Class is scheduled for 9:00 am. Only a few students are there at that time, so the class waits and finally gets underway at 9:20. The first 20 minutes are spent in introductions and overviews. Then the instructor starts to go over the material. Overhead transparencies, flip charts, computer displays provide the media for display. The students sit quietly, inactively listening. This goes on for an hour or so and then there is a short break. After the break, which takes longer than scheduled and not everyone returns on time, the lecture resumes. There may be a few questions. Mostly there is only the teacher doing anything active. Some people take notes, some appear to be sleeping, and some are listening with glazed eyes. Sound familiar? Is anyone really learning anything? Couldn’t this be more efficient and more fun? Most organizations equate employee development with classroom training. Billions are spent providing classes ? mostly classroom-based lectures ? to employees at all levels. The material taught is mostly concepts, theories, approaches used by other organizations, and analysis of past events (case studies). And even though some of these lectures are being migrated to the Internet, there is often little improvement in the amount of student involvement or in the efficiency of getting the key messages to the learner. On top of all this, it is very difficult to show how this Classroom education relates to the business outcomes of the firm. Even more time and money is spent trying to justify and prove that there were benefits from the classroom activity. I have seen or been invited to more than 10 conferences in the past year that purported to help do this. The conclusion any business person has to draw is that either there are so few benefits that it takes high level detective work to find them, or that most of this activity is futile. This scenario is why so many training departments have been downsized, reorganized, or put out of business entirely. However, there are some givens: (1) most organizations realize that employees need to gain new skills – and do so efficiently and when they are needed, (2) almost everyone accepts the fact that people need to be engaged in their own development, and (3) that we learn most from our actions and our mistakes. What is perhaps most “wrong” with the usual corporate training is that it provides understanding before there is any sense of a need to understand! We provide learners the answers to questions they do not yet have. If there is no desire, no motivation, no interest or way to utilize a concept; it is almost impossible to get a person to grasp it well. Action Learning What would happen if we turned this equation around? What if we took employees and asked them to work on a real business problem and at the same time provided them time and place and guidance for reflection and thought about what they were doing? This is the essence of action learning (also called work-based learning) first conceived as a corporate tool by Reg Revans back in the 1970s. We are not talking about one person or a few sharing what they know about a problem. What we are really looking for is acknowledgement that no one in the group knows how to do something and that we will all have to work together to find the answers. As Reg Revans says “Action learning?requires questions to be posed in conditions of ignorance, risk and confusion, when nobody knows what to do next?” It must be applied to problems, not puzzles. A puzzle is something for which a solution already exists, although those solutions may be hard even for an expert to find. Examples of puzzles might include making a factory runs more efficiently, optimizing a maintenance or repair procedure, speeding workflow or measuring costs. A problem, however, defies easy solution and many different people may come to many different conclusions about how to solve it. A problem does not have one answer that all agree to, and the answers may change given political circumstances, economics or other factors. When groups of people who are genuinely interested in exploring new approaches tackle a real problem with the idea of acting, reflecting, and re-trying; they are “action learning.” Action learning skills has helped keep General Electric as one of the world’s best companies. You can find out more about it by reading: Action Learning : How the World’s Top Companies Are Re-Creating Their Leaders and Themselves –James L. Noel, David Landreth Dotlich published by Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998. Action Learning in Practice (2nd Edition) –Mike Pedler (Editor) published by Gower 1991. This kind of thinking makes corporate education work!
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