Learning & Development

Dec 01, 2021 13 min read

Action Learning

There can be no learning without action, and no action without learning” -Reg Revans

Action learning is an experiential learning method in which participants learn by doing and then reflecting on what they have done. This has emerged as a key strategic and problem-solving tool to develop individual leadership skills, identify competitive advantages, reduce operating costs, and create high-performing teams.

Action Learning is a tried-and-true method for brainstorming organizational problems, finding group answers, and coming up with new ideas. This involves a cycle of doing (taking action) and reflecting upon the results.

The goal of learning more creative ways to solve a problem is achieved by reflecting on what is working now and what will work in future. It is based on the premise that learning requires action and action requires learning. Action learning is consistent with the principles of positive psychology and appreciative inquiry a sit encourages team members to build on strengths and learn from life's challenges.

In action learning, individual identifying what has not worked helps team members unlearn unproductive ways and thus invent/learn better ways of acting and moving forward. This way, team members are able to retain strategies which have worked in the past, while also finding new and improved ways to increase productivity.

Action learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, followed by reflecting on and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action.

Action learning employs the formula:

L = P + Q + R; i.e., Learning (L) = Programmed knowledge- P (i.e., knowledge in current use, in books, in one's mind, in an organization's memory, lectures, case studies, etc.) +  Questioning - Q (fresh insights into what is not yet known) plus Reflection- R (recalling, thinking about, pulling apart, making sense, trying to understand)

Why action learning?

Action learning has the potential to achieve three key sets of outcomes.

Skills relevant for organisational flexibility can be enhanced and broadened. Learning-set members develop facilitation, problem-solving and communication skills. They do so by working as a team on real tasks that require these skills.

 • Important organisational tasks and outcomes can be achieved. Tasks chosen are beneficial to the organisation. The projects are sufficiently complex that the team has to engage in collaborative problem solving to achieve an outcome.

 • The participants become more innovative and flexible that, in turn, leads to cultural change. There can be a shift in the organisational culture towards more team-based and collaborative ways of working.

How Action Learning is effective?

Action learning fulfils many of the principles of effective adult development. For example, in action learning programs:

  • There is better learning because skills are honed by executing real tasks within an actual organisation. This creates an engaging experience for learners involved in the process and adds real value to the company.
  • Teams are given genuine responsibilities. They undertake critical reflection while monitoring progress towards their goal. Therefore,  teams develop an understanding of the process as well as skills.
  • The teams can be self-managed therefore supports the building of team and leadership skills.
  • Application of key learnings helps the participants become better leaders and the organization becomes more successful in meeting related challenges.

Action Learning Components

Key components of Action Learning are as follows:

A Problem/Project

The problem should be significant, be within the responsibility of the team or individual to resolve and provide opportunities for learning.

An action learning group or team

The Action Learning team should be made up of 4-6 individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Insightful Questioning and Reflective  Inquiry Process

Problems are addressed through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem which is followed by reflecting on and identifying possible solutions and only then taking action.

Power to Take Action

The most valuable learnings occur when action is taken. The group must have the power to take the action themselves or be assured that their recommendations will be implemented.

A commitment to learning

Action learning places equal emphasis on accomplishing the task and on the learning/development of individuals, teams and organizations.

Action learning coach

One of the group members (referred to as an action learning coach) focuses solely on the group’s learning and not on the problem, that the group will more quickly become effective both in problem-solving abilities and in group interactions.

Role of Learning Coach in Action Learning Implementation

  • Learning coach only asks questions, and focuses on questions that are related to the learnings (a) of the group (e.g., What are our strengths as a group thus far? What could we do better? What is the quality of our questions); (b) of the individual (What have we learned about ourselves? What leadership skills have been demonstrated?); and (c) of the organization (What have we learned that we could apply to our organizations? What elements of the organization’s culture cause these obstacles?).
  • Through questions, the Learning Coach helps group members reflect on how they listen, how they may have reframed the problem, how they give each other feedback, how they are planning and working, and what assumptions may be shaping their beliefs and actions.
  • The coach also helps participants focus on what they are achieving, what they are finding difficult, what processes they are employing, and the implications of these processes. The action learning coach must have the wisdom and self-restraint to let the participants learn for themselves and from each other.
  • Learning Coach also helps in identifying Competencies required for solving problems.


The impact of learning that occurs within the action learning process can be attributed to the fact that it incorporates so many different theories of learning. Action learning stimulates learning at the individual, team and organizational levels and its principles, such as questioning/reflection, can be applied at an interpersonal, within-group, between-groups or organizational level. When people come together and co-create solutions, apart from gain in knowledge, outcomes are strategically positioned to address business challenges.

Action Learning is a mantra for developing future leaders



BMC Health Services Research (2018) Retrieved from https://bmchealthservres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12913-018-3693-6#citeas

Action Learning: A Recipe For Success by Marshall Goldsmith (November 03, 2008) Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2008/11/three-changes-is-two-too-many

Retrieved from “The Power of Learning in Action Learning”: Michael Marquardt, Deborah Waddill

Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Action_learning


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