Action Learning

by Jim Bolt

Even though the methodology is actually more than 60 years old, in recent years, Action Learning has struck a deep chord for many executives, and for a good reason.

In the 2004 Executive Development Associates, Inc. survey of trends in executive and leadership development conducted with 100 chief learning officers, and heads of executive and leadership development departments, we learned that the top three learning methods they would use the most over the next few years (other than traditional academic faculty), would be 1) their own executives, 2) Action Learning, and 3) executive coaches. Late last year we checked again to see how things had changed and this is what they told us:

Leader-Led (using our own executives to teach)

  • 43% – Increased in importance
  • 52% – Stayed the same

Action Learning

  • 41% – Increased in importance
  • 55% – Stayed the same

Executive Coaching

  • 51% – Increased in importance
  • 38% – Stayed the same

“Action Learning.” is a process for working on important business problems or opportunities, in diverse teams, to both develop the participants and improve the business.

Line executives, human resource executives, and participants were disenchanted by passive learning methods, usually based in classrooms, which often had no clear connection to the pressing business issues facing them and their organization. By contrast, Action Learning seemed to close the gap between theory and practice. More specifically, Action Learning can provide participants the opportunity to immediately apply what they are learning to relevant business problems or opportunities rather than academic cases.

For most line executives the idea of having a group of their brightest people work on a real business issue that they really want addressed, and to do so in a way that provides a great development experience for the participants, well, that just makes sense.

What does a typical Action Learning program look like?

A typical program or process design might look like this:

Session OneSession Two
Project introduction & selectionAssimilate & synthesize work
Work planning toolsCreate, test, improve presentations
Team buildingWhat was learned?
Project specific/Just-in time educationFindings & recommendations
Innovation & entrepreneurshipImplementation plan
Set learning/development goalsPresentations to sponsors & faculty
Test project work planDebriefing & planning next steps

A design could include the following elements:

  • An Action Learning team for each project (problem or opportunity). Sometimes up to three Action Learning teams of 8 people each going through the program simultaneously as a “class”. Diverse groups from as many different business units, functions, nationalities, etc. as possible.
  • A senior executive as the “Sponsor” who selected and “owns” each problem or opportunity, and who would attend Session One to introduce the project. The sponsor also participates at the mid-point progress review and receives the team’s findings and recommendations in Session Two.
  • Educational components frequently include team building activities; leadership skills including 360 feedback to set leadership development goals; project management and work planning tools and techniques; creativity and innovation methods; and specific information needed based on the project.
  • Setting both team and individual development goals to work on that are tracked throughout.
  • A mid-point, face-to-face session where the teams and sponsors meet to review progress and make any necessary mid-course corrections.
  • A final face-to face session in which participants finalize their work and present their findings and recommendations to their sponsors and other key executives.
  • An “After Action Review” to summarize key learnings and how they can be applied.
  • A team coach/consultant who supports them on their process, on their project work and who works with each individual on their development goals.
  • A total elapsed time of 3-6 months with approximately 6-9 face-to-face or “classroom” days, and project work taking from 25 – 40 percent of the participant’s time.

Success Factors

  • To succeed at Action Learning, organizations must get several things right (see Exhibit 1 below). Senior executives who simply hand off responsibility to their Human Resource executives are likely to be disappointed by the results. But those who personally engage in the effort and understand effective sponsorship are likely to see the pay-off of action learning – and in the process may learn a few things themselves.
    Exhibit 1: Critical Success Factors for Action Learning

    • Active top management involvement
    • Challenging but doable project (don’t try to solve world hunger)
    • Trained, passionate sponsors with implementation authority
    • Balance of “action” & “learning”
    • Explicit learning goals & frequent debriefings
    • Skilled facilitation
    • Implementation planned up-front
    • Communicating progress & results
    • Realistic expectations


    Note: Portions of this column are adapted from “The Future of Executive Development,” Chapter 6, Using Action Learning for Executive Development by James F. Bolt and Yury Boshyk, Ph. D.