Understanding Action Learning

 Understanding Action Learning

Authors: Judy O'Neil, Ed.D., Victoria J. Marsick, Ph.D.
Pub Date: November 2007
Print Edition: $32.95
Print ISBN: 9780814434529
Page Count: 176
Format: Hardback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814430002

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Teacher's College Record - Book Review

While globalizing practices commonly incorporate outside solutions, contraction-driven deglobalization is whetting organizational appetites to perform with existing resources. Understanding Action Learning feeds both needs by setting the table for project and people advances in workplace learning and performance. This timely book gives readers a guided menu for assessing wants, determining fits, and implementing Action Learning (AL) programs and practices. It shows how to cost-effectively embed AL skills that can help organizations create generative insights in immediate task objectives and HR development and management.

In challenging economic times the modern enterprise can count on at least one thing—demands that it become more effective with its current portfolio of assets. Such competitive imperatives drive innovative work product delivery, with modern flatter organizations increasingly reliant on people in flexible team groupings to meet both short-term objectives and longer-term goals. Human capital (HC) growth via upgrading the effectiveness of employees is a vital concern of alert organizational leadership and management. AL accelerates HC capacity-building as it helps transform the roughly 80% of on-the-job learning that is acquired informally by, “formalizing it through experience into a more conscious and directed activity” (Yorks, 2000). Dr. Judy O’Neil and Dr. Victoria Marsick – respected international consultants, researchers, authors, and educators – here provide an important contribution. They classify and clarify this, “learning by doing real work” (p. 1) approach to improving employee performance and value with the Action Learning Pyramid, a framework that helps enable programmed and just-in-time productivity or development interventions. Their mandate includes the inter-cultural and inter-disciplinary integration of organizational resources and practices. The book contains an introduction, six numbered chapters, and a highly useful endnote primer; it effectively takes the reader from the initial “go” decision on AL investment through custom program design, implementation, and evaluation steps.

Chapter 1 directly answers the “Why?” that decision-makers face. “Deciding if Action Learning Is Right for Your Organization,” first provides a tidbit of its 1940s origins. British academic and learning-through-action devotee Reginald Revans helped pioneer worker empowerment – and accompanying measurable productivity gains – with AL. The key to his method is posing keen questions that may yield fresh insights. Introduced are the four AL theoretical schools plus explanatory experience-based situations. The Action Learning Pyramid (p. 18) frame is showcased as a tool for understanding and applying theory to performance and learning goals. Recalling Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs are levels or modes of satiation beginning here with the Tacit School of thought and progressing upward in complexity through the Scientific, Experiential, and Critical Reflection schools. Flavors of each are effectively captured in real-world vignettes showing how task accomplishment and human capital development can occur through learning as they align with an organization’s readiness, desired stakeholder outcomes, and intended impacts.

The second chapter, “Co-Designing an Action Learning Program to Ensure Results,” introduces the field-tested (up to) 17-step integration process of an AL program’s three co-design collaborators: the client, the field organization of executives and participants, and internal or external AL consultant(s) charged with marrying theory to practice. Notable strategic aspects here include the call for individual versus team development needs, and an individual versus organizational impact focus.

Discovering how AL can work well in a variety of service, government, and industry settings is the thread of the next chapter, “Implementation Strategies for Success.” Therein portions of a number of custom-designed AL plans are dissected. Readers can sample additive nuggets here to inform their own possible design(s) and consider the potential creativity introduced by coaches. Following this course is the fourth chapter entitled, “What Action Learning Coaches Do.” This topical cook’s tour suggests introducing situational elements and exercises for deep learning whereupon participants will, “take risks” (p. 109). The latter opportunities for positive coaching include self-reflective critique, team member query, and even generatively challenging the organization’s processes. While these can be in service of immediate problem-solving outcomes, greater and longer-term learning transformations – whereby people and organizations alter important and at times fundamental paradigms – are seeded for present and future gains. Learning coaches look to harness participants’ valuable experience through the acquisition of immediately enhancing self-directed capabilities that access employees’ valuable, “repertoire of examples, images, understandings, and actions” (Schon, 1983, p. 138). As creative products are, “combinations of elements” (Sawyer, 2003, p. 22) it falls that organizations using an AL approach may advantage themselves over the competition in better tapping their unique human capital versus typical process consultancy methods. Testing these various concepts is a question: how lasting with an eye to ROI are AL improvements?

