Differences and impacts through action learning

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    Action Learning: Research and PracticePublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/calr20

    Differences and impacts through actionlearningJoanna Kozubska a & Bob MacKenzie aa IMCA Business School , Auckland , New ZealandPublished online: 18 Jul 2012.

    To cite this article: Joanna Kozubska & Bob MacKenzie (2012) Differences and impactsthrough action learning, Action Learning: Research and Practice, 9:2, 145-164, DOI:10.1080/14767333.2012.688595

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  • Differences and impacts through action learning

    Joanna Kozubska and Bob MacKenzie

    IMCA Business School, Auckland, New Zealand

    (Received 13 December 2011; final version received 13 April 2012)

    Here, we argue that action learning (AL) has been evolving into differentvariations, whose respective advocates appear to concentrate on one of theseveral components inherent in Revans formulation of AL as L P + Q.They do this sometimes inappropriately to the virtual or relative exclu-sion of other aspects, and this has consequences for the outcomes and impactof the AL process. In an attempt to delimit the boundaries between variousversions and indeed to identify what Johnson [2010. A framework for theethical practice of action learning. Action Learning: Research and Practice7, no. 3: 267283] called inauthentic AL, we have been developing ourideas for a scanning device or framework. We refer briefly to some of thetheoretical underpinnings of this framework. We then introduce a fresh tax-onomy to explain and illustrate features of five principal variations of empha-sis in AL that we have identified. The aim of this framework is to helpstakeholders to work towards selecting and co-creating the most appropriatevariation of authentic AL to suit their unique set of circumstances at anygiven time. We outline the likely outcomes of each respective variation iftaken to extremes and conjecture about their implications. This taxonomyshould also help one to reduce the mystique and confusion that often sur-round AL while acknowledging its complexity. We suggest that by takingadvantage of insights provided by this framework, purchasers and potentialAL set members in particular are more likely to participate in learning con-versations that lead to more informed decisions and actions to address oradjust their respective interests and needs. In conclusion, we identify someareas for further research and development.

    Keywords: action learning; umbrella framework; stakeholder theory;network theory; conversations

    Introduction

    Action Learning seems very much alive and evolving, a fertile idea spawning newforms and vivifying old ones. . . . Different interpretations of Action Learningmay have their roots in the broader idea of learning itself. (Pedler 1997, 61)

    ISSN 1476-7333 print/ISSN 1476-7341 online# 2012 Taylor & Francishttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14767333.2012.688595

    http://www.tandfonline.com

    Corresponding author. Email: bob_mackenzie@btopenworld.com

    Action Learning: Research and PracticeVol. 9, No. 2, July 2012, 145164

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  • As a community of practice, one of the differences that we are making in theworld is that we are producing and reproducing different approaches toaction learning (AL), each with discernible variations of emphasis and out-comes. Although there is considerable interest in, and take up of, AL, wehave been wondering why its use is not even more widespread. Critical ALtheory (e.g. Vince 2008, derived from Willmotts (1994, 1997) formulationfrom emancipatory Critical Management Studies) may go some way to explain-ing the smaller incidence of take-up or effectiveness than might have beenexpected. Given the emotions and politics involved, there may well be acounter-force of learning inaction to offset or negate learning in action.

    This paper summarises our current thinking about the potential usefulness ofour umbrella framework of AL so called because of its shape and span. Theframework identifies several variations differences in the interpretation andapplication of Revans (1984) formulation of AL,1 expressed as L P + Q. Inthis project, we take our cue from the observation quoted above and locate thisdiscussion within the context of experiential learning as detailed in Reynoldsand Vince (2007). The framework also embraces the four definitions of ALlisted by ONeil and Marsick (2007, 7) and the four schools of AL identifiedby Marsick and ONeil (1999, 15963). It is also mindful of theories of criticalaction learning and of the version called business-driven AL (Boshyk 2000).We imagine that it might be usefully applied within Burgoynes (2010) con-ception of a critical realist network theory approach.

    While diversity of AL approaches is broadly to be welcomed, this prolifer-ation can cause confusion and uncertainty about what it is and about whichapproach works best. As a result, ALs take-up and success rates and there-fore its impact are probably more limited than they might be. Our goals indeveloping this framework are, therefore, to help stakeholders in particular,prospective and actual commissioners and participants to achieve greaterclarity and appreciation of its possibilities and potential relevance or otherwiseto their unique circumstances by distinguishing different schools of thinkingand practice about AL. To this end, we have been experimenting with visualmetaphors in an attempt to clarify our arguments and claims.

    We suggest that the variations in AL that we identify in the framework(Figure 1) have developed and are likely to continue to develop as anatural process of experimentation or because individual practitioners quitenaturally emphasise their own tacit or explicit personal preferences forcertain aspects of the process, sometimes to the knowing (i.e. deliberate) orunknowing exclusion or neglect of other elements.

    In the next section, we trace the genesis of the umbrella framework.

    Theoretical underpinnings of the umbrella framework

    In developing this framework, our inquiry has been essentially exploratory,conjectural, theoretical and qualitative. We have drawn upon aspects of

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  • stakeholder and network theory and upon theories of conceptual frameworkdevelopment. The presentation of this conference paper and its associatedworkshop is an important aspect of the method, based on dialogue and narrative(e.g. Chivers and Yates 2010), that we are adopting to refine our ideas.

    Some theories of AL

    Determined by different perspectives and contexts, the theory and practice ofAL have been variously interpreted over time. The design of any AL initiativeis contingent upon understandings of factors such as philosophy, purpose, timeframe, degree of change and epistemology (e.g. Marsick and ONeil 1999, 172).Several taxonomies and variations of emphasis of what we might call post-classical (post-Revans) AL have been developed. For example, Marsick andONeil (1999, 15963) identified four different schools of AL, which theycalled the scientific, the experiential, the critical reflection and the tacitschools. The practice of adherents to these and other schools is distinguishedand determined by their respective dominant beliefs about learning and change.

    That said, our starting point is Revans urging that we focus primarily onwhat we do not know, and we frame this project in the context of what weinfer from his writings and utterances are five key components as set out inTable 1.2

    Figure 1. Variations on a theme of AL: from

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