A guide to setting up and facilitating an action learning programme
Action learning is a powerful method of learning; a group of 6 or 7 people meeting on a regular basis to discuss work related issues support one another and take action. The process is non-directive, non-judgemental, supportive, and confidential. Set members present a current work issue they are experiencing and the other members of the group ask questions. The crucial point here is that the other set members are asking questions to further their understanding of the presenter’s issue and NOT give advice. The presenter identifies their own action and reports back on their progress at the next meeting. The process is powerful precisely because participants make their own decisions, take their own actions and are held accountable by their peers. And all managed within a highly supportive environment.
Action learning can be used on its own or as part of a larger development programme. It is a very effective learning tool when used as part of an organisation’s talent strategy, leader development and when instigating and managing change – BUT it needs to be set up and facilitated well.
Part 1 of this article provides learning and development professionals; training and OD managers and change specialists with the answers to the most frequently asked questions we receive on setting up an action learning programme.
Part 2 explores the role of the facilitator
Part 1 – Preparation for programme organisers
1. Can I run an action learning programme internally for my organisation or should participants meet in a set with people from other organisations?
You can certainly run a successful action learning programme within your organisation provided that
a) The organisation is large enough to bring people together from different departments, and ideally different geographical locations
b) You observe the rule about peer groups – see point 3 below
c) Confidentiality of the group discussions is maintained. There is an exception to this in the rare instance that someone discloses potential harm to themselves, others or the organisation.
The advantages of running an internal programme is the positive impact on cross-departmental working and collaborative projects and the supportive networks that individuals have as a result of being part of an action learning set, in addition to the individual outcomes they achieve .
Of course there are also some attractive benefits to be gained from running a programme with colleagues in other organisations including the learning from being exposed to different perspectives and the insight into different organisational cultures and some set members feel less constrained if they are with people they don’t know and can therefore express themselves more openly about their work issue. Organising a programme with external partners brings a variety of challenges mostly to do with communication and time required when organising a group of external participants but it will be well worth the effort you will need to put in to the pre-programme phase.
2. How many people can I put into a set?
Typically, action learning groups, or sets as they are often called, comprise or 6 or 7 peers. I have known groups work well with 5 members but any less and you start to lose something from the process. And 8 is the most I would want to manage in one group, I find 6 people to be the optimum number for a set.
3. What do you mean by peers?
In an organisational context peers must work at the same level or grade. Set members can be from the same professional group or the groups can be multi-disciplinary. For example a set of Band 7 nurses in the NHS or a set comprising of department heads in a local authority. It is essential that there are no line-management relationships within the set. If a manager and their direct report are in the same group the work will be compromised and could potentially create risks for either or both parties. This must be avoided at all costs.
4. Do sets need a facilitator?
A skilled facilitator can make a huge difference to the learning experience and outcomes gained from action learning. It is very difficult for groups to maintain the non-directive approach which is essential to the action learning process without a facilitator.
The facilitator also helps the group to establish and maintain their ground rules, keeps time and encourages the members to reflect on their learning and provides notes and support between meetings.
Personally I would not offer a programme without set facilitators.
5. How many times should the set meet and how often?
This depends on a whole range of factors but my preference, and the approach I have found to be most successful is for the set to meet for one day a month for 6 months.
6. Where should the set meet? What facilities are required?
A room with enough space and chairs for the numbers in the group including facilitator, and natural light is always preferable. A table can be useful but not essential. The group will need plenty of breaks during the day so some thought to refreshments and cloakroom facilities are essential.
|Checklist for programme organisers|
|* Select potential participants ensuring they are all peers and from different parts of the organisation or from different organisations.
* Send out an overview of the action learning process and ensure potential participants are aware of the need for confidentiality within the group and the need to bring a current work issue they are willing to share with the group.
