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ITAP International specializes in global, cross-border consulting. We focus on helping individuals, teams and organizations work across internal and national borders, achieving success through people. We are experts working in multiple countries with extensive line and staff experience in multiple sectors. Our work is based on the best research and the best global practices. Our services focus on:

  1. Talent retention and development
  2. Effectiveness of the senior team and mission critical global teams
  3. Global workforce development
  4. Transformation and change

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ITAP is a licensee of the CWQ™

The Culture in the Workplace Questionnaire™ is based on the seminal cultural research of Dr. Geert Hofstede. ITAP licenses the CWQ™ from ODE Consulting® Pte. Ltd. ODE Consulting and its licensees are among the very few companies worldwide endorsed by Dr. Hofstede and approved to represent his research. According to Dr. Hofstede, "This [approval] is due to their professionalism and deep understanding of my work.”

Culture, what Dr. Hofstede refers to as "software of the mind/mental programming," is a critical variable that guides peoples' actions and reactions. Understanding one's own culture and the impact of culture on the actions of others is essential for effective global business interactions. The Culture in the Workplace Questionnaire™ provides respondents with insights about themselves and a better understanding of how their cultural preferences, as well as the cultural preferences of others, impact working relationships.

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John W. Bing, Ed.D.



One of the success stories in the always tentative relationship between academic scholarship and business and industry is to be found in the area of cross-cultural business training. In the early eighties, company training for international staff was rare, and employees were often sent to the far ends of the earth with little information as to what they would find there, much less how to successfully conduct business.

Such training was often anecdotal, with returned employees or others dominating programs with "war stories," personal experiences suffered or enjoyed at the far corners of the world. Such programs not only lacked depth; they seldom gave an accurate picture of the places and people under review.

Over the past ten years there has been a change in business sentiment towards increasing the availability of international training. The largest global companies have by-and-large determined that the cost of not training relocating employees is too high in terms of early returnees and low productivity; and the programs themselves have increasingly relied on research rather than anecdotes as fundamental learning blocks.

Program Types and Levels

The programs offered to employees of international businesses today may be categorized according to their levels, or in terms of the tools utilized. Note that the cross-cultural training described in Levels II and III provides participants with a framework that enables them to deal with situations not covered directly in the training, whereas Level I training usually does not.

Level I

These programs offer the "Do’s and Don’ts" of international business, often mixing information about etiquette with advice on what types of business gifts to give and how to best form business relationships in other countries. They also may provide specific information about travel, banking, embassies, etc. These programs are most useful for employees with little or no international business experience. In the words of the old fable, these programs provide people with fish, rather than teaching them how to fish. At the end of these programs, participants have a good idea of how to conduct specific business transactions, but little idea how to generalize to other situations.

Level II

Level II programs teach participants how to fish; that is, they provide analytic tools which can be used to understand the relationship between culture and business. They do this by providing models of cultures based on research in the field of comparative sociology or anthropology. Participants learn to understand social and business transactions by applying these analytic tools, and are often tested through the use of critical incidents or case studies. At the end of these programs, participants are able to analyze general culture-based business transactions to determine how, in a specific culture, the business transaction might be different from the transaction in their own cultures.

Level III

At this level, specific information (typical of Level I) and analytic tools (provided in Level II) are brought to bear on:

1. Specific business problems or opportunities (such as sales or marketing, mergers or acquisitions) within the area of these employees’ professional scope
2. Assisting employees with relocation to other countries
3. Decision-making at upper levels (e.g., where to locate a new plant in a region)

At the end of these sessions, participants are able to apply the analytic tools and specific country, regional, and culture-based information to business problems in their areas of expertise.

The Hofstede Dimensions

Geert Hofstede Is Professor Emeritus of Management, University of Limburg at Maastricht, the Netherlands and the founder and first Director there of the Institute for Research on Intercultural Cooperation (IRIC). His work Culture’s Consequences is a pioneering work in sociology, the first approach to utilize survey research to provide quantitative comparisons in over fifty countries on the influence of culture in the workplace.

The five Hofstede Dimensions, which follow, have been utilized in Level II and III programs and represent the highest levels of scholarship; that is, their relationship to real cultural variables has been established through research and testing. They represent a kind of cultural map of the world. These dimensions have been researched through questionnaires and the results yield numeric values by which countries can be compared. From that research has come didactic tools, including a questionnaire which helps individuals understand their own cultural profiles. Knowing one’s own cultural profile assists individuals in understanding others, and in understanding how business transactions may differ according to the four dimensions.

Hofstede’s five dimensions (as described and interpreted in the Culture in the Workplace Questionnaire™ system, a didactic tool used in instructional programs) are:

  • Individualism: The degree to which action is taken for the benefit of the individual or the group.
  • Power Distance: The degree to which inequality or distance between those in charge and the less powerful (subordinates) is accepted.
  • Certainty: The extent to which people prefer rules, regulations and controls or are more comfortable with unstructured, ambiguous or unpredictable situations.
  • Achievement: The degree to which we focus on goal achievement and work or quality of life and caring for others. This dimension also tracks the relative masculine and feminine influences in the workplace.
  • Time Orientation: The extent to which members of a society are prepared to adapt themselves to reach a desirable future vs. the extent to which they take their guidance from the past and focus on fulfilling their present needs and desires.

These dimensions, then, along with the research-based quantitative data and the questionnaire, are useful for Level II and III programs as a tested, analytic tool to provide participants improved skills in conducting international business.

John Bing and Sergio Gardelliano



This team-building program was presented to the managers operating within the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) headquarters in Vienna. The program, therefore, has complex and many-layered levels of cultures both as the context of the program and as representative of participants in the program. Of the 100 national cultures represented in UNIDO, there are typically more than 10 national cultures represented in each team building program. This presents special challenges, especially when many of the participants?often veterans of UN and other international service?have lived and worked in many countries and thus may claim more than one culture. It is for this reason, among others, that we have chosen a cultural assessment questionnaire to provide each participant with his or her own cultural profile (as distinct from using national cultural generalizations).

The two basic reasons that UNIDO has organized these team-building programs are to empower employees to contribute fully to the improvement of their work and thus to increase organizational productivity. These two factors go hand-in-hand; it is not a matter of 'either/or'. The main value of teams is their ability to assemble and empower employees to make better use of their talents to improve the organization.

Organizational Culture

An equal force in the workings of these teams is the organizational culture. UN organizations differ significantly, by history, structure and purpose, from the private sector. There is no profit motive and consensus building on such typical business concerns as the 'market' and the 'customer' is limited. Rather there is the ethos of UN organizations as providing international service of various kinds.

Moreover, UN staff are divided into top level (politically selected), senior managers, professional levels and support staff. As in the diplomatic corps, this division affects many aspects of operations including the perception of the function and importance of teams within the organization. Therefore, there are at least three cultural levels in the UNIDO context: national cultures, organizational cultures, and professional cultures. Each of these influences the composition, purpose and efficacy of the teams within UNIDO and each individual may represent more than team interest alone.

Teams within UNIDO

The concept of teams within UNIDO is relatively new. Before a recent reorganization, there were five divisions and, although three were occasionally cross-functional teams operating within the agency, they acted less in the sense of coordinating teams than as collections of representatives of the division?that is, as individuals representing more their divisional interest than team interests. Hierarchical structures and centrally-controlled organizations are being replaced by a flat matrix structure with multiple information networks and more participation by the employees in decision making. Team-building integrates these concepts.

In the reorganized, flatter agency, the concept of teams has assumed greater importance because the activities of the agency must now be coordinated more closely across a greater number of smaller divisions as well as with respect to field projects which the agency oversees. The new UNIDO will likely be characterized by emerging 'adhocracies' in which a temporary group is involved in a function with temporary lines of authority. Today, project teams are comprised of a variety of skilled specialists from diverse fields. At the same time, functional arrangements are being established among different organizational units, hence line and staff duties are overlapping and merging.

Effective team development programs are required within the new divisions (and branches and units within these divisions), which cross-functional groups and within project teams within and outside the agency. Given all these considerations, it was decided within the Division of Personnel that team-building courses should be instituted. A team-building process cannot be started without an adequate management development process and supportive organizational climate. This management development program must have the full support of senior managers; without their commitment, the teambuilding process would fail.

The model we present is itself an important component of the management development strategy. It integrates many management/organizational concepts and enhances cultural synergy, which is essential for effective management practices in the kind of multicultural environment found in UN agencies¹.

Program Design and Development

The goal of developing and implementing a team-building program at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization is to improve overall organizational performance at a time of restructuring. The program has been designed to help participants visualize the interrelation of the main components of a team-performance improvement process, namely the phases of team development and the four factors influencing team performance: individual differences, cultural factors, organizational context and environmental factors.

Team Performance

One of the main components to consider while creating and sustaining high performance teams is the team development process. The six basic phases we utilize were identified by Drexler, Sibbet and Forrester (1988) and are always present in a team; however, each of them comes into focus at a particular stage. A team that resolves the questions of each phase and builds the next phase over the last one is better prepared for a higher level of performance. Unresolved questions in each phase will diminish the level of team performance, making the team increasingly ineffective. A brief description of each phase follows.

  • Orientation In this phase a certain ambiguity exists in the minds of the team members as to the purpose of their coming together. They need a clear answer to why they are there. If this question is unsolved, team processes will lead to disorientation, uncertainty and fear which is not the appropriate condition from which to enter into the next phase.
  • Trust building During the second phase, members are engaged in sharing their expectations, competences and hopes with other participants, thus building the basic trust and rapport needed for effective communication.
  • Goal clarification Phase three emphasizes discussion of team and individual priorities among members. Additionally, members' roles are clarified and the task to be undertaken is identified.
  • Decision making At this phase decisions are taken by participants as to how the team will be managing resources, time, work processes, constraints, etc.
  • Implementation During phase five, the members actually begin to sequence their work according to a time schedule and a shared vision. If the team was able to resolve the key questions of the preceding stages, a higher level of performance can be expected.
  • Renewal This is the final stage, in which the team members look back and reflect on what they have achieved, work on their shortcomings and prepare themselves for the future.

Each of these phase of team development is an essential part of the integrative model of team performance and is influenced by the organizational context, cultural factors and individual differences. Now we will examine each of these main areas of influence separately.

Organizational Context

What outside factors influence the capability of the team to achieve goals? This short question makes relevant the need to analyze how the organizational context affects team performance. The following factors are considered:


The type of leadership and its effectiveness needs to be examined, which includes leadership within the team and within the organization and leadership styles which contribute to effective or ineffective management practices. Consideration was also given to situational and principle-centered leadership and its relationship with followership and strengths and weaknesses of the organization's leadership norms.


Every team needs a clear mission. Determination of the purpose of the organization or division results from the negotiation process between 'What we want to do' and 'What we have to do'. Goals of the team and purpose of the organization or organizational units could also require some adjustment.


