Leveraging Action Learning as a Talent Management Strategy during Economic Uncertainty

2011 Volume 14 Issue 3

The current economic landscape affords companies the opportunity to fully develop leadership talent against a backdrop of genuine challenge and tangible uncertainty—attributes integral to an effective action-learning program.

[powerpress: http://gsbm-med.pepperdine.edu/gbr/audio/summer2011/Monson_Action Learning.mp3]

While there are legitimate concerns with regard to making workforce investments during periods of economic uncertainty, the business case for doing so is unmistakable. What’s more, such periods may actually provide the best opportunity to incorporate action learning as an essential component of an organization’s broader talent management strategy. Action learning is a method for developing leadership talent through team projects that task high-potential employees with addressing organization-level problems or challenges. Talent management can be defined as the integrated system of strategies, policies, and programs designed to identify, develop, deploy, and retain talent to achieve strategic objectives and meet future business needs.[1] The current economic landscape affords companies the opportunity to fully develop leadership talent against a backdrop of genuine challenge and tangible uncertainty—attributes integral to an effective action-learning program. This article seeks to marry the business case for investment in talent management with practical suggestions for implementing an action-learning initiative for businesses and organization development practitioners seeking to leverage the current economic environment for leadership development opportunities. In addition, it fills an important gap in the current action-learning research literature by synthesizing the most relevant case studies, review articles, and empirical studies into a unified framework that is geared toward practitioners.

Action Learning in the Broader Talent Management Strategy

Talent management in exemplary organizations can be understood as a series of phases, with action learning occupying a specific role within its relevant phase. A high-performance talent-management system can be thought of as a series of six phases set in the context of a cyclical model.[2] These phases are as follows:

  1. Establish the Business Case for Talent Management
  2. Define High-Potential Leaders
  3. Identify High-Potential Leaders
  4. Communicate High-Potential Designations
  5. Develop High-Potential Leaders
  6. Evaluate and Reinforcing the Talent-Management System

Exploring each phase in detail is beyond the scope of this article; however, recognition of such provides context for further discussion of action learning. Action learning is a central part of the fifth phase, with an emphasis on leadership development through projects that task high-potential employees with addressing organization-level problems or challenges. Such project-based experiences provide high potentials with broader exposure, forcing individuals to shed silo views of the organization in favor of an enterprise-wide perspective. Consequently, and as augmented by its inherently experiential nature, action learning promotes the development of a systems view of the organization.

Program Design: A Generic Model

As organization development practitioners often attest, research findings and industry best practices on action learning are strewn across published and unpublished case studies, review articles, empirical papers, and technical reports. Fortunately, however, all forms of action learning share similar attributes: “Real people taking action on real problems in real time, and learning while doing so.”[3]

An action-learning initiative should be tailored to fit its specific circumstances. The job of an action-learning program architect, most often a human resource or organizational development practitioner, is to create the conditions for learning to take place.[4] Action-learning best practices suggest that six main considerations should guide the program’s design and implementation: Advocacy, Problem, Group, Facilitator, Learning, and Action. To illustrate each of these design and implementation considerations, we describe an exemplary action-learning initiative at the Boeing Company. Boeing’s Global Leadership Program debuted in 1999 as a significant investment designed to help Boeing maintain a leadership position in the global aerospace industry and enhance the company’s leadership bench strength.[5] The program had five key goals for its global executive participants:[6] 1) Practice working together as one global company; 2) Value and seek understanding of the history, culture, politics, and customs of countries/regions; 3) Appraise the business practices, issues, and competitive dynamics within a country/region; 4) Assess business opportunities in a prospective country/region; and 5) Understand the opportunities for international joint ventures and partnerships.


