Leadership development is the focal point of organizations today. A rapid and ever changing global environment, a desire for tangible results and understanding that people are more motivated to learn if the experience is relevant to their lives makes Action Learning (AL) a preferred way to develop leaders. By definition, AL is learning by doing real work. That can mean many things to many people, so in this issue we try to make sense of it.
I recently returned from a business trip to Mexico as part of an assignment as a coach/facilitator for the Leaders across Borders (LaB) program. I was assigned to a team of five health professionals from the United States and Mexico who are participants in the program. The purpose is to enable them to apply new and revisited leadership skills to a real border health issue. The team consists of three health professionals from Baja California and two from San Diego.
The team’s projects are designed to use an “action learning” approach. They select an issue important to them and reflect on what they learn. It is done in a group so that they collaborate and learn from each other. They will give a report on their project in El Paso, Texas at the completion of the program, October 22, 2011. However, the focus is not on completing the project, but rather on what they learn about working across borders to solve problems. As a matter of fact, the team I am coaching has stated they will not finish their project by October, but have committed to continue working together to complete it after the program has ended. The emphasis is on what they learn and that they apply that learning to continuing the program and any other projects they collaborate on in the future.
In essence, Action Learning is learning by doing. So many universities use some form of action learning via case studies, role-playing and experiential analysis. Face-to-face training is often based on application activities and feedback.
A good definition of action learning is from the book Understanding Action Learning, by Judy O’Neil, ED.D, and Victoria J. Marsick, Ph.D. They define it as:
An approach to working with and developing people that uses work on an actual project or problem as the way to learn. Participants work in small groups to take action to solve their problem and learn how to learn from that action. Often a learning coach works with the group in order to help the members learn how to balance their work with the learning from that work.
Action Learning Coaches use many group-coaching tools when applying Action Learning. One that is particularly useful is the Learning Journal. A learning journal helps support both the task work as well as the learning of each participant. The journal is a book for recording one’s thoughts and feelings that are experienced on the project.
One of the most difficult aspects of Action Learning is evaluating the program. It can be complicated to check for learning and performance gains at different levels: satisfaction with the program, learning gains immediately and after the program, impact of performance on the job, and impact on the organization. It is difficult to link learning to impact.
So how do we define success when using Action Learning? In the Leaders across Borders program the success will be defined by the learning goals established at the start of the program. These include:
- TRANSFER OF KNOWLEDGE FROM CLASSROOM TO REAL WORK: What aspects of the of LaB classroom did the team bring to their project? Did the team try something new? Did individuals try something new? What?
- STRATEGIC RELATIONSHIPS: Did the team members create new relationships? Will these be long lasting relationships?
- KNOWLEDGE OF HEALTH SYSTEMS: Have individuals on the team increased their understanding of their own countries health system/issues and those of another country?
- HIGH PERFORMING TEAMS: Did the team increase their understanding of and/or abilities at creating and leading a high performing team? In what ways did they do this?
- UNDERSTANDING OF SELF: Did the individuals increase their own understanding of self as a leader?
- OTHER? Were individuals willing to share their knowledge and experience?
This project has been very rewarding and a terrific learning experience for me as well. I especially enjoy the bicultural and binational aspect of the program and the ability to use my bilingual skills in the practice of coaching.
It has been a great experience to see people from both sides of the US-Mexico border work in unison to solve health issues that impact both countries.
Is your team ready for an Action Learning experience?