It is important to analyze the organizational structure and its impact on group work and team performance. Structure is supposed to solve division of labor problems, not create them. Three main ways to organize are by

  • function;
  • product, program or project; or
  • a mixture of both.

An assessment should be carried out to determine the fit of team members' roles within the organizational structure.


Formal reward systems are no guarantee that staff will act in the way the system is attempting to prompt them. Formal or informal rewards should satisfy team members' needs, i.e. professional growth, esteem, acceptance, safety. Motivational or hygienic factors should also be considered, such as achievement, responsibility, team recognition and working climate. The strengths and weaknesses of the reward systems should be evaluated to determine if the system properly reinforces team goals and behaviors.

Helpful Mechanisms

Mechanisms are needed to help people in working together more effectively. Mechanisms are helpful when they assist in the coordination or integration of work or assist people in keeping track of whether things are going well or badly. Examples include management informational systems, performance appraisals, weekly problem-solving meetings and ad hoc brainstorming sessions.


This analysis is centered in the relationships:

(a) among people, peers or manager-subordinates;
(b) between organizational units and tasks performed; and
(c) between people, systems and technology.

It is important to explore how these relationships affect team performance. The quality of relationships and their interdependence are highlighted. (This area dovetails with the analysis in the section on cultural factors.) The relation with the external environment of the organization is also explored.

Cultural Factors

Increased awareness about the nature and effects of cultural differences can overcome barriers to adjustment and peak performance within the team. The participants analyze their own cultural profile using the following dimensions from Fons Trompenaars²'s schema. This analysis focuses on cultural factors rather than professional or other issues.

  • Relationships with people - Participants explore ways in which they relate to each other. For example, some may feel that friendship has special obligations and should come first in working relationships, while others may give more emphasis to following rules first and less importance to helping friends.
  • Attitudes towards time - Individual team members may have differences relating to how strongly they are orientated to the influence of the past (for example, the importance of precedence and history), the present (for example, current organizational politics and concerns) and the future (for example, a vision for future development).
  • Attitudes towards nature - Some people view the environment, fate and current circumstances as acting powerfully on individuals and will seek to live in harmony with these factors. Others may want to manipulate, control and even exploit the environment. These views may lead to very different ways of analyzing the feasibility and importance of projects. These attitudes are also highly important in anticipating reactions to field projects.

The analysis of culture differences using a cultural profile questionnaire first helps participants understand how they may be perceived by others and, second, helps them to modify and expand their understanding of the behaviors of others. Cultural differences can either inhibit or augment the effectiveness of teams, depending in part on the awareness that each member brings to the team regarding these differences. If members view such differences as annoyances or barriers, then the team's effectiveness will be inhibited. If, on the other hand, members see these differences as representing alternative ways of both understanding and implementing the work of the team, the capacity of the team will be enhanced. Since there are within all cultures both effective and difficult (counterproductive) people, it is not the presence of individuals from multiple cultural backgrounds that causes problems but rather the presence of those who are either unwilling or unable to carry out the work of the group. This is an important distinction, since it is often assumed that the cultures themselves may inhibit the work of the team.

Recent research has suggested that although diverse teams take more time to complete tasks in the short run, in the long run they find more creative solutions.

Individual Differences

In the analysis of individual differences, participants explore their personality type and reflect upon their working styles and management preferences. With the help of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator³, participants gain a perspective on how they are energized, acquire information, make decisions and relate to their fellow workers. Within the context of these four scales they are helped to understand themselves and their behaviors and appreciate others, so as to make constructive use of individual differences. By knowing their own preferences and learning about those of others, they come to know their special strengths and how people with different preferences can relate to each other and become valuable within teams.

Additionally, using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the weighting of types within the team as a whole is analyzed and discussed with participants, with regard to the impact on the team as a whole and on the larger organization. In the present format of this team-building workshop, the individual differences resulting from technical competences or knowledge and experience levels are not analyzed. However, we believe that in the initial formation of teams, professional competences and complementary expertise should also be taken into consideration.

Prerequisites for Development of the UNIDO Cross-Cultural Team-Building Program

Training in team-building is an important component of the UNIDO Management Development Program and integrates skills developed in other management training modules, such as 'Interpersonal/Intercultural Skills Development' and 'Leadership Styles and Effective Management'.

Before team-building sessions are conducted it has been found to be advisable to create a positive atmosphere in which such sessions can be conducted effectively. The following activities can be useful in building receptiveness.

  1. It is necessary for participants to have participated in a primary workshop on intercultural skills development prior to attending the team-building program. This workshop provides participants with analytical tools to distinguish between different causes of management behavior; assess how their own cultural management preferences may affect the workplace environment; develop skills and strategies for working effectively in a multicultural, gender neutral environment; and increase their awareness of research in the field of intercultural and gender management practices.
  2. Prior to the team-building program, team members should be selected or trained for the knowledge, information and expertise needed to help the overall group with its mission and should display competence in managing small- or large-scale projects. This involves skills in the areas of time management, negotiation, conflict management, presentation and intercultural communication.
  3. Team members should attend the course: 'Leadership Styles and Effective Management', during which participants reflect on how job performance and managerial effectiveness are related to the way they think about themselves and others. This workshop provides middle-level professionals and senior managers with the opportunity to examine their working styles as leaders, as well as the processes of managerial change and self-improvement.
  4. One of the facilitators may meet with a group before it begins the team-building process to do a thorough needs assessment and inform the group of the structure of the program.
  5. Team input sessions are arranged with an organizational development practitioner to provide education in group decision making, communication, problem solving and skills of interfacing with other teams.
  6. Team sessions are held on forecasting, budget planning, member replacement and impact of technological or organizational changed on the team.

Ground Rules During the Program

In order to create a positive attitude towards the training program, the following guidelines are offered:

  1. Group participation and consensus building should be encouraged. Group communication should have a specific content focus. Disagreements should be permitted, while effective listening should be considered a valuable asset.
  2. Constructive criticism should be encouraged. The members should also be assisted in expressing their feelings, clarifying their roles, and discussing relationships, assignments and responsibilities.
  3. There should be sharing of leadership functions and utilization of total member resources. From time to time there should be a re-evaluation of team progress and communication. Team members should be sensitive to the team's linking function with other work units. The whole approach of the team should be goal directed, fair in dividing the work and aimed at synchronization of efforts.
  4. In order to implement the integrative model for cross-cultural effectiveness, there are short lectures, assessment tools, group discussion and group work. The target group for the cross-cultural workshops can be professional staff, general service staff (administrative support staff) or a mixture of both.

The Role of the Facilitator

The facilitators (also the authors) are the chief, staff development and training section of UNIDO and the head of an outside training organization (ITAP International). The principle that has been used here is that an inside facilitator brings to program development and implementation an understanding of the organization. An outside facilitator brings new ideas, approaches and the insight of someone freed from local politics. Of course, both of these virtues are shaded by their opposites: the inside facilitator may have his or her own limitations within the training program itself; and the outside facilitator may not be interested in risk taking, in order to perpetuate his or her position as a consultant. These are the risks that any such 'inside?outside' endeavor brings. However, one has only to consider the limitations of two inside facilitators, or two outside ones, to understand the advantages of mixed roles.

Equally advantageous in a course on cross-cultural areas is to use facilitators with different cultural backgrounds. One of the facilitators is of Argentinean?Italian background; the other is German?American. Given this mixture, the facilitators have the opportunity, in miniature, to demonstrate an effective multicultural team. Facilitators from only one cultural background with prima facie be unable to model a multicultural team.

In these ways a sense of rapport and trust can be built with the participants. There are many other factors, of course, which contribute to rapport and trust but, in the case of cross-cultural team-building, these stand out.

Opportunities and Obstacles

Courses in the UN system are generally taught in English, and this was the language of the course. Because English is native only to a minority of participants, it is necessary to rethink exercises and presentations to allow for alternative ways of presenting ideas and facilitating communications within the groups. Methods include presenting materials in written as well as in spoken form and the use of overhead projections to convey ideas more through graphics than by words. Experienced facilitators also often use alternative words and phrases to describe the same phenomenon, making use of repetition.

The problems and obstacles that have arisen in the program are both internal and external in nature. Over the course of the development of this program, from its pilot state to its present form, the interrelationship between internal and external problems has been complex. Early in the pilot process, one of the programs was in the final 10 minutes when one of the participants re-entered the training room after a lengthy absence complaining that he had just heard that some staff would lose their jobs due to financial constraints. The reader can only imagine the effect of this emotional pronouncement on the rest of the group. (At that time there were three trainers, one of whom observed: 'This is a learning opportunity!')

Problems can arise because of stresses within the organization itself, which cannot be banished from the classroom. On the contrary, in later courses, the facilitators have used the issues which cause their stresses as examples and discussion points within the program itself. Thus, the real institutional issues become the stuff of the course itself, strengthening both the course and the participants as well.

The results of the team-building courses to date indicate the programs are exciting more interest than before as participants leave with both theoretical and practical approaches to strengthening teams of which they are a part. A recent exercise which required the participants to negotiate their team cultures, based on the Trompenaars's model, is an example. One team member noted that the teams started their negotiations from significantly different cultural positions, and they had had to learn each others' preferred style before they could go on to resolve these. What were once perceived as academic issues suddenly become real ones as the participants debated what type of decision-making style to use and what qualities were associated with successful team members. Let us take one example from a team culture questionnaire:

'Should team members

(a) Make decisions together with reference to UNIDO's processes?
(b) Leave some decisions to individuals, the rest to the team?
(c) Leave decision to each member to decide?'

This question brought individualistic team members up against group-oriented members. To develop their team culture, they had to learn both what their teammates preferred and how the context helped to define the appropriate course.

The principal challenge for the authors is to understand how team issues are embedded in a forcefield that includes organizational culture and issues, individual (as opposed to cultural) preferences and larger environmental forces, such as changes in the UN system itself. Teams are composed of individuals with different preferences, based on their different cultures, and who are also strongly influenced by current organizational and environmental characteristics. For training to be effective, analytical tools must be provided to team members to utilize in their daily work, and practice given in how to forge a team in the face of differences and difficulties.

Conclusion and General Recommendations

Since effective working arrangements across departmental functional lines are difficult to introduce in multicultural and intergovernmental organizations, management and human resources development specialists have a responsibility to lay the ground work for cross-boundary collaboration.

Top management must provide the institution with an effective team model and a rationale for team work. Top-level commitment is essential. Without such commitment, teams which could be established at middle levels within the organization may fall apart because of lack of effective, supportive teamwork in other parts of organization.

The training and development group must help to develop this model and convey its rationale to the staff of the organization by providing skill-building opportunities. Equally important, reward systems must be revised to acknowledge the contributions of individuals to overall team efforts. In order to develop specific skill sets in the organization's managers, we strongly recommend that professionals and administrative staff attend an initial workshop on 'intercultural and interpersonal skills development'.

Team-building workshops should be conducted with staff at all levels. The aim of these team-building workshops should be to help participants define their performance and effectiveness and to establish norms of team development and support within groups within the organization.

