11/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Action Learning to Build Skills and Contribute to the Bottom Line

My last post described how a variety of good companies accelerate the development of leaders through the 70/20/10 model. RBL Group partner and University of Michigan Professor Dave Ulrich first created this model as a framework for helping managers think comprehensively about development. Work assignment alone accounts for only 70 percent, training and conference participation for 20 percent, and external experiences such as serving on community boards for 10 percent. To fully accelerate leadership skills, you need the combination. The magic is in the mix.

Many readers of that post were particularly interested in the description of action learning as an element of leadership education: what is it, how does it work, and what are helpful rules for bringing contribution into the classroom?

Let me start with the bottom line. At National City Corporation, action learning projects were conservatively estimated to add over $30 million in documented profit over a three-year period. The projects ranged from efficiency initiatives (e.g., saving $750,000 per year by purchasing printer toner on a corporate basis, rather than each bank branch or office purchasing its own), to improvements in employee competence (e.g., sales training), to entry into new markets (e.g., a more organized approach to church facility lending) to new products and businesses (e.g., the creation of a distressed lending business in corporate banking). Full disclosure: I was SVP and chief learning and talent officer of NCC and the architect for NCC's leader university.

But National City is by no means alone in its effective use of action learning.

DHL ITS has made action learning a critical element of leadership development for IT leaders. For example, a recent project focused on implementing a more flexible and efficient work force and improving the set-up and penetration of shared services.

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) used the action learning aspect of its participation in the RBL Group's Human Resources Learning Partnership to define and create an internal hedge fund business.

Bosco Novak, head of HR for Nokia-Siemens Networks, turned the design and staffing of a new HR organization design into an action learning project for his HR executive team.

SONY Latin America's management used action learning to accelerate the growth and development of local leaders in key markets.

The concept of action learning is straightforward: incorporate project work with real back home or corporate application into classroom education. Done well, it has the potential to transform workshops into true developmental interventions.

So what are the key elements of effective action learning?

1. Real, important work. Good action learning projects are not philosophical or hypothetical. People will work hard when the outcomes are real and important and will be used.

2. Management support. Is there clear sponsorship? Work that has the support and championship of senior management, and will be implemented, is more likely to earn the commitment and best work of participants.

3. Well-defined. Is the project specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and is a clear time frame defined? S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym for good objectives and that includes action learning.

4. Resource support. Rarely does an action learning team have all the knowledge and skills needed to succeed. Help by making available the resources needed, whether that's time, budget, staff support or access to company (and sometimes outside) experts.

5. Teams are better than individuals. We've seen action learning projects involving both individuals and teams; of the two, we recommend teams. Working as part of a team adds to the learning and helps build relationships, networks and the larger management community.

6. Strong connection to learning and development. Remember that leadership development is as important a goal in action learning as business impact. Make sure individuals use the opportunity to build and improve their leadership skills, whether it's strategic analysis, team building or more effective communication.

7. Measurement and feedback. Good action learning arrangements ensure that participating teams have mid-course feedback. Needs for change or connection need to be identified with enough time to enable the individual or team to make the appropriate corrections.

What has your organization found helpful in accelerating the development of future leaders? Let me know.

Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, a firm providing consulting and executive education in strategic HR and leadership. Jon leads the Strategic HR practice area and is also a Director of the RBL Institute. He is co-author, with Dave Ulrich and three other principals at The RBL Group, of "HR Competencies" (SHRM, 2007), "HR Transformation" (McGraw-Hill, July 2009) and many articles, and last year logged client work in 35 countries.