I was recently reminded of Jennings 70/20/10 framework that suggests work based learning and development occurs through a variety of ways and only 10% through what we might consider formal training.

Jennings research found that roughly 70% of learning comes from on-the-job experiences, facing tasks and finding solutions to them. Twenty percent comes from feedback, observation and working with others whilst just 10% comes from formal training such as courses.

In this fast paced world individuals and organisations must learn and develop faster that the rate of change around them otherwise they may fall behind. Reg Revans equation seems more relevant today than it did 30-40 years ago; L≥C where Learning must be equal to or greater than the rate of Change if an organisation is to survive.

I write this at a time when UK businesses are facing huge uncertainty in relation to Brexit. They truly face a volatile time full of complexity and ambiguity. No textbook holds the answers. We need to learn by envisaging the world we want to create through sensing and actualizing emerging future possibilities then build towards it. This isn’t classroom activity.

This isn’t just for business leaders either. It requires all employees to be working at the top of their game, engaged and learning. Which brings us back to Jennings 70/20/10. If 70%, 70% of learning comes from on-the-job experiences through tackling the challenges of changing customer demands, creating new products, delivering cost effective on demand services, or navigating the impact of Brexit how do you create a workforce of people to think for themselves; work collaboratively, to problem solve and take responsibility for their learning and development?

The more organisations recognize the power of social learning, the power of questions over answers and how to help people to learn through tackling the very real challenges the better. That is what learning from on the-job experience is yet often the learning element is lost. It becomes all about the task, the deliverable.

One such method that delivers individual and organizational learning through solving those complex challenges is Action Learning. We see our clients tackle shifting their culture, developing leadership capabilities, changing behaviours that improve relationships, retention and increase productivity.

Staff build valuable internal networks and gain organizational knowledge. They develop better questioning, listening and problem solving skills; build confidence and feel less isolated/more supported. The real business benefit is employees are developing whilst getting the job done. No textbook can give them that experience.

How are you supporting your organisation not just survive but thrive?


With an ever-increasing pressure on time and resources many Action Learning Sets (ALS) are now half-day sessions.  An on-going debate with fellow facilitators is therefore about how to divide time within a Set.

There are two main approaches. The first is allocating equal time, where , as the name implies, everyone has an equal amount of time to work on their chosen topic. The second is a “ bid for time” approach where time is allocated based on who has a pressing topic they want to work on in the session and how much time they want. If a number of people want time the set considers the requests and prioritises them. From this they then agree the amount of time and running order. In this approach there may only be two or three people who present.

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Whilst in conversation about strategy with a fellow Action Learning Centre colleague, Helen Crane, she mentioned divergent and convergent thinking and how we each have a preference to one way of thinking or the other.

Instantly, I recognized myself as a divergent thinker and both the value and limitations – dare I say frustrations of it.  As ever, I got curious so I took a deeper look as I could recognize its relevance to working in Action Learning Sets (ALS) and how it is implicit within the Action Learning process.

Divergent thinking lends itself to open-ended problems and encourages people to develop their own solutions to problems. It’s about creating options and possibilities and not judging the ideas and suggestions that arise. It’s akin to De Bono’s Green Thinking Hat and engaging the imagination – the ‘what if…, what’s possible and what’s impossible…?’. Whilst in divergent thinking we create potential solutions, however unrealistic or impractical they might be. It’s a creative, non-judging process.

If divergent thinking is about creating options, widening the field then convergent thinking is about narrowing down and making choices. Not any old choice. Whereas divergent is non-judgmental convergent does apply judgments. Convergent thinking weeds out the impractical through considered criteria, analysis and evaluation. It supports us gain clarity, make conclusions and choices, grounding ideas before shaping them into plans and action steps.

What is powerful about the Action Learning process is the Presenter is engaged in both.  The divergent phase comes after identifying the issue and clarifying the outcomes when the Set starts to explore though asking open, discovery questions.

These questions invite the Presenter to view their problem from different viewpoints and therefore open up new vistas never previously considered.  This leads to emerging ideas, sparks new thinking and new levels of understanding of the issue at hand.

The convergent stage comes through evaluating options and the Presenter making choices of which options and avenues to follow through on. It’s that reality checking and planning followed by agreeing actions. The “What will you do” stage?

What my recent reading and reflection on my practice has sparked is how well do we do the convergent thinking? I know ALS are great at generating ideas and options yet how good are we at helping the Presenter evaluate options, or identify the criteria by which the evaluation and assessment will be made?

It has also got me wondering if the personal preference of the facilitator influences the Set. I’m a divergent so very comfortable with this way of thinking. If that is the case do I have a blind spot? Do I step over the essential stage in the creative thinking process that moves ideas from ‘Blue sky’ thinking to workable solutions and action steps? Do I leave things hanging, so to speak!