Follow-up workshops should be conducted to review what the participants have learned and how much they have incorporated their new skills into their daily working lives. It is also advisable to follow up in situ the performance of specific teams by analyzing the change in quality and quantity of their outputs.

In a recent keynote address to the Society for International Education, Training & Research, Nancy J. Adler, Professor of Management at McGill University noted that transnational organizations develop through negotiated cultures: 'The United Nations ... is definitely not transnational, but rather quintessentially a multi-domestic organization'. In other words, the United Nations, and by inference its specialized agencies, has not yet developed its own culture from within, from negotiations and reconciliation of cultural values among those that work within its structures.

We realize that UN system is in the process of creating a new organizational culture, one which reflects the enormous changes that have occurred in the recent past in relationships between states throughout the world. Therefore, we believe that programs such as this one, which teach the skills of team development in a multicultural context, can reinforce a positive process to lead UN managers toward transnational operations in which each specialized agency can develop its own unique approach towards solutions of their related issues. We are also aware that in order to take root, such approaches must be supported by upper management and?ultimately?by the countries' representatives which comprise the boards of these organizations.

This article originally appeared as chapter 7, pp. 103-114, of the book Cross-Cultural Team Building: Guidelines for more effective communication and negotiation, 1996, Mel Berger, Series Editor, McGraw-Hill UK. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.


¹ The authors are indebted to the pioneering work of Marvin R. Weisbord. For more information on this analysis of organizational context, see Weisbord, Organizational Diagnosis: A Workbook of theory and Practice. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA: 1978, repr. 1992.
² Fons Trompenaars (1993). The cultural profile questionnaire utilized in this program was developed by Trompenaars through his Center for International Business Studies (CIBS) in Amsterdam.
³ Myers-Briggs, I. (1996) Introduction to Type. A Guide to Understanding Your Results on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, 5th edn, Consulting Psychologist' Press, Palo Alto, CA.

References and Further Reading

Drexler, Allan B., David Sibbet and H. Forrester (1988) The Team Performance Model, NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science.
Trompenaars, Fons (1993) Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business, The Economist Books, London.
Weisbord, Marvin R. (1978, repr. 1992) Organizational Diagnosis: A Workbook of theory and Practice, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.

Catherine Mercer Bing and John W. Bing



In global organizations, every team intervention - from measuring team performance to team development training to other consulting initiatives - needs to consider the dynamics of global teams. The definition of "good team member" varies from country to country. The concept of "effective leadership" may also differ. As a result, global teams sometimes find themselves reconfiguring into national collections of sub-teams - that is, a Japanese subteam, an American subteam, a French sub-team, and so forth - that may misunderstand each other's expectations and approaches.

Cultural values

An underlying cause of the success or lack thereof of global teams may reside in the definition of what it takes to be a good team member or leader. Cultural values play a significant role in these definitions. For example, a French team member may jump in to assist a U.S. colleague he or she perceives is in need of help. Americans, however, generally have a strong desire to act as individuals; thus, the U.S. team member might interpret the French colleague as undermining his or her job by interfering.

Cultural and language differences

In addition to whatever else might be at the root of global team issues, cultural and language differences obviously add to the complexity. It's important to acknowledge those differences up front and create opportunities for discussion of different perceptions. If you're able to leverage these differences, you can improve creativity and add value to your global team.

Miscellaneous interferences

Other reasons may exist for a global team's sub-par performance. Its problems may stem from a specific team leader's approach, a lack of organizational support for the team, or because individual rewards overshadow team success. In such cases, training to build a global team may fail because you didn't know or address the real reason for poor team performance.

Why use measurement?

Global teams, because they represent significant corporate investments, require proactive attention and preventive maintenance, which are always preferable to disaster recovery. A proactive approach - taking the team's temperature periodically - can help identify if and when it needs training and what kind of training.

A proactive approach positions the training professional as a strategic thinker - someone who brings value to the business by detecting problem issues early and preventing them from getting bigger. The training professional becomes a business partner with a bottom-line focus. Measurement techniques using appropriate tools can also help management compare many global teams within the same business sectors, adding to management's capabilities.

Unfortunately, it usually isn't until a problem arises that management calls on the training provider for help. Requests for team development interventions after the fact - after a client already believes that training is the solution - usually means one of two things: The team leader knows he or she needs help, or the team leader may have attempted other solutions without positive results. The leader, or his or her manager, then calls on the training and development professional to provide a solution.

Even if providing team training addresses the problems, it may be at considerable expense to the business. For example, consider the costs associated with time lost on the job. With global teams, add to that the cost of international travel. Business leaders value preventive measures that save such costs.

Instead of waiting to be called on after a problem is identified, use a proactive measurement approach to get useful information on the state of the team. Team leaders can use the same information for self-development. If you provide your findings to the leader and the team, you are training the team on how to interpret information. In that way, team members learn how to analyze and interpret issues, which, in turn, reduces the need for additional development by outside consultants. By sharing team findings and using the ensuing discussion as a team activity, you've already conducted an intervention.

Outside intervention

Using the proactive measurement data, the team can also, if necessary, make its own decision to call for outside intervention. For example, a global pharmaceutical drug discovery team (made up of medical scientists) used an instrument designed to analyze communications and other team functions. They discussed each other's answers to the tool's questionnaire and discovered a disparity of views among team members. By reviewing their answers before proposing an intervention, the team was able to define team issues together. That discussion led to accepting an intervention that addressed the topics on which they agreed they needed help.

Combining team training and leadership development

A global team leader, alerted by low team scores on the topic of understanding roles and responsibilities, decided to use an orientation for new team members as an opportunity to lessen the confusion. In a meeting, the leader asked team members to describe their roles and responsibilities briefly for the newcomers. She combined team training and leadership development and doubly improved the team.

Conducting periodic measurements provides a team and its leader with baseline information against which they can measure changes. They can also use the data to answer these questions:

  • Where was the team when it started?
  • Where are they now?
  • Did the last intervention make a difference? If so how much?
  • On what specifically do we need to provide a more focused training intervention?

One size does not fit all

Even when you can resolve team problems by training, one type won't fit all teams, especially global teams. If diagnosed dysfunctions remain after the team leader attempts resolution, it's necessary to provide training on those issues. When neither training nor leadership development works, however, the solution may be a change in team leadership. Working in partnership with business leaders, training and development professionals can help smooth those kinds of transitions.

Proactive, periodic team measurement benefits global organizations by reducing the amount and expense of training and by focusing necessary training on identified problems. Questionnaire results provide a baseline against which you can measure team changes. To develop team leaders, use the questionnaire to identify ways for them to resolve issues in regularly scheduled team meetings. Training interventions that take into account cultural and value differences create stronger global teams. By comparing measures across teams, management improves its oversight and support of such teams.

And, most important, the proactive approach positions training professionals as strategic thinkers committed to improving the bottom line.

John W. Bing is Chairman, ITAP International, and Catherine Mercer Bing is Managing Director, ITAP Americas, in Princeton, NJ, USA.

This article originally appeared in the March 2001 issue of Training and Development.

Robert L. Dilworth



Action learning is increasingly a prime vehicle for developing teams, "jump starting" organizational learning, promoting leadership development and even transforming an organization's culture. Used in a number of corporations, including their corporate universities, it is also finding its way into institutions of higher learning in the United States and elsewhere. However, there is very little research targeted at how action learning is viewed by learners and how the group dynamics within teams dedicated to action learning unfold. Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has given the evaluative area of action learning concentrated address. In Spring 2000, VCU used a modified version of the Global Team Process Questionnaire (GTPQ) to map group dynamics in action learning sets, the first use of the GTPQ in an academic environment.

Keywords: Action Learning, Evaluation, Higher Education
Principal Methodology: Both Quantitative and Qualitative

For the past five years, the Adult Education and Human Resource Development Master's Degree Program at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has been striving to build evaluation techniques specific to the action learning experience. Action learning has become an important part of curriculum design. Dilworth (2000) reported on action learning programs at six universities, including two outside the United States. At VCU, students in the aforementioned Master's Degree Program are encouraged to think deeply about their experience in dealing with a complex, real-world problem that they are asked to solve as part of the capstone course in the program. The students do this as part of an "action learning set" of four to six members. They are asked to keep "learning journals". At the end of their semester-long experience, "students submit an extensive individual report on the action learning process, group dynamics and personal lessons learned" (p. 529).

Why is action learning different than a usual team related undertaking? VCU uses core principles of action learning in its program that are found in varying degrees in most other action learning programs.

  1. The problem to be addressed by the set (or team) is real and in great need of address. It is not fabricated in any way.
  2. While it is expected that a solution to the problem can be developed and acted upon, the larger yield is learning itself. The real problem becomes the fulcrum on which critically reflective learning processes occur. The goal from a human resource development standpoint is to develop people who are capable of leading, problem solving, working effectively in teams, and thinking critically in building the long-term strategic capabilities of the organization.
  3. Action learning must lead to action (Marquardt, 1999). "Merely producing reports and recommendations for someone else to implement results in diminished commitment, effectiveness, and learning. . ." (p. 33)
  4. Emphasis is on questioning inquiry (the "Q" in the parlance of Reg Revans) as opposed to excessive dependency on "P", standing for programmed instruction (Revans, 1983, p. 11). Revans argues that in a rapidly changing environment we should begin with the "Q" (what is happening, what ought to be happening, and how do you make it happen?).
  5. The set has no assigned leader and customarily operates as a self-directed work team with responsibilities shared.
  6. Emphasis can be on moving learners away from what they already know, assigning them to work on problems that no one in the set has any great familiarity with. This can lead to fresh questions (the "Q" factor) and a re-examination of basic underlying assumptions. In this format, members of the action learning set are usually assigned a common problem to deal with. In other approaches, the individual set members may have individual problems they work on that are taken from their respective workplaces. In the latter case, the problem will probably only be familiar to the set member studying that issue (unless an entire natural team is committed to problem solution), thus creating an environment conducive to questioning inquiry.

Problem Statement

There needs to be greater attention given to the evaluation of learning that is taking place, as well as group dynamics, in an action learning experience. This is not an area that is well covered, in part because the focus can center on task accomplishment versus learning. Action learning also has many variations in application, and determining how best to evaluate group dynamics and learning across action learning experiences can be problematic.

Theoretical Construct

Action learning traces its origins to action research and Kurt Lewin (Weisbord, 1987).

Lewin intended his enhanced problem solving model to preserve democratic values, build commitment to act, and motivate learning-all at once. Indeed some people have renamed the process action learning to more accurately indicate its nature. (p. 87)

The work of Reg Revans over the years has given primary shape to action learning, including refinement of the dimensions inherent in the process (Revans, 1983, 1982, 1980). Those dimensions are highlighted in the introduction to this paper.

Action learning is increasingly finding its way into corporations, often as part of their corporate university.

