Case Study Using action learning for mergers

cruk2Cancer Research UK is a good example of how action learning can contribute to the organisational issues that arise following a merger.

This is a brief account of what Action Learning Associates contributed between 2004 and 2010.


Cancer Research UK (CR UK) was formed in 2002 after a merger of Imperial Cancer Research (which was founded in 1902) and The Cancer Research Campaign. It has become the biggest single independent funder of cancer research in Europe and now supports the work of 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses. Its fundraising department is the largest of any charity in the UK.

The challenges after merger arose from the fact that the two organisations had very different cultures, management styles and approaches to work. Although we first worked in the organisation two years after merger, people’s initial introduction of themselves inevitably included which organisation they came from. It was considered that creating action learning sets would be a way of:

  • developing new peer networks across organisational boundaries
  • learning from good practice elsewhere in the organisation
  • breaking down the departmental boundaries that were fairly entrenched between scientists, fundraising and service departments
  • building a new organisational identity

We were first invited by the Fundraising & Marketing Department to contribute to their Catalyst programme which was a highly structured management development programme built around 360°, workshop input, coaching and mentoring and five action learning sessions over 15 months. Our role was to facilitate the senior manager sets and to train internal facilitators who would facilitate with manager level sets.

Following the success of Catalyst we later worked within the Aspire programme which used the same structure but went further in its reach across all departments. Aspire’s purpose was to drive the Vision and Purpose of CR UK forward by building management capacity across the organisation. Included in the objectives were to change the way we work together by:

    • increasing collaboration across the organisation
    • understanding and valuing difference
    • creating a culture where people have impact through influencing and innovating pro-actively
    • The programme was evaluated internally and its success recognised through continuing investment in rolling out the programme and in extending the number of facilitators. Over a period of six years we trained more than 37 facilitators and continued to facilitate the more senior level sets where the presence of an external facilitator was seen as a necessary requirement. There was a competitive process for facilitator training and individuals recognised it as a valuable CPD opportunity.Action learning was incorporated into a range of management development initiatives. With many of the organisation’s leaders experiencing action learning early in their careers, a coaching approach to leadership and a collaborative approach to cross departmental working became embedded in the emerging culture of CR UK.

A long term employee at CR UK said: “In the years following merger jobs and roles at all levels changed, sometimes significantly. From my perspective the organisation remained in a state of constant change for several years. Sometimes this was exciting: sometimes it was stressful. Action learning provided a much-needed reflective space and an effective methodology with which to reflect on the organisation and one’s relationship with it.”