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Session Submission Type: Panel Discussion
This session introduces the latest thinking on effective leadership development through experiences and lessons learnt from international action learning programs. Following an introduction to the Revans model of action learning, emphasizing work-based experiential learning and the mutually supportive network of the action learning set, two brief presentations on action learning — one on CEOs and senior corporate executives in South Korea and one on executives who participated in a Henley leadership program — will share contrasting approaches and valuable insights in the practicalities of developing leadership in today's organizations. This will provide the groundwork for the ensuing discussion.
The purpose of this session is to give participants the opportunity to hear about and discuss experiences from two international action learning leadership development programmes. Following a short introduction to action learning (10 minutes), there are 2 presentations, (each 15 minutes), one on each programme, and the session concludes with a chaired discussion.
• Gain an understanding of the essential principles of action learning
• Explore two action learning experiences, a Korean practice and U.K. program
• Gain an understanding of cultural differences in action learning
• Have the opportunity to share and discuss action learning experiences
There has been significant discussion about action learning in the workplace and its impact on leadership development. Action learning is seen as one of the most effective approaches to address the complex challenges and diverse contexts of leadership today (Boshyk & Dilworth, 2010; Park et al., 2013; Pedler, 2011). Leaders are facing wicked problems (Grint, 2008) in the organisations with multiple stakeholders. In this context, this session highlights the practicalities of action learning, sharing experiences and cultural differences from the Henley programmes and the Korean practice of leadership development through action learning (Cho & Bong, 2013).
What is Action Learning?
The focus of action learning (Revans, 1998) is on the individual leader, peer group learning and practical challenges. Further developed by Revans (Pedler, 2008), the approach is used to resolve problems where there is no right answer and where programmed knowledge (P) alone cannot resolve the problem. Leaders are encouraged to ask challenging questions, stimulating critical reflection and a reframing of the problem. This questioning insight (Q) plus (P) led to learning (L), summarised as L = P + Q (Revans, 2011).
The action learning process involves small groups called action learning sets, meeting regularly, usually supported by a set facilitator (or learning coach) with the aim of identifying actions to carry out between set meetings. The process follows the steps similar to Kolb’s (1984) learning cycle (plan-do-reflect-learn). Sets have been known to go on for weeks, months, and years.
The use of action learning for leadership development has been rapidly increasing across different cultures and countries. In South Korea alone, action learning is becoming a major feature of the Korean macro-organizational landscape, following Six Sigma (Cho & Bong, 2011). As up to 90% of learning takes place on the job, action learning can realise benefits in relatively short timescales (Stewart, 2009) and is seen as one of the most effective ways to engage leaders of all backgrounds, nationalities and generations, not only for leadership development but for organization development (Cho & Bong, 2013; Pedler, 2011).
Leadership Programme Examples
1. The South Korean Practice
In South Korea, action learning is used for developing high-potential leaders who are expected to solve corporate strategic issues through action learning (Cho & Bong, 2011). With respect to sponsorship, action learning for leadership development stresses the role of programme sponsors (CEOs and senior executives), who would influence the entire action learning process. In the project selection process, corporate strategic issues are given to participants from the senior teams. Learning coaches used are mostly external experts (often business professors). In line with programme effectiveness, companies have reported that programmes are effective in realizing two objectives including solving corporate strategic issues and developing future leaders.
2. The Henley Leadership Programmes
Henley runs several leadership programmes for executives of small and not-for-profit companies and for global leadership programmes for multinational companies. Typically participants differ depending on companies, so a learning set will consist of about 6 people with a range of leadership experiences and backgrounds. This provides a rich set of perspectives which creates thoughtful and insightful questioning sessions. In all cases, there is time between set meetings for people to go back to their organisations and take planned actions. In their reflections, they are reporting that they are improving their real-world leadership practice with the help of action learning sets. They are not only demonstrating more effective leadership, but they are drawing on the supportive network of their set members in tackling challenging initiatives in their organisations.
Significance of Cultural Differences
The use of a learning coach stands out in action learning for leadership development in South Korea. It seems that the active use of a learning coach in the process violates one of Revans’ principles on the role of a learning coach. Revans made it clear that only in the early stage is a learning coach needed to launch action learning but (s)he must get out of the action learning team to avoid getting in the way (Revans, 1998). We value his argument but there should be a leeway between Revans’ “gold standard” (Willis 2004) and their applications in the real world. Due to the Confucianism deeply rooted in everyday lives in South Korea, the use of a learning coach who is a process expert is appreciated because a majority of participants are not used to questioning in the action learning process. We then face a tough challenge striking a balance between continuing Revans’ gold standard and contextualizing action learning.
Future Implications and Discussion Questions
For leaders and organisations facing today’s wicked problems, action learning can be very effective for leadership development for people from different cultures and organisations, especially given their increasing need for new insights and innovative idea development in competitive management environments. The focus on individual leaders, peer group learning, and real problems and challenges is proving to be more appropriate and effective than traditional leadership development programmes.
Facing challenges and opportunities in action learning for leadership development, we raise the following discussion questions to the audience and also welcome others:
• What types of problems are being addressed in action learning?
• In what context, do you use teams or individuals in action learning?
• How do cultural differences affect action learning practice?
• How do you encourage challenging questions?
• What is the role of a set facilitator and learning coach?
• How long should they be involved in set meetings?