what EXACTLY IS action learning?

Action learning starts from a series of basic assumptions, such as:


Learning starts from not knowing: It’s only when people admit that they don’t know how to proceed that they become open to learning. Where there are no obvious “right” answers there can be no experts and so people must act in order to learn.


Learning involves the whole person: It involves both intellect and emotions.


People learn only when they want to do so: Voluntary, purposeful and active learning is much more engaging than teacher or trainer-driven approaches.


Much learning is “episodic”: It takes place in short bursts of intense activity, stimulated by a problem or question which demands resolution, and reduces or comes to an end when the immediate purpose of learning has been achieved.


We learn best (and most) when what and how we learn is seen as relevant: Real work-based problems and challenges provide us with the motivation to learn.


Learning is not just about assimilating knowledge, but also about trying-out new and unfamiliar ideas and actions: It involves asking useful questions in conditions of uncertainty, and so involves a degree of risk.


Our “mindsets” (or ways of seeing the world) formed by previous experience can be powerful blocks to learning: Therefore they need to be challenged, reviewed,

re-assessed and, where necessary, revised.


Revision of mindsets is most likely where people have support and challenge from those with similar issues: Most people are open to learning when receiving feedback from colleagues who are respected, valued and trusted.


Such re-assessment and revision is made easier in a safe and secure atmosphere: Containing people’s anxieties and creating space for them to work on new ways to tackle problems is key.


Learning involves both action and reflection: Working on organisational issues inevitably also leads to improving personal capacity and self-insight. Working on personal issues leads to the enhancement of organisational capacity. The internal world of thoughts and feelings and the organisational world of action and experience are therefore intertwined.


The person with the problem or challenge is the real expert on the problem or challenge: While others can ask searching questions and provide support, ultimately the person with the problem or challenge is the only one who can take effective action.


So the purpose of action learning is threefold:


  • to make useful progress on the treatment of a problem, issue, challenge or question in an organisation – To make things happen;
  • to help individuals to find out how to deal, in future, with other such problems or challenges – To help them to learn how to learn; and
  • to help develop the organisation’s capacity to use effectively the learning of individuals and groups – To help build a learning organisation.


The essential components of Action Learning are:


An individual with particular life and work experiences, preferences and styles who faces workplace challenges and who wants to be part of a peer group of people addressing similar challenges. Each person will bring their own context (or unique work setting), characteristics (their personal styles and attributes) and challenge (their workplace problem).


A specific “starting” or “presenting” problem, challenge, issue or question that the individual has agreed with their sponsor in the organisation at the outset and which the individual wants to work on in meetings and back at the workplace. The challenge chosen will be relevant to the individual, their organisation and also, hopefully, other members. The issue may evolve and change as the action learning process progresses.


An influential senior manager or professional who has some ownership of the issue and has agreed with the individual that there are benefits to them being involved in Action Learning. This sponsor will have discussed and agreed the issue with the individual; will give priority to the individual’s regular attendance at set meetings and will provide ongoing support and challenge at work, which might include, for example “opening doors” to other departments/ functions/professions/organisations. This sponsor role might also involve, for example, attendance at start-up, mid-point and end-point events in a programme, and will clearly involve some time-commitment on the sponsor’s part. The sponsor provides the set member with clarity, support, guidance, and advice. They are an early port of call for reporting-back on set member’s findings and in helping with evaluation.


The Action Learning set – the small and stable group of about seven or eight colleagues voluntarily formed together in a supportive but challenging partnership and meeting over a fixed or agreed timescale to help action to be taken on challenges to which there are no readily available answers. The set is committed to learning from the exploration of such challenges. It is a collective space for thinking and working where every member acts as a consultant, advisor and devil’s advocate to every other member.


Each set will have a facilitator – a person who sets the scene and acts as initiator, role model and catalyst for the set meetings and who is particularly active in the early days of the set.  Their primary responsibility is to support the process of learning, including demonstrating exemplary listening and questioning skills, ensuring that everyone is engaged and managing time within the set meetings.


Within the wider organisational system there is also a role for a champion of the Action Learning approach. Typically someone who has benefitted from previous set membership, such an individual or individuals acts as an advocate for the Action Learning process, operates as a broker, linking set members to key people and ensures ongoing momentum.


While there are many definitions of Action Learning, essentially it is both a general way of thinking about the centrality of learning in organisations and a very practical method for both individual and organisational development based upon small groups of colleagues meeting together over time to tackle real problems, issues, challenges or questions in order to get things done. Such colleagues reflect and learn from their experience and from each other as they attempt to change things.


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