Rather than simply send high potential managers to external executive education programs, these organizations are developing focused large-scale customized action learning programs with measurable results. (Meister, 1998, p. 15)

The Global Team Process Questionnaire (GTPQ) was created by ITAP International, Inc., an organization doing wide-ranging consultancy with corporations world-wide. The fact that the GTPQ is indexed to the global arena makes it doubly attractive as a vehicle for evaluating group dynamics in an action learning set, since sets can often have multi-cultural content. This is certainly true of corporations today, and it can also be true of the university setting. For example, the Adult Education and Human Resource Development Master's Degree Program of VCU partnered with the University of Salford in England in 1996 in organizing an action learning program for US, Canadian and Australian students. (Dilworth, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000). Further, students in the VCU program in recent years have come from 17 nations.

The GTPQ is a well-established instrument in terms of wide application since its inception in 1993. It has been used extensively (over 30 administrations with global teams), with pharmaceutical companies as well as in the chemical, consumer products and information technology industries (Bing, 2000). Thoroughly tested in a variety of environments, specifically by peer reviews at the end of the process, results have shown that the team with the best level of process (as indicated by the GTPQ) was also rated as producing the highest quality results. The GTPQ is a diagnostic tool which measures process changes over time on global and distance teams. It has also been used for intact, local teams.

Research Questions

The research questions all stem from one overriding proposition, namely that you can evaluate group dynamics and learning processes in action learning sets. Evaluation of group dynamics in teams is not new. What is new is an attempt to map group dynamics and effectiveness of the learning process within an action learning experience in juxtaposition. The specific research questions are:

  1. Can a modified version of the GTPQ be used in an academic setting to map group dynamics and effectiveness of learning in an action learning experience?
  2. What can administration of the GTPQ tell us about the internal dynamics of an action learning set?
  3. What barriers occur in an action learning experience that can stand in the way of the learning process?
  4. What positives and negatives do the participants in the action learning experience ascribe to action learning?

Methodology and Research Design

In partnership with ITAP International, the GTPQ was modified to fit the academic setting and obtain information specific to the action learning experience. Most changes to baseline questions were minor (e.g., reference to class versus corporate setting).

The following specific questions were asked in the modified questionnaire. Where a slight adjustment has been made to fit the classroom setting, one asterisk appears. When the question is unique to the particular experiment in evaluating action learning, a pound sign appears. All other questions listed are baseline questions used without modification. Respondents use a six level Likert Scale in assigning a value (favorable to unfavorable). In some questions, "6" is high and in other cases, "1" is high.

  1. Within your team, please characterize the distribution of work among team members over the recent past (equal to unequal).
  2. Have your skills and capabilities increased through participation in your team?
  3. Do you have time for work on your team's activities?
  4. Is the agenda of your team clear? (Clear vs. unclear)
  5. Are the roles of the team members clear? (Clear vs. unclear)
  6. How effective is the work of your team? (Effective vs. ineffective)
  7. (*) Have you had the opportunity to inform others in the class of the work of your team? (No opportunity or need vs. provided a presentation to another group)
  8. (*) Have you had the opportunity to learn of comments on your work team from others in the class (No vs. quite a bit)
  9. (*) How do you rank the importance of your team to your own future career success? (Of central importance vs. of little or no importance)
  10. (*) Is your future career success likely to be positively affected by the team's work? (My future career success will remain unchanged or degraded, to there is likely to be a positive benefit to my future career success)
  11. Group communications (Excellent to poor)
  12. Describe the level of trust on this team. (Strong to weak)
  13. (#) Describe the level of support provided by client(s). (Highly supportive to not supportive)
  14. (#) The degree of learning occurring in this course experience vs. other courses you have taken. (Much higher to much less)
  15. (#) The extent to which you find this experience challenging vs. other learning experiences in an academic setting. (Much less challenging to much more challenging)
  16. (#) How did you find operating in a virtual team environment (i.e., much of the interaction by Internet and telephone vs. a collocated team at a single site? [One action learning set dealt with a client team over 1,000 miles away]
  17. Identify a barrier that stands in the way of your team's work.
    a. With respect to your contributions.
    b. With respect to internal team productivity.
    c. With respect to factors, outside the team's control. [These required open-ended response vs. Likert Scaling]
  18. (#) List four positives and four negatives in priority order of your experience with action learning thus far. [Students provided open-ended entries]

Two action learning sets were involved in this experiment. One set of five consisted of four females and one male. The other set had three female members and one male member. Administration of the Honey-Mumford Learning Style Questionnaire (LSQ) helped determine the set to which a given student would be assigned. An effort was made to mix learning styles and backgrounds in arriving at action learning set composition.

The larger team was involved with a major examination of how professional development programs needed to be designed and promoted for 500 faculty and staff at a large local community college. The other team dealt with a major project for the corporate university of a major company based in the Mid-West. Their study centered on evaluating how to measure delivery of learning programs. They had on-site visits at the beginning and end of the project (February and April 2000), handling research and interaction with the client team via virtual means in the interval between visits.

Adding to the value of this experiment was the fact that earlier evaluation processes were left in place as the GTPQ was administered. Students kept their learning journals, served as a focus group in discussing their experience as it developed during the semester, submitted a 15 to 20 page end-of-semester essay providing an assessment of the action learning process and group dynamics, and submitted a five to seven page end-of-semester essay on their personal learning. Their personal learning was pegged to critical incidents criteria. (Dilworth, 1998) The GTPQ was administered twice during the semester. The first administration was done after the team had been through a month of intensive effort and had a chance to develop some group cohesion. That became the baseline index. Three months later, the second administration occurred as the projects drew to a close. It was therefore possible to compare baseline results with the second administration of the GTPQ, do a gap analysis and map trends. This could in-turn be compared with the other evaluative processes used. Following each administration, ITAP International determined qualitative results via computer analysis and recorded qualitative results.

The action learning sets were given a composite/matrix profile of the overall team averages and range for each question asked, together with individual team member scores for each question. Since all completed their questionnaires independently, there was no way of identifying who was responsible for a given score. The results showed relative alignment in some cases (all scores close to the same) and areas where there were significant perceptual disagreements within the set. This created a basis for meaningful discussions within the set in reviewing and "fine tuning" the group dynamics. It served to open up discussion in areas that might otherwise have been undiscussable.

Each action learning set saw the complete results of the other team as well as their own. Each set then served as a set of "consultants" to the other team in helping them sort through the findings, in determining what they meant and how the team needed to address the findings.
What limitations were there to the research? As with any such investigation, the mix of participants can heavily influence results, no matter how good the methodology or basic learning design (in this case action learning). However, the care in administration of the GTPQ and the forms of triangulation present (e.g., comparing narrative student comments in their essays to GTPQ results) did serve to create a means of interpreting the significance of the results.

Results and Findings

1. Qualitative comparison of GTPQ results with other evaluative reference points (essays) suggest strong congruence, and that is reasonably to be expected. Both record the same experience.

2. Team 2 started with a relatively low profile in terms of performance based on the GTPQ. It then surged based on results of the second GTPQ. Team 1 had a much stronger initial profile. It then slipped back somewhat based on the second administration of the GTPQ, but retained rather high marks across the board. When the second administration of the GTPQ is compared with the first for each team, it reveals the following trends across the question categories (Likert-based items).

  Improved Diminished Unchanged
Team 1 04 11 01
Team 2 14 01 01


3. GTPQ results for both administrations reveal very strong positive ratings for both teams in the following categories:

a. Work distribution.
b. Use of time.
c. Team agenda clear.
d. Team member roles clear.
e. Team effectiveness.
f. Opportunity to inform others.
g. Opportunity to learn from others.
h. Future career success positively affected.
i. Trust.
j. Learning in the academic course vs. others.
k. Experience challenging vs. other classroom experiences.

4. The high quantitative results on the GTPQ are mirrored in the quantitative results generated by the usual faculty evaluation form used at the university to assess quality of instruction and the learning experience. Results were uniformly at a median level of 5 (on a Likert Scale, with 5 as the maximum rating). Student essays also reflect the very positive student evaluation of the experience.

5. When set profiles were examined they identified some disparities of view within a set/team. Deviations of two or more Likert ratings between set members in a given area demonstrated to the set that there were some potential problem points in group process. One example of this was when four of five members of a set rated quality of communications to be excellent, while one member rated this area low. Another area of divergence noted was related to time. Four found adequate time to work on the project and one did not. Such differences are important to know. They provide a basis for intervention strategies within the set itself to alleviate concerns and improve group process.

6. While students placed high value on the learning, they also cited barriers to the team's work. They were invariably time related. Some verbatim student comments were:

a. Family time is reduced.
b. Time: Balancing work and this project because of the time spent on the project. I feel as though I almost need to be "on leave" from work in order to do extensive research, meet with the client, prepare presentations, etc.
c. Trying to meet at a convenient place and time for all members (not a very big barrier though!)
d. Attendance and punctuality has marginally interfered with productivity, but may have undermined group process (e.g., communication and cohensiveness. . . ).

7. What is shown below is a representative sampling of student comments re: the most positive and negative aspects of the action learning experience (Number 1 in the priority order, of four asked for)


  • Good team cohesiveness
  • People from different areas and backgrounds working together
  • More camaraderie than traditional courses
  • Group interaction
  • Working with the team and coming from a variety of experience
  • Communicating within loop-sharing concepts with all for new ideas
  • It's good (to a degree) that we are unfamiliar with the client organization-fresh perspective
  • Developing friendships with team members


  • Confusion as to which group member should answer questions when asked by the client
  • Decision making can be a long process
  • Difficult to coordinate logistics
  • Stress
  • Must rely on all members, i.e., have to wait when one or more are late
  • Overwhelming, easy to lose confidence in project
  • Having to coordinate with all even with minor issues
  • The client didn't seem to embrace, by way of deep introspection, action learning
  • Difficulty getting a real grasp on what is expected of our team (deliverables)

Conclusions and Recommendations

1. To use the GTPQ effectively requires that the team have time to form and coalesce before administration of the instrument. In an earlier pilot test by the researcher, the teams involved did not spend extended time together. Therefore, team members did not feel any real vesting in team performance. Further, there was no single project focus as was true in this action learning experience. In the action learning experience, the project work was tightly bounded by time. How well the group did played an important part in determining the individual student grades.

2. When used in situations such as the action learning experience, where the work tempo is intensive and success of the team depends on good group dynamics, the GTPQ seems a very powerful tool. It also provides a basis for the team to target on specific areas that can interrupt or impede team effectiveness. That allows the team itself to deal with such problems. Since problems have been made evident by the team members, themselves, through anonymous completion of the GTPQ, the issues are made authentic and legitimate. It is worth noting that when results are excellent, good performance can end up being further bolstered (reciprocal causation). If an external facilitator, on the other hand, were to identify problems to the group based on observations of group activity, that would not tend to carry as much weight. It would be group process as seen through the eyes of someone not a continuous part of that process, rather than the inner conscience of the group.

