Client List
Observations From
Recent Executive Teaching

Action Learning
Beyond Smart Talk










Wharton Action Learning Projects

Degussa, a German-based chemical firm
Société Générale, Investment Banking Division, Paris, France
Aventis, a global pharmaceutical firm
AXA, a global insurance and asset management firm
Textron, a diversified US firm committed to business transformation
Lend Lease, an Australian Property Development Firm
NBTA (National Business Travel Association)

In a broad sense, each of these firms faced a similar complex challenge—they were missing opportunities to deepen customer relationships (and increase revenue) because business units within their firms were not collaborating sufficiently to develop more comprehensive “total solutions” for customers.

To address this issue and develop executive talent, each firm committed to a series of Action Learning Projects—staffed by high potential executives from across business units and functions—designed to diagnose the problem and recommend new business process, managerial practices, and organization structures.

Fatal Assumptions

Many corporate level and business unit strategies assume that the firm has the organizational and behavioral competencies needed to actually implement the strategy, but often that is not the case.

What organizational competenices are needed to be competitive in the future?

How do firms build these competencies?

How do firms overcome barriers to execution?

How do firms create E2? (Execution, Energy, and commitment)

“Both/And” Thinking

Action learning projects require “both” using business diagnostic and strategic thinking skills “and” taking action and involve both learning and reflection for the individuals and teams Action learning projects involve a structured and facilitated de-briefing process at two levels: macro level organizational learnings and micro level project team and individual learnings

What is Action Learning?

It is work on real business issues—not historical cases and classroom lectures.

It brings people who do not often work together—initially as a group, progressively as a team—to blend skills, and put them in different roles.

It emphasizes field-based research to find answers for issues that are important and urgent to the firm.

It allows teams to propose solutions and argue for resources to create opportunities or solve problems.

It is the emphasis on learning—for individuals and for teams—that makes action learning efforts more than just business projects.

It is becoming a widely-used approach to developing management talent in multi-national firms such as GE, Motorola, Siemens, Aventis, Textron, AXA, IBM, Citigroup, Fujitsu—and it has become a big element in executive education efforts at Wharton and other leading business schools.

A Typical Action Learning Cycle

• Purpose and objectives reviewed
• Travel both inside and outside the firm
• Data analysis and development of recommendation
• Recommended by business heads or CEO
• Team building exercises since participants come from different units etc.
• Customers
• Debrief data gathering
• Real, significant and impactful
• Overview of issues
• External best practice firms
• Formulate recommendations
• Cut across businesses and impact total firm performance
• Background presentation
• Internal best practices
• Draft presentations
• Experts, best practice companies, existing data, etc.
• Experts
• Coaching
• Recommended by business units
• Team planning time
• Focus groups (internal and external)
• Debrief data gathering
• Based on a talent inventory review
• Senior executives in the firm and those closest to the issue
• Formulate recommendations
• Done firm-wide


Presentations To
Senior Executives
Debrief and Reflection (1 day)
Follow-up by Senior Managers
• CEO and business heads attend • Structured debrief with coach • Within 1-2 weeks of the presentation
• 60 minutes per team • Recommendations • Decisions on actions to be taken
• 20 minute presentation • Team process evaluation • Assignment of responsibility for implementation
• 40 minute discussion
• Individual development opportunities • Continuous updates on project status
  • Individual learning and action plans  
  • Celebration  


The Benefits Of Action Learning

Create a bridge between strategy and implementation (i.e. translate strategy into operational terms)

Build competencies in real-time

Achieve buy-in to change agenda

Managers become champions of change

Build a stronger management culture

Achieve high performance partnerships among components of the business

Solve urgent and compelling business issues


A Closer Look At The Elements

The Business Issue
Usually of high importance to the organization, and therefore of high relevance to the group
Has no easily identifiable solution
Team is authorized to work outside the box

The Group
Usually 4-8 people
Often from different functions or business units to maximize perspectives
No hierarchy in most cases: A leaderless group can include outsiders such as suppliers or customers

A Facilitator
Can be a working group member or a person who fills only that role (e.g. an internal or external consultant)
Role: helps the group reflect on how they are solving problems and what they are learning
and focuses on process: how individuals listen and communicate, how the group has re-framed problems, how people are giving each other feedback

The Commitment To Learning
Action Learning places equal value on the completion of the work task and the development of individuals and organizations is essential to the process

The Resolution To Take Action
The team works under the assumption that its solutions will be implemented
It maps out stakeholder issues and creates solutions to roadblocks
This ‘real world’ dimension raises the stakes of the project, and adds urgency

The Questioning, Field Work & Reflection Process
By focusing on questions, the team brings to the forefront what is not known
Questions focus on clarifying the the exact nature of the problem and identifying possible solutions before taking action
Field work: Interviews with customers, experts, best practice companies, is undertaken as needed


Role of Action Learning Sponsors

Define projects that are linked to operating and/or strategic plans (make them urgent and important) Serve as a champion for projects by communicating the significance of the projects to the group and the organization (make it real)

Helping to overcome resistance and obstacles and provide resources (knowledge, access, funding)

Evaluate groups’ findings

Commit to take action on groups’ findings to ensure organizational benefits (keep it real)


Global Best Practices

Action Learning has been embraced by many of the world’s largest multi-national firms.  For numerous case studies of successful Action Learning projects, you may want to obtain and read Business Driven Action Learning: Global Best Practices, Yuri Boshyk, Editor


The Bottom Line: A GE Case Example

GE sees Action Learning programs as the best way to develop executive talent and launch strategic change initiatives

Six Sigma quality initiative was recommended by an EDC class
GE Capital India resulted from a BMC project
The launch of the GE Plastics plant in Shanghai was supported by an Action Learning project Executive training at Crotonville has been as a laboratory for culture change

True North Advisory Group

True North Advisory Group