Action learning popular in Europe, not yet caught on in Canada

TD and Telus two of the few to embrace learning by doing

For the last year and a half TD Bank Financial Group has been working on a new leadership development program and, for the first time, action learning will play an integral part.

The process began with the creation of a new leadership profile. With that vision set, goals have been created and a plan to ensure each leader can reach them is being finalized, says Jane Hutcheson, vice-president of learning and development.

Hutcheson is clearly excited about the new profile itself and the vision, but she is equally enthused about the plan to ensure each leader either matches the profile or is taking developmental steps to get there.

“Action learning is really good at helping people take learning they receive in a classroom and apply it in real life,” she says.

Starting in October some 480 of the bank’s senior managers will be sent to a newly created “leadership academy” to learn about the competencies that comprise the new leadership profile. But before attending the courses, each person will have to identify a real workplace issue “of some substance,” as well as competencies from the leadership profile they feel they need to improve.

One of the country’s most respected executive development schools will deliver a three-day course to teach attendees about the essential leadership competencies, then each person will take that learning and use it to solve their action learning opportunities while focusing on the competencies identified beforehand, says Hutcheson.

The case for action learning is based on one of the truisms of adult learning: people learn best when working to solve issues that are important and relevant to them. The all-important caveat, say action learning champions, is that people have to be forced, or at least encouraged, to take the time to stop and actually reflect upon what is being learned when back on the job.

For classroom learning to deliver truly valuable lessons, lessons that can be applied broadly to solve multiple problems in multiple areas, the person has to step back and reflect upon the lesson while actually on the job, says Hutcheson.

“One of the biggest things your boss or coach can do is create an opportunity for self-reflection,” she says. Reflection causes people to ask why they did something and why they did it in that way? What have they been doing well and what not so well, instead of just rushing from one job to the next.

“People by nature are not given to reflection, nor is it necessarily valued in the ‘cult of busyness,’” says Hutcheson. That’s a problem because if people don’t take the time to reflect on themselves and their jobs they will never see the valuable lessons that are being presented to them every day.

In adopting action learning, TD is unique relative to other organizations in Canada and the United States. Action learning is an entrenched part of leadership development in Europe and has a remarkable track record for improving organizations and people, says Peter Smith, executive director of the Canadian arm of the International Foundation for Action Learning.

But in recent years, interest in Canada seems to be going down. The foundation used to run annual conferences but through the ’90s interest waned so much that no conferences have been held since 2001. Many people are aware of the concept philosophically — action learning is learning by doing — but they don’t want to learn about it as a methodology or how to do it effectively, he says. They confuse action learning with problem solving.

“Action learning is the most effective development tool for leaders there is, especially for high-potentials,” he says. “But if you treat this as a problem-solving tool, you don’t really need to know much about it.”

Gareth Morgan, a professor of organizational behaviour at York University in Toronto, says it is difficult to explain why the practice has never caught on with organizations on this side of the Atlantic. But it may be because of the existence of a strong “accreditation culture,” he says. A lot of people still believe that education must always come with a certificate, which reinforces the tendency toward classroom-based education.

Problem-solving with a twist

Action learning is not just an exercise in problem-solving, says Morgan. Or at least, it is problem-solving with a very important twist. “With action learning what you try to do is build in an element of systematic reflection that gets people to stand back and ask themselves what happened both systematically and for themselves personally.”

Unlike Smith, Morgan has seen some signs of increased interest, driven in part by technological advances. “Action learning used to be dependent on learning groups getting together,” he says. Many projects are based on problems that are multi-functional. If learning group members can’t meet regularly to discuss issues and challenges then the silos become impenetrable and block progress, he says. Morgan has been working on tools to enable action learners to meet virtually and stimulate collaboration.

Action learning complements classroom learning

Larry Morden saw first-hand how action learning can be used to both solve organizational problems and improve employee performance.

While senior vice-president of HR at a consumer package goods company, Morden used action learning to tackle significant operational issues. He’s been a big believer ever since. “You can’t just send people to learn leadership. You learn leadership by solving problems,” says Morden, who now works as an action learning consultant, with Action by Design.

Effective action learning should change how the organization functions. “This is premised on the idea that if you have better leaders, you have more engaged employees who solve more problems and serve customers better,” he says.

That is not to say action learning can replace traditional classroom learning. In fact, classroom learning is better at teaching brand new concepts. However, it should be balanced with action learning. If learning isn’t applied to operational issues, you can’t learn, he says.

For example, action learning should teach leaders systems thinking, which requires participants to think about any underlying systemic issues causing problems. The first step should always be defining the problem, he says. “The problem that they think is there, is often not the problem,” he says. “That is a leadership issue.”

Coaches ensure lessons learned

Nic Tsangarakis, Vancouver-based leader of the organizational effectiveness practice at Mica talent management consulting, says defining learning objectives is essential to any successful action learning initiative. “You have to be quite explicit about the learning outcomes you are looking for. If you don’t do that, then it just degenerates into another task force,” he says.

To ensure action learning participants are actually learning on the job as they complete their projects, a sponsor is usually assigned to each group, often an executive who volunteers because she is interested in the project, he says.

Aside from the internal sponsor, each group gets a coach, who could be from inside or outside the organization. This person is more directly involved in making sure participants are actually learning lessons, and offers advice on how learning outcomes can be achieved.

For the past two years, telecommunications firm Telus has been working with York University and the Universities of British Columbia and Alberta to put its director-level managers through an action learning program, says Josh Blair, vice-president of learning and development.

It’s part of the company’s plan to develop a new model for employee learning and development across the organization. “We are absolutely trying to link everything to driving performance,” he says. “(Action learning) jumps out as a key tool to do that.”

His group does regular analyses of the leadership group to identify skills gaps. And when they detected a need for improvement in four areas — leading self, leading large teams though complex change, financial accounting and sales and marketing — they decided to partner with the universities to develop a new action learning program.

The universities deliver courses in those areas and then participants are expected to take that learning to solve their problems. Over the last two years, six different groups of between 25 and 30 Telus employees have been through the program.

Participants are held accountable back on the job, says Blair. Someone from his group follows up to ensure the person is delivering on the action plan to make the changes and apply the learning.

Some consultants and promoters of action learning like to talk about how action learning can pay for itself because whatever problem is solved should be saving the company money or opening up new revenue streams.

But that isn’t the kind of ROI Telus is interested in, says Blair. “The primary motivator is to develop a stronger cadre of leaders,” which in turn leads to more employee engagement and improved performance across the organization.

Hutcheson at TD echoes these sentiments.

“Over the past few years, there has been this huge thing over demonstrating ROI on training spending, which I have become increasingly jaded about.”

That is part of the attraction, but that is not true value of the learning and therefore it is secondary. “Our big goal is not to save X thousands of dollars. Our big objective is to accelerate the development of people to be leaders in this organization.”

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