Virtual Action Learning; the “Classic” Method

I’m writing this blog during the Covid pandemic, 8 months after the UK’s first lockdown. Many of us are now spending more and more of our time working virtually. At Action Learning Associates (ALA) we’ve been working with international clients virtually, as well as face-to-face, for many years. We recognise that the best way to develop and sustain our international connections and our virtual working practice is to continually refine and improve our virtual working offer.

With this in mind, and in the spirit of learning with and from each other, ALA offered “taster” virtual action learning (VAL) sessions to the Global Forum community. Ruth Cook, Managing Director of Action Learning Associates, and myself as a Senior Associate at ALA, partnered with 3 groups, each meeting twice for a 3-hour action learning session. GF members joined the sessions from Canada, the US, South Africa, India, Sweden, the UK, Italy, France and Germany.

Participants were invited to experience the “classic” method of action learning and to think critically about virtual working. For anyone not familiar with this method, there are 3 roles in the set: a presenter or issue holder; a facilitator who acts as guide to the process, “holds” a non-judgmental, psychologically-safe space, draws out learning, and may also ask questions; and 5 or 6 set members whose role is to ask short, open and insightful questions that help a presenter explore his or her situation and, through this exploration, discover fresh solutions and new ways forward.

Perhaps the central principle of classic action learning is best expressed in the following quote:

‘The function… is not to give advice or “fix” people from the outside in but rather to help people remove the interference so that they can discover their own wisdom from the inside out.’

– The Clearness Committee, Parker J. Palmer

The writer himself is a Quaker, and action learning has roots in Quaker practice (see Y. Boshyk and R.L. Dilworth [eds.], 2010, Action Learning: History and Evolution).

Action learning encourages participants to develop a more acute level of listening. The listener is not listening and waiting to speak or listening to argue, contradict or force an opinion, but is actively listening to understand what is being said, and perhaps what is not being said. Listeners (the set members and facilitator) create space and time for a presenter to closely examine their own narrative, truths and assumptions. And, in making space and time, we scrutinise flawed beliefs and assumptions about self, others and situations, and we share the process of learning.

The practice also encourages us to discover and notice those questions that unlock new and fresh perspectives that reveal the truth, and that ultimately drive the changes that the speaker wants to make.

The collated quotes below are from the participants of all 3 groups. I leave the conclusion of this “taster” experience to the participants who so openly shared their zeal for learning, and who generously gave their time, knowledge, wisdom and collaborative spirit.

Comments on the classic method

‘Participants in very senior leadership programmes always say that the thing they learn the most from is the time taken for reflection, and this space gives them that opportunity. Senior leaders tend to struggle with talking about emotions in the work place, and so I think that this is a space that would be useful to enable those conversations.’ Jane Robertson, Executive Director. Republic of South Africa.

‘Creating trust has to do with you guys [i.e. the facilitators] facilitating and being part of the set, and not apart from it. That way, people don’t look at you as being more powerful. You are looking to have the group build autonomy, so I think that position invites trust and collaboration.’ Charles Brassard. Founder Coaching Circles. Canada.

‘Ruth and John, you put yourselves at the same level as us. This makes the dynamic very different.’ Chantal Fleuret, Global Executive Learning. France.

‘Coming from different parts of the world [and having] similar challenges creates some sort of extra trust because you are so curious. And, you can hear the curiosity in everyone and there is a connection between the curiosity and the trust that helped in this session.’ Gunnar George, Compassion Communication. Sweden.

‘I feel lighter. I’m so happy I brought this up [i.e. presented my challenge]. I think the beauty of this method is that it applies to professional and a variety of settings. We will open up more in a setting like this, a safe setting.’ Sanjay Kabe. India.

‘You asked people to keep their microphones open. It had the effect of feeling together all the time. We were engaged rather than being spectators. Closing down other apps while we are in the AL space is a wonderful discipline. You don’t feel distracted.’ Charles Brassard. Founder Coaching Circles. Canada.

‘This is the first time I’ve heard x talking about himself. And I’ve known him for years.’ Chantal Fleuret, Global Executive Learning. France.

‘AL is elastic. Whatever the group or situation, there is something when we take our time at the beginning [of the series of meetings], and when we take our time to help each other; it’s very positive.” Nicolas Helary, MD and CFO Vossloh Cogifer. France.

‘I think that, as a group, we created a continuation from last week – a holding environment where the presenter felt comfortable sharing something that felt pretty raw and emotional.’ Michellana Jester, Global Executive Learning. United States.

‘We were really tuned in to when you [the presenter] were still thinking or still writing and we didn’t interrupt that reflection space.’ Ruth Cook, MD Action Learning Associates. United Kingdom.

