Realizing the Talent Development and Business Benefits of Action Learning

These days, when you ask an employer about their business and people priorities, you’d better have time to listen. It could take a while. Everything seems to be a priority, according to Brandon Hall Group’s HCM Outlook 2022 Study.

More than 70% of organizations see these as critical or important business priorities:

  • Retaining top talent
  • Driving innovation
  • Improving customer experience
  • Improving organizational culture
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Improving the leadership pipeline
  • Gaining market share
  • Developing new products and services

More than 70% of employers see these as critical or important people strategy priorities:

  • Talent retention
  • Foster an inclusive workplace
  • Train employees on skills they need now
  • Provide continuous feedback to employees
  • Team development
  • Create a culture of learning
  • Coach employees
  • Career development
  • Succession planning
  • Change management
  • Assess and drive employee engagement

The challenges organizations have in adapting to the ever-changing world of work are overwhelming. The Learning and Talent functions are asked to address these challenges but they are similarly overwhelmed with multiple investment priorities.

Only 28% of organizations believe at least half of their learning has a direct impact on business objectives, according to Brandon Hall Group’s study, Learning Drives Performance: How Do We Supercharge Learning? And less than half of organizations (44%) believe learning is properly blended to meet the needs of learners.

With organizations facing so many business challenges that learning should be able to positively impact, these results are disastrous for learning organizations.

It’s critical for Learning to work with the business to develop the skills and competencies the organization needs while solving key business challenges —short- and long-term — at the same time.

How can organizations offer immersive, practical learning experiences that also solve critical business challenges?

What types of learning experiences can address multiple talent challenges such as team development, career development, engagement, skill and competency development — at the same time?

Action learning, where colleagues work and learn together in teams while tackling business-critical projects, addresses the top two priorities for L&D investment: linking learning to skills and competencies and aligning learning strategy with business goals — plus a whole lot more. It is an underutilized secret weapon that:

  • Works on actual business challenges in real-time
  • Builds personal and organizational capacity
  • Links learning to performance and business objectives
  • Develops effective cross-functional teams

Action learning can be done as part of a learning initiative where a coach
or facilitator asks a group of learners to develop a project that will help the business solve a problem while putting the learning from their program to practical use. Or the business can assign critical business projects to a Learning group or function or a cross-functional team that then must collaborate to forge the solution.

However, action learning is not just throwing a group of people together to tackle a problem. It is both a learning program and a business development initiative. There are learning objectives and business objectives. That is what makes it so powerful.

Organizations often tell us it is difficult to build experiential learning projects because it takes key people away fromwork. With action learning, the learning is also the work — two objectives, two solutions.

Action Learning Steps

  1. Define a problem. It should be urgent, significant and the action learning team has the full responsibility of solving it. This is not a drill or a simulation. It is real work.
  2. Appoint a team. The team can be a subset of a learning group or it can be appointed as a cross-functional team, usually composed of four to eight people. As with other team assignments, it is best for team members to come from diverse backgrounds and experiences appropriate for solving the business challenge.
  3. Apply the process. The business problem is addressed by asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem. The team takes action after discussing and identifying possible solutions. The process fosters group dialogue, collaboration, innovation, team-building and leadership skills because each team member may need to lead certain aspects of the project. It enables people to leverage their strengths, rely on their colleagues and appreciate the power of diversity, equity and inclusion for solving problems.
  4. Accountability. The group must be empowered to resolve the situation, not just make recommendations. If the group does not actually solve the problem, it just becomes another team exercise that does not generate learner and business impact.
  5. Coach, coach, coach. In a standard team project, a leader is chosen from among team members. Action learning projects are guided by a coach who helps team members reflect on what they are learning and how they are solving the challenges. The coach also helps the team reflect on what they found difficult, what processes they used to navigate through the challenges or conflict and the lessons they learned that can be applied elsewhere. With these insights, the learning can be carried over into other projects and into members’ daily work. This builds both individual and team capacity.

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Mike Cooke



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Mike Cooke

Chief Executive Officer of Brandon Hall Group Mike Cooke Prior to joining Brandon Hall Group, Mike Cooke was the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AC Growth. Mike held leadership and executive positions for the majority of his career, at which he was responsible for steering sales and marketing teams to drive results and profitability. His background includes more than 15 years of experience in sales, marketing, management, and operations in the research, consulting, software and technology industries. Mike has extensive experience in sales, marketing and management having worked for several early high-growth emerging businesses and has implemented technology systems to support various critical sales, finance, marketing and client service functions. He is especially skilled in organizing the sales and service strategy to fully support a company’s growth strategy. The concept of growth was an absolute to Mike and a motivator in starting AC Growth, in order to help organizations achieve research driven results. Most recently, Mike was the VP and General Manager of Field Operations at Bersin & Associates, a global analyst and consulting services firm focused on all areas of enterprise learning, talent management and talent acquisition. Tasked with leading the company’s global expansion, Mike led all sales operations worldwide. During Mike’s tenure, the company has grown into a multi-national firm, conducting business in over 45 countries with over 4,500 multi-national organizations. Mike started his career at MicroVideo Learning Systems in 1992, eventually holding a senior management position and leading all corporate sales before founding Dynamic Minds. Mike was CEO and Co-Founder of Dynamic Minds, a custom developer of software programs, working with clients like Goldman Sachs, Prentice Hall, McGraw Hill and Merrill Lynch. Also, Mike worked for Oddcast, a leading provider of customer experience and marketing solutions, where he held a senior management position leading the company into new markets across various industries. Mike also serves on the Advisory Board for Carbon Solutions America, an independent sustainability consulting and carbon management firm that specializes in the design and implementation of greenhouse reduction and sustainability plans as well as managing the generation of carbon and renewal energy and energy efficiency credits. Mike attended University of Phoenix, studying Business Administration and Finance. He has also completed executive training at the Chicago Graduate School of Business in Chicago, IL.