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Doers of the Word? An enquiry into the nature of action in action learning

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A recent trend in public policy in many countries is the requirement for 'joined up thinking' and 'joined up working', including partnership within and between agencies, and between agencies and their publics. This in turn has led to a growth of interest in action learning as a means to bring about the organizational and individual development required for implementing such policies. Action learning, with its emphasis on solving new problems, implementing solutions and learning-to-learn seems to fit the zeitgeist. However, the notion of 'action' in action learning has presented a real difficulty in administering action learning sets in this context. Commencing from a philosophical point of view that emphasises the identity of action and learning, rather than their separation, we report here on three such public sector action learning projects and identify three fundamental features of the action which took place in and around them. Thus: action can occur either inside or outside the set; while it is always an input to the learning process, it can also sometimes be regarded as an output of that process; and finally, the type of knowledge that can be acquired may be in Gilbert Ryle's terms either 'knowledge how' or 'knowledge that'. Five categories of action are identified: expressive action, concerned with feelings and relationships in the set; the enrichment of networks and local knowledge; changes in personal practice; collective action; and organisational change. While organisational change may be regarded as, in one sense, 'the big prize' of action learning, it should not blind us to more subtle processes of learning and change that occur.

Keywords: Collective action; Expressive action; Knowing how; Learning sets; Local knowledge; Networks; Organisational change; Public policy; personal practice

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Salford, UK

Publication date: 2007-09-01

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