Dilemma between Learning and Performance in Action Learning

[Regent Park in London, May 2017]

I am an advocate on action learning, or more specifically the practice of ‘Action Reflection Learning’ (ARL)    I believe we learn most effectively when we reflect on real work with real consequence.   A recent experience pushed me to think deeper on how to put this philosophy into practice. To be more specific, the question is ‘how much should the coach intervene?’

I was one of the coaches for an action-learning type workshop.   In short, the learners have some 24 hours to work together as teams on a real challenge faced by their organisation.   During the event, I felt odd when I heard expectation to help the learners do better in their project.   It seems to me that we care more about (immediate) performance than learning.   The problem is that making things easier for them can compromise their learning.

I realise that my philosophy towards action learning has shifted over the years.   This is probably because of the work in business schools in the last 2 years.  More at ‘Rethinking Experiential Learning’.    The new paradigm is that I better just observe rigorously, let them fail and then help them learning from the experience (including the possible anger towards my ‘not-helping’)  Participants can still learn something even if their projects ‘win’.  But the learning from failure (with reflection by facilitation / coaching) can be deeper and better retained.

A further reflection then came – When I worked as an in-house L&D years ago, I cared a lot about the learners’ performance in the projects.   I also did things to enhance their performance.   Why?   I wanted them to look good so that I or my department look good in front of the CEO who was present with the project outcome!    After all, it is much easier to show case project outcome than learning.

If I were an in-house today, even though with the ‘business schools’ experience, I honestly could not claim that I am 100% prepared for the participants to fail in the projects.

So, how to reconcile the dilemma?   Or again, how much should the coach intervene?   As one can imagine, there is no straight-forward answer.   On reflection, I think the better we address the following factors, the more the coach can let them fail and learn from the experience.

Sponsor selection – From the learning perspective, the function of the sponsors / judges is basically to create consequence to the projects.   In general, the more senior they are, the scarier the action learning becomes.   The global CEO whom the participants can rarely meet will put them into the ‘Panic Zone’.  On the other hand, using peer as judges will leave them in the ‘Comfort Zone’.   We can thus dial up and down accordingly to pursue the ‘Learning Zone’?   In addition, we can module-ise the challenge e.g. first round with the country CEO and so on.

Sponsor relationship – Sometimes the tendency, if not obsession, to show case learners’ performance is out of sponsor’s impatience as well as HR / L&D own sense of insecurity.   (I have it myself)    A learning-oriented action learning thus requires mutual trust between the sponsor and the HR / L&D.   From the latter’s perspective, this means continuous effort to nurture the sponsor on the reality of learning and build own creditability.

Duration – Learning and performance are more likely to co-exist if the action learning is long enough.   Say, if the program can last for 6 months, the learners can transfer the learning from previous failure into enhanced performance in subsequent modules.   On the contrary, if we just have, say, 2 days, learning will easily be compromised assuming the need to show-case.

Reflection space – Related to the last point, a short action learning program may not allow enough time for reflection.   This hinders deep learning (from failure).   First, there is literally no time to talk.   Second, coaches would hesitate to challenge too much since there lacks space for the participants to ‘recover’.   I would say in general one day of action will need half a day of reflection for a small group (4-8) of participants.

Coaches – For action learning to yield deep learning, we need coaches who are at least conscious about own anxiety.  They also need to be skilful and resourceful in facilitating just-in-time learning.

What do you think?    How else or what other factors to consider in order to produce a great action learning program given the organisational realities?

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