What is Action Learning? 5 essential questions answered

Have you heard of Action Learning but are not sure what it’s all about? Dr. Billy Coop, Associate Professor at Business School Netherlands, lifts the lid on this pioneering methodology. In this article, you’ll learn all about Action Learning and how it benefits MBA students in their careers.

In short

1. What is Action Learning? A summary

As an expert on the subject matter, Dr. Billy Coop gave us his definition: “Essentially, Action Learning is a problem-solving methodology that focuses on a small group of people working on a problem.” (00:59) The targeted problems can be anything that is relevant, and either apply to the whole group or just one individual.

Similar to Agile teams, groups should consist of individuals with diverse backgrounds and specialties. Dr. Coop explains why: “One of the beauties of Action Learning is to get these different ideas and thoughts and perspectives on the particular problem by simply asking questions.” (01:32

When Action Learning is at its best, questions are deep and insightful. This approach helps the team penetrate deeper into the topic and ultimately come up with more constructive solutions. As well as solving issues, Action Learning boosts each participant’s understanding of the matter at hand. 

The simple structure of the concept conceals its huge potential as a learning tool on a group and individual level. That potential works both in business and in education, which we’ll take a look at now.

2. How does Business School Netherlands leverage the Action Learning methodology?

As a pioneer for Action Learning, Business School Netherlands (BSN) teaches students about the what, how, and why. They start with a literature review of the core concepts to gain a global understanding. Then, students dive into how it compares to a similar type of learning: Action Research.

However, to fully understand Action Learning, you need to get your hands dirty. Dr. Coop details the more practical side of BSN’s approach: “[Students are] conducting research on their own, designing questionnaires, focus groups, whatever it might be, and then ultimately generating a range of options.” (03:46) From their options, students must then choose a solution and create an implementation plan. At the end of the course, the dissertation summarizes the entire process and presents a proposal for their chosen issue.

This end-to-end strategy gives BSN students a global view of innovation and change, as well as leadership and organizational skills. 

3. How can MBA students improve their organizations through Action Learning?

One of the advantages of Action Learning is that MBA students aren’t the only ones who benefit. Their organizations can succeed too. Dr. Coop explains, “Students have to apply their minds to their own organization. They have to identify real problems within a specific discipline in their own organizations.” (03:24

A key tenet of Action Learning is that it focuses entirely on questions relevant to a student’s real-life business issues. This makes learning more engaging as opposed to other effective methods such as case studies. Rather than working on hypothetical cases, you tackle questions that are immediately applicable to your career. 

Students set up a small group within their company and choose an issue to address. This could range from a slow-moving marketing campaign to an overall strategic management problem. Through the process, MBA students improve their skills in both action learning and leadership development, but it doesn’t stop there. As Dr. Coop explains, “[The students] are benefiting from learning and development. The groups that they work with in their own organization are also benefiting, and of course, the organization benefits when they find a solution to the problem.” (05:39)

4. What are the advantages of Action Learning for companies?

The versatility of Action Learning means it provides a range of advantages for companies big and small. Firstly, as opposed to prescriptive consulting, Action Learning works through collective wisdom. This mixed input of mentalities and perspectives opens doors for more innovative solutions to business issues. 

However, Dr. Coop highlighted a perhaps less-obvious point. “It’s a non-threatening methodology because of the fact that you use trust as the basis for the discussions,” he tells us. “It’s not about egos or wanting to be better than somebody else. It’s this collective whole with the objective of solving a very real problem.” (08:44) By balancing decision-making among a team, companies avoid the perils of a top-down hierarchy where other opinions are unable to keep the strongest voice in check. 

5. What’s the best thing about Action Learning? Dr. Coop’s opinion

For a final insight into the benefits of Action Learning, Dr. Coop gave us his favorite aspect. “I get very passionate about it because it helps people to understand and not to simply accept the first solution that’s presented,” he reveals. (10:01

The question-based nature of Action Learning methodology leads to a deeper understanding on an individual level and across the team. As questioning skills develop and the company mindset shifts, the process of solving issues becomes easier.

For a real-world example, Dr. Coop pointed to one of many success stories that prove the efficacy of Action Learning. An MBA student working with a farming group had a spare farm and no clear plan on how to use it. After an in-depth, analytical study, the student submitted a proposal to the board, and we’ll leave the rest to Dr. Coop: “[The board] accepted his proposal and actually used $5 million to implement the proposal that he had submitted based on his studies.” (07:53)

To find out more about how Business School Netherlands is disrupting MBA study methodology, reach out to a BSN MBA Ambassador.

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