In May, 1996 a group of about thirty Action Learning practitioners from the international business community met in the Sophia Antipolis Science and Technology Park in southern France at the Theseus Interantional Institute to share experiences. Companies represented included General Electric, Fiat, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Philips and others. Little did we realize that this meeting would become the foundational gathering of what has become the Global Forum on Executive Development and Business Driven Action Learning, a worldwide community of practice that has met annually ever since.
Those of us from Europe were of the opinion that Action Learning as practiced at the time, in the 1990s, was too much oriented to the “Learning” side and not enough on the “Action” side. We felt it too focused on personal or individual challenges and not enough on the organization’s or business’s issues and challenges. Certainly, we also understood the importance of learning and reflection especially for problem solving and personal development and self-awareness. We were, however, more positive about what Nancy Dixon later called the “Americanized or modified” version of Action Learning that emphasized work on business challenges and results as a process, but which had no direct link to Action Learning’s founder, Reg Revans, either to his ideas or practice. Many of us had tried the “Americanized” approach to great effect in our respective companies.
It is interesting to note that in retrospect our concerns were those first raised by two pioneers of Action Learning in the U.K. almost two decades earlier. David Casey and David Pearce had worked with Revans on the General Electric Company (GEC, and no relation to the US-based General Electric) program started in 1974. Their comments from their seminal book that described the program were perspicacious and are worth quoting in full:
“We emphasize the learning side of action learning because that is what people ask about. But the action side is likely to become even more important in the long run. In the future it could be an outcome more clearly identified and intuitively sought after by managers. Perhaps the business action in action learning is the missing touchstone to management development which has eluded us in Britain for so long. We all know how critical is the support from top management. It could be that action in their business—on their most pressing problems—is the only way that management development will ever penetrate to the hearts and guts of top managers (as distinct from their heads). Action learning provides that way in.”
We were concerned, therefore, like Casey and Pearce, with putting the “Action” back into Action Learning, by emphasizing a results-oriented approach that would not only help individual managers but also the business as well.In our view, so much emphasis was being placed on “questioning” and the “learning” that many practitioners of “traditional” Action Learning had lost sight of the fact that Revans was also concerned about “getting things done”, about solving problems with and for people. In retrospect, we could have also used the term “Results-Oriented Action Learning” to make our point that it was time to return to the fundamentals of Action Learning, and to differentiate our orientation from the general understanding of Action Learning then popular.
At the same time, we were concerned with the fact that the “Americanized version” for its part was usually too focused on the business challenge or organizational challenge or project and not enough time or focus was provided for the “learning” side of Action Learning in management and executive education.Nevertheless, some thoughtful practitioners did make the effort to balance the Action and the Learning in these “Americanized” programs. Academics who wrote about Action Learning in the business community and others who commented on these approaches often did not know about or appreciate this trend and misunderstood what was being done in practice. As an aside, it is worth emphasizing that when done well, BDAL involves balancing and integrating the two approaches.
In short, and as we can see in Figure below we were hoping to combine the best of traditional U.K.-based Action Learning with the best of U.S.-based Organization and Leadership Development-influenced Action Learning approaches to management and executive education; and hence align with Revans’ belief that there can be no action without learning, and no learning without action.
We developed and grew from our work and close partnership with leading multinational companies, in particular--General Electric, Boeing, and Johnson & Johnson-- over a ten year period (1990-2000). They were the early pioneers of Action Learning in the U.S. business community. In time, we also came to appreciate another variety of Action Learning that started in Europe much earlier. It focused on a small group that discussed individual and business challenges in what can be called Traditional Action Learning. We now combine both approaches and call this Business Driven Action Learning (BDAL) because we want to stress the results-focused and organizational emphasis of the Americanized version of Action Learning and, at the same time, we integrate Traditional Action Learning's emphasis on the small group and the individual manager or executive.
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