It really has given my food for thought about the process, how to use the understanding and the model within my facilitation and how it will influence my practice and ultimately the success of my Set members.

And after many years a penny has dropped. When I was first introduced to AL the facilitator used the following.  He would say “Are you solutionising too soon?” I finally, truly get it after all these years. We were moving the Presenter too quickly to the convergent thinking and pinning ideas down without really engaging fully in the divergent, idea generating stage.

I always loved the phrase yet never used it. Now that I have a greater understanding of what underpins it I feel comfortable to use it.



Why SMEs are different

November 7, 2012

Professor Robert Garvey, aka as Bob, gave his inaugural lecture on Learning Business last Wednesday (31/10/12) at York St. John University.

Focusing on SMEs (small to medium enterprises) Bob showed recent research that highlighted greater business growth in SME that had mentors; also that SME business leaders and entrepreneurs learn best with their peers when addressing issues that really matter to them. We are acutely aware of this through running Action Learning (AL) Sets for business owners and social enterprise leaders.

AL Sets provide the very structure and arena Bob described in his lecture. He shared how learning is a social activity, for we are social beings. We don’t operate in isolation. AL recognises this and brings together peers – be those from within certain sectors or people who are facing similar challenges such as new into CEO roles.

Lord Weinstock said ‘... we learn most when faced with a real problem which we are obliged to solve’. Running a business is littered with these – big and small.

The challenge is to actually learn from tackling these issues. All too often we address an issue and move on. Many don’t take time to reflect, to identify why something was so successful and equally how they’d do it differently in future when things didn’t have the intended outcomes. Within Action Learning emphasis is placed on learning and that it is as important as the action. Time is allocated for review and reflect so lessons are learnt to help change happen.

For business owners and leaders, who by the very nature of their roles can find themselves isolated, much can be gained in hearing others talk about their challenges and relating that to your own situation. Looking though the lens of someone else’s experiences can help them reflect deeply on their own ways of working and doing business and help to approach things differently. This is what matters to business leaders – sharing experiences of facing new opportunities, investing in new technologies, creating new strategies, managing growth and testing out ideas with other peers who understand the terrain. Learning is social.

Through discourse that is rooted in a coaching and mentoring approach, business owners and leaders focus on the things that are important to address in their businesses and professional lives. From these conversations they learn and develop as they apply their actions and new understanding, gained from the process, back in their businesses. Along the way they gain self awareness, improve confidence and develop their problem solving and decision making skills.

And from our experience, they benefit from the companionship and support that the AL Set provides – often long after the Set has finished.

Bob’s over arching theme was that the very way in which we ‘teach’ in education has to shift if we truly want to encourage people, especially those in the SME market, to critically think, problem solve and contribute to the socio-economic well-being and health of our nation. I agree. I believe Action Learning provides one route to this and ticks many of the criteria Bob highlighted as essential for SMEs to grow and thrive. Thanks Bob for such an engaging talk.



I recently attended an ALF event on using Action Learning in multi-cultural contexts. It was such a rich, thought provoking session.

I went because the topic is highly relevant to AL facilitators, now and in the future. Sets are created from people from many cultural backgrounds and also age, experience, religion. Although the session was titled ‘Action Learning in multi-cultural contexts’ it was about diversity. This is highly relevant as we are working with increasingly diverse populations as the world metaphorically shrinks owing to technology, people moving and businesses expand accordingly

I vividly remember my first time of experiencing the impact of culture in an ALS. Some years ago I was running an Action Learning facilitators programme for Imperial College Hospital. Because it’s a teaching hospital it has staff from around the world, and one of the Set members was a woman from the Philippines.

Half way through the programme she shared that she was finding the experience very difficult. In her culture the style of questions was rude and inappropriate. You would never ask such direct questions of another person. She chose to withdraw from the programme. I’ll be honest, at the time I was taken aback and unsure of what to do.

I now realise that Action Learning is culturally biased. It was created by a western man in a western culture, for a western work culture. So how do we as facilitators make sure it’s sensitive to diversity and culture? How do we ensure we recognise, celebrate and harness the diversity present?

This reminds me that AL has its roots in the Quaker Clearness Committees. In these meetings the person whose issue it was, was responsible for gathering together the most diverse group of 6-7 people they could. It was recognised back in the 1660’s  that with diversity came a richness of experience, difference in perspectives and fertile ground for generating greater understanding and decisive, informed action.

Our biggest danger, as facilitators, is to ignore the issue or make assumptions. Our biggest asset is to acknowledge it, discuss it and bring it in as part of the Set’s ways of working. Here’s a little check list I’ve created for myself. What else would you add?