3. When the GTPQ is slightly modified and wedded to the action learning experience through use of some open-ended questions, it can be doubly useful in an action learning context. The members of the action learning set receive not only quantitative feedback in this case, but qualitative as well. What this suggests is that the GTPQ can be made even more effective and useful by including questions customized to the context involved. This can be especially useful in dealing with cross-cultural situations where an understanding of cultural nuance can be important.

4. To an indeterminate extent, the GTPQ itself served as an effective intervention, in that its administration caused members of the action learning sets to consider a number of areas that are critical to the effectiveness of any group/team (e.g., clarity of team member roles and the level of trust within the team).

5. Use of the GTPQ in this instance, since it was used in tandem with several other evaluative sources (i.e., two essays, professor observation, class as focus group and the usual faculty/course evaluation at the university), provided a means of triangulating the results.

6. In responding to those question areas unique to the classroom version of the GTPQ, students rated the action learning experience more challenging and of higher learning value than other university courses they had taken. In terms of challenge, one set assigned an average value of 5.4. The other set averaged 4.5 (with a Likert Scale rating of six being the maximum in this instance). In terms of learning compared with other courses, one set assigned an average value of 2 and the other 1.75 (the best Likert Scale rating being 1 in this case).

How this Research Contributes New Knowledge in HRD

1. It shows how a proven survey instrument can be further strengthened through customization and the addition of a qualitative component to go with the quantitative one.

2. The GTPQ seems to have particular utility in an action learning experience because it promotes critical reflection at both individual and group levels, allowing the group itself to determine how best to self-facilitate progress. It can also give an external facilitator a legitimate basis for helping a group work through its self-determined problem areas.

3. As the use of self-directed work teams broadens, with the need to have them truly self-direct their activities, an instrument like the GTPQ can be of great value. As indicated earlier, it can be of particular benefit in identifying areas of possible culture clash when cross-cultural teams are being used. Since some cultures are reluctant to discuss problems openly, this can be a means of getting areas of concern into the open for discussion.


Bing, J. (2000). Explanation and approach to the use of the Global Team Process Questionnaire™. An unpublished manuscript of ITAP International.

Dilworth, R. (2000). Comparing action learning programs at six universities on three continents: Similarities and differences. Proceedings of the Academy of Human Resource Development 2000 Annual Conference.

Dilworth, R. & Willis, V. (1999). Action learning for personal and transformative learning. In L. Yorks, V. Marsick & J. O'Neil (Eds.) in Management development and organizational learning through action learning in a topical monograph on advances in developing Human Resources Series, Berrett-Koehler Communications.

Dilworth, R. (1998). Action Learning at Virginia Commonwealth University: Blending Action, Reflection, Critical Incident Methodologies and Portfolio Assessment. Performance Improvement Quarterly, II (2).

Dilworth, R. (1997). Orchestration of learning style differences and other variables in an action learning experience. Proceedings of the 1997 Adult Education Conference.

Dilworth, R. (1996). Action learning: Bridging academic and workplace domains. The Journal of Workplace Learning, 8 (6), 45-53.

Marquardt, M. (1999). Action learning in action. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing.

Meister, J. (1998). Corporate Universities. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Revans, R. (1983). ABC of Action Learning. Middlesex, England: Chartwell-Bratt.

Revans, R. (1982). The Origins and growth of action learning. Sweden: Studentlitteratur.

Revans, R. (1980). Action learning: New techniques for management. London: Blond & Briggs.

Weisbord, M. (1987). Productive Workplaces. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

©2000 Robert L. Dilworth, reprinted with permission.

This paper was presented at the February 2001 national conference of the Academy of Human Resource Development.

The late Robert L. (Lex) Dilworth was an Associate Professor Emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, USA. He received his doctorate from Columbia University in Adult and Continuing Education. His specialties included human resource development (HRD), action learning, and organization development (OD). He spent a number of years involved with action learning internationally, including time spent in extensive collaboration with Reg Revans and Albert Barker of England, as well as Verna Willis at Georgia State University. Before he entered his educational career, he was a Regular Army Brigadier General in the U.S. Army. His military assignments included service as The Adjutant General (TAG) of the U.S. Army.

Robert L. Dilworth



Reflection, especially critical reflection, requires deep connection with the inner self. This can be difficult to achieve after long periods of blockage caused by the repetitiveness and intensity of daily events. To achieve connection with your deeper self requires a quietness of mind, self-honesty, and at least brief escapes from what can be the unsystematic clutter of our lives. It can only be brought about by practice and a sincere desire to know ourselves and our potentialities. This is the territory that Reginald W. Revans of England refers to as System Gamma--how we change and the organization we are with can change.

The Basics of Action Learning

This article is not designed to provide an encompassing overview of action learning. Its purpose is to expose an often neglected part of action learning to some deep scrutiny, namely the reflective component that Revans saw as such an essential complement to action. In fact, the learning flows from the reflective part of action learning more than the action component. The action component gives us the ammunition for reflective examination, learning and change.

In order to create some common planking under the subject, I will reiterate some of the more basic principles that undergird action learning. Action learning can come in many configurations. However, the presence of the following characteristics are what separate action learning from other modalities, some of which may at times be inaccurately labeled action learning.

1. It is always a real problem that the action learning set or individual set members are dealing with. In some cases a set will address a common problem. In other cases, the individual team members may bring to the set problems from their own workplace. In either case, the standard is the same. The problems must be real, meaning unsolved and of considerable significance. Revans argued for problems that can be so daunting that they appear insoluble.

2. The perfect situation in the view of Revans is to be confronted by a real problem with which you are unfamiliar, and to have to solve it in an unfamiliar setting (Revans, 1983, pp. 21-22). To that I add that it can be instructive to be asked to engage in action learning with set members that you either do not know or have had only minimal contact with before. This adds a third dimension of unfamiliarity.

While meaningful learning can occur in settings that are familiar, while dealing with problems with which you are somewhat familiar, it is in the unfamiliar setting and confrontation with an unfamiliar problem that the learning can prove to be greatest. This can seem counterintuitive to those with limited experience with action learning. Several questions can result. "Why would you want to place people outside the bounds of their knowledge and familiarity?" "Why train people for one thing if you are then going to ask them to solve problems that they have not been trained to solve?" The answer is that you want the person outside of their comfort zone and placed in a situation where they must ask fresh questions and even challenge their own long held assumptions about what should be true.

3. An action learning set should have no more than four to eight members. Four to Five seems ideal.

4. All members of an action learning set are equals. There is no designated leader. Set members share the leadership role. The set operates by consensus.

5. Learning (L) = Programmed Instruction (P) + Questioning Insight (Q). Revans made it clear in this "Learning Equation" (Revans, 1983, p. 11) that you need both ingredients for learning, but he also strongly believed that the process needs to begin with questioning insight (the "Q" factor), the here, the now and what you sense may occur, as opposed to beginning with an examination of past knowledge and results (the "P" factor). When you begin with questioning insight, you can find that some of the existing "P" is of little value, and there may be new "P" that needs to be developed.

6. A facilitator (also referred to as Set Adviser or Learning Coach) is almost always present in action learning. When a facilitator is involved, the role can differ widely. Some believe in the omnipresence of the facilitator when the set meets, believing that the facilitator needs to be there to make sure that reflection occurs and that important learning opportunities are not overlooked. Revans takes a different view, and one that closely aligns with what this author believes. Revans holds that the set can do its own best facilitation. Therefore, the facilitator involvement is best limited to setting up the process properly, jump starting the work of the set (without excessive "P"), and then fading back. During the process of action learning, the facilitator serves as a resource and promotes the learning process. The facilitator only intervenes in a limited way, letting the set chart its own course, including the interpretation and capture of its own learning. The facilitator does not attend all set meetings, and may only be present for a portion of other meetings.

The view that the facilitator should not be omnipresent gets strong support from adult learning theory, where the goal is fostering independence, not reinforcing dependence (e.g., a facilitator or teacher who will tell you what to do). The learning comes out of the action learning experience, not the "fount of knowledge " of some supernumerary, who may have views that are far off center with learner needs. The participants decide what structure they need to use and the milestones to be pursued in accomplishing the work of the set. While the facilitator will assign the overall deadline, and point out some intermediate markers that need to be honored, it is up to the set to manage its own effort.

There can be more controversy around the role of a facilitator than any other area related to action learning. Some adamantly hold that the facilitator is the center of the process, with "absolute authority" over the action learning set. Others, myself included, believe that the learner is at the center of the process, and that to have a facilitator regularly intervene during the activities of a set only serves to dilute the learning that would otherwise occur. It can also become extremely irritating to the learners. I have seen instances when the members of a set asked the facilitator to leave.

7. As indicated at the outset, action must be balanced by reflection. It is the reflective component that generates the depth of learning. Some of it is reflection-in-action as you move along in your project effort. We do this daily in our lives. There is also "reflection on reflection-in-action", which inherently calls for looking back over the various reflective moments when the actions were taking place and examining them for patterns. This is greatly facilitated by the maintenance of a learning log.

The Nature of Reflection

If you ask someone to define reflection, you are liable to receive widely varied responses. In the simplest form, mention may be made of stopping to think, a momentary pause in the activities tied to living (e.g., stopping briefly to reflect on what is needed on entering a grocery store). When it comes to reflecting on your life and critical decisions that need to be made, it becomes much more difficult.

For some, stopping to reflect on their existence can seem too painful. It can bring to mind memories of failure or life tragedies. I had a student about four years ago who told me that she simply could not do any deep reflection. She said, "I am afraid of what I may see". Part of her memory was in effect off limits. Protection of her self-image and self-esteem required that she stay clear of certain sensitive subjects.

While there can be obvious psychological blockages to reflection, the more common reasons for finding it difficult to reflect are much more basic. First, opportunities to reflect are driven out by the frenzy of life activity and day in and day out crises. Therefore, the ability to reflect lies undeveloped, and when one attempts it, reflection can seem extremely awkward--like a right-handed person trying to sign their name using their left hand. Business executives can be especially resistant to reflection because it can seem a needless detour from current business activity.

It takes time and practice to unlock the ability to reflect. The art of critical reflection takes even longer, and some never get there. However, once the impasse is breached and reflection starts to occur naturally and routinely, the individual can feel empowered and in control of their own life. That can be a liberating experience. When the reflection pushes to the deeper levels of self, it becomes possible to jettison dysfunctional assumptions and behaviors. Deep learning can then occur. It can become transformative learning. The individual is elevated to a new plateau of self-awareness. At this point, it becomes what can be called emancipatory learning--throwing off the self-imposed, and frequently externally imposed, chains that have been constraining clear thinking and advance.

Reflection in the end is a dialogue with self. It can lead to a form of self-catharsis, where we find ourselves listening to our inner feelings. I remember a person in one of my action learning sets in 1996 in England who reached a point where she could hardly wait to get back to her room at night to reflect on events of the day and their meaning. She indicated that she found herself good company and had meaningful conversations with herself as part of the act of reflecting.

