I recently facilitated an action learning set for managers of United Nations agencies based in Geneva – these agencies included the World Trade Organization, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Telecommunications Union and the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. All the set members were UN employees delivering the work flowing from decisions made by UN delegates of member nations.
All highly experienced in their particular disciplines and familiar with the intricate workings of the United Nations, these managers regularly work in different countries, often ‘in the field’ and they all speak two or more languages. The challenges they face in their daily working lives (aside from professional or technical issues) are assimilating vast amounts of information quickly, supporting a diverse range of people with different backgrounds and experience and often competing agendas – all whilst working within UN protocols.
They joined an action learning set because they needed a bespoke development opportunity to help them be even more effective in their work. Action learning also offered an opportunity to network – to share knowledge and experience across agencies, and to provide some input on specific topics if required.
At the first meeting, after in depth introductions, I explained the action learning process and we began with our first bidding round and set presentations. The conclusion at the end of the first set meeting was that the process was extremely powerful and, although challenging and contrary to the usual demands that they should provide immediate answers, they saw the potential of the process. Over six months we ran a further five meetings, with good attendance and engaged present participation from all delegates. I provided a short ‘input’ on topics of interest to them at these sessions. The topics included: the change equation, a model for increasing political awareness, the Johari window, and a model of influencing others.
By the end of the series the group had formed a strong network and plan to continue as a self facilitated set. All the sessions were conducted in English, and this was no barrier at all, in fact the set process was enriched by the various cultural backgrounds and differences expressed in the group. The one challenge we had to contend with was that although everyone committed to the series of six meetings, they were sometimes called away for work often in a different country. However commitment to the process remained high and they were able to pick up again at the next meeting.