Action learning is a method of filtering, exploring and thinking through complex problems in the workplace and it works in diverse fields such as engineering or social work.
I have been involved with the SkillsforCare initiative (from 2011/2012) to train social work / social care consultants working with newly qualified social workers completing the Assessed & Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) for six years now. This national project mirrors the DoE’s Newly Qualified Teachers’ scheme whereby new professionals are supported to develop their professional skills in the first year of practice after university qualification.
As part of the post degree qualifying programme in social work—most employers require training workshops, mentoring of new staff & and often action learning sets. I have adapted my own skills and model of action learning over last few years but I have not wandered far from the traditional Reg Revans’ model of colleagues asking open reflective questions of others to find the solution to complex and challenging workplace problems. From my experience this problem solving approach works brilliantly in social work as most problems encountered are complex / “wicked” (Grint 2008)—and the “answers” to problems cannot always be found in manuals, procedures or from supervision with line managers.
NQSWs are predominantly learning to manage and develop professional skills in hostile environments where social workers often perceive themselves as low in the multi-disciplinary hierarchy—carrying out essential but isolated roles, trying to provide a service to the vulnerable and often the disadvantaged in society. Workplace pressures also come from working within austerity where complex dysfunctional behaviour can be played out in their own management structures, and NQSWs have to learn quickly in this first year how to achieve a work / lifestyle balance, develop resilience skills and how to challenge others in an assertive and effective manner. Action learning helps them explore these ideas in a reflective but supportive environment.
Reflection is a skill taught on social work courses but the actions taken post reflection are the key to effective work place learning and change—both in the worker and often within their casework. From action learning these NQSWs discover the reality and usefulness of “reflection” with following actions and suddenly they can “makes sense” of the theories & models they have learnt from university as they are catapulted into fast moving and complex work environments.
One obstacle that needed to be overcome in the sets however was the mandatory requirement from the employers’ for the workers to undertake this study. This clashes with my understanding of Revan’s view that real learning should be a voluntary pursuit:
“one learns , or changes one’s behaviour, of one’s own volition and not at the will of others” (Revans, 2011, Page 5) and from my own anecdotal experience as a learner and a trainer I agree this philosophy works well. I had to work hard to overcome some workers’ initial reluctance to undertake more “study” but motivational techniques and the power of action learning itself was the real persuader. Other obstacles to attending sets and learning included fatigue, high workloads, and pressures from line mangers to stay in the office and work as opposed to coming along to the sets.
I remain a true believer that action learning works in a powerful and effective way by developing thinking skills, self awareness and confidence—all of which are required in front line modern social work. Confidence in oneself is an indicator of development and change for the ASYE award,
“By the end of the ASYE social workers should have consistently demonstrated practice in a wider range of tasks and roles, and have become more effective in their interventions, thus building their own confidence, and earning the confidence of others”
PCF* / SkillsforCare.
This way of learning, developing skills and problem solving has been transferred from Revans’s world of engineering to social work, and in my experience often becomes the NQSWs’ preferred way of developing and learning new practical skills in a challenging and fast changing workplace after achieving their degrees at university. The action learning sets help provide a support network which models effective ways of forming supportive but challenging workplace relationships. It is my reward to see workers develop and “buddy off” to help each other further after the mandatory sets are finished, and hearing that some of their actions are to take this way of learning and supporting each other back into their teams in the workplace.
Grint (2008) (in Pedler, Mike—handouts ILM L5 certificate in Action Learning Course London 2012)
*PCF—the Professional Capabilities Framework for Social Work (2012) SkillsforCare.org.uk
Reg Revans (2011) ABC of Action Learning—Gower, Farnham Surrey