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8th July 2013

Sustainable Development: 10 Years of Action Learning

A Learning Set developed as part of an NHS programme has been running for an astonishing 10 years! The ‘Gateway to Leadership’ programme was designed to bring successful leaders from other sectors into the NHS.

“Having started our Action Learning Set (ALS) not fully understanding its concept or recognising its value, we are now 10-years on and I wouldn’t be without it. 10-years have seen significant changes and challenges in the NHS, which has mirrored us as individuals and our careers. The group has been invaluable in listening, providing challenge and support. This is one of those places when honest dialogue takes place and no stone is left unturned!”
Juliet Walters
Chief Operating Officer Morecambe Bay Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

For over half a century, the success of Action Learning has been reported in terms of developing leaders, building teams, effective problem solving and bringing about culture change in organisations (Leonard & Marquardt, 2010).

Action Learning, pioneered by Reg Revans (1907-2003), is a simple process that has proven to be effective for organisational development. Revans said “there is no learning without action and no action without learning.”

Evidence shows that when groups of about 6 people form a ‘set’ and explore solutions to problems and support one another’s learning, they produce better outcomes than if they thought about it alone. It works because a set meeting is a safe and comfortable place where members can openly and honestly talk about problems, express their thoughts and ask for help. It gives the opportunity for participants to broaden their horizons, reflect and learn from their own experiences and the experiences of others.

The 10-year Action Learning set proved to be immensely beneficial for members who have participated over the years.
As practitioners, we are always asked for evidence of sustainable development and now we can share some research findings with you about the efficacy of Action Learning.

“The ALS has been a very positive, challenging, place for me to discuss issues which I probably would not have raised at work. Whilst I may not always agree with the points raised by ALS colleagues, it inevitably helps my thinking around a problem and to approach it from another perspective. You often learn more by listening than giving feedback, which is interesting!”
Eustace De Sousa
Deputy Director, Public Health England

Positive outcomes have been achieved by 8 doctors who committed to a 3-year Action Learning set as part of the North Western Deanery Medical Leadership Programme. Participants felt encouraged, inspired and learnt a great deal from other members. The programme was considered so valuable and worthwhile that the set were determined to continue and self-facilitate – which makes it cost-effective and sustainable.

Researchers have provided evidence for long-term effectiveness of Action Learning across a range of sectors.

Blacker and Kennedy (2004) studied Chief Executive’s in the NHS engaged in an Action Learning programme which was designed to ‘renew and refresh’ leaders facing substantial work tensions. The set developed a resilient approach to pressures and conflicts as leaders; it proved to be a powerful and constructive learning experience and yielded high return on initial costs.

Butterfield (1999) said that participation in Action Learning in the financial sector demonstrated improvements in questioning skills. This was useful as thought-provoking questions were found to be most effective in promoting learning. Raudenbush and Marquardt’s (2008) research highlighted considerable development in 9 out of 10 leadership skills. Building teams and handling problems were also evidenced after 12 months of Action Learning among senior managers in a government organisation.

“The value of our Action Learning set has been immeasurable over the last ten years in helping to maintain resilience, focus and direction in constantly changing times. We share a high degree of trust in each other, which helps to provide genuine support and constructive suggestion. However, this does not mean the sessions are without challenge as we question each other openly and effectively keeping the essence of the action learning technique.
Amazingly, we have all taken our turn in really needing the group at times due to personal, professional and cultural challenges”

Sharon Oliver
Director of Education & Quality / Learning & Development

As evident from the views of Action Learning set members, we can see that it is a sustainable and cost-effective process that is valued by participants as a genuine and supportive approach to discuss problems and identify actions. Not only this, the skills obtained from Action Learning are used in coaching, meetings and many aspects of working and personal life.