ABC of Action Learning

Jim Grieves (University of Teesside)

The Learning Organization

ISSN: 0969-6474

Article publication date: 1 March 2000




Grieves, J. (2000), "ABC of Action Learning", The Learning Organization, Vol. 7 No. 1, pp. 42-47.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

What do the topics of talk, authenticity, action learning and the learning organisation have in common? The answer is that they are all part of the same series – “the Mike Pedler Library” – published by Lemos and Crane. The purpose of the series is to “develop people and organisations” within the stated boundaries of the Learning Organisation. Three of the books in this series are Dialogue at Work by Nancy Dixon, the ABC of Action Learning by Reg Revans and A Concise Guide to the Learning Organisation by Mike Peddler and Kath Aspinwall.

Dialogue at Work

Nancy Dixon provides a fascinating topic to be pursued in relation to learning. Although dialogue and talk have been analysed scientifically by philosophers of language, sociologists, and socio‐linguistics, there has been little research within the tradition of organisational development. I have always found this surprising given that talk, rather than behaviour, is a more critical resource for organisational analysis.

Although the book is not as analytically rigorous as texts belonging to those traditions Nancy Dixon begins with the reasonable assumption that:

people long for a more authentic kind of interaction with their co‐workers but that day on not sure that it is possible, or even if their longing is legitimate. Work is not generally thought of as a place where you are supposed to get your own needs met. Thus, people come to accept what they believed to be inevitable, for they must leave a part of themselves at home when they come to work (p. 7).

Dixon believes that authentic interaction is possible within the workplace and she suggests that people may fail to achieve it by:

  • misleading others in what they say;

  • saying more than they know; or

  • saying nothing.

Speaking authentically is therefore a worthy objective since it is well known that many organisational development initiatives fail due to lack of trust, or lack of credibility associated with the corporate message. Change agents, facilitators and organisational development consultants have long been aware of this.

For the uninformed, this idea of authentic talk was first established in the work of Argyris but Dixon takes the argument further by referring to the work of various other writers which include Chris Argyris, David Bohm, David Johnson and Roger Johnson, Jack Mezirow, and Paulo Freire. Whilst the academic will be disappointed that the debate and analysis of these writers is limited to general observations, managers in organisations are more likely to appreciate the easy going discussion. Essentially, dialogue leads to shared meaning. This is an accomplished activity, which can be aided by a clear structure and rules for productive dialogue.

Dixon therefore suggests that the purpose of dialogue is to develop shared meanings or, as she calls it, "social intelligence". This is effectively the glue that holds a group of people together. Dialogue requires the development of skill since there is a requirement to "suspend one’s own assumptions while reflecting on the ideas, feelings, and actions of the group".

Authenticity can therefore be said to depend upon the type of discourse that occurs. Not all discourse is constructive and in this respect Dixon distinguishes between what she calls “instrumental learning” (which is essentially seeking to control relationships) and “communicative learning” which is associated with practical learning by seeking to understand what others mean when they talk. Communicative learning (by contrast to empirical learning – although this is not a concept she uses and I am not sure why) cannot be proved since it is concerned with perception. The third type of learning she calls “emancipatory learning”, the purpose of which is to identify and reflect on distorted meaning within individuals or groups. Although Dixon does not develop what she means by the phrase one might well consider that the function of emancipatory learning is to identify the old Marxian category of “false consciousness”.

Anyone who has observed ineffective decision‐making within groups or teams may recognise that participants sometimes have a tendency to draw inferences from limited data or anecdotal information. Dixon suggests that such situations can be developed into learning opportunities by enabling discursive practices that seek valid information and by establishing a free choice from certain constraints such as the power of individuals who may occupy high status positions within the organisation.

