Supporting cultural change: how Action learning can help …..

Development Squared are big fans of Action Learning and incorporate it into the Leadership Development Programme placement week during the facilitated group evening sessions. Here our guest blogger, Lynne Butler from Pashley Learning, talks about the importance of Action Learning in supporting cultural change…..

There is much talk of the need for organisations to have the ‘right’ culture in place so they can sustain high performance in fast paced world.  But what if you have a new cultural vision for your organisation but struggle to actually realise it and make it ‘stick’?

Organisational culture may be simply expressed as ‘the way we do things round here’.  There are many factors that impact on the development of organisational culture [for example: as suggested by Charles Handy in Understanding Organizations (1993)].  Culture builds up over time and permeates every aspect of an organisation’s ‘being’.  This includes its structures, systems and processes as well as the employees who work within it and how they then choose to behave at work.

Unless employees are used to learning and are very practised in the art of successful change, ensuring a permanent shift from one way of behaving to another is likely to take considerable time and effort.  Culture change may well meet with resistance. Leaders and managers can find tackling this both challenging and time consuming. Providing a suitable forum to help employees understand what cultural change will mean for them is key to overcoming barriers and promoting greater ‘buy in’ to a new culture. Without this ‘buy in’, further action by employees to take forward change and embed different working practices in a new culture may be difficult and prove challenging to sustain.

Action Learning (as developed originally by Reg Revans in the 1940s) provides a practical and dynamic learning method which can be used to effectively support cultural change programmes.  It is suitable for whole teams, groups of managers or with groups of individuals across an organisation.  The flexibility of Action Learning means it can be run as:

  • A stand-alone programme
  • Alongside a face to face training programme
  • Part of a ‘blended’ development programme (for example: with developmental input and 360 degree feedback).

Its core principle is that people learn best when reflecting upon and resolving their own work problems with support from a group of colleagues in what is known as a ‘learning set’.

A typical Action Learning ‘set’ in this context has groups of five to eight people with a facilitator. It meets regularly over a period of about six months to consider current working practices, what will need to shift in the new culture and how this might best be done.  Set members challenge and ask each other questions about work issues, but they do not give each other advice.  Instead individual set members reflect on their own work issues, come to their own conclusions and then commit to taking practical action.  This helps promote emotional engagement in the change being made. The role of leadership in implementing culture change successfully is a critical one. Action Learning can be extremely useful for line managers in translating for team members what the new culture will mean for them.

Of course, certain things need to be in place to help ensure an Action Learning programme is successful.  Aside from what would normally be associated with any successful learning intervention, there are three particular points to bear in mind:

  1. Senior and line managers, as well as learning set members, must understand and show strong ‘buy in’ to the principles of Action Learning and what this will mean in practice.  Action Learning is not just another type of training course and it is extremely important that there is trust in it as a process.
  2. The programme needs a clear purpose with agreed dates and timescales to ensure that it does not ‘drift’ or become a vehicle simply to voice employee problems and grievances with no follow up action.
  3. Set members must commit to attend set meetings regularly and actively participate in them.

Action Learning offers many benefits for the organisation and the individual.  For organisations Action Learning promotes group reflection on current working practice, what should be kept and what needs to change.  It encourages set members to take ownership of practical ways to tackle work problems and offer each other support in doing so.  Potential for learning is considerable through greater understanding of what happens in other parts of the organisation and by reflecting on what works.  As well as preparing for cultural change, set members may also increase their self-confidence, their ability to give and receive feedback and constructively challenge others – all very useful skills to enhance organisational performance.

For individuals Action Learning offers employees ‘time out’ to help make sense of the complexity and the nature of cultural change in their organisation.  The learning set provides a confidential and supportive environment to express feelings and help each member appreciate what change will mean for them and their teams. It is a safe place to begin to change behaviour and put in place new skills being learnt. Best of all, learning is at the individual’s own pace.

Action Learning helps employees to address the ‘What’s in it for me?’ side of successful change management.  It also aligns neatly with promoting employee voice and employee engagement, both of which are associated with high performance working in organisations.

All in all Action Learning could be a very sound investment that will enable you to build greater organisational capability, not only to successfully implement your current cultural change programme but also for future change which is probably not that far round the corner. Why not give it a try?

Lynne Butler of Pashley Learning is joint author with Nigel Leach of Action Learning for Change: a practical guide for managers.  Published in 2011 by Management Books 2000. 

For more information please contact Lynne by email or visit the website: