At the end of the first action learning set for a group of senior managers in an international cosmetics company, one woman said, with great feeling, “This has been absolutely nothing like what I expected!”
She explained that she had been delighted by how different action learning had been from other meetings or training events. No powerpoint, no handouts, no ‘instruction’; instead, there had been time to think, to talk things through in depth, and to find answers to important questions. As others nodded in agreement, I had a familiar sense that we were embarking on a voyage of discovery, with the first surprise being ‘this is what action learning is like’.
This element of discovery is central to action learning. Participants learn things about themselves that they were unaware of; they experiment with new approaches to tasks; and they experience a way of working with others which is often quite different from the prevailing norm. But what has this got to do with evaluation?
Simply this – evaluating action learning requires an approach which makes room for the unexpected. If I attend a training course on first aid, I know in advance exactly what I’m going to learn, and evaluating the course’s success will be relatively straightforward. (Can I stop a severe bleed? Can I perform basic resuscitation?)
But trying to specify the outcomes of action learning is more complex. We know that it has the potential to develop participants’ listening and questioning skills; to help them work through their most complex work problems; and to create strong, enduring relationships. What we can never know at the beginning of the process is the extent to which this will happen, and what the results will be.
At its most powerful, action learning can lead to transformative change. I remember a participant who had always blamed his boss for their poor working relationship. Through the challenge and support of others in his learning set, he became aware of the impact of his behaviour, and the reasons for his behaviour. This self-awareness, though initially painful, was the trigger for him to develop new beliefs and behaviours, which led to a very different relationship of mutual respect and understanding with his boss. But at the outset of the programme, he didn’t know that that would happen. His stated outcome was to improve his time management. What he actually got from the experience was, I believe, even more valuable.
So when we plan how to evaluate an action learning programme, let’s acknowledge that much of the learning will emerge along the way; and that there may be some surprising outcomes. By building in regular reflection on learning, and helping participants to capture this, we can gather rich information about the changes and actions which have emerged from the process. Expecting the unexpected is the paradox which lies at the heart of action learning.