A good deal of the discussion in the book focuses on building dialogue situations. Chapter five suggests how dialogue can be incorporated into work processes. One interesting idea is the concept of open space technology developed by Harrison Owen. This is an open space in which conferences are held (a large room without much furniture with a large wall space to post up ideas and notices). A conference may last for two to three days. There are no stated themes, no one is in charge and the meeting starts with everyone standing or sitting in a circle. Any participant can choose an issue that he/she is willing to take responsibility for. The identification of topics continues until all the ideas have been exhausted. The topic/issue once announced is then posted on the wall so that others can join in. The sponsor of each group convenes the group at the appointed time, leads the discussion, and takes notes. The notes from the discussion groups are then made immediately available to everyone. Finally if some individuals have nothing to say or are unable to contribute to any particular group they should leave to join a group that is of more interest.

Another interesting concept is that of real‐time strategic change. This, Dixon says, refers to the simultaneous planning and implementation of change. Effectively this means that any particular issue being addressed would require the interconnections to be mapped out. This type of change serves three purposes:

  1. 1.

    (1) To create a rich picture for all to understand.

  2. 2.

    (2) To share insights, which may generate new partnerships, and which were non‐existent because individuals were previously trapped by their own parochial mindsets.

  3. 3.

    (3) To enable all to understand, accept and start to use these “broad pictures” to decide what changes to make for the future.

As Dixon points out real‐time strategic change can involve up to 2,000 people in two‐ or three‐day meetings. The days are based on having a flow of information “from the individual, to the small group, to the whole group, and back again”. To accomplish this the conference facilitator has set task and time limits. However, the discussions that go on within the groups are not structured because “the intent is to control the process, not the content”. The emphasis is placed on “truth telling and honesty”.

The concept of real‐time strategic change involves a more active role for the organisation’s leadership. Meetings begin with a welcome from the organisation’s leadership to highlight the importance of the event and the power of the group to share the organisation’s strategy. Time is set aside for the leadership to respond to questions formulated by tabled discussions and the leadership is tasked with constructing a strategy based on the data generated by the mixed groups.

These learning techniques are both fascinating and, to some, may appear to be radically imaginative in attempting to undertake collective organisational learning. However, the reader needs to know more about the effectiveness of such activity. For example, how successful were these real‐time strategic change events? To what extent did senior managers engage with constructing a strategy from these events?

An interesting summary and synthesis of five perspectives on dialogue referred to in an earlier part of the book is identified in Chapter six (p. 93). Dixon’s identifies what she calls “speech acts in dialogue” which are effectively a series of rules (or “conditions for effective dialogue”). Examples include:

  • provide others with accurate and complete information including feelings related to the issue;

  • advocate one’s own position;

  • make the reasoning in one’s own views explicit;

  • invite others to comment on one’s own reasoning;

  • identify reasoning errors in others;

  • regard assertions as hypotheses to be tested;

  • back‐up generalisations with concrete examples;

  • acknowledge similarities as well as differences in ideas;

  • weigh evidence and assess arguments objectively.

In addition to this Dixon suggests that there are certain situation variables that one needs to observe. These include:

  • the need for members to feel free from coercion;

  • ensure that participants have an equal opportunity to participate and the chance to challenge, question, refute and reflect, and to hear others do the same;

  • the need for a heterogeneous group of people in terms of personality, sex, attitudes, diverse experiences, and ability levels;

  • the context should be co‐operative so that individuals feel it is safe to challenge each other, and controversy is viewed as constructive;

  • information and expertise are distributed among participants, and participants do not feel the need to defer to one individual;

  • groups have positive outcome interdependence;

  • groups have means interdependence.

The discussion of “undiscussable” issues in Chapter 7 of the book is the best part. In every organisation, as Dixon points out, there are topics that everyone knows about but are not discussed openly. The section is reinforced with an activity to discuss the undiscussables. For example, stage one begins with the assurance to participants that the items of discussion will remain in the room although that may be altered by agreement at the end of the exercise. Stage two requires each person to be given five 3X5 inch sticky post‐it notes and asked to write at least one issue that they think is “undiscussable”. In stage three the post‐it notes are pasted on to the wall randomly so they cannot be identified. Stage four requires everyone to spend time reading the wall. In stage five the group reorders the post‐its into categories. In stage six the participants assign each category a name. This renaming may cause some items to be moved. Stage seven requires various discussions to occur and a lengthy discussion is likely. As Dixon suggests some critical questions might be asked in relation to the undiscussables and these might include:

  1. 1.