First, and most importantly, action-learning programs must be sanctioned by organizational sponsors who are committed to remaining fully engaged in the process. The involvement of high-level internal stakeholders (i.e., C-level executives) is important for two reasons: First, it communicates the importance of the project as an investment. Second, for senior management, it brings the institutional perspective into the program and the program perspective back to the C-suite.[7] In Boeing’s program, the executive board selected both the business issues and strategic countries for the project focus[8], and remained involved through the entire cycle. From there, each project culminated in a presentation before the executive committee at a regularly scheduled session.[9]

By facilitating this reciprocal connection, participants can benefit from a broader view of the project’s role, and management can more easily justify the cost in terms of money and time.[10] Failure in this area may render the program impotent and pretentious, as the projects are likely to be more artificial.[11] Action-learning program participants will take both the program and their contribution to it more seriously if high-level support is visible.


With the requisite advocacy in place, the scope of the action-learning program can take shape. Foundationally, this includes the problem that the participants will work to resolve. To legitimize the program, the featured problem should represent an important current challenge or opportunity specific to the overall organization and relevant to the group.[12] The goal is to challenge participants to break free of any silo views forged in their respective functions, departments, or divisions, and to assume a macro-organizational perspective. Accordingly, the problem should be significant, such as a key problem facing the company as a whole.[13] It should be a problem with no known solution, and therefore, the group’s responsibility to solve.[14] This way, the action-learning program allows the organization to benefit from adversity. By carefully framing significant macro-organizational challenges as opportunities for employees to develop their leadership skills, the organization can effectively leverage its adversity to develop leadership capacity.[15] In Boeing’s Global Leadership Program, facilitators carefully assigned each action-learning participant to a country and business issue that was strategically and holistically relevant to the company.[16]


Action learning is conducted in small, stable groups, the composition of which represents an important consideration for program architects.[17] Recommendations vary as to the ideal group size, but suggestions range from four to eight participants.[18] Boeing’s action-learning teams were comprised of a small number of senior executives—directors, division directors, and vice-presidents.

Regardless of group size, a successful program starts with individuals who are engaged, exhibiting independent readiness to learn from experience.[19] Best practices should be employed in identifying such individuals, and in fostering a truly comprehensive assessment of leadership talent. Best practice systems define high-potential leaders according to a three-dimensional model comprised of a (1) core set of leadership competencies, (2) the candidate’s motivation to advance, and (3) an assessment of the candidate’s readiness for advancement.[20] Ultimately, groups are composed of individuals from across functions, departments, organizations, and professions,[21] and have been selected by managerial personnel fully engaged in the identification process.[22] Accordingly, at Boeing, individual business units facilitated nominations.[23]


Business GroupWhile the group members focus on the problem, a facilitator focuses on assuring that group members reflect on the problem-solving process and strategy-development experience so that learning is captured and capacity is developed.[24] The facilitator is most likely a human resources or organizational development professional who is internal or external to the organization. Facilitators do not teach, because they do not have the answer. Rather, they focus on the learning process, and its application to practice.[25] At Boeing, facilitators intercede at various points in the program to help participants reflect on possible team capability improvements and opportunities to transfer learning to other aspects of company operations.[26]

The facilitator’s initial role is to assist in team cohesion by helping group members share leadership duties and understand their strengths and weaknesses.[27] He or she acts as the group’s consciousness regarding how members listen, understand the problem, provide each other with feedback, and make assumptions.[28] They must let participants learn independently and from each other. They also help group members collaboratively reflect while ‘in’ action, rather than just reflecting ‘on’ it later.[29]


As noted, action-learning programs emphasize ‘learning by doing’ by casting participants in problem-solving roles.[30] Accordingly, they are vastly different from traditional training methods because action-learning programs are inherently committed to questioning the most fundamental assumptions underlying organizational thought processes.[31] As a result, the approach is “elicitive” and generates relevant information via purposeful reflection instead of disseminating what a trainer has deemed appropriate.[32]

