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  • Writer's pictureJill Hauwiller


When is the last time you learned how to do something new? How did you approach it? Did it build on skills you already had or were you starting from scratch? Learning by doing is one of the most effective adult learning strategies. It brings together elements of auditory and visual processing while building on existing skills and experiences. Adult learners - like you, me and your colleagues - retain information and add capabilities with confidence when we get to experience it. Using action learning for talent development is one way to tap into this adult learning approach within organizations. Even better, it can typically be done at no or minimal cost using existing talent management resources, which is why it is the second topic in my no or low cost development approaches series!

Let’s start with the basics by defining action learning. It is a development approach where an individual with specific development goals takes on a special assignment or joins a project team. The skills needed within the assignment or project aligns with the employee’s development objectives while working on a meaningful business issue or opportunity. Regardless of the exact format of role, project, or team composition, action learning offers real-world experiences outside the participant’s defined responsibilities, often builds cross-functional relationships and helps prepare them for career advancement or growth within their current role.

Who’s it for?

Action learning is an approach that can work for any level of employee, but it is particularly effective for high potential talent who need challenging assignments to stay engaged and a chance to prove their potential to continue advancement. If you have employees who are at risk of leaving who you would like to retain, action learning projects can be a way to demonstrate the organization’s investment and interest in their continued professional growth. An action learning project can also be used as a stretch assignment to gain a better understanding of the participant’s capabilities in a challenging role.

For organizations actively working on diversity, equity and inclusion, employee resource groups (ERGs) will often use an action learning approach to identify and then problem-solve concerns that prevent group members from fully participating in the workplace.The insights that the groups bring forward can be used to update policies and processes and shape a consciously and intentionally inclusive organizational culture where everyone feels a sense of belonging. For example, ERGs might identify gaps in company data that prevent a clear picture of employee recruiting, retention and advancement as well as a lack of inclusive programming and outcomes in these areas. The group then works together to bring forward a solution to the identified issues.

When to do it?

Many organizations rely on project teams to solve problems so there is an ongoing opportunity to make action learning part of the organization’s talent development culture. To get the most out of an action learning approach, leaders need to be aware of employees’ development goals and career aspirations as well as informed about the problems the organization is currently working on, or plans to address in the near future. Taking a considered approach to project assignments will help leaders demonstrate their understanding of employee interests and boost engagement as a result.

Action learning is also particularly useful when an organization is in a rapid growth phase and needs to prepare leaders for bigger and broader roles. The hands-on experiences and relationships developed through action learning add credibility and confidence when it is time for succession planning discussions and advancement.

What’s the benefit?

As a proven, powerful and practical process for addressing complex problems and identifying opportunities, action learning benefits individuals, teams and organizations of all types. Employees develop new skills and cross-functional awareness and connections. Action learning builds problem-solving networks and trusted relationships throughout the organization that wouldn’t exist without the shared project experience.

Ready for more?

Originally published on LinkedIn


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