Case Study: Action Learning in HR Redesign

By Kathy Miller on April 7th, 2013

Wanted: A New Model for Teaching and Learning within Organizations

In this knowledge-intensive, post-industrial world, winning the competitive race on a global playing field requires swift, deep, and continuous learning. The old education and training paradigms which seemed to have served us well in the past are no longer adequate.

The traditional paradigm positions the teacher as the “expert” who conveys information, and teaches generic knowledge and skills to more or less passive learners. In general, the teaching takes place in environments removed from the learners’ workplace. Many times, the information which the teacher imparts is divorced from the context within which the learners will by applying it. Thus, learners must assume responsibility for figuring out how to apply what they learn to their own problems within their own environments.

With this traditional model, the learning occurs first, followed by the application of that learning. Of course, in many cases, the opportunity to apply the learning comes long after the teaching has occurred, if ever. The longer the lapse between the learning and its application, the more likely that the learner will lose the knowledge and skill.

In these “lean and mean” days, time is not only a strategic resource but is often in short supply. Thus, our new model of learning must focus on accelerating the learning curve for individuals and for the organization. A model that holds promise is “action learning.” This model connects the acquisition of knowledge and skill directly to its application. Learning becomes a process of discovery in which learners reflect upon events, identify patterns, generate theories, and test those theories through real actions in the workplace – continuously.

The following case illustrates how teaching and learning can be integrated seamlessly with real work.

Case: Incorporating Training and Development into a Human Resources Redesign Process

Most of our problems are “human/people” problems and our current systems and structure can’t address them adequately. This conclusion led the The Human Resources Department of a large, 10-year old, manufacturing facility to embark upon a redesign of their department. Their methods of doing business had changed very little over the past 10 years even though the size of the customer base had grown from 2000 to 7000+ over that decade. Even with a 150-person Human Resource Department, the facilities needs had grown faster than the HR organization, with its current systems, could meet them.

In addition, the Human Resources top-level managers were well aware that the entire competitive landscape for the automotive industry had been transformed over the past 10 years. In fact, when their own factory was first established, the facility produced only one model automobile. They were now producing 3 models, and the demand for their vehicles was growing. Thus, Human Resources was faced with the need to support a manufacturing organization with rapidly escalating demands. They wanted to make sure that they were positioned to meet this challenge.

The project was led by the top-level managers of Human Resources, including the vice president. This group served as the steering committee for the year-long project. The steering committee chartered a design team composed of representatives of each of the 10 sections of HR. With the steering committees’ help, the design team analyzed the competitive environment, gathered input from customers on their needs, and analyzed the current HR processes, services, and structure. The design team then worked with the steering committee to recommend a future direction and structure for Human Resources.

While the primary goal of the process was to develop a new vision, direction, and form for HR, almost as important was the secondary goal: increase the skills, knowledge, and capabilities of both the steering committee and design team members so that, at the end of the project, the HR department would have several people equipped to assist others in the plant in reengineering and redesign.

To attack this developmental goal, the project directors, Miller Consultants, put together a project plan that would allow for several types of learning to occur simultaneously with the design process. First, they analyzed the tasks included in the design process to identify the competencies that this undertaking would require. Then, they developed a curriculum of small training modules and topics to address the competencies. The chart below illustrates one small section of the curriculum.

Design Process Curriculum

This curriculum is designed to provide flexible, action-based learning opportunities for a variety of teams. Although the first segments are very basic and will probably be necessary for every team, the majority of the curriculum is designed to be delivered as needs and issues arise. This chart represents training and learning experiences only. Consulting and facilitating may also be needed at some points in the process.


Start Up


Business Knowledge


When the team is ready to relate their assignment to the big picture


1. Explain how business goals and needs relate to their mission.

2. Explain how competition affects their work and mission.


A.  Business goals and needs

B.  Discussion: how does the team fit in the picture?

C.  Discussion: what is likely to happen in the future that will affect the company and how do we fit in?

D.  Discussion: what are the external pressures that face the company? How do these pressures affect us?

E.  Competition and the big picture: discussion: where do we fit in?

F.  Identifying customers (internal and external)

G.  Discussion: how are we meeting customers’ needs?

They chose to build the competencies through a “just-in-time training” process. The learning and the application of the learning occurred almost simultaneously. For example, the project facilitator taught a very short module on how to run a good meeting at the first meeting of the design team. In completing the module, the design team set up the protocol for how they would like to run their own design meetings. Thus, no time elapsed between the training and the application of the knowledge and skill. Likewise, the group learned sound decision-making principles as they determined how they would like to reach their own group decisions. The training always included a set of job aids and summary materials that would serve to assist the team members as they applied the newly acquired skills in other settings. Thus, the emphasis was both on acquiring the knowledge and skill and simultaneously applying it. The project plan, developed by the facilitator for the entire design process, included the tasks to be completed as well as the planned “just-in-time” training.

In addition to employing the “just-in-time modules”, the facilitator put together a tool kit filled with job aids, tips, techniques, guidelines, and mini-lessons to be used whenever the need arose. For example, one day after giving a presentation on their project to the entire department, the design team was debating why their fellow Human Resources team members did not immediately jump on board and support their efforts. The facilitator pulled out of the tool kit a “mini-teach” on attitude change and how it occurs. The group was then able to use their new learning to plan a strategy for engaging the emotions and commitments of their HR team members in addition to merely keeping them informed of what they are doing.

At another point, the design team and the steering committee were attempting to decide how they would communicate with the many stakeholders in the process. The facilitator gave them a set of tools that walked them through the design of a communication strategy for multiple audiences.

Why Action Learning?

Recent research on formal vs. informal learning suggests that the best teacher is the learners’ own experiences. Most of us learn more through our work than from formal presentations and classes. While few would debate the value of formal learning in some circumstances, informal learning must reinforce it. The model which is described in this case mixes the best of both formal and informal learning. The planned “just-in-time” training is formal in that it comes from a structured curriculum and is presented by a facilitator/trainer. However, it is coupled with informal learning as the team members apply it and reflect on it in light of the real work in which they are engaged.


After only six months, participants reported a keen sense of accomplishment and growth. Several described how they had applied the tools from the “action learning” to other work tasks. Many mentioned that the process had increased their awareness and knowledge of the bigger picture in their industry, their company and their work. All said that they felt better equipped to address the Human Resources needs of their company as a result of the experience.

Of course, the “action learning” approach, while holding real promise, is not without drawbacks. First, the facilitator of the project must be comfortable with the ambiguity of this approach. Unlike the more structured classroom teaching, this “action learning” method requires the facilitator to insert the teaching “just-in-time.” The facilitator must be able to apply each tool to circumstances that are not always predictable in advance. He or she must recognize the “teachable moments” and apply the right information and tools expertly.

Secondly, the facilitator and learners have to resist the temptation of allowing the tasks at hand to get in the way of the learning. Often, work projects are scheduled tightly and the temptation to push out the reflection and learning in order to spend more time on those tasks is powerful.

In spite of these possible drawbacks, action learning holds great potential for the modern workplace in which time is a scarce resource and transfer of learning is a challenge for other teaching paradigms.