Action Learning Conference at Henley

Back from the wonderfully international action learning conference at Henley Business School, organised by the Action Learning: research & practice journal team, of which I am a part.  This year’s theme was Assessing the Value – and for me at least it prompted a whole load of questions about what Action Learning is for…   Talking to participants from as far apart as Korea and Texas (and many places in between) it is clear that something in the simplicity and ‘under-definition’ of Action Learning resonates with many different cultures – and speaks to many different needs and possibilities.

The emergence of ‘critical action learning’ is clearly a new frame through which to understand action and learning in organisations and in communities.  I am very attracted to a robust political analysis about how ‘learning’ and ‘development’ is used in organisation settings.  All too often, seems to me, ‘learning’ becomes a tool for maintaining organisational shibboleths, for learning how to conform to cultural norms.  This, perhaps, goes some way to understanding how so many apparently intelligent, good people can end up colluding in organisational malfunction – Enron, Lehmans, RBS and so on…

But also, as Meg Wheatley points out, “there is no force for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about,” so a shared sense of values, passion and purpose seems pretty critical for connecting up to act on some of the most intractable problems we face…

So – how to balance the need for galvanising around shared purposes and passion to act on the ‘wicked issues’,  balanced by a healthy critical awareness of tricky things like power, politics, vested interests, uncertainty and unintended consequences?

I come back to the value of creating and supporting ‘meeting architectures’ which design in dialogue, diversity and difference, which value dissent and productive conflict and which can work with power and politics in a courageous, appreciative, clear and sympathetic way.  And good Action Learning is still a profoundly simple and yet powerful method for doing this.

Yuri Boshyk gave a lovely session about the life and motivations of Reg Revans, the father of Action Learning.  He talked about Reg’s early years at the Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge, when he worked with Rutherford and Einstein and how they worked together as ‘comrades in adversity’ when all their theory about the physical world no longer explained what they were starting to see in front of them in the quantum world.  I was familiar with that story from Reg himself.  But he also told a story which I heard afresh – about Reg’s relationship with the Quaker movement in Cambridge at the same time, connecting the Quaker meeting structures and the action learning set.  Yuri read out the Quaker Values that said something to me about the importance of the spiritual in Action Learning.  

Truth. Quiet. Simplicity. Compassion. Community. Questioning.  Equality.  Action.  Justice.


About suepritchard

I live a portfolio life: researcher, writer, consultant, organic/permaculture farmer, single mother of three grown-ups and social activist..... My main work is running SULEiS, a consulting network for building leadership and change capability, inside and outside traditional organisations, to make practical progress on the difficult issues.
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