* Identify a suitable facilitator
* Identify an appropriate room for the 6 meetings, book refreshments
Part 2 – Guidance for action learning facilitators
Facilitators are responsible for:
- Establishing the ground-rules
- Role-modelling the listening and questioning skills
- Managing the process and keeping the group to time
- Following up with notes after the meetings
- Managing the beginning and end of the programme
- Reporting back to the organisation
1. Establishing the ground rules
Getting the ground rules agreed at the beginning prevents a lot of problems further into the programme. Essentials are:
- Confidentiality – Set members need to feel safe in this process so confidentiality is a must. I ask set members to maintain confidentiality about the issues and their presenters but request that the main themes of our discussions are taken back to the sponsor organisation
- Commitment to attending the meetings – Whilst emergencies can and do happen which cause participants to drop out of a meeting at short notice it is important that group members are committed to this process, with small numbers the impact of having one or 2 drop out is detrimental to the experience of those who do attend
- Adherence to the process – The listening and questioning as role-modelled by the facilitator
- Commitment to own learning and actions – Reflecting on the learning achieved from the process needs capturing and a commitment to the action in action learning is required
- Non-judgemental and supportive – Set members will need to suspend judgement about other members and their issues and remain supportive throughout including in the way they challenge one another
2. Role-modelling the listening and questioning skills
Action learning requires well developed listening skills. Listening intently to 6 or more people presenting and discussing their issues, listening to the questions put and being able to summarise accurately takes high levels of concentration over an extended period of time.
Facilitators must be able to demonstrate useful questions which enable the presenter to gain a deeper understanding of their issue.
- Useful questions include What..? and How…?
- It can be useful to reflect the presenter’s own word back to them to check understanding
- If the presenter has presented several issues or appear uncertain about the issue it can be helpful to ask them to clarify what they want the group to focus on
- It can be helpful to challenge the presenter’s view of an issue but this needs careful handling
Facilitators must provide immediate feedback when a leading question has been asked, requesting the questioner to reframe the question. Typical leading questions include:
- Have you thought about doing xxxx?
- When I experienced xxxx what I did was xxx
- What do you think would happen if you did xxx?
Facilitators must stop the group from descending into advice giving, reminding the group that they are to ask questions which enable them to understand the presenter’s issue, the presenter of the issue decides their own actions.
3. Managing the process and keeping the group to time
Here is a structure which works well for an action learning set with 6 participants:
- Presenter 1 presents (informally) their issue to the group up to 5 minutes this is uninterrupted time
- Facilitator summarizes up to 2 minutes
- Questions from the group up to 15 minutes
- Facilitator summarises up to 2 minutes
- Presenter identifies actions up to 4 minutes
- Facilitator asks presenter for their individual learning (no further discussion from the group allowed) up to 2 minutes
So the process can be conducted in 30 minutes for each set member
This process is then repeated for each member of the group.
The group will need frequent breaks as concentrating for long periods is hard work.
The facilitator will need to provide some scene setting at the beginning of the day and provide an opportunity for the group to evaluate the session at the end of the day
4. Following up with notes after the meeting
Participants usually find it helpful if the facilitator sends out a list of actions agreed by each presenter. The facilitator will need to agree with the group the best method of communication and discuss any confidentiality issues. Set members should be actively discouraged from taking notes about each other’s issues but the facilitator can take brief notes of the issue, the discussion and most importantly maintain a record of the actions agreed. It can also be helpful to ask the participants to keep a log of their learning and moments of insight during this programme.
5. Managing the beginning and end of the programme
Facilitators need to give some thought to the structure of the first session. I have found it useful to provide a brief practice session on the questioning skills as even the most senior people can find this daunting especially if the organisational culture is directive.
A clear ending to the programme can be helpful to the set members, and I will often organise a lunch out on the last day or something to symbolise the end of the process. It allows for a sense of completeness. However many groups express the wish to continue beyond the life of the programme often saying they will facilitate it themselves. Few succeed in keeping to the action learning process as without a facilitator groups very quickly revert to advice giving. But having a supportive network of colleagues is very positive in itself.
6. Reporting back to the organisation
Providing the facilitator has agreed with the set members that the main themes are reported back to the sponsoring organisation then a short report can be submitted. This is particularly useful when a large programme is run involving numerous sets as patterns emerge and the organisation can then choose to focus its efforts and resources in areas where specific need has been highlighted from the programme.
Find our more about Action learning
There is a wealth of information about Action Learning available on the internet to aid your research including the helpful factsheet from CIPD http://www.cipd.co.uk/hr-resources/factsheets/action-learning.aspx (free registration required to see)