What is Action Learning?

Official USA Affilliate, WIAL USA

What is Action Learning?

The WIAL Action Learning Method begins with its two primary norms established at the outset of a project: 1.) Statements can be made only in response to a question  2.) The Action Learning Coach has the authority to intervene whenever there is the opportunity for learning.   Action Learning is a process that involves a small group of 4-8 colleagues working on real problems, taking action, and learning as individuals, as a team, and as an organization.

Action Learning is an exceptional problem-solving tool that has the amazing capacity to simultaneously build successful leaders, teams, and organizations. As it positions inquiry and questions at the heart of organizational culture, Action Learning’s unique process allows that culture to be transformed into what is sometimes referred to as a Learning Organization.

 It is particularly effective for solving complex problems that may appear unsolvable. Using an Action Learning Coach guarantees that team members are as deliberate in their learning as they are in their actions. “There can be no learning without action, and no action without learning” Reg Revans.

While elevating the norms, collaboration, creativity, and the courage of group members, organizations are using a framework which allows them to develop creative, flexible, and successful strategies to pressing problems. This framework includes 1.) a problem / challenge  2.) an Action Learning Team 3.) questions & listening  4.) taking action  5.) a commitment to learning  6.) an Action Learning Coach.


Why is Action Learning effective?

► Action Learning solves problems and develops leaders simultaneously because its simple rules force participants to think critically and work collaboratively.

► The Action Learning Coach helps group members reflect on enhancing their group functioning, rather than on their problem solving. In this way, Action Learning participants become effective leaders as they solve difficult problems.

► Mezirow’s (1990) posit that critical reflection helps change the way we view the world is a chief driver in this approach. When assumptions are up for examination, it opens the possibility for transformative learning.

► Action Learning helps leaders detect patterns and draw parallels to previously experienced situations that allow them theories in action when facing complex situations.

► Team members hold each other accountable for their agreed upon actions. An additional benefit comes when team members are asked to reflect on those agreed upon action. Thus, the team is being productive and learning on multiple levels (individual, team, organizational).

How is Action Learning unique?

  1. Learning is just as important as providing solutions. Most other problem solving and development methods (e.g. training) only focus on one of these elements. 
  2. Classic methods, such as brainstorming, are based on providing ideas-answers to a given problem. In Action Learning, questions come to the heart of the problem first, and then breakthrough solutions are generated. Most unique, and intriguing is the norm that all team members follow: All statements can only be made in response to questions.
  3. Each team member takes real action between meetings – not just ideas and recommendations. Everyone takes responsibility for implementing the change from which they can learn later. 
  4. An Action Learning Coach primarily watches over learning, i.e. increasing the quality of the team’s work. He doesn’t ask questions about the problem; he doesn’t tell the team to learn how to increase their effectiveness.
  5. Action Learning encourages the use of other methods and tools at the same time. It does not involve giving up what the team already knows but rather serves as a catalyst for the effective use of known tools.

Who uses Action Learning?

  • Trainers, Facilitators, Coaches working with groups and teams
  • HR and Learning & Development specialists and managers
  • Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, Project Managers
  • Directors and Managers who want to work more effectively with teams
  • K-12 Principals and Teachers

Since first introduced by Reg Revans to the coal miners of Wales and England in the 1940s, Action Learning has emerged as a powerful problem-solving methodology that has the proven capacity to simultaneously build successful leaders, teams and organizations. 

While different versions of Action Learning have evolved since its inception, to this day, WIAL Action Learning continues to be used across the globe as a strategy for solving complex problems, developing leadership capacity, building high-performance teams, and building a genuine culture of learning among colleagues.

Action Learning has emerged as a method of choice for global companies, government agencies, and non-profits that want to improve quality, cut costs, create new products and services, and change the cultures of their organizations.

Companies as diverse as Microsoft, Samsung, Dow, GE, Deutsche Bank, Boeing, Sodexho, Novartis, Nokia and many others use Action Learning to solve complex problems, develop leaders, build teams and expand corporate capability. Action Learning is employed at government, non-profit and non-governmental organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the American Red Cross, The McKay Foundation and the Fairfax County Public School System in Virginia, which is the 13th largest school district in the United States.


Action Learning is a deceptively simple tool composed of six components. It is a process of insightful questioning and reflective listening that enhances a team’s capacity to leverage everyone’s strengths.

Action Learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action. Questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness, generate innovative and systems thinking, and enhance learning results.

Develop a Learning Organization

Is developing a culture of learning and support part of your organization’s strategy?

Action Learning positions inquiry at the core of organizational behavior, develops critical thinking and creates mutual respect among employees at all levels. The focus on inquiry elevates the group interaction to a true learning environment.