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Executive Action Learning Best Practices

Executive Action Learning
A CEO's Tool for Organizational Development and Alignment
Med Jones
January 4, 2005

The CEO Challenge

In a global CEO survey conducted by the International Institute of Management, the number one cited CEO challenge is “leading change”. The scope, complexity, frequency and speed of change create significant stress on the organization and its management teams.

The change and rate of change of business regulations, economic conditions, markets, competition, technologies, and human resources pose high risk to achieving business objectives. The CEO mandate is to steer the organization in the right direction at the right speed in order to capture emerging opportunities and overcome challenges arising from those changes.

Traditionally, CEOs use presentations, meetings, conferences, and memos to align organizational resources and to get their teams on board. The conventional communications and planning tools have proven less than effective in aligning the performance of the organization and often CEOs need more time and money than desired to achieve the required objectives. This is especially true in large companies with complex organizational structures, or strongly entrenched cultures.

Successful CEOs search for best management practices and tools to help them implement the desired organizational change and develop their team’s performance. One valuable and often overlooked tool is the Executive Action Learning (EAL). If properly designed and implemented, it can lead to much higher return on investment

What is Action Learning?

In the 1940s, Professor Reginald Revans coined the term Action Learning to describe an educational method whereby the participants study their own actions and experiences in order to improve performance.  According to Revans, the learning formula is: Learning (L) = P + Q 

where P is programmed (traditional) knowledge and Q is questioning to create insight.

In addition to (P) traditional lecturing/training methods, (Q) questioning enables each person to reflect on and review the action they have taken and the learning points. This would then guide future actions and improve performance.

The Action Learning Model (ALM)

The contribution of Reginald Revans can be seen today in many leadership and organization development initiatives. Since the 1940s, several developments to his original training method have been created. Recently several leading universities and organizations have adopted the action-learning methods in their executive training programs. Some are rebranding their executive education from the traditional case-method to action-learning method.

The most advanced action-learning development comes from the International Institute of Management.  Although Professor Revans action-learning method is a valuable tool for improving training effectiveness, the institute research revealed that superior value can be gained from extending the scope of the action-learning to create a new organizational development model (ODM). Rather than merely updating the training methods to include questioning, the institute proposes the integration of several organization development, change management and strategic alignment tools with action-learning programs, thus resulting in more effective and efficient organizational change.

When combining the action-learning questioning methods with best practices consulting and facilitation, the end result is an integrated organizational development and alignment program that helps CEOs to achieve organizational objectives effectively and efficiently.

Executive Action Learning (EAL) vs. Traditional Learning

The institute executive action-learning (EAL) model differs with the traditional teaching methods that focus on the memorization and presentation of knowledge. EAL focuses on experiential reflection and problem-solving as the major learning tools. The institute executive education experience proved that management abilities develop better from solving real problems/projects than reading books or attending lectures.

The Action Learning Model (ALM) is the core organizational change and development tool. EAL differs from traditional academic and training programs in focus, content and delivery. To highlight the main differences, EAL makes the following paradigm shifts:

  • From academic-driven learning to business-driven learning

  • From ad hoc courses to integrated organization development

  • From theoretical education to experiential education

  • From generic training courses to customized training programs

  • From teacher-driven learning to student-driven learning

  • From passive (listening) to active (doing) learning

  • From a teaching process to an advisory process

  • From lecturing to coaching

  • From memorizing to brainstorming

  • From subjective thinking to critical thinking

  • From conventional thinking to creative thinking

  • From competitive learning to collaborative learning

  • From problem-focus to solution-focus

  • From exams to project-based assessments

  • From knowledge transfer to knowledge creation

  • From learn-and-forget to sustained performance development

  • From divisional training to organizational alignment initiative

  • From training cost to training investment

  • From human resources to human capital

  • From individual knowledge to the collective intelligence

  • From intangible benefits to measurable results

Executive Action Learning (EAL)

There is a distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge comes from memorizing business principles and facts. Wisdom comes from experiential insights. In action-learning, this can be achieved via skillful questioning and collaboration facilitation by talented consultants. Traditional academic and MBA education focuses on the knowledge, while executive action-learning focuses on experiential problem-solving (wisdom).

How to Achieve the Desired Executive Performance

To achieve better business results, the executive action-learning (EAL) is designed as a customized and experiential education and alignment process, whereby the management teams collaborate on situation analysis, problem solving, action planning, and project assessment to improve business performance. This is done in small groups called action-learning teams (ALTs). In this new collaborative learning/working model, the original action-learning is transformed from merely an effective training method to an organizational change and alignment tool. The change program is implemented via a combination of expert education, advisory processes and collaboration facilitation.

The value of the new EAL is that it can save the corporation a significant cost of hiring an army of expensive consultants to solve organizational performance problems, especially when the information needed is present within the organization. In most cases what is required is simply a guided facilitation and internal collaboration to leverage the collective intelligence of the organization to solve business problems.


Executive action-learning also helps in improving productivity, working relations and morale. In addition to knowledge-sharing, it is proven that management teams tend to communicate, collaborate and work better together when they learn together.

A New Model for Corporate Universities

In addition to traditional off-the-shelf training courses for entry level staff, the institute recommends that all corporate management training programs be based on an integrated, customized and experiential action-learning program that is approved and sponsored by the CEO. Through EAL the organization can achieve the highest return on investment in organizational development efforts in the shortest possible time.

