Westminster Business School’s innovative new Leadership MSc is grounded in the principles and practice of Action Learning. In this article Dr Ruth Sacks, course leader for this exciting new master’s programme and Westminster Business School’s Director of Business Development, explains what this means for participants and the organisations they work within.
What is Action Learning?
Action Learning is an approach to individual and organisation development where groups of four to six people – Action Learning Sets – meet regularly to tackle real problems (on the Leadership MSc, this is once on each module). The approach is underpinned by a belief in individual potential and works on the basis that we learn and develop from our actions, their impact and from what happens to and around us. Action learning involves taking the time to ask questions, understand and reflect, gain insights and consider the future, using explicit processes that support reflection and action planning.
So, for instance, each participant on the MSc focuses on a current workplace issue, challenge or situation. Members of the Learning Set will ask the participant questions to encourage them as they explore different ways of understanding what is going on, their role and what they might do to influence alternative courses of action. Everyone in the Set participates, both as a ‘challenger’ and as an owner of the ‘challenge’. No-one is told what to do, you can’t say “if I were you I’d…” or “Why don’t you..?” but expressions such as “have you tried..?”, “what would happen if..?”, “In what ways does this affect/impact on…?”, and “In my experience when this happens it often means .. so have you thought about …? Does this resonate with you?” are used instead. Such differences in technique ensure this approach is focused in such a way that the challenge owner works through the issues themselves, creating the best action plan for the current situation. After all, they know the situation best and have supportive and encouraging Action Learning Set members to guide them. As a result, each Set meeting results in members developing achievable targets to progress in real time, returning to the next session with updates and requests for support for the next stage.
The Learning Sets will support individual development plans. These plans are the formal outcome of the first module of the MSc, and something participants maintain and update throughout their studies.
The model of Action Learning below shows how it works: this diagram is based on Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle (see Kolb, D. (2014) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development 2nd Edition Pearson Education) and on Pedlar’s work on action learning and other problem solving cycles (see Pedler, M. (2008) Action Learning for Managers Gower).
Model of Action Learning
Diagram showing the processes of Action learning
Model sourced and adapted from http://www.cln.nhs.uk/aboutcln/action-learning.html
What Action Learning offers participants
- • gives participants the opportunity to learn from each other and engage in shared learning.
• supports innovation
• allows participants to highlight problems and areas where they have special interest, strength or weakness
• enables participants to unpick the kinds of management and leadership issues that are too complex to be easily resolved through lectures or seminars.
There are a number of principles underpinning Action Learning. These act to regulate the context within which learning takes place, the responsibilities of facilitators and participants, their actions and interactions. Participants increasingly value learning from experience even if it is not their own, acknowledge that they and their peers in the Action Learning Set have the capability and capacity to effect change and recognise ways to address complex leadership issues through a multi-disciplinary approach. Meanwhile, facilitators ensure that the resources in the room (i.e. the people, their knowledge, skills, experience and understanding) are fully utilised. Participants agree and adhere to a framework for progress and action, and are responsible for creating the opportunity so that they can each evaluate their progress within the Set and identify plans or actions which will impact on those issues or areas of concern in the future.
What Action Learning isn’t
So, Action Learning is not
- • a general group discussion
• counselling or coaching
• giving or receiving advice
• telling someone what to do
- • making evaluations or judgements.
It is a careful, yet productive process. Participants on our Leadership MSc will have the opportunity to unpick and address workplace challenges in a supportive and well-resourced – in terms of people, time, skills and knowledge – environment. As participants develop and deepen their skills and knowledge, the organisations they work in will benefit from what are, in effect, the outcomes of focused reflection and action planning – in other words relevant internal consultancy.
Dr Ruth Sacks