    (1) What makes this category so difficult to talk about?

  2. 2.

    (2) What problems does silence about this topic exacerbate?

  3. 3.

    (3) How can we keep this category on the table for continued discussion after the series of meetings?

On balance, this is an interesting book which is easy to read and provides some imaginative ideas for dealing with the problems of learning in organisations. I would, nevertheless, proceed with caution before I would implement some of the activities.

ABC of Action Learning

The ABC of Action Learning by Reg Revans is a new edition of his classic Action Learning. As a member of the management team at the National Coal Board after the war (and as Britain’s first professor of industrial administration) he began to explore his ideas of action learning. Action learning is based on the learning principles of adult learning behaviours and argues that managers learn best from each other and from reflecting on how well they are addressing real problems especially when they are able to question the assumptions on which their actions are based.

The publicity for the book suggests that the idea of action learning is the most important idea to have emerged in management and organisational development since the war. ABC of Action Learning is intended to set out a practical approach so that managers can act and learn from their action. It is therefore argued that managers learn when they receive accurate feedback from others and from the result of the problem‐solving actions. The book has three main aims which are:

  1. 1.

    (1) to enable action learning programmes;

  2. 2.

    (2) to provide insights from various experiences of launching action learning programmes;

  3. 3.

    (3) to demonstrate how a learning system can be created in the organisation.

The Introduction to the book begins with an argument from the series editor (Mike Pedler) that:

To be responsive to change, a child, adult, organisation, even a society, must be adept at learning. Learning is the means not only of acquiring new knowledge and skill but also making sense of our lives – individually and collectively – in increasingly fragmented times (Vii).

It is therefore suggested that organisational learning is the only sustainable source of competitive advantage.

Chapter one begins with 20 assumptions about management, learning and the nature of knowledge, which are summarised under the idea of action learning. It is here we come across the idea that organisational learning is the only real means by which organisations are able to adapt to the rapid changes taking place around them. The book proceeds through a series of bite‐sized chunks, usually about one to two paragraphs long. These take the style of a credo such as “learning involves doing”, “learning with and from each other” and “learning is measured by the result of action” etc. The diagnosis associated with action learning suggests that: deciding; learning; and advising are aspects of the same logical process – the application of scientific method to changing real systems managed by real people. Revans regards this so‐called scientific method as the intellectual structuring of experience to achieve “command over the world” in five steps. These are:

  1. 1.

    (1) observing and collecting reports of what seems to go on;

  2. 2.

    (2) developing a theory or hypothesis and developing causal relationships between those events;

  3. 3.

    (3) to test assumptions related to those causal relationships;

  4. 4.

    (4) to audit and review if activities developed as expected; and

  5. 5.

    (5) to accept or reject the changes made to the relationships previously defined.

This was seen as a sequential activity in the attempt to develop a highly reflective human process.

The method of action learning is not an approach to be adopted to resolve problems that require an exact solution. Rather, action learning was originally intended to deal with problems or opportunities when no obvious solution could possibly exist prior to the event that triggered it.

Central to the idea of learning is the need to identify programmed knowledge (which comes in the form of technical expertise and functional specialisms) and apply critical questioning to it. Learning can therefore be defined by the equation L (learning) = P (programmed knowledge) + Q (quest for insight).

How then can action learning be implemented in an organisation? Revans’ answer is simple:

  1. 1.

    (1) begin by first providing an explanation of what action learning is;

  2. 2.

    (2) make participants curious about the impact they make on other people;

  3. 3.

    (3) equip people with a rudimentary set of ideas.

If the managers are seen as the main influence on the organisation then they must learn to constantly reappraise their own belief systems, enable others to learn, and develop rational methods for making operation decisions.

Does Revans really achieve the three main aims of this book? I have to say that despite the many seductive chapter headings and subheadings the book begins to reveal its age. Inspiring managers and empowering employees to learn from action was a worthy idea for its time but in 2000 the so‐called insights from the various experiences of launching action research over the years is its greatest weakness. More detailed case studies would have helped to deliver the central message.

