another in their learning in order to take purposeful action on work issues. A professional set facilitator, who enables the set members to ask searching questions and the problem holder to reflect on the actions to be taken, facilitates the meetings.

The power of the set comes from the type of questions used and the gift of time for reflection, which is granted to the problem holder. The set members also consider the process: was it effective, what questions worked well and what emotions had to be considered?

So, what does this process look like during an ALS session? Action learning proposes that we may well already have enough knowledge and what we need are new ways of applying what we know to new situations.

The emphasis is on reflecting, deciding to experiment with new action, taking action and, having moved on to a different place, starting the cycle again.
In effect, individual set members present a problem, have their thinking provoked by the questions of fellow set members, are given time to reflect, go away and take appropriate actions and then, at the next session tell the set what happened.
Problems are the focus of the set: unlike puzzles, problems have no one right solution – rather, they have many different solutions and the presenter of the problem has a choice as to the course of action to be taken.

Ground Rules
Learning happens at a number of different levels and it can be an uncomfortable process. It is therefore vital that the set is a place where members feel safe enough to express themselves and say, ‘I don’t know’. To make this a workable proposition, set members agree the ground rules.

The acronym RECIPE covers some of the main points:
Responsibility for oneself
Experience-led, i.e. the problems presented are real problems
Confidentiality – the only thing taken out of the set is the learning
I language is used
Process is addressed, as well as content. Attention is given to feelings, relationships and feedback
Equality of opportunity is ensured
Why does it work?
Because action learning initiates a dialogue, this gives each person space to focus on themselves and what they are grappling with at work.
The constant emphasis is on learning and how it is achieved, building on the asking of questions and listening, followed by reflection, free from time pressure. It does not rely on the giving of advice or the offer of ready-made solutions.
You will hear the question ‘what did I learn from that?’ again and again.

What is the rationale for action learning sets?
It is well documented that adults learn best when they decide what it is they want to learn and when the learning is closely linked to issues or problems of immediate concern to them.

They learn:
From their peers, from people for whom they have regard or when an appropriate degree of personal risk is present.

What skills are needed to be an effective set member?

1. Rapport and relationship skills: These are needed to enable members to be open and to trust each other.
2. Listening skills: Set members need to listen not only to what is said but also the meaning behind what is being said and to ambiguities. They also need to be comfortable with silence in order to fully allow time for reflection
3.Questioning skills: Open questions are usually most useful – i.e. they cannot be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The main types of questions are:

Pure inquiry – to help the client clarify the situation, the options, the way forward.
Challenging questions – to help the client achieve insight.
Catalytic questions – to trigger new ideas.
Cathartic questions – on those few occasions when it may help to release the emotions associated with the problem.

4. The ability to take information from models:
It benefits set members to use a common model to channel the questions so they have a cumulative impact. An example of a simple questioning model is as follows:

  • Goal – What do you want to achieve?
  • Reality – Where are you now?
  • Options – What could you do and what else could you do?
  • What next – What action will you take? By when will you report back?

These are adopted from the Executive Coaching methods that I also undertake

What is the role of the facilitator?
It is to introduce set members to action learning and to manage the process during the set, The facilitator enables everyone in the set to participate, ensures that the questions build up coherently to be of most use to the presenter of the problem and checks the usefulness of the process at each step, with the participants.

What skills does an effective facilitator need?

  • Self-management
  • Knowledge of and ability to work with group dynamics
  • High order listening skills
  • Familiarity with problem solving models
  • Ability to time interventions and keep them to a minimum
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Further Development

Since commencing ALS facilitation and seeing the powerful impact for groups and individuals I was curious to see if Executive Coaching techniques could be incorporated into a set. This led me to obtaining a coaching qualification and I now adopt a wider variety of approaches to enable the set to generate answers to difficult issues.

Being flexible as a facilitator is critical to an effective set.

I use a range of techniques to engage a set and this will depend on the situation being explored and the mood of the set. One of the most useful tools that I have used at times are a series of thought provoking and stimulating pictures. These can be used in a myriad of ways, but are always used to reveal to a group things that they already know about, but may not have applied to the problem under scrutiny before.

In Summary
Action Learning Sets have benefits when appropriately and sensitively applied to the needs of the set members.

Weinstein, K (2002) Action Learning: a practical guide, Gower, Aldershot

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