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Action Learning: L=P+Q

Action Learning

Action LearningAction Learning is, quite simply, the best way to learn. Especially if what you want to learn is less ‘learning that’, and more ‘learning how’.

Reg Revans started life as a physicist. His Big Idea was to apply the way scientists deal with problems to create a way for managers to learn. And he called his process Action Learning.

Let’s understand what Action Learning is, how it works, and why it is so good.

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Bloom’s Taxonomy: Hierarchies of Learning

Bloom's Taxonomy

Bloom's TaxonomyMost managers will need to be involved in the learning and development of their staff. So, do you know the steps that learning follows? If you don’t, then take a look at Bloom’s taxonomy. It’s the label for a number of interconnected ideas around how we acquire mastery of any topic.

Benjamin Bloom was an educational psychologist who started work on this, with others, in the 1940s. They first published their work in 1956 and it has evolved since. But the changes have been ones of detail and its relevance and applicability remain.

Continue reading Bloom’s Taxonomy: Hierarchies of Learning

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Accelerated Learning: Learn fast & effectively

Accelerated Learning

Accelerated LearningThe world changes fast, and to keep up, you need to be learning new stuff all the time. And some of that needs to be from a large and complex body of knowledge. Yet, as a working manager, your time is at a premium. So is there any way you can create accelerated learning?

The answer is yes. Over many years, we have accumulated a broad and eclectic body of knowledge about how we learn. It combines experience, practical psychology, and neuroscience. And practitioners bring this all together under the banner of Accelerated Learning.

Continue reading Accelerated Learning: Learn fast & effectively

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David Kolb: Experiential Learning

As with so much else in psychology these days, the long cherished idea of learning styles is coming under deep scrutiny. The empirical basis for the idea was always weak, and now new experiments are finding null or statistically weak results.

Yet the ready association that many trainers and educators have between David Kolb’s name and the idea of learning styles is an over-simplification of his deeper thinking. David Kolb gives us a valuable model that should be better known among practising managers, who see part of their role as being about developing the capabilities of their teams.

David Kolb
David Kolb

Short Biography

David Kolb was born in 1939 and went to the private Knox college to study psychology. After receiving his BA in 1961, he went to Harvard, where he completed his MA in Social Psychology in 1964, followed by a PhD in 1967.

He took a teaching position at MIT as Assistant Professor of Organizational Psychology and Management, and left there (as Associate Professor) ten years later, to take up a chair in Organizational Behaviour at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

In 1981, Kolb and his wife, Alice, co-founded Experience Based Learning Systems (EBLS) to commercialise Kolb’s thinking on experiential learning and, in particular, his learning styles inventory.

Experiential Learning

At the heart of Kolb’s thinking about learning is his simplified model of Experiential Learning, which he co-developed with Roger Fry. This is fully documented across numerous highly-cited papers, and his major academic book, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.

Kolb and Fry sought to synthesise the work of many earlier thinkers and researchers into how experience leads to learning. Kolb has said that he was particularly influenced by Dewey, Piaget, and Lewin. Their model of learning is most easily summarised as a cycle, although they were at pains to point out that this is just a simplificatiion. Because things are different on every iteration, Kolb prefers the metaphor of a spiral. Nonetheless, we will follow the commoner and easier to read metaphor in the illustration below.

Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle
Experiential Learning Cycle

The principal critique of this model is one Kolb is fully aware of. It oversimplifies a complex and  more messy learning process that involves other faculties, like memory, and can proceed via different routes from this cycle.

This is a fair critique. The strength of the model, however, is that it provides a helpful framework for developing workplace learning opportunities. It is very much the basis of Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT approach to instructional design.

Learning Styles

Kolb went on to argue that we are not all equally able or motivated in the four abilities of cultivating experience, reflecting on it, generalising it, and applying our insights. Indeed, he went on to suggest that we tend to develop an orientation towards one pole of each of the two dimensions:

  • Experience – Abstraction (or Feeling and Thinking, in Jungian language, which Kolb seems to like)
  • Applying – Reflecting (or Doing/Sensing and Reflecting/Intuiting in Jungian language)

This leads to four learning styles:

Kolb Learning Styles
Kolb Learning Styles

I think the empirical evidence for this is based mostly on testing of the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory and I am not competent to assess its strength. However, it does seem clear that we all have two things: preferences and adaptability. You may find some colleagues have one or another learning style preference, but you will also find that we can all adapt and use multiple styles.

