action learning sets

Action Learning Sets


Action learning sets are one approach that can be used to foster learning in the workplace. They have been used by a number of organisations in the NGO sector in recent years. The emphasis is on learning from experience and then acting on that learning. This is shown in the learning cycle (illustrated) which is fundamental to this methodology as an experimental approach to learning. Simply put, the Action Learning Set approach provides a structured way of working in small groups which can provide the discipline we often need to help us learn from what we do, and improve our practice as a result.


A typical Action Learning Set will consist of 5 or 6 people who commit to work together over a period of at least six months. The set meets regularly (possibly every six weeks) for a day or half a day. At each meeting, set members have an opportunity to introduce a challenge they are facing in their own practice. The group helps to work on the problem through supportive but challenging questioning – encouraging a deeper understanding of the issues involved, challenging underlying assumptions, and exploring ways forward. As well as reflecting on the issue and developing a plan of action, the set member is encouraged to report back to the group on progress next time they meet, which is a spur to ensuring that action is taken between meetings! The strength of this approach lies in its ground rules and disciplined process; these are outlined on the following page.


Action Learning Sets are best suited for people who are likely to face challenges at work that do not necessarily have a “correct” technical solution. They are particularly appropriate in the development context where the challenge is often complex and multi-layered. In an environment where there is high pressure to take action, the Action Learning Set provides a valuable structure and discipline to ensure that space for learning is protected.


Action Learning Sets provide a disciplined process to help us learn. This page illustrates some of the important disciplines that create the Action Learning Set process…

Committing regular time

One of the main barriers to learning cited by trainees is lack of time. The development sector is activist in nature and there is often a sense that learning is a luxury. The Action Learning Set process is about making our actions more effective. In order for it to work, there needs to be a committment to ring-fence time for the process and prioritise it.

Learning to listen

Many people claim to be good listeners, but to listen well takes real skill and is rarely practised. One of the things that participants in Action Learning Sets consistently say they gain from the process is a better ability to listen to what someone is saying before formulating a response.

Learning to ask helpful questions

Action Learning encourages a particular type and use of questions – questions that develop dialogue and reflection, rather than argument and recommendation. The questioning helps clarify and deepen understanding of the problem. It may help challenge assumptions and perspectives held by the presenter.

Not giving advice

Someone once said “Advice is profoundly pleasurable to the giver!” One of the disciplines of the Action Learning Set is to learn not to offer advice in response to a dilemma, nor to judge what is being said, but to frame helpful questions that will enable the presenter to come to their own solution. One of the roles of the facilitator is to guard against advice packaged as a question, such as “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if you….?”!

Following the Action Learning Cycle

The Action Learning Cycle follows the process of: Reflecting, Learning, Planning, Action, then back to Reflecting etc. This provides a useful framework to guide the type, sequencing and pacing of questions. Thus questions are likely to follow a flow – from clarification of the experience and issue being expressed, through reflection and then deeper analysis of that issue – looking at it from different angles and possibly re-framing the original problem. The final questions of the set focus on future action. The facilitator will support the group with this flow of questioning around the cycle. Following this cycle ensures that participants avoid the common pitfall of jumping from problem to solution without investigation of the underlying causes.

Giving individual airtime 

Having an hour during which all attention is focused on you and the issue you are bringing to the set might seem like a daunting prospect! In fact, set members report how empowering this experience is – and how rare, since our normal patterns of discussion take us in different directions, shifting focus, and rarely giving support to an individual for such a sustained period.


A significant aspect of the Action Learning Set process is the “unlearning” of our common habits of jumping from problem to solution and offering advice. Instead, it adheres to a disciplined methodology centred around good listening and questioning. It is the facilitator’s role to achieve this and create an environment of trust. The role of the facilitator includes:

  • Creating a “safe space” for honest discussion
  • Reminding set members of the methodology – ensuring the disciplined process is kept
  • Modelling helpful questioning
  • Ensuring that the questioning moves around the action learning cycle at an appropriate pace
  • Drawing attention to issues of process
  • Being conscious of time


Participants have quoted many benefits which they have gained from action learning:

  • Learning a more ‘disciplined’ way of working
  • Learning to network
  • Learning to relate to, and communicate with, others more effectively
  • Gaining increased self-confidence
  • Gaining increased awareness
  • Gaining increased readiness to take responsibility and initiative

Beyond this, many of the disciplines and behaviours that are seen to characterise a learning organisation are within Action Learning Sets: team learning, dialogue, suspending assumptions, personal mastery, taking risks, converting mistakes into learning, asking questions, building in time for reflection. Action learning can be seen as a step toward promoting organisational learning – although these behaviours are not enough on their own.

For organisations to really feel the benefit of action learning, there needs to be the will to support participation in Sets and respect for their outcomes. There needs to be a supportive learning culture, and structures and systems that give space for Action Learning Sets to have an impact on practice.

Businesswoman Making Presentation To Office Colleagues

Action Learning Sets can be seen as the mental equivalent of going to the gym to get physically fit - They exercise our “learning muscles” in a strucutured, safe and enjoyable environment