Jack Mezirow, who has written on transformative learning and reflection, says this:

Reflective learning involves assessment or reassessment of assumptions. Reflective learning becomes transformative whenever assumptions or premises are found to be distorting, inauthentic, or otherwise invalid. (1991, p.6)

In discussing "reflection and making meaning", Mezirow indicates:

Much of what we learn involves new interpretations that enable us to elaborate, further differentiate, and reinforce our long established frames of reference to create new meaning schemes. Perhaps even more central to adult learning than elaborating established meaning schemes is the process of reflecting back on prior learning to determine whether what we have learned is justified under current circumstances (Mezirow & Associates, 1990, p.5)

What this all leads back to and places in focus is the Learning Equation of Revans. Here it is the reflective process (the questioning insight, or Q) that confirms or disaffirms what is currently in the inventory (the programmed instruction, or "P") from the standpoint of true relevance to what is being dealt with first hand. What Mezirow is saying in so many words is that reflection enables you to judge the relevancy and appropriateness of prior learning to the situation that now confronts you.

Victoria Marsick anchors the concept of action learning to the process involved, including the importance of reflection:

Action learning combines individual responsibility and reflection on personal experiences with comprehensive attention to the multiple perspectives of various stakeholders within a social unit--in this case the organization. It is thus oriented to problem solving, but with a twist, since the emphasis is on helping people better understand and formulate problems through continual cycles of action (implementation of some sort) and reflection on, and in, action (Mezirow & Associates, 1990, p.43).

A final way to look at the nature of reflection is through the model developed by Chris Argyris of Harvard. He speaks about "single loop learning". This ends up being a very simplistic level of reflection, and it in no way challenges what is going on. It lives for the moment and treats situations in a one-dimensional way. It can be akin to my earlier example of deciding what to buy in a grocery store. In the corporate boardroom, it can be the safe chatter that can occur, with careful avoidance of conflict, and little hint of going after what could be the underlying roots of problems being addressed.

"Double loop learning" on the other hand carries you to a level where there is more authentic communication taking place. The reflection runs deeper and does set about rooting out the source of problems being encountered. Argyris has pointed out that few organizations reach a high level of authenticity. Argyris also talks about "espoused theory" versus "theory in use" (Argyris, Putman & Smith, 1985).

We can say one thing (espoused theory) and then do something quite different (theory in use). In many instances in organizations, theory in use "trumps" what has been espoused. We confront this phenomenon almost every day in our most typical work environment. The espoused theory can involve broad pronouncements of change (such as the promises of a politician), thus suggesting the presence of double loop learning. The reality can play out quite differently, and be more aligned with single loop learning.

We can also see this in our personal reflection about our lives. It can be a case of self-deception, such as self-talk that promises basic changes in the way we are leading our lives, whether health, career or family related. What we then do can be quite different, and we can block an association of the two by saying either that "we tried" (such as a failed weight loss program), or by simply allowing the espoused theory and theory in use to live side by side, which can be called in psychology, cognitive dissonance (the ability to hold contrary beliefs or views simultaneously). This is an inauthenticity that can pose a major barrier to critical reflection. While this phenomenon can be rife in organizations, we have an opportunity to counter it directly at a personal level. Reflection requires that we first be honest with ourselves. This does not seem a lofty goal, and we cannot achieve honesty with others if we are not honest with ourselves. As they say, "To thyself be true!"

Gregory Bateson has pointed to what he refers to a "level three learning" (sometimes referred to as "triple loop learning"). Here the depth of reflection (truly a form of critical reflection) runs deeper still. Rather than stopping with an examination of the "why" (double loop learning), level three learning examines the "why behind the why". It is a progressive peeling back of layers of prior learning and long held assumptions, some even dating back to early childhood, to get at the underlying truth. This is where the more profound examples of personal transformation can occur.

What strikes those of us who have been deeply involved with action learning is how impactful action learning can be. I could cite many stories of individuals emerging from an action learning experience feeling liberated or transformed. Some of the excerpts from action learner reflective essays later in this article suggest the degree of impact the participant in action learning feels. In the book Action Learning: Images and Pathways (Dilworth & Willis, 2003), a number of examples of such transformation are highlighted. Invariably, they flow out of the depth of reflection that has occurred, and action learning seems to be able to trigger the reflective processes better than probably any other modality.

Building in the Reflective Component

There is no one way to induce reflection in those who are not accustomed to reflection. It is best to employ multiple strategies. Here are a few that I recommend be considered.

1. Set Composition. The reflective component begins with set composition. By having a diverse make up in the set, an unfamiliarity factor becomes embedded. It necessitates dealing with other cultures, age groups, learning styles and gender. All of this can help enrich the dialogue and open up new ways of thinking and conceptualizing. There must be a cultural sensitivity in doing this. For example, it can be best to have those of equivalent age and status assigned to a set in Asia. That parity allows for equality of participation, something that might be stifled by older individuals being sprinkled in with those who are much younger.

If you believe in the importance of diversity, it also leads you to the belief that there is an advantage in having the facilitator assign people to sets, rather than having participants determine for themselves which set they will be in. When wide latitude is allowed, it invariably leads to the formation of cliques. Those who know one another cluster together. Those of the same gender or cultural identity can also cluster together. This defeats the opportunity to build in diversity. It can be as valuable to have unfamiliar associates in an action learning set, as it is to have unfamiliar problems and settings to deal with. Unfamiliarity and diversity help motivate reflection.

2. Learning Log. The maintenance of a learning log can be helpful. However, it requires disciplined attention. A common question is "What should be included?" It is certainly not a "Dear Diary" type process. One of the obstacles to getting into the flow of reflecting on what is happening is the sense of awkwardness people can feel in keeping such a log. They haven't yet found themselves to a deeper level of reflection. Therefore, it can become relegated to making entries that only outline what occurred, but without any underlying reflection on why it may be important, or what else it may suggest.

One way to overcome the initial impasse in getting started is to ask the set members to use a Critical Incident related approach to determining what they need to record. Here are some possible questions to ask, to which the individual can add his or her own.

a. When did I feel most engaged?
b. When did I feel most distanced?
c. When did I feel most puzzled?
d. When did I feel most affirmed?
e. What gaps in my learning did I discover, and how should I go about closing/narrowing them?

A question can arise about when you should make entries in the log. One ideal time is following a meeting of the action learning set, but there can be other times as well. You process information between set meetings, especially when you are pursuing a difficult project to conclusion. You should make entries in your log as the spirit moves you.

Once the opening awkwardness and unfamiliarity of keeping such a log is overcome, the process can become a natural part of one's existence. This becomes true as reflection becomes more natural. To most people reflection can seem unnatural. Who has time to reflect on what is happening when they are caught up in daily events? As one becomes comfortable with reflection, they can find that they are living happier lives and are much more aware of how they need to shape their existence. They see opportunities that they did not know existed before. In some cases, it can result in a major life change. The person can also begin to see opportunities to change the organizations they are associated with.

What the learning log gives you is a record of reflection on action as events or key milestones take place. What can then turn such information into something of greater value is when you later, or at regular intervals, reflect on reflection-in-action, namely looking for patterns and drawing connections between what has occurred. Have your personal views shifted as a result of the pattern of events you see? What is the significance when you examine longitudinally what has occurred? One effective way to generate the reflection on reflection-in-action is to challenge yourself to write a personal essay, a stream of consciousness, on what the entries in the learning log seem to convey, and how you can best interpret your findings and apply them.

3. Type 2 Learning. Alan Mumford of England places, what he refers to as Type 2 learning, between the informal and accidental learning that is a part of a work routine (CCMD Report, 1994, pp. 13-14). Mumford also distinguishes between "retrospective" and "prospective" learning. What Mumford proposes has a direct connection to reflection. It can also be tied back to the learning log concept already explained, as well as the development of a personal essay on reflection-in-action.

Mumford suggests that there is value in setting a time frame for retrospection (e.g., two months). What can you learn from what has occurred during that period? This can be developed from an examination of your learning log and general reflection. Once you arrive at your findings, what is the significance of the findings if you now look at them prospectively several months into the future? In effect, what have you learned, and what is the potential for applying it as time goes on? Some very powerful learning can emerge from this kind of reflection.

4. The Way the Process is Designed and Orchestrated. While you are not setting out, if you are the facilitator, to endow the action learning set with vast quantities of "P", it is necessary to set the stage for action learning. There needs to be some understanding of the basic precepts that govern the process. Coverage of the reflective component becomes particularly important, because as already pointed out, there can be little understanding of what true reflection connotes, let alone critical reflection (the deeper level).

In my experience, the only way to get people accustomed to reflection is to encourage them to do it, explain how it can be accomplished, and set up situations that allow them to practice reflection. Some of the "avenues" that follow will address the "how to" of doing this.

The key point is that reflection must be emphasized from the very first breath of the action learning set and then reinforced as the experience progresses, but in ways that do no interfere with the operation of the set. You want a minimum of interruptions or interventions.

5. Break Space. The author has started employing what he calls "break space" to jump start the reflection process. In the Spring of 2004, it manifested itself as ten minutes at the start of each set meeting where all set members closed their eyes, remained silent, and reflected. Reflections can only really breed in silence. That is the "sunlight" that causes the reflection process to grow.

Rather predictably some saw the ten minutes of reflection as a waste, even a distracter from their project effort. This can be attributed in part to the awkwardness of being asked to reflect. Some said as much. "I really felt out of my element being asked to do this". However, most came around to welcoming these moments and incorporated them at the start of their set meetings. Others indicated that they had incorporated it into their daily lives.

Some of the break space periods I billed as simply "break space". Others became "focused break space", where I encouraged them to think about the most important event in their lives that week, what made it important, and what they might learn from it. At other times, as the pressure of what they were working on as a set began to build, I encouraged them to reflect on what was going right and why. This could serve to relieve stress, provide positive reinforcement and possibly open up opportunities to take an approach that was working in one area and try utilizing it in an area where problems were still being encountered.

6. Hybrid Sets. When there are multiple sets operating concurrently, there is a strategy that can be used to promote reflection. It uses what I refer to as "hybrid sets". I began using this approach in 2001. It was quickly adopted by Georgia State University as well.

One of the problems you have in getting action learning sets to reflect on what is occurring is the urgency of working on their project or projects. There can be a feeling that any time set aside to reflect is time not well spent. In reality, reflection can lead you to a level of understanding that can propel an initiative forward, but such opportunities can seem obscure when you are under pressure to reach a conclusion in a set period of time.

To side step such time pressure, I create hybrid sets, drawing from the regular action learning sets. In the spring of 2004, I had three regular sets operating. From these sets I created three hybrid sets. Every hybrid set contained members from each of the three regular sets. As in the case of the regular sets, diversity of set member content was emphasized in determining the set to which a person would be assigned.

