Business Issue  

Transformation Through Project-based Action Learning

By Practice Professor KC Chan and Professor Richardus Eko Indrait


Action learning is learning by doing. It is synonymous with treating a patient - it is not whether the doctor is correct. But, whether the patient gets cure. To bridge the knowing (theory) and doing (practice) gap action learning has evolved from version 1.0 to version 4.0 over the past 50 years. The table below captures the essence of the changes and development. Just like any theory it must withstand the test of time.

If less and fewer people are applying this concept then the theory will eventually vanish. On the contrary, if both academic institutions and the commercial world embrace and encourage the frequent usage of the action learning concept for accelerated learning in managing projects to achieve faster, better and smarter performance then the concept works!

The origin of action learning begins with a simple equation L = P + Q (Revans, 1955); where Action Learning (L) is equals to the outcome of Programmed Knowledge (P) as a result of rote learning (what must I know?) and Question Insight (Q) for introspection (why must I know?). Through the iterative process of P & Q the action learner will only keep those knowledge that is relevant and debunk those that are irrelevant for solving current problems. Thus, the lead time for problem solving is reduced. This work on the same principle of the 80/20 rule, i.e. focus on 20% of the knowledge which is applicable to solving 80% of the problems that need to be addressed immediately. Action learning was only focusing on solving problems and so the business value add is limited – Version 1.0.

However, when action learning is applied to real life projects which can be classified as lightweight project (Version 2.0), medium-weight project (Version 3.0) and/or heavy-weight project (Version 4.0). The resultant contribution varies from cost reduction of a few thousand dollars for light-weight project, to cost savings of millions of dollars for heavy-weight project. Hence, the higher the investments the higher the gains in productivity performance, cost reduction/ savings, predictability and/or optimization of resources resulting in faster (speed and reliable delivery), better (quality of product and service), and smarter (cost and flexibility) outcome. Action learning is no longer restricted to improving an individual competence, enhancing performance of project team capacity but permeates throughout the whole organization to achieve supreme execution capability. Obviously, the management of the organization must support and evangelist action learning and apply it across all projects to become the way we work, i.e. high performance action learning organization culture for sustainable competitive advantage.

To realize the maximum benefits of project-based action learning, every company must invest the time, money and efforts for the training, development and coaching of their managers to transform from a competent one to a whole brain manager. Companies that embrace project-based action learning enjoy the fruits of 5 to 10 times return-on-investment. The choice is vivid - in the current VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) business environment compounded by the 4th Industrial Revolution and impact of Globalization, whatever tools and techniques of yesterday’s management will become obsolete with the advent of technology. The most pragmatic approach is to minimize the strategy-execution gap with project-based action learning for accelerated learning where Learning ≥ Rate of Change in the VUCA environment. The outcome is titanic, because no action = no results = no learning or transformation has taken place. The action learning equation for smart transformation in Industry 4.0 is revealed below:

Practice Professor KC Chan is an advisor to the Pradita Institute of Science and Technology in Indonesia and Professor Richardus Eko Indrajit is its Rector. Both has just published a book “Project-based Action Learning: Make Projects the School for Agile Managers” published by TWAN where Prof Chan and Prof Eko are cofounders. See below.