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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