Action learning’s focus is on asking the right questions rather than focusing on the right answers, fostering a process of first questioning to clarify the exact nature of the problem.[33] These questions may take the form of interview protocols, surveys, and/or other methods developed by the program participants and should be designed to collect information from relevant organizational divisions or business units. Once the information is collected, participants then work to identify possible solutions or rephrase new questions through reflection. At various points in Boeing’s Global Leadership Program, facilitators encouraged intentional reflection with the express purpose of identifying learning, and possible ways to employ that learning to improve team capabilities and other company operations.[34]

Learning results from the questioning process via an arbitrage of programmed knowledge (i.e., book knowledge), questioning (i.e., fresh insight), and reflection (i.e., deconstruction). This kind of learning builds organizational capacity, and is the salient goal of any action-learning program. Thus, “action learning shows its strength not in finding the answers to questions that have already been posed (the role of experts) but in finding the questions that need to be answered (the role of leaders).”[35]


This final piece—a commitment to acting on the action-learning group’s recommendations, or giving it the power to take action—fully legitimizes the program and its transformational potential.[36] As Revans noted, “responsible experience alone is the true motivator, the impartial witness and the final judge of meritorious learning.”[37] Accordingly, action-learning program participants must understand from the beginning that action will be the outcome. At Boeing, recommendations stemming from the program were implemented and a comprehensive evaluation process developed to measure the return realized both in terms of recommendation quality and learning transfer.

Reasons Action-learning Initiatives Fail

Failure to Reflect

“Successful organizations fail in many different ways, but they share one underlying cause: A failure to reflect.”[38] The same is true of action-learning programs. Action-learning programs should provide for frequent, regular reflection (i.e., daily, weekly, etc.), which forces participants to reflect more directly on immediate impressions, experiences, and specific circumstances.[39] Notably, attention should be directed to what is working—an appreciative inquiry approach that identifies the organization’s core strengths[40]—in addition to problem areas or opportunities. In practice, this may be an obligatory weekly session, which includes an individual journaling exercise and a related group presentation. Journaling will focus the participant’s attention on his/her own understanding; the presentation will enhance the participant’s ability to recognize the different operational, functional, and/or regional perspectives represented in the group. The combination will increase the candidate’s awareness of the interdependence among functional units.[41]

Limited Focus on Team Learning/Solutions

Generally, this mistake appears as a failure to develop strong norms around expression and/or appreciation of the group’s diverse perspectives.[42] It may manifest as a participant who is an ‘expert’ on the issue being addressed and, as a result, project recommendations become less insightful or creative, group members become less involved, and the learning experience becomes increasingly shallow.[43]To address this issue, individual participants should commit their thoughts to public scrutiny through oral or written presentations, as previously described.[44] The structured expression that results ensures individual contribution, a wider range of considerations, individual and team learning, and further reflection and conceptualization.[45]

Poor Follow Up on Project Outcomes

Project group members are often left out of the implementation of their plan, thus short-circuiting the transfer of their learning experience back into the workplace.[46] These pitfalls can be avoided by emphasizing substantive post-project opportunities for participants to continue their involvement with project recommendations.[47] These may consist of serving on task forces, heading committees, sharing project findings, or serving in newly crafted full-time positions for which a participant leaves his current post. If implementation involvement is not possible, participants should at a minimum be kept informed through debriefings staggered over the life of the initiative.[48] Careful attention should be paid to thoughtfully balancing the workloads and incentive plans for high-potential participants given the significant time and energy demanded by their formal job duties and their roles on action-learning teams.

The Business Case

The business case for investing in action-learning programs and other talent management practices despite the economic downturn is supported by compelling research evidence. The empirical research literature and industry best practices suggest that there are three primary data-driven rationales for continued investment in action-learning programs: business financial performance, employee productivity, and employee retention. A recent study analyzing publicly held firms representing major industries concluded that a one-standard-deviation improvement in talent management practices resulted in an $18,641 increase in market value per employee.[49][50] Other studies conclude that for every standard deviation of improvement, firm market value increases by 10 percent, or anywhere from $38,000 to $78,000 per employee.[51] Similar results have been observed regarding both employee performance and turnover. Huselid and colleagues’ award-winning research concluded that a one-standard-deviation improvement in talent management practices yielded $27,044 increase in sales per employee.[52][53] This represents nearly a 16 percent increase in the mean sales per employee ($171,099); and, assuming that these effects are sustained for a five-year period at an eight percent discount rate, the present value sales increase is an astounding $107,979 per employee.