The convention governing the operation was that while in the hybrid set configuration you discussed the learning taking place, not the individual projects being pursued by the regular sets. However, that was at times like trying to hold the water back behind a dike. There was a pent up desire to compare notes about projects, and there was in fact value in doing that. The set members frequently found out that the kind of concerns they were experiencing were being experienced by all the regular sets. There was something affirming about that.

As time went on the inclination to assign a great deal of emphasis to comparing notes across regular sets declined. More of the time turned to the learning, and in the view of the participants the value of the hybrid sets went up. Part of this can also be attributed to a gradual movement on the part of the participants toward greater receptivity and comfort with reflection in general.

7. Life Histories. One effective way to begin inducing reflection is the use of life histories. In action learning sets that I am involved with, it is accomplished as follows. One of the very first things set members are asked to do when the set is being formed is take time to develop a four-page, single-spaced life history. It is not to be a resume or simply a chronology of life events, but rather a narrative about their life. What was important to them? What has gone right? What has gone wrong? What do they aspire to do? There is no set format around this life history narrative. It is simply their life story. They are asked to "get in touch with themselves" in writing it, and encouraged to just let the thoughts flow.

By prior agreement with participants, life histories are cross shared among all participating in the action learning experience, including those in their regular set and members of the other regular sets. All of this is to be kept confidential within the sets of action learning participants. It helps create a sense of learning community among all sharing the action learning experience.

Action learning sets consider the life histories, as well as work histories, educational background and life experiences of their fellow set members in drawing up a profile of their set. It is a case of reflecting on who is going forward with them in the experience, and understanding what each can bring to the table in terms of skills, knowledge and abilities. One common finding among participants is that the group of learners is extremely rich in life experience, as well talents. They begin to identify with one another. Dialogue in turn opens up and deepens. There is a greater inclination to be disclosive in what they say. Thoughts and ideas flow more freely. Less is held close to the vest. Trust grows. There is more willingness to share ideas and thoughts.

Reflection is fostered in several ways out of this process. First, the act of writing the life history itself has an impact. Some participants will admit that this is their first opportunity to do such writing or reflection. They can feel ill at ease, awkward and even vulnerable. They can come away saying that they have examined their life at a greater depth than ever before, bringing away important new understandings about themselves. A second benefit is that it opens up broad dialogue in the set and promotes further self-reflection by set members. For example, they may find that others have encountered similar life problems, whether divorce, being a sole parent or job loss, but they may have handled it differently. Therefore, further reflection on their own experience occurs, as they continue to strive to make meaning.

8. Process Observation. Each set is asked to conclude each meeting with reflection on what happened during the meeting. One member of the set is to serve in a dual role for the session, participating in set activities while at the same time being observant of the behavior taking place.

The set member serving as process observer serves as a conscience to the set. Did the set follow its preset agenda? If not, why not? Did it determine what needs to take place next? Did set members treat each other with respect? Did everyone contribute? What can they collectively learn from what occurred? How does it inform them about what the set needs to do to strengthen its effectiveness? What learning opportunities need to be capitalized on?

9. Looking Inside the Dynamics of Action Learning Sets. The dynamics that are occurring within an action learning set can be less than entirely clear to those who are participating in the experience. In some cases set members can have a general appreciation for what is occurring but be reluctant to probe deeper. Therefore, there can be value in being able to look inside the team dynamics from "outside". Action learning set members can also be much more inclined to evaluate their team privately and independently than as a part of an open discussion in the set. It can be a case of not wanting to further destabilize a situation that seems unresolved or less than completely defined, but at least reasonably contained. Therefore, to get the truth out in the open where it can be dealt with can require the synthesis of individual set member views into an integrated format that can then be subject to review by the entire set.

Since March of 2003, a survey instrument has existed that allows you to look inside the dynamics of action learning sets. Called the Action Learning Team Process Questionnaire™ (ALTPQ) and marketed by ITAP International in Princeton, New Jersey, USA, the author was the co-developer of the survey instrument. The instrument is based on a well established research base and instrumentation that is being used by a number of large organizations, including a suborganizaton of the United Nations.

Consisting of 31 questions, 29 of them using a Likert Scale, set members anonymously complete the questionnaire. While the results are known to consist of the aggregate results of individual set member inputs, the identity of who assigned what Likert rating or provided what comment is kept completely confidential. The facilitator does not even know the identity of who provided what input. That is only known to ITAP International in order to provide an ability to track responses in relation to multiple administrations of the instrument to the same set (i.e., Participant #1 as listed in the report is always the same person).

The results are displayed in various formats. Some of the areas that are plotted are level of trust, effectiveness of communication, extent to which work is equitably divided, extent to which leadership is equally distributed, how effective the set is in dealing with diversity, extent to which the set takes time to monitor group processes, effectiveness of the support provided by the facilitator, clarity of objectives being pursued, clarity of individual role and responsibilities, and perceived effectiveness of the set.

When the set receives the results it can be surprised by some of them. For example, it might show that half of a set assigns a high level of trust to the set, whereas the other half does not. This is obviously an issue that needs to be worked through. If one-third of a set are rather murky on the objectives being pursued, that is also a problem. A variation that can occur is when all are clear about the overall objectives being pursued, but some are unclear about their individual role and responsibilities.

How does this all relate to reflection? It very simply gets issues out on the table that would not be there otherwise, and allows them to be flushed through in depth. There is characteristically little or no animosity that results from such information being made known. What almost always transpires is an open and positive dialogue, including admission of concerns by various set members that surfaced anonymously in the questionnaire results. Some very important and deep reflection can be an outgrowth of this process.

In addition to the Likert based questions, there is a question that asks the participant to reflect on the positive and negative things about the action learning experience. Here is a recent sampling of what the action learning participants said:


a. Diverse strengths and weaknesses.
b. Increased learning.
c. Real world experience
d. Has opened my eyes to the learning gaps that I have.
e. Action learning is helping me to learn more about myself and I believe it will increase my self-confidence.
f. Everyone is willing to help.
g. Allows you to think totally outside the box.
h. Much more fun than classroom learning.
i. Allows people with all experience levels to come together to develop or contribute to the success of the organization.
j. The learning is our own. We are able to "own" the project which will lead to increased satisfaction.
k. Has helped me identify other learning strengths that I have.
l. Helped me understand how I can work better in teams.


a. The amount of work.
b The anxiety can sometimes slow down the learning process if it gets out of control.
c. Has reinforced why I did not like teamwork in the first place.
d. Has not helped me avoid the tendency to instant activity.
e. The success or failure of the project is on your shoulders alone.
f. I'm wondering if our suggestions will really be used [by the client].
g. This is a safe action learning environment, therefore some of the collaborative team effort that occurs during the project may not be the same in the real world (depending on the organization).
h. Many group meetings outside of class with time taken away from work, family and friends.
i. Sometimes it seems to take longer to accomplish things in a group when they could be done much faster on your own.
j. I have not yet learnt how to be confrontational in a team meeting.
k. Getting some to buy into action learning is sometimes difficult. How do you measure its usefulness?
l. If not carefully thought out, the action learning process could cause problems with learning as well as team cohesiveness.

The Action Learning Team Process Questionnaire™ (ALTPQ) is usually administered more than once, in order to plot progress of the set. The first iteration occurs as soon as the team has developed an identity and demonstrates cohesion. The intensity of the action learning taking place (frequency and duration of meetings being one) influences the timing. If the meetings of the action learning set are widely scattered, tend to be brief, and are targeted at lesser problems or projects, the team may never reach a point where it really considers itself a team/set. The ALTPQ results will usually make this visible (e.g., trust level and communication will tend to score low). Subsequent administrations of the ALTPQ should have sufficient interval between them.

Finally, the reports should be explained to the sets, and then they should be allowed to make their own meaning from what the reports indicate. This is part of the learning, and it is also a way of further leveraging the reflection. It also reinforces to the action learning set that it is empowered.

In Their Own Words

Reflection is subtle. It occurs differently in each of us. Our brain processes can operate quite differently. Each of us has a different mosaic of genetic makeup and life experiences, and we tend to be programmed behaviorally by the cultures in which we reside (e.g., ethnic group, organization in which we work, community, church, country, family). How we are programmed can also relate to the periods in which we have lived. A person who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930's will have a different perspective than someone from Generation X. Those who lived through the Vietnam Era of the 1960's and 70's will have a different perspective than those who did not.

The best way to expose the nature of reflection, the power of action learning, and how it unfolds and comes together in action learning sets, is to turn to learner experiences. What follows are verbatim excerpts taken from reflective essays of participants in three action learning sets in the Spring of 2004.

1. My first response to the whole idea of action learning was gutwrenching fear. Fear of the unknown, to be sure. It was not that I didn't think that I could accept the challenge and be successful, but more of, how do I get my feet back under me? Where was my control in this situation? Working with a team or set didn't necessarily make you comfortable either. Working with set members created new dynamics coming into play and the control issue was even more unclear.

2. As I reflected…at the start I was terrified of the project and action learning in general, a fear of the unknown. Having survived to the other side of the process I feel so much more capable and confident to tackle any new project I might meet in my career. It is liberating. The only other experience I can somewhat equate to this epiphany was the time I found myself diagnosed with cancer and required surgery within two weeks of diagnosis.

3. I think the biggest obstacle…was being asked to perform outside my comfort zone, my area of expertise. What I didn't realize at the start…was that action learning would make me stretch: my knowledge, my skills, and my resourcefulness, and in doing so provide me with a better understanding of myself and what I can really do when presented a problem that is outside my expertise, as the real world often requires us.

4. Action learning has been an amazing adventure, in self-discovery, self-awareness, self-preservation, and self-empowerment. I have not been untouched by my experience with action learning and I can honestly say that although there were incredibly stressful moments, there were also incredibly wonderful discoveries.

5. Discussions about differences were also a part of the hybrid group meeting. Several participants, both within and outside the hybrid group, described how the differing personalities and experiences of each team member provided balance. Each person brought different strengths to the table. For example, in talking with the hybrid group members, I noted that each group had a blend of detailed and less structured people, along with other differing qualities. These differences allowed for flexibility of leadership within the team. Individual members would play a leadership role based on the skill needed at the time. Sometimes it was so natural it was difficult to detect.

6. Writing these reflective essays is very difficult for me. My teammates have learned more about me than I would have dared share with people I have known for such a short period of time. I am excited about being able to open up. I remain cautious with whom I open up to, but I think that is normal.

7. I have always underestimated my abilities but I did not know how much until this experience. I am just realizing this because I have never been pushed to this level in an environment with such high expectations of success. My ability to adapt to situations and circumstances were tested time and time again. I am proud of the outcome.

8. I was able to acquire skills of critical insight and reflection. The interaction among individuals within the set became the driving force of the action learning experience. We were all introduced to ideas other than our own. We were able to reflect on discussions and receive insight that might not have been discovered individually. The communication opened up complex areas for discussion. It is with effective communication that the set began to work through the complex issues. Things started to make sense.