This is as it must be. Learning is a whole brain activity, and if, as James Zull suggests, different learning styles call upon different brain regions, then surely the best learning takes place when all are fully integrated.

The Experiential Learning Cycle & Regions of the Cerebral Cortex
The Experiential Learning Cycle & Regions of the Cerebral Cortex

You might enjoy these Management Pocketbooks

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Chris Argyris: Organisational Learning

In last week’s Pocketblog, we met a thinker, Roselinde Torres, who compels leaders to ask difficult questions of themselves. Chris Argyris was another thinker – an academic this time – who demands we ask difficult questions.

Chris Argyris


Brief Biography

Argyris’ early academic career brought him into contact with the great psychologist, Kurt Lewin, and culminated in academic posts, first at Yale (1951-1971) and then at Harvard.  He was a behavioural scientist who devoted much of his research  to understanding organisational behaviour and learning, noting that:

‘individual learning is a necessary but insufficient condition for organisational learning’

His Ideas

His early work focused on the practice and development of T Groups; a form of training (the T of T Group) in which managers are able to learn through social interaction. These were popular in the 1960s and 70s for the success they had in shifting interpersonal behaviours of participants. However, Argyris and others became disenchanted as evidence grew that the impact of these interventions was not sustained back in the workplace.

This led Argyris to theorise that the way we behave within organisations is different from the ideas we claim to profess. He labelled the two sides of this distinction: ‘theories in use’ for what we do, and ‘espoused theories’ for what we say. Our behaviours – theories in use – are driven only partially by espoused theories, and to a greater extent by fears, pride, entrenched patterns and the need to conform. Indeed, he suggested that we don’t just behave as we do, rather than as we profess; but we are often unaware of the gap.

His most famous single contribution, articulated in his book, co-written with Donald Schön, called ‘Organisational Learning‘, was the idea of  ‘double loop learning’.

Argyris argued that reasoning needs to take pride of place as the basis for decision-making. However, the prevailing model of learning that he and Schön defined as ‘single loop learning’ is an impoverished approach.

In Single Loop learning, we look at the results of our actions and re-think the strategies we chose.

Single-loop learning


The flaw in this, they argued, is that our chosen approach comes from a deep seated set of interpretations, assumptions, values and models. What we should be prepared to do is to challenge those and search for better, more reliable assumptions and models. This is Double-Loop learning.

Double-loop learning


Argyris further pointed out that learning comes from either a match or a mis-match.  If our actions produce the desired result, then we can learn from the well-selected behaviours. If they do not, then we can learn from the mis-match either by correcting our actions (single-loop learning) or by revising the governing variables (assumptions) that led to our choice of actions (double-loop learning).

You can learn more about Argyris and Double Loop Learning on the excellent infed website.

You may also be interested in the following pocketbooks:

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Does Management Performance Increase Profits?

The correlation between management performance and organisational performance is taken as an article of faith in many quarters – not least in the training and development industry.

Management Pocketbooks has a vested interest here, too.  If Pocketbook readers did not believe that reading the books and learning about management would improve their management skills and that this would improve their organisation’s performance, then Pocketbooks would become redundant.

Investors in People

Another organisation with a vested interest is the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES).  This is a non-departmental public body (NDPB) that describes its mission as being to ‘raise skill levels and drive investment, enterprise, jobs and growth.’

One of the tools they have to achieve this is the Investors in People (IiP) standard.  This is designed to improve business performance – but does it?  Like most external standards, achieving IiP accreditation is a costly and time-consuming process.

Research Evidence

Prof Mike Bourne
Prof Mike Bourne (LinkedIn)

So IiP commissioned Cranfield University Researcher Professor Mike Bourne to discover whether IiP accreditation really does return a value to businesses that invest.

