Action Learning

In my role as President of the NSW Division of the Australian Institute of Training & Development, I am involved in the wide array of learning that takes lace in the adult world, especially at work. I stumbled upon this short paper by Bob Dick and have reproduced it here as it makes quite clear what Action Learning / Research is about. It’s an area which is gaining favour these days especially after the visit by Michael Marquardt. 

Action Learning

Action learning and action research are closely related processes. This brief document sets out one way of using the terms, and also relates them to experiential learning and change. The terms have been defined in a variety of ways. For present purposes, I’ll use the following definitions.

Action learning

Action learning can be defined as a process in which a group of people come together more or less regularly to help each other to learn from their experience.

As Reg Revans used and described it, it was mostly used _across_ different organisations. That is, the participants typically came from different situations, where each of them was involved in different activities and faced individual problems. Most commonly the participants have been managers, though this is not essential.

The current practice more often now is to set up an action learning program within one organisation. It is not unusual for a team to consist of people with a common task or problem.

There may or may not be a facilitator for the learning groups which are formed. Revans mostly avoided them. Current practice, I think, is mostly to use them.

Action research

Action research is a process by which change and understanding can be pursued at the one time. It is usually described as cyclic, with action and critical reflection taking place in turn. The reflection is used to review the previous action and plan the next one.

It is commonly done by a group of people, though sometimes individuals use it to improve their practice. It has been used often in the field of education for this purpose. It is not unusual for there to be someone from outside the team who acts as a facilitator.

A comparison

I used to think that action research was the umbrella term, and action learning was an application of it. Some of my colleagues, I found, argue that action learning is the umbrella term. On reflection, I don’t think it’s worth debating.

As they were previously practised, I think a useful distinction could be made. In action learning, each participants drew different learning from different experience. In action research a team of people drew collective learning from a collective experience.

More recently, the advent of in-company action learning programs has begun to change this. The use of a team with a common project or problem leads to an action learning program which looks remarkably like action research.

There were also some differences, on average, in field of application. Action learning was more often used in organisational settings. Action research more common in community and educational settings. This distinction, too, is beginning to blur.

I now wonder if the distinction is worth preserving.

Experiential learning

Both action research and action learning may be compared to experiential learning.

As usually described, it is a process for drawing learning from experience. The experience can be something which is taking place, or more often is set up for the occasion by a trainer or facilitator. Clearly, both action research and action learning are about learning from experience. The experience is usually drawn from some task assumed by a person or team.

All are cyclic. All involve action and reflection on that action. All have learning as one of their goals. You might say that experiential learning is the basis for the learning component of both action learning and action research.

You could also say that both action learning and action research are intended to improve practice. Action research intends to introduce some change; action learning uses some intended change as a vehicle for learning through reflection.

In action research, the learners draw their learning from the same change activity. All are stakeholders in this activity. In action learning, as I said earlier, the learning and the activity used to be unique to each learner. With the increasing use of project teams in action learning programs, this is no longer true.

The experiential learning cycle

Consider the following simple learning cycle. It appears to capture the main features of experiential learning, action research, and action learning. At its simplest, it consists of two stages: action and reflection:

action –> reflection

in an ongoing series of cycles.

However, the reflection gains its point by leading to learning, which in turn leads to changed behaviour in the future:

action –> reflection –> action

We can therefore expand the reflection component. We want to take into account that it is partly a critical review of the last action. It is also, partly, planning for what will happen next.

action –> review –> planning –> action

We can now add “theory” or principles to this. In our review, we can only make sense of the world in ways which build on our prior understanding. In enhancing that understanding, we become better able to act on the world.

When we are acting, we often don’t have the time to be deliberate about what we are doing. The “theories” we draw on are intuitive theories. In review and planning our theories can be made explicit.

In other words, action is informed by intuitive theories. Critical review and planning are informed by conscious theories and assumptions. These theories are derived deliberately from recent experience, and used to plan the next experience.

You could say, then, that experiential learning functions by a dual alternation: between action and reflection; between unconscious and conscious theories. By engaging with both of these in a cyclic procedure, we integrate them.

To return to action research and action learning…

In each, action informs reflection and is informed by it. The reflection produces the learning (in action learning) or research (in action research). Think of both learning and research as understanding. In both, the action is changed as a result of the learning/research, and leads to more learning/research.


Copyright (c) Bob Dick 1995-2000.