Action Learning Sets: Unlocking Your Workforce’s Growth

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How might action learning sets benefit your organisation? This article will explore action learning sets in more detail, from why they’re important to how they play out in business and how an ALS can be found or established in the UK.

What are Action Learning Sets (ALS)?

An action learning set (ALS) is a workplace group that convenes to address and resolve workplace challenges. The primary objective of an ALS is to generate practical solutions or insights to effectively tackle the issues in play.

Developed by Professor Reginald Revans in the mid-1940s, the ALS model is based on the notion that adults learn best when they are able to converse with each other, contemplate and plan ahead. 

In a business setting, small groups can join to create an ALS and collectively brainstorm, experiment with solutions and analyse and challenge outcomes. Participants iterate the Action Learning Cycle until a viable solution is reached. 

The Importance of Action Learning Sets

Action learning sets have been embraced by organisations worldwide, ranging from small businesses to large corporations. No matter the sector, organisations can use the ALS model to:

  • Effectively address core issues

  • Make improvements to existing trainings

  • Disrupt and improve established organisational cultures

  • Put a new strategy into practice

  • Develop employees, from individual contributors to senior leaders

  • Ensure learning is part of the organisation’s foundation

  • Find innovative resolutions to problems

Joining individuals together to solve a common problem gives each person the opportunity to bring all their skills and knowledge to the table, think critically and collaborate with others to solve challenges. 

While it can be uncomfortable to be in an environment that encourages deep conversation, criticism and challenging ideas, there is true value in having this shared experience with the group and having the chance to learn from one’s peers.

Beyond the professional development benefits, joining an ALS can also benefit the individual personally, as it gives them a chance to practise building connections, being resilient in the face of big problems and developing emotional intelligence.

Action Learning Set Process

The actual process of an ALS is flexible and can be adapted to fit the group and the issues at hand. The duration of the session depends on the group's preference – it could be an hour per week or a day per month, for example. It is recommended to have a facilitator to guide the sessions, handle time management and ensure successful meetings, allowing others to focus on the problems at hand.

  • One agenda item at the first meeting should be to establish ground rules covering areas such as confidentiality, integrity, safety, attendance and speaking time. 

  • Group members who have put their names on the agenda can then share the challenges they are facing, and rather than providing advice, members of the ALS should ask reflective questions and provide supportive feedback to promote learning for all in attendance.

  • After each presentation, presenters should be able to create an action plan and provide updates on their progress for the group in the future, preferably outside of the ALS time to maximise problem-solving efficiency.

Through all of this, the individuals participating in the ALS sessions get a better understanding of the business challenges faced by individuals but also the organisation at large, leading to a deeper sense of ownership and a more dedicated team.

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Finding or Establishing an Action Learning Set

In some cases, you may be able to find an existing action learning set for your employees to join. Ask around your professional networks and organisations in the UK to see if any groups are already meeting or being put together. Be sure to choose the ALS intentionally to ensure it matches up with the needs and goals of the employees joining.

You can also follow these steps to establish an ALS within your organisation:

  1. Choose topic(s) – Usually an ALS will focus on a specific topic to be addressed, and members can then bring issues related to that topic to discuss in the group. The best topics for an ALS will be open-ended (i.e. haven’t been solved / aren’t easily solved), actionable and having wide impact at the organisation.

  2. Choose members – An ALS usually has between five and seven members. The most impactful groups will all join voluntarily, have real interest in solving the problem and will come from a range of backgrounds and experiences.

  3. Choose a facilitator – The facilitator or leader of the ALS will play a critical role in the success of the group. They will be responsible for keeping discussions on track, timekeeping, ensuring accountability to the ground rules and ensuring focus remains on solving real issues. (There are a range of trainings where people can learn how to be an ALS facilitator, including this one offered by the NHS.)

  4. Choose the time and place – Establish a meeting time for your ALS, based on availability of the group and how often they want to meet. It can sometimes be helpful to hold the meeting in a less familiar place, to help members find fresh perspectives. 

Using Action Learning Sets as a Training Tool

Organisations can use action learning sets to facilitate peer learning and collaborative problem solving among employees. The ALS model can lead to creative solutions, employee development, improved organisational culture and more.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Action Learning Sets

How Much Does It Cost to Participate in an Action Learning Set?

Starting an action learning set internally doesn’t cost much aside from the labour costs (or fees to hire an external facilitator, if you choose to). The cost to participate in an external action learning set can vary depending on the specific program or facilitator, so it's best to inquire about the fees directly.

How Long Do Action Learning Sets Typically Last?

Action learning sets typically last for a specific duration, often ranging from several months to a year, with regular sessions scheduled during that time.

Are Action Learning Sets Only Beneficial for Individuals, or Can Organisations Also Participate?

Action learning sets can be beneficial for both individuals and organisations, as they provide a platform for collaborative problem-solving and learning within a group setting. Organisations can even set up their own action learning sets internally, as they will benefit both employees and the larger org. 

Can I Create My Own Action Learning Set?

Yes, you can create your own action learning set by gathering a group of individuals who are committed to learning and problem-solving together, choosing a leader or facilitator and establishing a structure for regular meetings and discussions.

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