Chapter 5, “Evaluating Action Learning,” answers this affirmatively with illuminating data gleaned from examining learning transfer returns in service, industry, and government sector circumstances. Healthy productivity gains are shown to follow in participating establishments. Internal political and cultural fits are considered among vignettes that inform learning organization models.

The final numbered chapter, “Pulling It All Together: Co-Designing Action Learning for Your Organization,” argues for a flexibility of AL intervention design respectful of setting and resource constraints. The authors deftly show how the four AL schools can stand alone or blend effectively to address various levels of enterprise need dictated by the nature of the strategic mandate. The table on page 154 – like dozens throughout the book – helps facilitate readers’ use of Understanding Action Learning as a hands-on resource, this one offering key co-design questions and their corresponding answer locations in the text. They wrap up with cogent suggestions that serious readers should appreciate.

Additionally, O’Neil and Action Learning coach Isabel Rimanoczy serve up a theory appendix (pp. 166-190). This section’s contents – as primer informing the core textbook – should satisfy attendant scholar-practitioner theoretical cravings. An argument might even be made for repositioning it earlier in the volume, yet one can see how this could slow reader immersion in the presentation’s AL process flow. The concepts presented are clear-cut and additive as at least an impelling intermezzo.

A hope for the book is in reaching populations previously unexposed to AL by taking advantage of its accessible cross-functional and cross-cultural salience. The Action Learning Pyramid framing and applications are parts of a compelling formula to satisfy organizational wants, including for those who have had their fill of quick-fix pop “solutions.” The American Management Association’s choice of Understanding Action Learning as its founding volume in their new Adult Learning Theory and Practice series lends credence to those placing AL frameworks and applications at the top of project centered, HRD, and HRM food chains. Areas for further research may include exploration into how AL activities that “overcome narrow mindsets” (p. 35) jibe with creativity science observations whereby highly focused multi-year periods have led to important innovations (Hayes, 1989; Gladwell, 2008). While too much to expect from this already brimming serving, readers could gain from fleshed-out discussion of the nature of creativity, desired levels of creative achievement by setting, and how AL can help drive such longer-term transformational efforts.

Whether goal-driven leaders, human development professionals, managers, educators, theoreticians, or others, a host of stakeholders seeking performance or understanding can benefit from O’Neil and Marsick’s well-paced manual for applying workplace Action Learning programs and principles. Particularly worthwhile for organizations is the authors’ putting contemporary meat on the bones of the Action Learning Pyramid paradigm. This taxonomic tool allows for mix-and-match framing of task objective operations and human capital growth in facing and virtual settings, local to global. The authors’ many examples show how AL helps participants act upon assignments by harvesting and applying learning to achieve superior work outcomes. Project and program managers across industry, service, government, and education sectors – informed by Understanding Action Learning – should prove increasingly valuable to their organizations. Thought and practice leaders seeking competitive advantage in these pencil sharpening times should partake of this book’s moveable feast.


Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Hayes, J. (1989). Cognitive processes in creativity. In J. Glover, R. Ronning, and C. Reynolds (Eds.), Handbook of creativity (pp. 135-146). Cambridge, U.K.: Springer.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to think like an adult: Core concepts of transformation theory. In J. Mezirow (Ed.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 1-33). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schon, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Yorks, L. (2000). The emergence of action learning. Training & Development, 54(1), 56.

Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 15, 2009

http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15487

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