While the upside of investing in action-learning programs is dramatic, the downside that results from failing to do so is even more compelling. Research in the healthcare industry concludes that turnover regularly costs healthcare organizations at least five percent of the total annual operating budget.[54] While employee turnover, particularly among high-potential employees, represents an enormous annual cost to organizations, consistent research findings indicate that talent-management practices and particularly action-learning initiatives are among the most effective means of retaining top talent.


The strong business case in support of workforce investment combined with the current difficult economic landscape offers organizations a compelling opportunity to leverage adversity by developing an action-learning initiative to complement current talent-management strategy. In so doing, six main considerations should guide the program’s design and implementation: Advocacy, Problem, Group, Facilitator, Learning, and Action. Developing an action-learning program in accordance with these insights will help practitioners ensure that common mistakes will not befall new programs.

[1] Silzer, Robert Frank., and Ben E. Dowell. “Strategic Talent Management Matters.” In Strategy-driven Talent Management: A Leadership Imperative, 3-72. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

[2] Groves, Kevin. “Talent Management Best Practices: How Exemplary Health Care Organizations Create Value in a down Economy.” Health Care Management Review 36, no. 3 (August/September 2011): 227-40.

[3] Waddill, D. D., and M. Marquardt. “Adult Learning Orientations and Action Learning.” Human Resource Development Review 2, no. 4 (2003): 406-29.

[4] Smith, P. A. C. “Action Learning and Reflective Practice in Project Environments That Are Related to Leadership Development.Management Learning 32, no. 1 (2001): 31-48. doi:10.1177/1350507601321003.

[5] Marguardt, M. J. “Developing Global Leaders via Action Learning Programs: A Case Study at Boeing.” Thai Journal of Public Administration 3, no. 3 (2005): 133-57.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Liedtka, Jeanne M., Carol Weber, and Jack Weber. “Creating a Significant and Sustainable Executive Education Experience: A Case Study.” Journal of Managerial Psychology 14, no. 5 (1999): 404-20. doi:10.1108/02683949910277157.

[8] Marguardt,  loc. cit.

[9] 9 Ibid.

[10] Liedtka, loc. cit.

[11] Raelin, Joseph. “Does Action Learning Promote Collaborative Leadership?” Academy of Management Learning & Education 5, no. 2 (2006): 152-68.

[12] Conger, Jay, and Ginka Toegel. “Action Learning and Multi-rater Feedback as Leadership Development Interventions: Popular but Poorly Deployed.” Journal of Change Management 3, no. 4 (2001): 332-48. doi:10.1080/714023841.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Raelin, Joseph. “Does Action Learning Promote Collaborative Leadership?Academy of Management Learning & Education 5, no. 2 (2006): 152-68.

[15] Orr, J. E., and K. Sack. Setting the Stage for Success: Building the Leadership Skills That Matter. Korn/Ferry International, 2009. PDF.

[16] Marguardt, loc. cit.

[17] Smith, Peter A.C., and Judy O’Neil. “A Review of Action Learning Literature 1994-2000: Part 1 – Bibliography and Comments.” Journal of Workplace Learning 15, no. 2 (2003): 63-69. doi:10.1108/13665620310464102.

[18] Waddill, D. D., and M. Marquardt. “Adult Learning Orientations and Action Learning.” Human Resource Development Review 2, no. 4 (2003): 406-29.

[19] Raelin, loc. cit.

[20] Groves, Talent management.

[21] Waddill and Marquardt, loc. cit.

[22] Groves, Kevin S. “Integrating Leadership Development and Succession Planning Best Practices.” Journal of Management Development 26.3 (2007): 239-60.

[23] Marguardt, loc. cit.

