My experience of virtual action learning has grown considerably over the last few years. I have been in a virtual set, trained as a virtual facilitator and facilitated three virtual sets. It has been enough to bring me to the point where I think we may well need a new name for virtual action learning!
In my experience there is nothing virtual about the learning in sets that, rather than face to face, meet by virtue of modern technology, from different locations around the world.
When I first began working in this way; sitting, headset on, meeting peers via the internet, working together as a set and so on, I really felt that this would be a reasonable, if clunky, second best to action learning. The term, virtual, seemed appropriate to me then and I could not see how the process could equal the face to face experience. Action learning, for me, is so much about the quality of contact between the participants and, if we were not in the same physical space, to my mind, this would be diminished.
I was wrong.
Recent comments from set members I’ve worked with include:
“Wow I was so sceptical about this and I have got so much out of it”
“It made me work harder and I felt so connected”
“I really listened so deeply and the process felt very powerful”
and they all echo my experience of working in virtual action learning sets. I am not too fussed about names, however, the quality of my learning experience and those I have been involved in as a facilitator have been as equally real, whether it be face to face, or over the phone.
This makes me think about the concepts I believe to be central to the quality of any work with others, namely; presence, connection and openness. Martin Buber said “all real life is meeting” and I think he is right. In meeting others we must be open of ourselves and open to being with and changed by those we meet. This is, in my experience, equally possible to do, or to not do, face to face or over a phone line/internet connection.
Action learning is all about meeting, contact and exploring together and this seems able to occur whether or not we are face to face or on different sides of the globe. The experience of “togetherness” occurs in a shared mental space, it is constructed between us and within us. The presence we share is formed through attentiveness of will so much more than location of body. The comment above about working harder is very telling; we do work harder to listen and be present when we cannot see and that can powerfully add to the action learning process, as opposed to taking away from it.
I am not arguing for a change of name, though it may be worth thinking about, rather I am saying we can be and work powerfully together, in action learning or other forms, wherever it is that we physically are. We may find we naturally work harder or that we need to push ourselves to, however, do we not always hope to be working as hard as we can when trying to help? The fact that this can be done face to face, or across vast distances is, I feel, a wonderful thing indeed.