Using Action Learning

The role of the facilitator in action learning

The role of the facilitator in action learning

My experience of using Action Learning dates back fifteen years, both as set participant and facilitator. Initially, in face-to-face Action Learning sets and more recently in Virtual Action Learning (VAL).

I have always believed in the power of Action Learning and the opportunity it presents for individuals, teams and organisations to learn, develop and make improvements in their service. Working with other people and taking action on real-life issues means that sets are always lively and often challenging. I like that both as participant and facilitator, there is never a dull moment. The phrase coined by Reg Revans to describe set members as ‘comrades in adversity’ certainly echoes my experience in that when a set comes together and works effectively everyone feels the benefit of that in the short term and long term.

Face-to-face Action Learning was my comfort zone until eight years ago when I was offered the opportunity to facilitate online Action Learning being offered as part of an academic programme. Thus started the journey of using Virtual Action Learning.

Virtual Action Learning (VAL) is Action Learning which takes place in a virtual/audio environment, rather than face to face. Initially I took to online VAL with gusto not really thinking about the challenges that the set might face. It was a test of part of the approach to supporting students with their course, done in real time. In this environment it was the written online word rather than any verbal interaction that made up the VALS and it was a constant flow of dialogue around an issue that kept everyone on their toes.

As facilitator I observed and ‘listened’ to the dialogue, interjecting to ask a question that would enable critical reflection and also keep the set on track.
Feedback from participants was mixed: in terms of the medium comments indicated the challenges of not seeing other participants as well as not ‘just chatting’ and asking critical questions that helped others to see another perspective and take action on that once offline.
This challenge and opportunity shaped my thoughts about the pros and cons of VAL and the possibilities it could offer for learning.

Fast forward five years during which I had been participating in and facilitating face-to-face Action learning mostly within healthcare settings. Again I was offered the opportunity to be involved in VAL this time facilitating a set within an eHealth Leadership Programme. The intention was to introduce an additional support methodology and pilot the use of VAL using the telephone. I was excited about the opportunity despite some scepticism from fellow facilitators. The participants were also open to the opportunity despite some anxiety as some of them had never engaged in face-to-face action learning before, let alone VAL.

In the wider Scottish healthcare context I saw possibilities in the use of VAL to provide a cost effective learning and communication channel for participants who worked across the wide expanse of Scotland and for whom travel from the workplace to meet cost time and money.

So how did we do? What was the actual experience like?. Feedback from participants was mixed: Those who had experienced face-to-face action learning before commented on the difference and challenge presented when you cant see your colleagues; they appreciated the opportunity to practice critical questioning; Those new to action learning would have liked more sets to practice the action learning process; all participants agreed that it would save time in engaging in VAL rather than face to face action learning.

As facilitator there were several challenges: getting everybody engaged given the range of experience in the group as well as establishing and maintaining the critical challenge/support balance in the group, so essential to participants getting the maximum learning in and outwith the set.

Where does this leave me? I am sold on VAL and looking for every opportunity to take part in a set as well as encouraging others to do so. I still love face-to-face action learning and variety is the spice of life, at least it is where action learning and I am concerned.

Interested to speak more about VAL then send me a message and we can set up a call.

About the Author

Jane Ormerod
Jane Ormerod is an independent coach and educational development consultant with 39 years of diverse experience in clinical, educational and Practice Development roles within the health service. Demonstrating strong and effective skills in practice development, facilitation, project management and negotiation that have been used to good effect in many settings to both lead and collaborate in a range of successful initiatives locally and nationally.
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