A Concise Guide to the Learning Organisation

The book by Mike Peddler and Kath Aspinwall – A Concise Guide to the Learning Organisation – begins with the view that creating and developing learning organisations is an essential quest. The authors are critical of a number of texts about learning organisations for being “long‐winded” and “difficult to implement”. This “concise guide” is therefore the authors’ attempt to show managers how to understand practical principles, models and approaches to enhance the organisation’s capacity to learn.

The book has three main objectives:

  1. 1.

    (1) To demonstrate how the principles of the 11 characteristics of the Learning Company can be applied.

  2. 2.

    (2) To demonstrate blockages to learning.

  3. 3.

    (3) To discuss how learning organisations can contribute to the wider environment and the creation of the “good society”.

The central question of the book is posed in Chapter one: “what is the learning organisation?”. This contains the assertion that managing change through learning is the number one task facing all organisations today. In attempting to answer this it is argued that the forces for change and development today include the following: fewer people are undertaking more work; failures after previous restructuring; the need to change organisational culture; the wish to become more people orientated; the need to link resources more closely with customer needs; the need to improve the corporate image; the need to improve quality; the wish to encourage more active experimentation; the need to increase the pace of change; and finally, the very competitive pressures which relate to organisation survival and growth.

The book develops ideas originally found in The Learning Company but claims to take some of these a little further. One example is the analogy that organisations, like people, have a biography beginning with birth, to maturity to death. In this respect organisations are seen to be composed of ideas which are essentially the visions and images developed by founders and passed on through succeeding generations of employees. The book, like the series in general, argues that because competitiveness and unprecedented change affects most organisations at the end of the twentieth century organisational learning is required in order to unlock creativity.

So what is a learning organisation? In order to answer this question the authors refer to Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline, and particularly to his characterisation of the learning organisation as “a place where people continue to expand the capacity to create the result they so truly desire … where people are continually discovering how to create reality and how to change it”. This is a useful beginning by the authors who go on to explain that learning takes place through individuals, teams and organisations.

Chapter three has the provocative title “What does a learning organisation look like?”. This chapter begins with a series of case studies which include Rover cars and ABB. These are cursory attempts to prove that learning organisations are such because, like Rover, they are designed to provide learning and development opportunities to all employees and because “learning has become an important part of the company image”. Although there are some useful activities from which readers are invited to compare their organisations against the profile of the learning organisation provided, the case studies are rather banal snapshots which, unfortunately, are extremely limited in content.

In Chapter five the authors explored things that can go wrong with the organisation’s learning and it is here that they introduce another potentially interesting concept: “the organisational shadow”. As they point out: “the shadow side, balancing the light side, is a very old idea, common in myths, history and religions”. It is extremely unfortunate that the authors fail to develop or illuminate this definition that has emerged within studies of organisational culture.

The book is essentially a guide for those wanting to understand the concept of the learning organisation for the first time. Its style is very simple and easy to read. However the more demanding reader is likely to be frustrated by the clichés such as “new learning is needed quickly”. Academically of course this is far too simplistic because organisations get stuck in ruts usually because of internal politics, problems of leadership, hidden agendas, short term careerist aspirations of some managers. Indeed this is a major criticism of this book. Because the authors fail to discuss such blockages to learning the book’s usefulness is limited to basic formulae and aspiration statements. Seen this way organisations can often appear as illusions of neutrality presenting the reader with a relatively uncritical perspective. Furthermore, because some of the activities depend upon self‐scoring perceptions about fairly abstract statements (for example, the question “we have a strong vision of the future”) really needs probing further. We are entitled to ask about the politics: who constructed the vision? To what extent is the vision shared? How do we assess the “strength” of the vision? Other statements, such as, “our vision acknowledges old values and identities as well as new possibilities” or “we involve as many people as possible in the process for arriving at the vision and other key decisions” clearly have an egocentric feel to them.

The book will, nevertheless, appeal to managers who wish to get a feel for the concept of the learning organisation.

Related articles