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Action Learning: An impactful process

by Alison Reid, Tammy Perrie, John Thompson and Rika Tome
There isn’t a business in South Africa that hasn’t had its feet kicked out from under it over the past year. Unfortunately, companies are battling more than just external pressures and challenges, they are facing internal deficits as many leaders struggle to adapt. The most impactful solution is to make room for employees to solve real business problems in a structured way, which creates an effective problem-solving blueprint for the future.

As John Thompson wrote in a White Paper entitled Developing agile leaders at GIBS through the Action Learning process, released by the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in 2018: “Theory alone does not build agility – the application of this theory does.”

Ask anyone who has ever picked up a golf club or tried to learn a musical instrument; book learning and the acquisition of knowledge and theoretical models will only get you so far. The big challenge comes when you try to put these new techniques into practice. For more than two decades GIBS has been fine-tuning its corporate education offering to ensure learning interventions that contribute strategically to the real challenges being faced by clients. Experience tells us this is best achieved by applying classroom learning to an existing business challenge.

Without this bridging process, the true value and impact of expensive leadership learning programmes is often lost. This inevitably results in disillusionment on the part of the company, which doesn’t see the change it envisaged, and frustration on the part of participants who understand what is required but cannot translate the theory into relevant action.

An applied learning process that GIBS has been using on its corporate programmes, and more recently for some MBA interventions, may hold the key. For 18 years Action Learning has been a notable differentiator for GIBS in the business education space; turning the focus on the potential for positive impacts for corporate clients. Interventions can be run as stand-alone processes for companies or as part of an existing management education programme.

What is Action Learning?

Action Learning is a learning principle that includes both reflection and action in a learning process. The approach is underpinned by credible and tested frameworks which help guide the thinking, actions and reflections of the small groups of between four and eight people who come together to solve business challenges or find ways to take advantage of opportunities.

The group process is critical to providing a safe space where delegates are challenged to think beyond their day-to-day function, thereby elevating the approach taken across the entire group to a more strategic level. This, in turn, encourages next-level thinking in leaders, a skill that is so important currently when navigating a changing and uncertain world. It also helps to break down organisational siloes which get in the way of developing truly innovative business solutions and, ideally, encourages the transfer of knowledge.

Projects should ideally be aligned to the organisational strategy and receive the backing of top management in order to ensure application. At GIBS, the bespoke process is planned, facilitated and guided by a qualified business coaching professional from the Personal and Applied Learning (PAL) centre. Particular attention is paid to impact, both personal and professional.

Yes, you can measure impact

In tough economic times, when return on investment (ROI) and return on leadership investment (ROLI) are so critical - in spite of constrained spend - impact and strategically delivering bottom-line results have become even more important.

When it comes to ROI, companies should look beyond a narrow rands and cents definition, drawing on the six levels outlined by the Phillips ROI Methodology, which captures data around the following levels: Reaction and planned action; learning; application and implementation; business impact (tangible and intangible benefits) and ROI (rands and cents). Even if clients don’t have access to the relevant and reliable data that makes this sort of measurement possible, it is still important to pause and take stock of the potential positives which might emerge. Ideally, however, ROI measurement parameters should be set up before the Action Learning process is even designed to help determine if the outcomes exceed the cost of the project – including delegates’ time and the cost of the programme.

Anecdotally, it is not unusual to see a participant on an Action Learning programme promoted within a year of taking part in an intervention. This is based not only on the personal insights and growth that delegates experience individually, but also the wider network they build within the organisation. The latter enables managers and leaders of all levels to gain visibility and interact more effectively with peers across divisions and business units.

Just recently, during an Action Learning intervention facilitated by GIBS, a senior executive on the presentation panel remarked: “I am blown away by the level of intellect of these delegates.” Every participant was already a senior leader in the organisation. Had it not been for the Action Learning process, this ‘intellect’ may well have gone unnoticed by the executive, leaving valuable talent untapped within the organisation.

While career development can certainly be tracked by an organisation, personal learning journeys are harder to determine unless the measurement of positive outcomes for leaders – or ROLI – is included in the programme design. This could take the form of structured questionnaires, conducted before, during and after the programme. Another 360-degree leadership questionnaire could be completed before the programme starts and should be repeated three to six months after the completion of the programme to test the dimensions focussed on in the learning journey.

Measures such as these go a long way to building confidence in the Action Learning process and its outcomes which, in turn, could unlock additional resources and support to help drive more impact.

Without top-management buy-in, however, even a Rolls-Royce of Action Learning intervention will often fail to have the full and desired impact. On the other hand, having credible impact data – which includes indications of the percentage return on rand investment - can only support the additional leverage of a leadership programme for clients.

