Thursday, August 04, 2005

Action learning - building collaboration and networks

Action learning in the context of network development involves learning through action and reflection on that action, while collaborating with others on personal and inter-organisational improvement.

It typically involves a learning group (often called a 'learning set') focused on a project or creative endeavour.

What is distinctive about action learning is that it involves learning through engagement with the dynamics of a real, ongoing situation. This means learning to deal with the politics, power, procedure, culture, systems and competition involved in collaborative activity between organisations.

It also entails dealing with who we are and how we define ourselves, our role and our capacities in the context of network development.

The power of action learning to transform a situation flows from this personal engagement with a real situation while supported by a form of interpersonal interaction that simultaneously builds personal and organisational capacity.

Action learning takes people outside their comfort zone, provides supportive challenge, builds relationships, raises personal and group awareness and builds confidence along with competence.

People involved in action learning are encouraged to extend themselves and explore unfamiliar terrain including their own learning edge, their feelings and their ways of interacting with others.

Action learning groups are designed to be a safe environment for self-exploration and experimentation with new behaviours. This is achieved by finding a balance between support and challenge.

Supportive challenge is at the heart of the action learning process. Participants working in an action learning group are supported by their colleagues who view them as 'comrades' in opportunity or fellow travellers on a learning journey. The challenge comes from fellow participants asking fresh questions designed to unearth fundamental assumptions about the nature of a problem or the way a participant interprets others' behaviour. This questioning provides a challenge to the way we view our role, our organisation and our competitors.

People in organizations often experience the separation of support and challenge. Support without challenge reinforces the 'status quo' , group-think, and perspectives that may have been developed when conditions were different to the prevailing conditions within and around an organisation. Challenge without support can be self-serving (building oneself up by diminishing the other) and damaging to self-esteem (by reinforcing feelings of inferiority).

Supportive challenge has as its object building the self-esteem of the other while helping them to recognise the limitations that their existing mindset imposes on their potential to realise their full capacity/capability. It is about helping the other person to be the best that they are capable of being.

This positive regard for other participants contributes to relationship building, facilitates sharing of information and resources, enhances collaboration and engenders commitment to common goals.

As our personal awareness grows through individual and group reflection on our actions, we are better able to learn individually and collectively. We become more conscious of the barriers to personal and inter-organisational learning and feel supported in experimenting with new behaviours.

Through the process of personal engagement with a situation, reflection on our actions and supportive challenge from other participants, we develop new competence and increased confidence to use our knowledge and skills.

Action learning is a flexible, eclectic process that is not tied to a single structure or form. Its essence lies in collaborative endeavour and learning, a focus on improvement and supportive challenge as an aid to personal reflection.

Source: adapted from Passfield, R. (2001), Action learning for personal and organisational transformation, in Sankaran, S., Dick, B., Passfield, R. and Swepson, P. (Eds) Effective Change Management through Action Learning and Action Research: Concepts, Frameworks, Processes and Applications, Southern Cross University Press, Lismore.


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