Action learning without face to face contact – can it work?

One of the overriding benefits of action learning is to bring together peer groups to work with each other face to face, exploring answers to their specific issues, developing ideas and formulating actions. During this process, group members develop their listening and problem solving skills, become empowered as problem solvers and learn how to communicate and co-operate more effectively with colleagues.

These individual benefits accumulate for the overall good of the organisation, helping to shape its future and drive its ambitions.

However, international organisations are not able to bring together leaders and influencers face to face quite so easily. The geographical, cultural and time differences make the process of team cohesion more challenging. Yet there is still a place, and the opportunity, for action learning to play its part.

Some time ago, we developed a virtual action learning programme, using technology to communicate with set members in different locations. It enabled international organisations to bring key figures together, to take part in sets, to grow bonds and learn from people they had never actually met before. This was all achieved without the need for travel, saving time and costs.

In fact, it’s safe to say that without virtual action learning, many of the groups that we have worked with would not have come together any other way, and benefited from so doing.

Virtual action learning – the method

The method applied, is very similar to face to face action learning sets. Participants contract to follow a distinct protocol to ensure they remain entirely focused during each session, cannot be disturbed and commit to giving the process their full attention.

As the participants are not able to see one another, they benefit from sharpening their listening skills and engaging fully in reflective thinking. They also become more accustomed to engaging with colleagues in this ‘virtual’ way, a skill they can continue to use when communicating with remote colleagues across borders, or from branch to branch within their own country.

It’s possible to achieve the same level of trust and rapport, and to build a mutually respectful group in much the same way as you would with a face to face set. Some say that the absence of visual distractions actually enhances the whole experience and prefer to work in this way.

So the answer to the question: can action learning work without face to face contact? is a resounding yes!

Virtual action learning and your organisation

Our work is varied, in as much as it is applied in organisations facing a multitude of problems, issues, challenges, change and environmental or economic pressures.

The outcomes and benefits are therefore very specific to each organisation, yet they are brought about by the same process. Undoubtedly, virtual action learning delivers tangible results, and programmes can be implemented with relative ease. The biggest challenge is often getting together all participants at a time and date to suit everyone. Once the process has started, the results are often different to those expected at the outset, are enlightening and very powerful.

An intense experience, challenging and intriguing.  I’ve gained a new trust in people’s possibility of ongoing improvement. I feel that I am better in supporting others to achieve their goals.” Alessandra Gariboldi, Fondazione Fitzcarraldo, Italy

Virtual action learning – helping the British Red Cross

The British Red Cross has 4,000 staff and approximately 20,000 volunteers around the world. The organisation used virtual action learning as a way of bringing discipline to problem solving, to enable staff to cope with changes and to more confidently take responsibility for the changes they wanted to make.

You can read more about this project in a case study by our Senior Associate John Heywood.


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