9. It was not until the second hybrid set meeting that I realized how far I had come since the beginning of the experience. Being able to reflect with other set members not only gave me insight into projects being undertaken but also helped me realize how much personal growth I had achieved. The time spent in the hybrid sets enabled me to reflect on the learning experience and exchange project knowledge and learning experiences with persons from other sets.

10. Like most adult learners, I learn quickly if I am engaged in activities that I can apply to situations in being or situations that I may face in the future. The action learning experience enabled me to meet my learning needs.

11. We overcame our biggest fears and we are stronger both individually and collectively having lived this experience. I not only take away a plethora of knowledge and skills but also very special relationships. Only we are aware of how unsure we were with ourselves: Our fears and what we needed to do to accomplish our goals. We were partners in adversity. Through that adversity we evolved into stronger individuals.

12. When I reflect on this experience, I can't believe that this particular learning experience has taught me so much about myself. Not that I had low self-esteem before starting this project, but I will say this project has enhanced it. I have always been afraid of the unknown and tend to stick to things that are familiar since I find comfort in them. However, after completing this project I won't hesitate when asked to do assignments that are different from what I am used to. I have come to realize that even though something may sound different, that I shouldn't shy away from it. I also learned how to deal with different personalities.

13. I have learned a lot about myself through reflections on the text on action learning [Dilworth & Willis, 2003], the learning within and outside the set, and through gap analysis. I was also able to identify assumptions that I had entering the experience, which may or may not have influenced the learning gaps that I have identified.

14. Another assumption was that others would not value my ideas and opinions. It was enlightening to note that I was able to contribute successfully and comfortably within my team. The team certainly helped to foster that boost in self-esteem for me and the knowledge that we can learn from each other in every situation in which we find ourselves.

15. Through the action learning team I was able to validate and express myself more and more openly, even though I know that others will not agree with my view. This was a learning gap that I expressed from the beginning of the experience, and I have been able to reflect and evaluate how this has affected my attitude in other areas of my life. It was interesting to see how different people dealt with team conflicts in their unique ways. It taught me how to reflect on how I have behaved and how others have perceived me when in the team. Because of the teamwork, I am more confident about working with teams and learning to deal with teams, and learning to deal with team dynamics was definitely a skill that I have added to my resume.

16. The most significant thing I learnt would be working with teams. For me, that was my major concern, having to work in such an intense setting for such a long period. Most times it is possible to avoid having to deal with team issues because one can always look forward to the end of the team effort with the knowledge that it would be over and everyone would return to their normal lives. But the difference with action learning was that it provided a safe and confrontational environment where team related issues could be dealt with effectively. It helped provide a model and served as an example of how I could and should work with teams in the future.

17. At first I did not understand the purpose of having a hybrid group in addition to our regular set, but now I realize the importance of having an opportunity to share our group's experience with other teams. For instance, it allowed me to vent and to compare notes. I liked knowing where the other groups were in their process, how they resolved conflicts and how they resolved other situations.

18. The overall action learning process is incredible to me. I am now a firm believer that you can take a small number of people and have them formulate a team and work on projects for which they have little experience. Proof of the success of action learning was everywhere.

19. Break space: I do not think that I have ever been in a group setting that utilized break space. Looking back, I see the power and importance of having something similar to a time out. I ran straight from work to the classroom and I looked forward to ten full minutes of quiet time to help me close the work day and transition to the class. Also, I value the quietness. No phone ringing, no one asking me a zillion questions, no interruptions…it was nice! On Tuesdays, break space was the first time in the day when I could actually concentrate. During break space, I would think about work related projects. Or begin to make a mental list for Wednesday. But most times I would think about someone special or something that made me laugh or smile.

20. Personal histories: This assignment tied in some of my favorite components of learning with several of my personal interests. I am a people person. I am fascinated with getting to know new people and enjoy reading and writing. I am happy to share my life history with anyone who is interested. In my personal history, I tried to make light of the painful times; for example, my divorce, and the constant tall jokes [a woman over six feet tall], but then other times I wore my heart on my sleeve and exposed the pain. In addition, the assignment helped me to get to know my classmates. I remember being at home and had just made myself a snack and a cup of coffee. It was early Saturday morning and I looked forward to curling up in bed to read all the personal stories. That was some fantastic reading! I was impressed by the variety of writing skills. In my opinion, everyone has a story to tell, and I am all ears.

21. The Action Learning Team Process Questionnaire™ (ALTPQ). The learning coach has a strong vested interest in the action learning project and he demonstrates it in many ways. One example is the ALTPQ survey that provides him our honest opinion on the action learning process. I know that the learning coach values that input and since he receives all the data, he can get a good idea of what is going on within the groups without having to ask us directly.

22. I was puzzled at the beginning and had serious doubts about the relevance and efficacy of the action learning concept. It seemed to be too simplistic. What I didn't remember was that simplicity can be a strength. I failed to realize the power inherent in a fresh pair of eyes. It seemed ludicrous to me that people who knew nothing about a field could do a better job of problem solving than experts. I came to see, however, that it is because the action learning set knows nothing going in that they are able to escape the mental ruts of training and practice. Additionally, I failed to see the great benefit from teamwork in motivating people and sharpening their minds.

23. Personally, I think the most important requirement is the dedication of the individuals to the action learning process. Action learning sets with an earnest desire to succeed will push themselves in the right direction and learn through whatever means necessary to accomplish the task. Since action learning is in essence based on the team's own effort to find the right answer, the team's commitment to the assignment and the skills of the team members acquired along the way are more important than the intellectual training that they bring to the set in the first place.

24. I also felt engaged during the hybrid set even though I did not know the total benefit of them. In much the same way as break space, I did not fully appreciate the hybrids until the end. Learning was not just about the professor standing in front of a podium lecturing; it was rather about the exchange of ideas and the sharing of experiences. Come to find out, there were aha's taking place all over the classroom and the hybrid sets afforded us mutual aha exchange. Never before have I had the experience to do something like this.

25. Another major lesson that I learned that I will take forward to the future is the value of teamwork. I think we all get caught up in the "I am an island" mindset and that we can go it alone in all projects. The action learning project shows us that we need collaborative effort to get a quality job done. One person's ideas are great, but when you have a group of people, not necessarily like minded, coming together to tackle a project, then anything is possible. The group experience was difficult on days and wonderful on others but when I think back about what we accomplished, I would not exchange that experience for anything.

26. Another area where I felt engaged in the learning process was when I was taking the Action Learning Team Process Questionnaire™ (ALTPQ). I feel this is a great tool to use to see how others in your team feel about the whole process and how you mesh together as a group. I enjoyed reading the results from the first survey that I participated in and I am anxious to see how the responses have changed with this last survey. I think the answers will be different since we have grown immensely as a team since the time of our last survey.

27. The following are the most salient benefits I have valued from the experience.

a. Determination is the backbone of success.
b. Reflection on action gives more value to action--past, present and future.
c. Do not take things seriously (be patient with others).
d. Open dialogue and expression are critical.
e. Sometimes you laugh, sometimes you cry, sometimes it rains, sometimes it pours, and then there's the sun. That's just the way life is. One of my friends says: "work like you don't need the money, dance like no one's watching you, and love like you've never been hurt".
f. That's how life is and if we do not take time to relax, enjoy and value each other, reflect on our actions and seek consistent improvement, then we would not have lived at all.
g. Action learning has shown me how to be better at living and loving, and I think that is the greatest value I take away from the experience.

Summing Up

It would be difficult to come away from a review of the unvarnished comments by those who have experienced action learning without believing that something profound happened. There are many comments about discovery of self, enhanced self-confidence, appreciation for others, and finding the value of learning from and with each other in an action learning set.

As you study the texture of the comments, you also sense the underlying reflection that took place. Where it is not expressly referenced, and it is a number of times, you feel the implicit presence of reflection. It is a driving force, some of it collective reflection by the set, but the most critical is the personal reflection that is involved.

Finally, it is clear that the learners have validated the value of the action learning process. Most came into the experience feeling somewhat befuddled, fearful and uncertain of what would take place. Some questioned the essence of action learning. As one participant said: "it seemed so simplistic". The overwhelming conclusion was that action learning worked well, even spectacularly. It clearly surpassed expectations and it was by most measures a much more powerful learning experience than that associated with a traditional classroom. In every case, the participants were jousting with major problems confronting major corporations. The problems were real, and the clients (having heard of the deliverables from earlier action learning sets) had set their own expectations very high.

The participants in the action learning experience and each of the clients came away believing that the high expectations had been met. That says a great deal.

I need to end with a cautionary note for those who are contemplating the development of an action learning program or effort. Unlike what has been portrayed here, in providing you real time imagery from the experience of three action learning sets that only concluded their effort two weeks ago at this writing, results can vary. The results are usually of a high order, but that is dependent on the prework and follow on monitorship process being done right. Having an outstanding result is not guaranteed. It takes some concerted effort and commitment to make that happen.

The team composition needs to be carefully thought through. The project must in fact be real. The action learning set must start off on the right foot, meaning the process has to be brought into place properly. As outlined in this article, my approach is to cover a good many bases early in getting the process flowing smoothly. It is NOT a traditional curriculum design. It is more of an up front orchestration by an experienced learning coach, followed by a release of the set to plow its own ground and do its own thinking. It is a case of hands off versus hands on. Traditional trainers tend to have great difficulty doing this. They can construe giving action learning sets wide latitude to learn as relinquishing what they view as "their role", even where it leads to suppression of learning rather than its facilitation.

Top management can also be a problem. When they don't understand what is taking place or the benefits it can yield to the organization, they can block use of action learning. Top management support is necessary, but it needs to be based on understanding of the concept, not simply saying that they support what is to occur. Blind support all too often unravels.

Fortunately, more and more organizations are coming to understand that action learning can be a powerful force for individual employee development and organizational advance. Some of us believe that action learning is what can fuel the learning organization, even play a key role in knowledge management.


Argyris, C., Putman, R., & Smith, D. (1985). Action science. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

CCMD Report. (1994). Continuous learning. Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Center for Management Development.

Dilworth, R. L., & Willis, V. J. (2003) Action Learning: Images and Pathways. Malabar, FL: Krieger publishing Company.

Mezirow, J. & Associates. (1990). Fostering critical reflection in adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Revans, R. W. (1983). Reg Revans: ABC of action learning. Southwall, Middelsex, UK: Chartwell-Bratt Ltd.

About the Author

The late Robert L. (Lex) Dilworth was an Associate Professor Emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, USA. He received his doctorate from Columbia University in Adult and Continuing Education. His specialties included human resource development (HRD), action learning, and organization development (OD). He spent a number of years involved with action learning internationally, including time spent in extensive collaboration with Reg Revans and Albert Barker of England, as well as Verna Willis at Georgia State University. Before he entered his educational career, he was a Regular Army Brigadier General in the U.S. Army. His military assignments included service as The Adjutant General (TAG) of the U.S. Army.

This article was prepared for ICSAI Books in Hyderabad, India.

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