Action Learning for Sustainability

Definition of action learning

Over the years, many definitions of ‘action learning’ took shape. What we mean by action learning is the following: a process using the theory combined with the practice during an interactive peer-to-peer visit working on real challenges. The focus is to explore the sustainability initiatives of industry and international frameworks, theoretical models and best practices using the knowledge and skills of a small group of executives combined with skilled questioning, to re-interpret old and familiar concepts and produce fresh ideas.

The focus is to increase executives learning capacity within an organization, knowledge centre, company, etc., while responding to a real world challenge in a multidisciplinary and multistakeholder approach.

Reflection is an important part of the experience. The experience of “exchange” can generate fresh approaches across sectors (networking), and help build systemic innovation and learning capacity.

Action learning is a problem-solving tool that at the same time builds successful leaders, teams and organizations.

The six components of action learning are:

  1. A problem. Action learning centers on a problem or, more specifically, a project, challenge, opportunity, issue or task. The resolution of this problem has to be of great importance to the organization — action learning is not for minor issues. The problem must be significant and urgent.
  2. A group. The second component of action learning is an action learning group or team. The ideal group has four to eight diverse members, who bring various perspectives and fresh viewpoints to the task of resolving a significant organizational problem.
  3. Questions. A process of insightful questioning and reflective listening is key to the success of the action learning initiative. Action learning succeeds because the process focuses on the right questions, not the right answers. Questions build group cohesiveness, generate innovative and systems thinking, and enhance learning results.
  4. Action. Action learning requires that the action learning group be able to take action on the problem to which it has been assigned. The group must either have the power to take action, or be assured that its recommendations will be implemented. If neither of these conditions is in place, raising the specter of recommendations sitting in the bottom of a drawer, the team will lose its focus and energy.
  5. Learning. An equal commitment to learning is also essential for the success of action learning. While the short-term action steps needed to address the problem will be valuable to the company, it is the long-term learning gained through the exercise that most benefits the organization and its members.
  6. A coach. To keep the group focused on the important as well as the urgent, an action learning coach is required. Through helping group members reflect on how they listen or how they may have reframed the problem, for example, the coach keeps the group focused on what they are achieving, what they are finding difficult, what processes they are employing, and the implications of those processes.


action learning for sustainability

Action learning is at its peak if all six of these components are in operation, interweaving and reinforcing each other.


At Antwerp-ITCCO, every sustainability action learning course begins with:

–       the theoretical frame

–       a period of strategic questioning of the problem

–       action items and goals

–       analyzing and reflection


What the action learning process can offer you:

–       a simple yet powerful tool for personal and professional development

–       the opportunity to work on real problems and implement solutions –  learning by doing

–       a powerful way for leaders to learn from other leaders

–       space for individual reflective learning

–       learning to take back to the workplace and translate into action

–       support and challenge from peers

–       the chance to work smarter and find creative ways to bring about change

–       a chance to test beliefs and assumptions and learn what works

–       a safe environment to explore new ways of thinking and doing

–       personal, as well as professional, learning and development

–       insight into how others achieve different solutions

–       a chance to progress new opportunities and develop new ideas


The key is to start with fresh questions, not with constructs from the past.


Antwerp ITCCO’s mission is to develop and strengthen the capacities of government authorities, private sector representatives and civil society leaders around the world, in the areas of sustainable development, corporate social responsibility, business ethics and transparency. Antwerp-ITCCO relies on an action learning approach that promotes the transfer of experiences, skills, and best practices through

  • Training Modules
  • Luncheons (peer-to-peer seminars)
  • Network Events
  • E-Learning

The power of action learning is built on two key behaviors: reflective inquiry and continuous learning. In order to ensure that the process doesn’t stray from questioning and learning, all our action learning initiatives follow two ground rules.

The first is that statements should be made only in response to questions. In other words, participants in action learning groups must think questions first, not answers first. They should not enter the meetings prepared to make statements and judgments. They should enter the meetings prepared to ask questions. This doesn’t mean that action learning is against statements. In fact, since questions will elicit more than one response, there will be more statements than questions in the course of the action meeting. The goal is to prevent action learning participants from jumping immediately into statements to solve the problem.

The second ground rule of effective action learning is that the action learning coach has the power to intervene. This ground rule addresses the need for continuous learning. The first important point to remember about action learning coaches is that they are not there to work on the problem. That is the responsibility of group members. The goal of the coach is to see the opportunities for learning that arise, and to pounce on those opportunities to increase the group’s ability to solve the problem and develop innovative action strategies. One can use the dichotomy of the urgent vs. the important. The group, trying to meet deadlines and reach solutions, will focus on the urgent. It’s up to the coach to discern what’s important and focus the group on those issues. In order to make this happen, the coach must have the power to intervene, and, essentially, bring the process to a halt. The group stops working on the problem and instead listens to the coach’s questions (questioning is the process by which the coach will advance learning).




The author Michael J. Marquardt is professor of HRD and Program Director of Overseas Programs at The George Washington University, president of Global Learning Associates, and director of The Global Institute for Action Learning. He is the author of 15 books. A recipient of the International Practioner of the Year Award from the American Society for Training and Development, he was awarded an honorary Ph.D. degree by The International Management Centre at Oxford, England, for his work in the field of action learning. Book Copyright© 2004 by Davies-Black Publishing. Summarized by permission of the publisher, Davies-Black Publishing, 3803 East Bayshore Road, Palo Alto, CA 94303. 210 pages. $39.95. ISBN 0-89106-191-6. Summary Copyright © 2004 by Soundview Executive Book Summaries., 800-521-1227, 610-558-9495.