Action Learning and Mutual Learning for Cultural Transformation

This article answers several questions posed by business leaders faced with new complexities in their organizations. Questions such as: What is cultural transformation? How does it relate to the workplace? What are ways to transform the culture of your organization? Who are the key individuals that aid in changing the culture of your organization? As society and time move forward, it is important for business leaders to stay current with the latest methodologies and technologies that aid in the development and operational improvement of organizations. As new generations enter the workforce, it is imperative that upper level managers consider new ideas to promote employee engagement and other efforts to continue the advancement of the company, its workers, and the communities in which they exist.

What is Cultural Transformation?

Similar to cultural change, but with important distinctions, cultural transformation is an organizational development (OD) intervention with a long-term objective of bringing about long-term, long-lasting outcomes, sometimes described as reinvention of the organization. Whereas culture change consists of a finite set of initiatives, cultural transformation consists of a portfolio of initiatives which are interdependent and less predictable.[i] Cultural transformation involves the inclusion and dedication of employees and other stakeholders of the organization. It requires a new way of thinking about challenges facing the organization, how learning takes place, and who is involved in decision making. There are many ways to implement cultural transformation within your business. In order for your organization to advance, it is fundamental to identify any problems that are restricting progress of new initiatives. These problems can vary from workplace issues to the lack of employee development. In order to tackle these matters, there needs to be an operational plan in place. There are various methodologies available for companies to work through any issues that may arise in the workplace. Action learning and mutual learning are two models that have proven beneficial in transforming the culture within an organization. These influential approaches have both surfaced as key tools for problem-solving and social learning in the 21st century. So, just what are action learning and mutual learning?

What is Action Learning?

Action learning is a process that involves a small group working on real issues, taking action, producing results, reviewing those results, and learning as individuals, as a team, and as an organization.[ii] Action learning, as the name implies, includes active learning as people plan, act, evaluate, and repeat the process. Scholars have characterized action learning as a social learning process that facilitates collaboration as people come together to explore solutions to problems. In the action learning process, leadership capacity is increased as individuals work in teams for the benefit of the organization. [iii] workplace-1245776_960_720 Reg Revans first introduced action learning in the 1940s to the miners of Wales and England in his position as Director of Education for the British National Coal Board. He continued to develop and promote its principles until he passed away in 2003. Revans created a formula to define the process:  L = P + Q, where L is for learning, P is for programmed traditional knowledge, and Q is for questioning to create insight. [iii] Action learning helps teams work through ambiguity and complexity when old processes don’t work for new challenges. It has helped improve quality of organizations, cut costs, create new products and services, and facilitate cultural change in organizations.

Action Learning Process

Action Learning is an experiential learning tool used to solve problems in the workplace while also building capacity to learn in ambiguous situations. This involves clarifying the problem to be studied, creating a team dedicated to the objective, taking action, measuring and reflecting upon the results, and then further refining the process and future actions to be taken by the team or staff. The five basic elements [iii] are:
  1. The Problem – The problem must be salient or important to the participants of the team.
  2. The Set – The set refers to the individuals on the team. High impact teams are composed of people with diverse backgrounds and commitment to the action learning process.
  3. The Client – The client is the individual that owns the problem. For example, a manager could be the client for a departmental team exploring new customer service procedures.
  4. The Set Advisor – The set advisor acts as the group facilitator and helps retain cohesiveness within the group.
  5. The Process – The process includes observation of the problem, reflection, and action.
Action Learning is used to transform the culture of the organization while facilitating team building among workers, nurturing personal development and engagement, and increasing productivity and effectiveness in the organization. The process proceeds in an iterative, continuous improvement process. The process continually revisits the identification and understanding of the problem, observing the changing environment surrounding the problem, reflecting upon the findings at each iteration, and generating hypotheses which are then further studied in the action learning process.

What is Mutual Learning?

Similar to action learning, mutual learning is a method of human interaction that maximizes learning and is often used to identify, size, and solve problems with open dialogue. This approach helps increase the effectiveness of communications through engagement at all levels of the organization. Mutual learning is most effective when there is involvement across all levels of employees in the organization, with suspension of top-down unilateral control. According to Jim Oher, “The idea behind mutual learning is that it is a framework, a way of approaching a situation as it relates to people. Engaging in mutual learning is seeking knowledge, but specifically knowledge that will result in action.”[iv] In this way, mutual learning is creating trust between the individuals and/or group. How can you work efficiently with someone if you do not know who the person is or his or her viewpoint? When you better understand an individual, it is easier to reach an optimal decision collectively. 

Mutual Learning Principles

Jim Oher broke down mutual learning to three basic principles: curiosity, transparency, and joint accountability. thinker-28741_960_720Curiosity involves a commitment to inquiry, acknowledging that we will need to research and discuss alternatives, and being interested in what other members of the mutual learning team are thinking. This means suspending judgment and learning information from other people and sources that we may have not known otherwise. This principle sets the team on the path to finding one or more solutions. Transparency – being open and honest, including the discussion of “undiscussables.” For example, if you are in a group and one member is abrasive and says, “You are not making sense!” Rather than responding in the same manner which could lead to an argument, exercising the mutual learning approach, you might say, “I am not understanding what I did or said that triggered you to react in this manner.” Responding this way exhibits to the other person that his/her statement impacted you emotionally. This will in turn calm the person down and encourage dialogue that moves forward, focusing on the goal at hand. Joint Accountability – Whenever there are two or more people working together to solve an issue, each individual is accountable to the other. Despite any differences, you each have to work together to achieve the overall goal. If the team or group is on different wavelengths, a resolution is very difficult.  Mutual learning involves understanding that each person on your team has a different background. Therefore, each individual will not see things under the same worldview. This benefits your organization because you can come together and design a richer solution. It appears the shade of difference between mutual learning and action learning pertains to the focus of each method. The focus of mutual learning is to understand how other members of the team perceive the issue, work as equals in discussing and acting on the problem, and being open to learning through the process. Action learning has a deeper emphasis on experiential research and learning. Both methods can facilitate cultural transformation by bringing people together to work toward common goals. What approaches are you using, or contemplating, in your organization to promote cultural transformation or cultural change? [i] Ashkenas, R. (2015). We Still Don’t Know the Difference Between Change and Transformation. Retrieved from: [ii] Study Guides and Strategies. (n.d.). Retrieved September 28, 2016, from [iii] Spence, J. (1998). Action Learning for Individual and Organizational Development. Retrieved from [iv]The Facts of Mutual Learning: An Interview with Jim Oher [Interview]. (n.d.). Retrieved from


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