[24] Waddill and Marquardt, loc. cit.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Marguardt, loc. cit.

[27] Raelin, loc. cit.

[28] Waddill and Marquardt, loc. cit.

[29] Raelin, loc. cit.

[30] Conger and Toegel, loc. cit.

[31] Raelin, loc. cit.

[32] Smith, loc. cit.

[33] Waddill and Marquardt, loc. cit.

[34] Marguardt, loc. cit.

[35] Revans, R. W. (1980) Action Learning, Blond & Briggs, London.

[36] Raelin, loc cit.

[37] Revans, R. The Golden Jubilee of Action Learning. Manchester, UK: Manchester Action Learning Exchange, 1988.

[38] Hammer, M., and S. A. Stanton. “The Power of Reflection.” Fortune, November 24, 1997. http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1997/11/24/234339/index.htm.

[39] Conger and Toegel, loc. cit.

[40] Dick, B. “Action Research Literature 2006-2008: Themes and Trends.” Action Research 7, no. 4 (December 2009): 423-41.

[41] Groves, Talent management.

[42] Raelin, loc. cit.

[43] Conger and Toegel, loc. cit.

[44] Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun. “A Model for Designing Action Learning and Action Research Programs.” The Learning Organization 9, no. 4 (2002): 143-49. doi:10.1108/09696470210428868.

[45] Conger and Toegel, loc. cit.

[46] Ibid

[47] Groves, Talent management.

[48] Conger and Toegel, loc. cit.

[49] Becker, Brian E., Mark A. Huselid, and Richard W. Beatty. The Differentiated Workforce: Transforming Talent into Strategic Impact. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009.

[50] Huselid, M. “The Impact of Human Resource Management Practices on Turnover, Productivity, and Corporate Financial Performance.” Academy of Management Journal 38 (1995): 635-72.

[51] Becker, B. E., and Mark A. Huselid. “High Performance Work Systems and Firm Performance: A Synthesis of Research and Managerial Implications.” Research in Personnel and Human Resources Journal 16, no. 1 (1998): 53-101. http://www.markhuselid.com/pdfs/articles/1998_Research_in_PHRM_Paper.pdf.

[52] Becker, Huselid, and Beatty, loc. cit.

[53] Huselid, loc. cit.

[54] Waldman, J., F. Kelly, S. Arora, and H. Smith. “The Shocking Cost of Turnover in Health Care.” Health Care Management Review 29 (2004): 2-7.

About the Author(s)

Jerald L. Monson, MBA, is a third-year law student at Pepperdine University where he is currently participating in the school's London Program. He is involved in Christian Legal Society and serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Business, Entrepreneurship and the Law as Lead Articles Editor. Jerald also completed his MBA at Pepperdine and is a member of Beta Gamma Sigma. He graduated summa cum laude from Carthage College earning BA degrees in Business Administration and Marketing. Prior to returning to graduate school, Jerald spent four years working in human resources. His professional experience includes work in Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In his free time, Jerald enjoys traveling with his wife, working with the non-profit he helped establish in rural South Africa, and playing Xbox 360.

Kevin S. Groves, PhD, is an associate professor of organization theory and management at the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University. In 2011 he was awarded the Julian Virtue Professorship by the Graziadio School for his applied research on values-centered transformational leadership. Dr. Groves was also recently honored with the 2009 Ascendant Scholar Award by the Western Academy of Management. He consults with organizations in the areas of talent management, leadership assessment and development, succession planning, organizational change, and employee engagement. Dr. Groves has served in consulting roles for a range of organizations and industries, including Towers Perrin, Kaiser Permanente, Frito-Lay, and the Mayo Clinic. He previously served as assistant professor of management and director of the PepsiCo Leadership Center at California State University, Los Angeles, where he managed a $1.45 million grant from the PepsiCo Foundation to support leadership programs. His research has received regional and national recognition, including Best Paper awards from the Academy of Management, Western Academy of Management, and Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology.