Action Learning Explained
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Action Learning Explained

An executive education process fit for the 21st century


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Traditional business executive education (attending conferences or group training sessions, or just listening to a professor sharing words of wisdom in a classroom or online) is no longer powerful enough to develop leaders fit to meet the complex challenges faced by 21st century organizations.

Action Learning, which research has proved to be a powerful and effective form of executive education, is based on the idea that to increase their impact as transformational leaders, executives need to learn by living the theory in real working environments, rather than just receiving knowledge they then struggle to apply when they get back to the workplace.

Action Learning, which capitalizes on experience for knowledge acquisition, was conceived in the 1970s by the late Reg Revans to support organizational development and in a successful Inter-University initiative to raise the economic performance of Belgium. Revans saw that the key to improving performance lay not with 'experts' but with practitioners themselves. With this in mind he developed Action Learning as a process whereby the participants study their own actions and experience in conjunction with others in small groups.

As practised today, Action Learning is a process whereby participants work and learn simultaneously by tackling real issues with real consequences. Managers develop competence through action, practical examples and reflection, rather than only through acquiring formal knowledge. The learner faces a real situation which acts as a starting point for acquiring skills. Participants learn through experience and stay motivated due to the relevance of the learning process to their working practice.

During an effective Action Learning program, a team of learners will typically find itself having to examine and understand the issue (the ‘real’ problem), identify potential solutions and actions to be undertaken, and finally to reflect on and exchange ideas about the learning process.

French business school emlyon is at the forefront of the development of Action Learning. The school has run successful programs with companies such as Airbus, Orange and KPMG, which give participants on-the-ground opportunities to work side-by-side with corporate and non-profit partners (from entrepreneurial start-ups to multinational corporations) in order to apply classroom lessons to high-impact business challenges. Participants, by working to improve these organizations’ systems and services, hone their own individual skills and competencies; better enabling them to define problems and propose solutions that best meet organizational needs while respecting organizational constraints.

emlyon suggests these key factors needed to run a successful Action Learning program:

  1. A project defined by the group in response to a need or theme identified by the organization.
  2. A high-level sponsor, relevant subject experts and a coach to support the group’s development.
  3. A balance between individual learning value and strategic value for the organization.
  4. An experienced facilitator who is not too interventionist or hands-on; challenges represent important learning opportunities.
  5. A sufficiently complicated and complex project which allows each member of the group to develop.
  6. A development system centred on the project, completed by resources and coaching.
  7. A highly diverse group that takes responsibility for peer based learning.
  8. Roles and responsibilities are distributed in such a way that each participant is encouraged to develop.

“People never learn anything by being told, they have to find out for themselves.” Paulo Coelho, 'Veronika Decides to Die'


Click here to learn about the SWITCH Action Learning Program, run by emlyon business school and the Airbus Group Leadership University



emlyon business school offers more than just training. It’s become a school for transformation.

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