As I sit to write this blog post, I’m in the middle of an exciting challenge designing new leadership development programs for two large organizations: a government agency and a client in the private sector. The work once again highlights for me the enduring value of action learning as a key design feature — in a sense, a gift that keeps giving in how it makes training real and sustainable. Action learning is highly effective at ensuring that both the organization and the learners come away with a sense of having accomplished something.

And what a run it’s had. Thirty years after being introduced to adult learners — and often the subject of a running debate about its exact meaning — action learning is still a critical tool in successful executive education.

But how and why has it endured over the years as a key design feature of training and professional development programs?

Action learning was first introduced by Reginald Revans in the 1980s as more of an organizational development intervention. It gained more widespread application in traditional training programs in the 1990s and the early part of this century. Action learning appears to have the staying power that other classroom techniques do not (remember role plays?).

Here’s why: Action learning is a great way to “design in” Level 3 (Behavior Change) and Level 4 (Results) impact on the Kirkpatrick scale. We all know that you can create terrific skill building exercises (Level 2) and bring in powerful university professors but still end up “hoping for the best” in terms of longer-lasting and more quantifiable organizational results.

Action learning’s elegance lies in how it takes resources or techniques that are commonly applied in training programs (e.g., team cohorts, coaches) and simply directs them to organizational or business challenges that will, by definition, yield big results if successful. “Transfer of training” actually happens not because people remember to apply new skills, but because they must leverage their learning to get the action leaning projects completed.

Action learning also works well with the contemporary emphasis on virtual or remote learning. In fact, it frequently becomes the primary way to personalize training that has become depersonalized through technology and webcasts.

At Cambria, we have created action learning projects to localize and personalize online MBAs and executive education. It’s a win-win for everyone — the university/ vendor, the company and the learner. The company reaps the benefits of having people apply learning to real strategic issues, the university or vendor gains the scale that online education offers, and the individual enjoys the convenience of virtual education while working on a project that looks and feels like “home.”

The popularity and benefits associated with action learning don’t lessen the task of making it successful, though. Done well, action learning is much more than a flip chart of recommendations on a problem that the organization wants to solve. It should include leadership development, team dynamics, and opportunities to demonstrate the substantive content of the course in real time.

For the 10 best practices that support successful action learning projects, see my white paper, Action Learning: A Strategic Intervention, Not a Classroom Exercise.