Action Learning Is Popular Once Again!

By Dr. Geri McArdle

An article entitled Questions, Answers, and Problem Solving in the Public Sector, T&D Magazine, March 2016 by Andrew Rahaman opens with this statement, “… action learning is the consummate learning – built on the idea that when workers are encouraged to ask open-ended questions, they will explore solutions to solve urgent and real problems rooted in the context of work.”

Rahaman’s article brings to mind my first encounter with action learning. In early 2001 I was assigned to design a leadership retreat for a group of scientists located at the National Institute of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland. Specifically, the group wanted to learn how to solve problems in “real time” and that’s how action learning came into play.

Action learning is defined as a learning and problem-solving strategy for organizations, whether they are commercial, government, or non-profit. Action learning teams, usually consisting of four to eight members, are organized by the administration. The primary focus of an action team is to increase employees’ learning capacity within an organization while responding to a real world challenge in a cross-departmental team.

An action learning team can be ad hoc, voluntary or appointed. Team members can have diverse backgrounds, skills and experiences. Teams are expected to first understand the objective of their assignment, and then commit their time, energy and expertise to the learning process and finding a solution to the challenge.

Team members participate as equals, empowered and encouraged to contribute no matter what their rank or role with the organization. Because the focus of action learning is to solve real problems, not to make recommendations, teams are trusted with the necessary resources by the organization’s administration to take on an issue. As an added result, teams can present the organization with new procedures that build the productive power of the organization.

The Startup Strategy

In my experience working on the NIH project, the administration formed the six-member team, provided the team resources, and a team objective statement which was to re-write a procedure on how designated departments should review new policy directives on a monthly basis.

The team began their initial startup process with a team orientation meeting. I facilitated the meeting as the team reviewed the team objectives again. Next, the team established procedures for group learning and process, for example, active listening, accessible communication and meeting times, assigned administrative tasks, and recognizing emerging leadership.

The following week, the team completed the team orientation process by beginning with a period of strategic questioning about the problem situation, setting action items and goals. Therefore the team continually met and regrouped to analyze their progress over a period of six weeks, twice a week for an hour. The team used three communication tools with success: insightful questioning, reflective listening and journaling.

Each meeting began with fresh questions, not with constructs from the past, and focus on asking the right questions.

During this questioning phase, the team aimed to build an internal dialogue and generate a cross-disciplinary approach to achieving a strategic resolution. The action learning process was successful because the administration


Action learning is recognized today as one of most effective tools employed by organizations worldwide to develop and build their leaders. A key component needed to successfully use the action learning process is a coach.

If your organization does not have the experience with reflective or group process, locate a coach to assist your organization. The ATD Southwest Florida Chapter has a number of members who are certified coaches. Contact the Chapter Membership Chair, and she will gladly assist with your request.

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About the Author

Geri McArdle has been a practitioner in the human resource field for 25 years. She has published nine books on human productivity and numerous juried research articles in professional journals... a founding member of our Chapter, an international trainer and consultant, she now spends her time in Fort Myers. 

You can read more by Dr. McArdle in our monthly chapter newsletters.

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