Action Learning Associates

This site reflects our forty years’ experience with Action Learning, or as it is also known, Action Reflection Learning. Unlike traditional training, Action Learning is holistic, focusing on the ‘complete’ person or organisation. The process of Action Learning enables them to identify the knowledge, skills, experience and behaviour necessary to be successful and empowers them to achieve. In it’s personal development form it uses the participant’s ‘day job’ or a specific project as the learning vehicle through which participants are able to identify what they need to know or be able to do to be successful. In its organisational development mode the focus is on the new knowledge and skills the organisation needs to prosper and the values and behaviours it needs to adopt to be successful.

Action Learning empowers change. It enables us to let go of the past and embrace the future

Learning in Action – Helping people to help themsleves

Action Learning empowers people; it frees them from the constraints of traditional thinking and enables them to both develop themselves and optimise the performance of their organisations. We have successfully run both Personal Development and Organisational Change, what we call In-Plant programmes, in many different parts of the world in widely differing cultures and languages and in every case those involved have responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to help themselves. We are happy to share this experience with you.

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To survive in a fast-changing world we and the values of our organisations need to reflect tomorrow’s world.

We are told that the government needs more from the economy. This means increased productivity which is the value that the management of organisations produce from the assets under their control. For Private organisations this is the Profit they make and for Public organisations I ‘assume’ it is the achievement of the projects and services they are charged with delivering within the time and costs agreed. There are two main areas in which management both Private and Public can influence the performance of their organisations. These are Technical and Behavioural. Technical changes are the tools that enable staff to function most efficiently. Behavioural changes empowers all staff to work for the good of the organisation. How do we achieve this?

By the 1960’s it was clear to anyone involved that British Industry was, for a variety of reasons, not competitive on the world stage. The Japanese were by then, the World Leaders in productivity. They had introduced such methodologies as JIT and the Kaizen drivers OHE, OEE, TQC etc. Clearly, if we were to compete, we needed to emulate them.

The Government of the day saw this as a training problem and decided to try to encourage the management of larger companies to introduce formal staff training through what was called The Industrial Act 1964. The Act called for a basic minimum level of training for all classes of employees based on the numbers in each class. If the employer met the training goal, he paid nothing, if he exceeded the training goal the Government covered the costs of the additional training if he did less than the requirement, he paid the Government for the training which was not done.

For many large companies this became a new source of income. They already had in-house training facilities for groups like Apprentices, so they developed these and thousands of people went on training course. The companies that managed it well were able to cover their training costs.

In 1972 I joined the teaching staff of the GEC-Marconi Management Training Centre in Chelmsford. Our mandate was to provide for the management training needs of supervisors and managers in the GEC-Marconi group.

At that time there was a lot of interest in the difference between teaching and learning. The teacher tells the students what they need to know. The learner creates an experience through which the participant learns what they need to know. We were working with experienced managers who we knew would not want to listen to a lot of theory and decided to take the learning by doing approach using simulations, case-studies, projects etc. Our programmes were well received and by 1974 we felt we were doing a good job. However, all was not well.

As tutors we were responsible for our own programmes which included finding participants. This meant developing relationships with sponsors, usually HR managers, who we met regularly. It was at one of these regular meetings with one of my best clients that I learnt that there was a problem.  We had completed the pleasantries, and I was about to ‘pitch’ my programme for the semester to one of the HR managers; before I could get going, he stopped me. ‘Sorry George he said, but we won’t be using your training courses anymore’. Why? The answer was simple; he told me that he had just completed a study of labour turnover and discovered that several of his best younger managers had left the company relatively soon after having attended one of our programmes. It was clear from the conversation that followed that there was a conflict between the ‘participative’ message from our training and the strongly parent/child style of management in the company. What most management really wanted from the training was for their participants to have a nice time and come back motivated to work harder not smarter. He never sent anyone else and many other ex-participants I spoke with later confirmed that they had experienced little enthusiasm in their own workplaces for the introduction of a more participative managing style.

The problem was that we were taking individuals out of their normal environment and introducing them to a participative style of management which we believed, having studied the Japanese approach at first hand, was necessary to achieve any real increase in productivity. What we had not done, or even really thought about, was the influence of their day-to-day work environment had on how they managed their people.

From this experience we realised that, not only do we individuals, have values, which determine the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of those things we seek, and seek to avoid; organisations also have values which determine their views on what and how things should be done. We were developing individuals in isolation from their work environment. Encouraging them to adopt a more participative style of management to improve productivity but this was in direct conflict with the values of their organisations. The message was clear ‘Improved productivity through empowerment cannot be achieved solely by training managers; the culture of organisations also needs to change to one which recognises and supports a more participative style of management.  It must encourage the use of all the brains in the organisation, instead of the arms and legs of the many and the brains of the few.

Management was happy to use the technical ‘tools’ of Japanese but didn’t want to understand that the real ‘secret’ of Japanese success was that their cultural values are different. They are focused on the success of enterprise rather than maintaining a class structure. They value their people, and their ‘style of management’ reflects this. As Fujio Cho said ‘Many small brains are superior to a few big ones, let’s use them. They understand that involvement leads to ownership which creates commitment and commitment is an essential part of successful change. Western management sees such behaviour as a sign of weakness.

The common denominator in optimising the performance of organisations is managing style. The things that stop people from doing their best lies in the ‘them and us’ attitudes that exist in traditional organisations. We have conducted hundreds of performance problem surveys over the years, and all identify traditional management attitudes towards work and people at work are at the heart of performance problems.  These attitudes are based on the cultural values of yesterday and determine the way human beings perceive their roles and relationships within hierarchies; they which dictate the managing style that fix people in those roles. The Japanese see their people as an asset; traditional Western management sees the people as the problem.

The performance of all people-based activities is determined by the values of those who manage them and particularly the cultural values which dictate the managing style of the organisation. To optimise performance, we need an involving managing style. We thought we could achieve this by developing managers. But we did not realise that the dominant force, in the work environment is not the individual manager. It is the values of the environment which reflects the values of those who created the organisation and the desire of those who follow, to copy the values of the past.To avoid this and unlock the value of all employees working together for the good of the enterprise; the culture needs to change. This can be achieved through involvement which creates ownership that leads to commitment of all.

My books ‘Values & Style’ explains the process and ‘In-Plant Action’ reflects my search to find a means of persuading successful people in senior positions that their values and the values of their organisations will, at some time, become yesterday’s values.

To survive in a fast-changing world, as JFK said a long time ago ‘we must let go of the past to embrace the future’. We and values of our organisations need to reflect the values of

If you would like to know where your organisation stands, please answer the following questionnaire using Yes    Sometimes     No

Do you feel your organisation values you?

Are you involved in decision making?

Do you have weekly meetings to solve problems?

Are these meetings facilitated to develop the team’s ability to work together?

Are you encouraged to advise management on ways to improve performance?

Do you have face to face monthly performance meetings with your supervisor?

Do you have regular opportunities to develop yourself?

Do you find your work satisfying?

Would you recommend a friend to join your company?

Are all employees treated equally in your organisation?


+ 85% Tomorrow’s organisation

+ 60% Today’s organisation

–  50% Yesterday’s organisation

To learn how organisation have develop themselves read – The Happy Index by James Tomlin

If you would like to know more we suggest you look at these of our books;Own Job Action Learning by George P Boulden


April 2024

George receiving his Award in Warsaw June 2017

Please feel free to browse the site; and to contact us if you have any queries.

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