Piloting action learning: The Alzheimer’s Society

Action learning is acknowledged to a valuable tool in individual and organisational development. When organisations embark on a programme of action learning a series of choices face them:

  • Should sets be formed of volunteers or conscripts?
  • Should sets comprise of individuals who work quite closely together or be formed of staff who have no day to day contact, aiming through action learning to build new networks and alliances?
  • Should sets be free to work on any issues presenters bring or work on organisational themes?
  • Is the priority focus the agendas that individuals have or organisational agendas?

Action Learning Associates has been working with the Alzheimer’s Society since 2014 and there has been a mixed approach to these questions.

In the Policy and Public Affairs (PPA) Team, comprising of over 25 staff in England Wales and Northern Ireland, three sets were formed as sort of a wider aim to build departmental capability. The sets met between June 2014 and March 2015.  Feedback from set members included;

Getting to know each other better we have increased understanding and this has impacted on our work, we have shared and this builds greater understanding and increases morale and the ability to cope with pressure.

I think the brilliance and the difficulty of action learning have been two sides of the same coin.  It feels like a big dedication of time – a whole morning in the middle of a busy week feels like a luxury.  However, what it affords is space and time to think about something in depth – something which again feels like a luxury, but is needed to improve the work that is getting done in the busy week.  So I think I have feelings of “urgh! it is action learning on Tuesday morning but I have to get X and Y done!I have to hold in mind how useful the space is.

In all honesty I liken action learning to a gym session.  I loathe it and don’t have time for it beforehand, but afterwards I feel better and am glad I took part in it.

I feel we’re now at the point where we’re able to challenge each other and be quite honest (more so than we could be in a project group for example) because it feels like a safe space and we’ve built up trust.

I feel like I have also seen the impact as at the last session I was at made several offers, one to help with interview preparation and one to provide more managerial support with a project group. Because both offers were followed up on this has in my view led to a couple of positive results.

In one case I also feel like it’s really helped with a personal relationship, as a colleague in my ALS is someone I have always had to work alongside eg on projects with but often found quite hard and unapproachable. I feel as though I understand her much better now and am able to work together better as a result, and also ensure our teams are working better together.”

All of these sets have been ‘conscripted’ and had a very high rate of attendance and engagement. Feedback from mid-point and end of contract reviews have demonstrated a high level of value and the department is exploring re-contracting.

In the operational arm of the Society, action learning was offered to regional staff following a restructuring programme called Adapting to Deliver.  Roles particularly affected by the restructuring were put into sets and three sets ran for Regional Operations Managers and Service Improvement Managers between February 2014 and April 2015.  The Operations Managers sets tried telephone action learning and this had a mixed response with some managers finding it difficult to work on the phone.

Again feedback from the mid-point and end of contract evaluations included;

Found it frustrating, difficult at first to get it / enjoy it, at beginning would have tried to get out of the sessions. Now found it relaxing, today is the only time since the March set that I have spent any time sitting and reflecting.

The experience has changed my approach and has made me think about how I question, my spheres of influence and how shared learning can be very powerful.

At the beginning of this year the People and Organisation Department (POD) of the Alzheimer’s Society embarked upon a new phase of action learning offering three taster days in Bristol, London and Birmingham for any manager interested in finding out more about action learning and interested potentially in the opportunity to form a set with colleagues from different parts of the organisation.  Forty managers attended the three days and from these tasters the Society has converted this interest into two sets.  These are sets formed of ‘volunteers’ and the managers come together from all over the country and fulfil a wide variety of roles; managers based at the main London office who provide IT, Health and Safety, and lead on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion along with managers who run day support services for people with dementia and locally based Area Co-ordinators.

These sets will run from June 2015 through to April 2016 and the Society will then be evaluating their impact. ALA will be particularly looking at how these sets build connectivity between managers who have little day to day contact and who wouldn’t often work together.  Influenced by social network analysis we are going to measure whether there has been an increase in the trust, understanding and connection between these individuals at the start and end of the action learning contract.  We will also review feedback about people’s experience of volunteering to be in a set as opposed to being ‘conscripted’.

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