‘From my perspective [as presenter] I’ll tell you how I experienced it. The cadence was right. It allowed for pause to happen the natural way without anyone trying to fill the void. No one was either overly eager to ask a follow up question or rephrase the question when I paused. That was really good. I think that once we’d practiced a couple of times that just seemed to become natural.’ Sharon Marshall, Executive Succession Management, UPS. United States.

‘I think we created a space for learning for all of us, as well as for sharing.’ Kay Peterson, Founder Institute for Experiential Learning. United States.

‘What was helpful to me was that you [i.e. the facilitators] helped me understand the rules of engagement and went back to the structure and process. It helped us navigate our own path within a structured framework.’ Rose Pillay, Learning and Development Specialist. Republic of South Africa.

‘Being part of this group and experiencing classic action learning has been incredibly powerful. Being in a group like this is a powerful experience that reminds me how we need each other to learn.’ Kay Peterson, Founder Institute for Experiential Learning. United States.

‘My experience is that it is really something in such a limited time [to create] a really deep and profound experience. Before doing it last week I didn’t know what was in there for me. It’s really the connection that you make in such a short time that is very deep.’ Maria Cristina Iacazzio. CFO and HR Director, Toyota. Italy.

‘For me it’s going to be the tool that I use in my graduate training. I’m starting to think about how to teach my students to be better at coaching other students.’ Drew Boyd, Associate Professor Marketing and Innovation. United States.

‘My experience has been really positive. Last week’s session and this week’s session. I really love the immediate sense of community. I love the time that was afforded. As you speak through different aspects of your challenge it triggers other memories or thoughts. I thought that this was really powerful to provide that kind of time. I’m seeing more opportunity to think about this approach together with an established programme or maybe as a separate programme.’ Sharon Marshall, Executive Succession Management, UPS. United States.

‘This extended format could reinforce the learning that they (i.e. participants on a senior leadership development programme) had from their programme. They could meet in small groups to reinforce the learning they had but they could also share challenges that they bring to the group.’ Michellana Jester, Global Executive Learning. United States.

‘I was really quite amazed by being with you all last week. As we were supporting x I left the session feeling supported myself. I found myself using the experience in my internal processes. I could see your faces and the questions you would ask.’ Kay Peterson, Founder Institute for Experiential Learning. United States.

“I felt very energised.  It was a great experience engaging with you last week and talking about being stuck made me notice my stuckness all week.’ Michellana Jester, Global Executive Learning. United States.

Comments on working virtually

‘We were able to activate and stimulate someone’s thinking from several thousand miles away.’ Karl-Georg Degenhardt, Global Executive Learning. Germany.

‘I’ve loved the sessions because it gives you connectivity to people in different parts of the world. There’s a global perspective.’ Jane Robertson, Executive Director. Republic of South Africa.

‘You took care to prepare us. You even sent a document about how to work on Zoom if we were not experienced. That’s a lot of care for how people come into group not knowing each other. I felt at ease right from the start with that level of care. You would have thought that working at a distance you would feel distant. But quite the opposite. It was close and I think that provides a wonderful environment for opening up and for perhaps being even more vulnerable with each other because of that closeness.’ Charles Brassard. Founder Coaching Circles. Canada.

‘Coming from an IT background, I’ve been doing this [i.e. virtual working] for years. As far as action learning is concerned this is really effective. The reality is that the time has come for this classic on line action learning.’ Sanjay Kabe. India.

‘This has encouraged me to use more virtual, to practice. This was excellent learning.’ Chantal Fleuret, Global Executive Learning. France.

‘I find the virtual environment very supportive of this process. The process is so important as well as the content and for those of us who teach and deliver on line I think that understanding that relational and connecting piece is so critical to remember. I’m also appreciating the diversity we had in the room. There’s no way we could have been in the room together with the geographic diversity we have here.’ Kay Peterson, Founder Institute for Experiential Learning. United States.

‘So one question or one thought that I had about the uniqueness of this VAL [virtual action learning] framework is that I wonder how when we are all virtual, we’re also in our homes or at least some place where we feel comfortable. Does that lend itself to a willingness to be more open and sharing than if we were in our office space or in a conference room or hotel? I’m just struck by the spaces because not only do I see you in a comfortable space and able to share, you’re also welcoming people into your homes and you are being invited into someone else’s comfortable space.’ Michellana Jester, Global Executive Learning. United States.

‘And, there’s a plus of this time [i.e. Covid] that people are at home. There’s a positive. People spend so much time in front of the screen and so much time on Zoom so then when you say ‘this is a 3 hour session’ they say ‘oh no’ and I think we’ve all experienced that it’s energising, nourishing because of the depth of connection but that’s quite hard to describe to people in advance. In the current context people think – I couldn’t possibly’ Ruth Cook, MD Action Learning Associates. UK

‘It has made me more confident in moving my leadership development to a virtual platform and so I’ve included VAL in my programme.’ Rose Pillay, Learning and Development Specialist. Republic of South Africa.

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