Impact data can, and should, also extend to tracking tangible benefits such as better turnaround time for call centres, an increase in sales or a sustained increased in senior management morale. In turn, these positives create additional levers which can be pulled to drive further impact, from unlocking budget allocations for further interventions, or to fund internal or external marketing. Tracking these measures certainly helps to highlight how positive learnings and lessons keep flowing through an organisation, long after the Action Learning programme has come to an end.

Of course, the degree and extent of impact is often linked to the type of intervention, and the time allocated to the process. A Rolls-Royce Action Learning programme would, for instance, clearly define the business challenge or problem and allocate sufficient time for the team to tackle the problem using the appropriate methodology to achieve an effective outcome. An intervention of this calibre would also incorporate parallel processes of group learning, such as integrating learning from a classroom, in order to significantly improve the entire team’s ability to learn effectively. At the same time, the inner workings of teams, their dynamics and diversity would also be explored and fine-tuned to improve impact. All taken together, such an intervention would have deep personal learning takeaways for individuals, who gain insights into how to improve their own personal strengths and weaknesses.

All of this takes time, which not every organisation can commit. But fortunately it is possible to tailor-make Action Learning programmes to suit any corporate need, be it a practical Toyota Corolla or an entry-level Hyundai Atos.

No matter which level of intervention a company selects, when Action Learning is undertaken with the right support and intention of the top brass, it is possible to achieve an average three-times ROI outcomes, or even 10-times ROI for some projects. At the same time, developing vital leadership skills helps solidify agile thinking within the organisation, thereby future proofing the business.

Successful real-world interventions

If this all sounds like idealistic pie-in-the-sky stuff, then consider successful local case studies such as Anglo American’s Programme for Management Excellence (PME) leadership development programme, which GIBS has run for more than a decade, or specialist science and technology company AECI, drug manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare and equipment supplier Komatsu. More recently, GIBS has begun using Action Learning in its MBA process to help students identify and interrogate how best to solve for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as part of their applied business projects.

In the case of both AECI and Komatsu, the support from senior management was notable and contributed greatly to the overall impact of the respective interventions.

For AECI, the directive to solve real-world business problems as part of the group assignments was clear. Having previously run Action Learning programmes with another supplier, the company was looking to demonstrate clear impact by virtue of producing effective solutions to actual business challenges. This clarity of purpose enabled PAL coach Rika Tome to create a process which was tailored to breaking down siloes and enabling the various companies and divisions within the group to successful work together and learn from one another.

In the case of Komatsu, facilitator Brian Isaacson had tight control over the process and worked closely with the exco to arrive at suitable topics for the groups to explore, all of which focused on real challenges facing the group - this succeeded in stretching all the individuals taking part. This upfront involvement ensured that when the project ideas were assessed, the impact of just one of these solutions had the potential to cover the full cost of the Action Learning intervention.

For both Komatsu and AECI the ability to structure the Action Learning programme around the vision of the company and the desired areas of impact proved critical, as did the involvement of an independent observer and coach.

The importance of an impartial voice

GIBS’s PAL centre has worked on numerous Action Learning interventions over the years, and has come to appreciate the important role a professional coach plays in guiding an effective process as well as challenging participants and bringing a fresh perspective into the room.

Given the many moving parts in an Action Learning programme, from balancing the expectations of the organisations to often fractious group dynamics and internal resistance to change, having an independent voice in the room is more likely to translate into meaningful impact. In fact, the very essence of a coaching process is designed to convert these dynamics into opportunities. Even resistance to the process should be regarded as positive, since it offers meaningful insights in individual motivation and interpersonal dynamics, which can be reflected on in real time and improved.

A coach can also jump individuals and groups, as well as organisations, from one race track to another. If you have 600 people in your business and you want the best possible thinking out of all 600, then you need to create a process for collaboration and listening that gives everyone an equal chance to participate. Facilitation reduces the potential for internal cliques to take over a discussion and also challenges old habits of thinking which block agile responses. The coach can ensure that projects align with the strategic intent of the organisation and the anticipated Action Learning process outcomes.

At a time when many companies are falling behind on the innovation curve, when many are battling to envisage their future and struggling to equip valuable employees with new, human-centric skills, the application of learning must also evolve to incorporate more practical support for leaders and employees while solving real problems. Embedding professional coaches within companies is an effective method for helping individuals develop essential skills while simultaneously creating measurable business impact for any organisation.

Useful resources:
Gordon Institute of Business Science
Making an impact to significantly improve the competitive performance of individuals and organisation through business education to build our national competitiveness. GIBS is a leading business school in the heart of Sandton’s business hub, offering a wide range of executive and academic programmes.
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