To do this, Professor Bourne and his team considered two questions:



  1. The relationship between IiP accreditation and management performance
  2. The relationship between IiP accreditation and business performance

What the team found was this:

  1. IiP improves managerial performance
  2. IiP improves the financial performance of the sponsoring firm

You can review all of the evidence in the January 2010 paper, ‘Investors in People, Managerial Capabilities and Performance’ by Professor Mike Bourne and Dr Monica Franco-Santos.  Note that this academic paper is published by Cranfield University, and not in a peer-reviewed academic journal.  So too is an earlier – far more technical paper – ‘The Impact of Investors in People on People Management Practices and Firm Performance’ (2008).


The figure illustrates the relationships that Professor Bourne’s team report.  Notice that their research seems to show that managerial capabilities and performance do indeed drive reported performance – as measured by profits recorded in Companies House data.

So here’s the deal

One must always be sceptical about research that supports the agenda of the sponsoring organisation (IiP in this case) and where the results are not published in peer reviewed journals.  And I have not taken the time to thoroughly assess the research methodology, nor review the extensive statistical analysis.  The researchers are clear in their reports that, while they assessed IiP, it is simply one example of a ‘commitment based HR policy’.

This is to say that their research evidence shows that systematically committing to your staff improves their capabilities and performance and that these lead to measurable financial improvements in performance.

Kirkpatrick Level 4

Last week’s Pocketblog talked about Kirkpatrick’s four levels of learning.  Trainers have become adept at measuring and demonstrating levels 1 and 2: How do participants react, and what do they learn?  However, the value of training is in levels 3 and 4: How does training affect behaviour and what results can the organisation measure?

Professor Bourne’s work has shown that the linkage from level 2 to level 3 to level 4 is a genuine one, which he and his team have validated statistically.


This just leaves one problem:
Most trainers stop at Level 1: ‘Happy Sheets’.

Some Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

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If I were an employer…

… but I’m not: I’m a trainer

imageAs a trainer, a lot of my focus is on giving my participants the best possible learning experience.  I want to give them the best, most relevant, most accurate, most practical information that I can.



My clients are often Learning & Development departments in large organisations, who tell me what training their staff need, and agree with me what I will design and deliver to meet that need.  My public seminars advertise what you will get, and you turn up and get all of it and more.

The Gemba

As a trainer, I rarely get a chance to ‘go to the gemba’ – the place where the work gets done.  And that’s a problem, because, that’s where my training has an effect…

… or doesn’t.  Because, if I am not there, how can I know?  Happily, I am often asked to come in and coach staff directly, but as a trainer, I am really only able to directly influence whether participants like my training, and learn from my training.

These are, respectively, Levels 1 and 2 of Kirkpatrick’s four levels of learning.  The value to the business, however, comes with levels 3 and 4:

  1. Level 1: How do participants react?
  2. Level 2: What do participants learn?
  3. Level 3: How does the training affect workplace behaviour?
  4. Level 4: What results can the organisation measure?

Levels 3 and 4 result from the way that learners, trainers and employers collaborate to transfer participants’ learning back into their workplace.

So, If I were an employer…

If I were an employer, considering any training, or development investment at all, my first purchase would be the new Transfer of Learning Pocketbook.

This is an excellent addition to the Management Pocketbooks collection, by regular authors, Paul Donovan and John Townsend.  It offers you 17 factors that affect transfer of learning and allocates them into five stages.

The Training Process

This creates an exceptionally thorough analysis of how you can boost the value of any training you offer.

How Transfer Friendly is your Organisation?

The book ends with a learning transfer test to help you assess how ‘transfer friendly’ your organisation is.  It has fifty questions that you score on a scale of 0, 1 or 2 depending on whether you:

0 – don’t agree
1 – Partly agree
2 – Fully agree

To give you a flavour, here are five sample questions:

  1. Training professionals regularly participate in business unit/departmental strategic planning meetings
  2. Our course venues provide adequate space for participants to associate and exchange
  3. Our managers communicate clear expectations of forthcoming training to future learners
  4. Wherever possible, learners’ managers send pairs of ‘learning buddies’ to the same course
  5. Our trainers understand and speak the workplace jargon of the trainees

This should give you a transfer-friendliness score out of 10.  For your full evaluation, out of 100, buy the book!

Other Management Pocketbooks by
Paul Donovan and John Townsend

Paul and John have, between them, written a lot of Pocketbooks on the subject of training.

And, finally:

The Great Training Robbery, and

The Red, Green and Blue Trainer’s Pocketfiles of Ready-to-Use Activities

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