Action Learning

By Kathy Miller on April 7th, 2013

Data is conclusive in indicating that the most effective learning occurs through experience or through “learning by doing.” Therefore, we have been incorporating experiential learning, such as simulations, activities and case studies, into our training for many years. However, the “learning by doing” that takes place through hypothetical simulations in a formal training session does not take care of another issue with which we have been confronted frequently.

Our clients have lamented for years that they would like to provide more training opportunities to their employees; however, they couldn’t afford to allow them to take time from their “real work” to attend training. In response to this very real dilemma, we developed “action learning” to take advantage of “learning by doing” as well as to address managers’ problems of trading off productivity for training. With Action Learning, the learning/training experience is structured around actual work that they must complete within the context of their jobs.

For example, a team of chemical operators was charged with organizing a team process for labeling the lines in their unit. Our team facilitators/trainers worked with them to organize the project, develop the communication and coordination skills they needed to carry out the tasks as a group, and to monitor and measure their progress and success throughout the project. The facilitators taught them the skills “just-in-time,” and in the context of the actual tasks that they had to accomplish. At regular intervals throughout the project, the team facilitators worked with them to assess what they were learning, what they needed to learn, and how they could apply the skills in other projects as well.

Action Learning is more than “learning through doing.” It involves learning while accomplishing real work tasks.

Action Learning provides not only the advantages of “hands-on-learning” found with simulations in training sessions, but also allows the participants to complete their work at the same time. Thus the learning/training enhances their productivity immediately. Managers do not have to worry about how they will cover the work while the employee attends training.

For the Action Learning to be effective, the process must contain dual objectives:

  • Completing the tasks at hand
  • Learning a specific set of skills and knowledge while carrying out the tasks

Just as with any kind of more traditional “experiential learning,” the participants must take the time to reflect on the lessons learned and the meaning of the actions that they took. Without this reflection, the skills and knowledge are less likely to generalize to other work tasks.

Action Learning is not the same as “on-the-job” training. Action Learning is structured, yet fluid and flexible. The structure comes from the trainer/facilitator’s planned learning objectives and methods for accomplishing these objectives. The fluidity and flexibility comes from the timing of carrying out the teaching. The facilitator/trainer looks for the “teachable moments” and deftly draws from his or her “tool kit” to create the learning at the most appropriate time in the most effective way.

In conclusion, “action learning” is a type of “experiential learning” in that the participants are learning while doing. On the other hand, not all “experiential learning” is “action learning.” Experiential learning frequently involves simulation and group process experience separate from the normal work and work place.