Action learning sets

It is well known that active reflection on work place issues is often neglected with the operational pressures of day to day work, yet is vital in a fast-changing environment with emerging challenges.

For many years now action learning has been used in the public services as a vehicle and safe space in which to reflect, experiment, learn to develop oneself in role and have impact at work; this approach has been strongly endorsed by the Department of Health as a key tool for developmental learning.

What is action learning?

It is defined as a "continuous process of learning and reflection, supported by colleagues, with an intention of getting things done" (McGill and Beaty, 2001, p.11).  In other words, individuals work on real work issues and openly reflect on their experiences with a view to taking subsequent action.  One of the fundamental aims of action learning is to help participants develop the skills and make time for active reflection in order to solve their own problems.

How does it work?

Action learning sets are small groups of people who are willing to offer as well as seek help from one another in a supportive and confidential learning environment.  For the participant in a learning set, action learning involves identifying a situation you want to change or improve – a situation that is significant enough to act as a vehicle for the individual’s learning (Cumming and Hall, 2001).

In HSMC, we ask participants to bring a problem, challenge, development issue or task from their current workload that:

  • Is current  and specific
  • Involves them
  • Requires them to take an action or decision (even if that is to think/approach something differently)

The process of sharing the issue with a group of fellow learners (the learning set) enables the individual to tap into the ideas and experiences of others and gain different and deeper insights.  This increased understanding then provides the impetus for action; applying what has been learnt at the same time as bringing about change. 

Subsequent reflection with the learning set on the impact of the changes enables set members to learn and benefit from each other, as well as looking for opportunities to transfer the learning to other aspects of their life and work (Cumming and Hall 2001). 

How often should action learning sets (ALS) meet? 

The set should meet regularly (every 6-8 weeks) to sustain momentum and commitment. Less often than this and a group can often repeat the cycle of trust formation and not get further. Often sets meet for a fixed period of time although our experience would suggest less than six meetings generally does not have a sustained developmental impact on individuals in role, and their workplaces. 

What are the benefits of using AL?

There are many benefits to using action learning as a developmental approach. Here we highlight three key benefits: 

Learning from others: because the focus of action learning is work-based issues, shared with others, one of the most important benefits is being able to learn from others’ experiences of dealing with similar issues. This enables you to gain insights through working with others and this also offers opportunities to broaden your awareness through hearing others’ views.

Extending your leadership repertoire: giving advice is something we have learned from childhood (being told by our parents), in schooling and in further education and training (by educators). As busy clinicians and managers with little time to deliver, we can be asked questions and given problems to be solved all day long, and we do so by giving advice. However, evidence shows that little sustained learning takes place when given advice, and often those in leadership roles end up ‘taking on the problem’. Action learning focuses on changing this way of interacting with others, by working on asking questions; open, probing, and challenging questions – all of which help to draw out what Revan’s refers to as “exploratory insight” (Revans, 1998:6)  which leads to taking action.

Having impact at work: One of the problems with many developmental approaches is that they do not focus sufficiently on impact at work. People are sent on training programmes and development is seen as individual not organisational.  Revans recognized this gap:

there can be no learning without action, and no action without learning” (Revan, 1998:83). 

One of the main benefits of action learning is that it facilitates people to both reflect on a work based issue and share that with others, and as a result, formulate actions and decisions that they then take back to their workplaces, which results in change.


Action learning as a resource to you and your organisation

Action learning sets are a core feature of all HSMC’s development programmes, which can also be linked with coaching for added impact.

More information

If you are interested in learning more about this approach and how this might help your organisation or service, please contact Deborah Davidson