How Does Executive Action Learning Initiative Work

Under an executive action-learning initiative, an integrated organizational development and alignment program is designed by an action-learning expert and sponsored by the CEO. The program consists of several focused action projects that have specific objectives and measurable results. The action-learning expert then facilitates action-learning sessions with the various organizational teams.

The sessions take the form of mini-workshops, where the main focus is problem-solving, brain-storming and action-planning sessions. Each session is customized to address specific organizational and team needs and must be aligned with the CEO's strategy and business objectives. 

Examples of Executive Action Learning Projects

Executive Action Learning can help CEOs and organization leaders address difficult business questions similar to the following:

  • I made a decision to create a new organizational direction/structure/culture. I need expert support to launch this new organization-wide initiative, help accelerate its development and overcome resistance to change

  • I came up with a new vision/strategy, but is it a practical fit for our organization/market? How do I implement it on the ground level? 

  • I'm not happy with our growth rate. All I get is excuses. What can we do to make it happen?

  • We need to overcome communication and collaboration barriers and develop better alignment and cross-organizational teamwork.

  • Developing top talent is a strategic priority; I have these bright new managers that I want to develop to the next level. I need someone to coach them on executive and leadership skills.

  • I need an independent expert to support the development and execution of an effective transition of a merger or acquisition project

  • Everyone has his own interest, agenda and version of what is right for this organization. I need an external and objective view.

  • The market, technology and organizations are changing so quickly and we’re not keeping up. We are so busy fighting to keep our customers that we need a fresh perspective to contribute to or validate our new strategic plan.

  • We are about to make a major investment decision. We need to validate our assumptions and decision making process

  • I want to achieve max ROI from our business units, through business model optimization, technology and process innovations or reengineering, but I do not want to pay a lot of money for a team of external consultants. We know our organization well; what we need an expert facilitator to help guide our efforts

  • There seems to be a gap between our continuously escalating technology budgets and our business returns. How can I align IT/Technology investment with business objectives?

  • We do not have enough time or resources to solve this problem. I need an expert to help us answer the critical questions of what, why, who, when, where and how

  • I need an expert to help my team establish a standard benchmark for executive performance and development measurements

Action Learning Implementation Process:

The action-learning program can be implemented in 5 steps:

  1. The Action Learning Expert (ALE) works with the management team to determine key business drivers, desired goals, performance targets, any constraints or potential bottlenecks. They then establish an integrated program to facilitate organizational (or departmental) development and alignment. The resultant program content, methods and duration will be tailored to meet participants' needs and budget.

  2. Before each session the ALE conducts a private needs assessment of the individual team members. This can be done on-site, on the phone, or online

  3. Executive teams attend a short one-day problem-solving and brainstorming sessions. During the sessions, the ALE acts as independent collaboration and communication facilitator. At the end of the session the executive team members must deliver an action plan to leverage the new opportunities or overcome the challenges

  4. After the session, the ALE supports the organization by working as an advisor, guide, and coach to reinforce the learning and accelerate the required change. The ALE can work physically on-site and/or on virtual basis

  5. After each session the ALE conducts private individual feedback and provides improvement feedback. This can be done on-site, on the phone, or online

Offsite executive action-learning sessions can take the form of strategic retreats. Strategic management retreats provide effective off-site planning, business review and problem-solving sessions away from daily work distractions. Retreats provide a more relaxed and creative thinking environment for better collaboration, brain storming and decision-making.

Executive Action Learning Best Practices

What are the critical success factors (CSFs) of executive action-learning?

To succeed in implementing an action-learning initiative, the leadership team needs to ensure the following:

  • Commitment from top management and team members

  • No hidden agendas. The CEOs must provide “air cover”. Like any successful meeting an atmosphere of openness and trust is critical to confronting sensitive internal issues

  • The learning context must be a company-specific working project

  • Scheduled lectures should be kept to a minimum and more time should be spent on action workshops, brainstorming meetings, problem-solving questions and planning

  • Flexibility in terms of scheduling

  • An independent, skilled and experienced facilitator is essential to the success of an action-learning session. S/he must be perceived as an impartial facilitator with no internal agenda or conflict of interest (external management consultants are a better choice than internal staff).

  • The ALE brings together the management team, asks questions to stimulate and validate their planning results and can provide new insights. As an outside advisor, the ALE provides objective validation of assumptions, thinking processes and problem diagnoses. They also serve as antidotes to the groupthink syndrome

  • ALEs should have strong understanding of business management, leadership styles and team dynamics. An understanding of the industry is advantageous but not necessary for the success of the session facilitation
     

What is the Duration of an Action Learning Program?

A typical action-learning session spans 1-5 days, followed up by breakout review, consulting, and/or coaching sessions on a monthly or quarterly basis.

The total duration of the action-learning program depends on the scope of the project and organizational needs. An action-learning program can take one week to one year. For example, the duration of a collaborative action planning project can be one week, while an M&A or turnaround project can take a year to complete.

Key Action Learning Benefits and Deliverables:

The ALE and the executive teams must provide monthly progress reports to the CEO to:

  • Ensure the team understands and agrees on the vision and direction

  • Ensure that action plans address existing challenges and opportunities

  • Review team performance improvements through facilitation, communication and collaboration sessions

About the Author

Med Jones is the President of International Institute of Management, a management best practices research and education institute. To learn more please visit www.iim.education

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