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Pete Burden
26 Apr 2017

Working Out Loud – Action Learning for the Digital Age?

One of the things we do at Outlandish is something called Action Learning. We do this in order to help us have better conversations in the business, and learn to collaborate and cooperate better. To learn what leading is, and most importantly to be able to take a proactive part in the rough and smooth of co-operative life.

Action Learning is a very well established approach in management/leadership, and in learning about management/leadership. It is based on the work of Reg Revans, and dates back to at least the 1940s (when he was working for the National Coal Board).

But talking about something that has been around for 75 years isn’t perhaps as exciting as something new and shiny, and more obviously grounded in our digital world.

So I thought it might be useful to compare it to ‘Working Out Loud’, which is also an approach to building collaborative working in organisations, and something that is much better known amongst the digital cognoscenti.

When I first came across ‘Working Out Loud’, it simply meant blogging about your work. Some colleagues used it to explain very transparently about the process of working in, and running, small companies. Since then Working Out Loud has developed into a more systematic approach.

Simply put, people meet regularly in small groups, often inside organisations, to move their careers and lives forward by sharing experiences with, and giving support, to their peers. They also use social media to share their experiences more widely, and thus, in theory, build wider networks.

‘Working Out Loud’ is said (by John Stepper who writes and blogs about it) to have five elements:

  1. purposeful discovery
  2. meaningful relationships
  3. generosity
  4. visible work
  5. a growth mindset

Purposeful Discovery

This seems very similar to Action Learning. Action Learning is also based on the idea of meeting in small groups of peers. These groups meet to discuss their work lives and the issues and questions they face. As in Working Out Loud, these are often career and life questions, such as ‘how do I become a better, more empowering leader?’ ‘how do I deal with the challenges of working in an organisation’- that kind of thing.

Meaningful Relationships

Action Learning ‘sets’ also develop meaningful relationships among the participants. In one variant of Action Learning that I was involved in some of the participants are still meeting 10 years on – the people involved have become firm friends and supporters, based on the empathy and respect they have shown each other.

Generosity

As in Working Out Loud groups, there are particular ways to work in Action Learning. In Action Learning sets asking questions to clarify issues is one of the main ways of working.

People sometimes ask ‘How does asking questions help anyone? Surely what helps is giving solutions?’ Not really. Asking powerful, supportive questions helps people work out the answers for themselves, which means they have some next steps to try, and they also continue to own the question or issue. Giving solutions can take this opportunity away.

So a great way to be generous to others is to give them your time, listen well, and give them some good questions to think about.

Visible Work

Working Out Loud, having been born in the social media age, puts a lot of emphasis on sharing one’s work, or at least the small actions that we take, publicly. Often via blogging.

Action Learning also, as the name implies, is about Actions – small actions we can take to accelerate our learning in the world. Often these actions do involve reaching out to other people. It is very common to hear people advance an issue or project by reaching out to people they haven’t met before, telling them what they are doing, and why, and asking open questions. That can be a great way of disconfirming our fixed and limiting beliefs.

In my mind, blogging and other social media are simply more effective, more wide-reaching ways to do this, ways that also come with a high degree of serendipity and chance interaction.

Growth Mindset

Finally, Action Learning is all about a ‘Growth Mindset’. Long before Carole Dweck published her book ‘Mindset’, Reg Revans had suggested his ‘Formula’:

L = P + Q

This translates as ‘Learning’ = ‘Knowledge in current use’ + ‘Questioning insight’.

Essentially, for me, this says something similar to what Dweck is saying. If we want to grow (learn) we need to believe in the value of questioning what we believe, and the skills we have. We have to assume we can learn and grow, and keep doing so over time. Sometimes this means becoming vulnerable, and showing this vulnerability to others.

Similarities and Differences

So, in summary, there’s a lot of similarity between the two approaches.

Of course, the formats are rather different. Action Learning at Outlandish means meeting for longer but less often – so instead of the 12 week schedule often used with Working Out Loud, we meet monthly with enough time for people to more fully explore the issues they bring.

Another difference is that there is a more recent turn in Action Learning to blend such reflective practice ideas with Critical Social Theory – that is, with the ideas of feminism, post-structuralism, Marxism, etc.

This means questioning, and being critical about, some of the broader assumptions we make in work and employment – such as what is employment, who employs who, what are the real purposes of leadership and management, and why are there jobs and careers anyway?!

I don’t know if Working Out Loud groups often consider these kinds of things – but we certainly do at Outlandish.

Working Out Loud seems to pay a lot of attention to building networks and having an influence on other people. Not everyone ends up doing that, at scale, of course, and maybe it isn’t the be-all and end-all of life? Maybe there is also value in being a little introverted too? Not everyone wants to change the world.

Conversely, perhaps Action Learning goes a little deeper than Working Out Loud – I don’t know. Here’s a quote from a paper written by some friends/colleagues:

“… In comparison to other action technologies, Action Learning might be looked upon as relatively mild and unprovocative, yet our experience is that people can experience it as powerful and even frightening. We conclude that it is often the first step for participants in a journey toward greater self-insight, greater capacity to learn from experience, and greater awareness of the political and cultural dimensions of organizational change. (Marsick and O’Neil 1999)”

Personally, I think going deep sometimes can be important if we are to really change things. But I am also sure that it is vitally important that how deep to go is always up to the participants. This is a voluntary process – no-one at Outlandish, or anywhere, has to do Action Learning.

But, like ‘Working Out Loud’, I believe Action Learning offers much to individuals and the organisations they work in.

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In case it’s useful, here are a couple of the classic books on Action Learning:

  • Pedler, M. 1991. Action Learning in Practice, edited by M. Pedler. 2nd ed. Oxford: Gower Publishing.
  • Revans, R. 1998. ABC of Action Learning: Empowering Managers to Act and to Learn. London: Lemos and Crane.

And the paper mentioned above is:

  • Rob Warwick, Janet McCray & Douglas Board (2017): Bourdieu’s habitus and field: implications on the practice and theory of critical action learning, Action Learning: Research and Practice, DOI: 10.1080/14767333.2017.1296409 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14767333.2017.1296409