  1. Be aware of my own cultural norms and biases
  2. Take time to consider the culture of organisation or sector I’m working in. What are their values and ways of doing things? How does it sit with AL?
  3. At the beginning of a new Set think about the culture I want to create. What information about AL principles and skills will they need to know?
  4. Don’t assume anything – ask. Not only are you modelling AL but you are allowing a vital conversation to take place. It will provide great opportunities to unearth potential conflict, levels of understanding and create awareness.
  5. Explain AL and its processes then ask ‘What would not be culturally appropriate to your country/cultural/organisation? ‘If this is AL, its context and skills what will you find easy, struggle with and be an area of real stretch?’
  6. Incorporate the discussion outcomes into the Set’s groundrules/contract.

Finally, one last comment on questions in general and in relation to culture/diversity. As a facilitator, I can take asking questions for granted – it’s part of my job. I have on occasion assumed people understood what good open questions are so I didn’t make it explicit – to my peril I might add. One thing I took away from the ALF event were two stories.

One facilitator shared how they are working with people from particular cultural groups. What he observed was these participants give their opinion and advice instead of asking questions, which is counter to the principles of AL. In those cultures if you have status or social standing you are seen to have answers, not questions.
Yet to be successful in the AL Set the challenge is to adopt the questioning/listening style – and for some this is culturally a big stretch.
The second was the experience of training a group of international workers in asking questions. The trainer instructed them to work in triads and practice listening and asking questions. They ask questions – that were laden with advice, asked long, multiple questions and closed questions. The trainer had assumed a level of knowledge and understanding about questions. She had not been explicit.

The task had to be broken down further. First ask questions to clarify, questions to probe understanding, questions that challenge, feel risky and uncomfortable to ask, and questions to help forward action. She gave examples and the resulting conversations were radically transformed.

This is what I love about this work – how it transforms conversation, understanding and people. I’d also love to hear your views and experiences of using AL across cultures. What have been your challenges and learning?

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One of the things we, Janie and Fiona (that’s me), are really passionate about is Action Learning (AL) and coaching. To put it another way we are passionate about helping people develop, change and fulfill their potential. We are also passionate about helping businesses and organisations improve their performance through unleashing creativity in their people and enhancing how they work together.

We want people to love going to work, to feel like they are really making a difference – a contribution, and developing as human beings. That’s why we do what we do. The Action Learning Centre (ALC) is all about helping people and businesses grow and develop.

What inspired us?

Janie and I have worked together for a few years now. We met six years ago through ALF (Action Learning for Facilitators) which we still run today. More recently we’ve delivered a number of Action Learning facilitator training programmes and AL programmes together. We like working together and our clients like our work too.

The ALC was Janie’s brainchild. One day she said “What if we set up a centre specifically on AL? And, what if we bring together a team of facilitator and coaches we really admire and would love to work with?” So that’s what we’ve done.

As coaching is at the heart of a lot of the way we work and underpins our approach to AL we’ve incorporated that too. We know these tools and methodologies are powerful when used well. They really help people focus on what’s important, finds solutions, make decisions, learn from it – and grow and change as individuals.

We have been influenced by the work of Lynda Gratton who’s latest book, The Shift, looks at the future of work. We believe we are in a major time of transition, uncertainty, changing priorities and complexity. And its also a time of opportunities, new beginnings and frontiers; of shedding the old ways that no longer are appropriate and finding new, more sustainable ways. We know humans are naturally creative, resourceful and whole and that Action Learning and coaching tap into and harness these inherent attributes.

Working collaboratively is paramount for us. We believe it’s where you get the best results.  To support this we have brought together a team who bring a wealth of experience as facilitators and coaches in developing people and business. We’re delighted they accepted our invitation to join us as each and every one of them is brilliant.

Our Plans

Our aim is to support businesses and organisations with impactful programmes that create real change and businesses fit for the future. To fulfill this our plan is to make Action Learning accessible to more people and businesses.

We are doing this through offering open AL Sets. This means anyone can benefit from joining a Set. If you work for yourself or an SME, are between jobs, or you want to invest in your own development you can.  You don’t have to wait for your company to set one up. Small businesses and enterprises can just buy a place without the commitment to a whole programme.

We are also utilising virtual technologies such as telephone conferencing and VOIP such as Skype. This allows us to offer Virtual Action Learning (VAL). The advantages to this mean people don’t have travel costs, they save valuable time not traveling, plus they get to work with other people and widen their networks that maybe wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do so before.

We plan to spread the word and our passion and knowledge by providing information and resources about AL and coaching through our blog and website. Plus keep you informed of events and workshops we think are relevant.

We hope you’ll join us along the way, whether that’s as a Blog follower, a client, a supporter.



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