Book Review - Facilitating Action Learning by Mike Pedler and Christine Abbott

Facilitating Action Learning

Great things are happening to me in 2014! On the 13th of January I attended an action learning facilitator training course with the intention of learning how to facilitate action learning sets. It's a three day course and that was just day one. All the delegates were given a book, which is what I am about to review. Mike Pedler and Christine Abbot, the authors have a long history of working with action learning.They are partners at Centre for Action Learning Facilitation which they founded in 2011. The book as they claim expresses their experiences of action learning, and it's a recent publication written in 2013. There are some comments about the book which describe it as:

  • Being an exceptional and comprehensive guide to action learning
  • Packed with useful models
  • Covering all the essentials

The book is validated by ILM (Institute of Leadership and Management) and was published by Open University Press. The book's structure is what you would expect from a well laid out one:

  • Contents
  • A bit about the authors
  • Acknowledgements
  • A detailed introduction
  • Eight chapters
  • References (arranged by chapter)
  • Subject index
  • Author index
  • An overview of ILM

Just browsing through the book I could see that while it looks text heavy, it is peppered with a good number of diagrams, boxes, practice notes, tables, and case studies which help to break up the flowing text. Below is a short and quick review of some of what each chapter covers.

  • Introduction: This is a comprehensive introduction to what the book covers. It also has a short introduction to each chapter.
  • Chapter One - Action learning: Its origins and Principles: In this chapter you will discover what action learning is and what it isn't. You will also read about it's origins and values, plus what it is intended for.
  • Chapter Two - Facilitating Action Learning: An Overview: A quick overview of what it means to facilitate an action learning set. The person who does this is referred to as an action learning adviser. While this chapter does briefly introduce you to the role of such a person, it also discusses some opposing views about the role as to it's limitations and whether it is needed.
  • Chapter Three - The Accoucheur: Initiating Action Learning: The accoucheur is one of the roles of the action learning adviser, and it is an initiator role. This chapter deals with what that role involves. It answers questions such as how ready is the organization for action learning? Is there support and commitment from the top for it? It also has a case study which begins in this chapter to continue in chapters 4 and 5.
  • Chapter Four - The Set Adviser: This is another role of the action learning adviser. The set adviser helps the set members to develop the kind of skills that will help to make an action learning set beneficial and effective. This chapter highlights the functions that the set adviser performs. The second part of the case study started in chapter 3 is also discussed.
  • Chapter Five - The Organization Developer: The organization developer is the third role of the action learning adviser. It is a very important role and probably the most challenging one as it is about transferring learning from individual members and their sets into their organizations. Developing the organization, developing organizational learning, and learning architectures are topics you will read about in this chapter. It also contains the last part of the case study.
  • Chapter Six - Becoming Critical: Critical Action Learning(CAL) appeared in the 1990s championed by academics looking for a more critical approach to management education as opposed to the more rational and functionalist approach. This chapter explains what CAL is and presents a case for it. It answers questions such as, How is CAL different from 'ordinary' action learning? and What does CAL look like? The chapter explores the concept of CAL through stories and activities.
  • Chapter Seven - An Action Learning Way of Working: In this chapter the values espoused By Reg Revans about the purpose of action learning are revisited. But also some other key topics are covered, so expect to read about the purpose of action learning, facilitative leadership, developing partnership and creating knowledge communities among other topics. There is also a lengthy discourse on Network Organizing.
  • Chapter Eight - Developing Your Practice: This is the final chapter and certainly an appropriate ending for the book. According to the authors, 'This chapter builds on those earlier to consider the best way of learning to become an action learning adviser.' I describe it as part advice and part challenge on how to develop oneself as an action learning adviser. It has information on approaches to becoming an action learning adviser. Also it looks at the idea of knowing, being and doing as a useful way of developing ones action learning practice. It also touches on the issues of anxiety and power, and how they relate to the role of the action learning adviser. The chapter ends with some development suggestions under the title, the rythm of professional development, and offers insights on practice, sharing, communities of practice, reading and writing.

From my perspective this is a good book that will give you a good grounding on the theory and practice of action learning. The fact that it tries to uphold most of the original intentions of Reg Revans purpose for action learning is laudable. It has a good balance of tools in the book ranging from research, case studies, frameworks, diagrams and activities for reflction. At times it does feel a bit technical and heavy going but that in no way takes reduces the value of the book. In my opinion if you are serious about action learning this is one of the books you should read.

And just before I finish...... Here are ten key learning points for me from the book.

  1. The origins and principles of action learning, and Reg Revans intentions.
  2. Roles of the action learning adviser.
  3. What is not action learning.
  4. The balance of support and challenge framework
  5. Facilitating an action learning programme
  6. Virtual action learning
  7. The Deller Business Services case study
  8. Using action learning as a way to develop the organisation
  9. Critical action learning
  10. Developing as an action learning adviser.
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