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ction learning is a development tool used by small groups. It particularly

develops the skills of active listening, questioning and deep refl ection. As well as being conducted face-to-face, action learning can take place virtually with the aid of a range of technologies, some of which include a visual element. Continuing advances in technology

will off er new ways of connecting with each other. However, where technology does not provide a reliable connection it can become a distraction and disrupt the quality of the intimate colleague-to-colleague bonds we are trying to build. T is article shares experiences of using the simplest of voice-only technologies – the telephone – in audio action learning.

Closer to the action

In Adam Carroll-Smith’s book, T e pictures are better on the radio,1 he remembers listening to football matches as a boy and how he was transported by the experience: “most of all, I liked the fact that listening to a match on the radio, alone in my bed, it was possible to feel intimately involved and incredibly close to the action”. Barrister-turned-broadcaster, Clive Anderson, agrees.2

He says that

there is an “inherent intimacy ” with radio, which allows one person to “speak sense to another, untrammelled by glitz and glamour”. He goes on to describe how, in the early days of radio, studios were decorated to echo the on-air content of the programmes being broadcast. T e listener was oblivious to this, of course, but for the broadcasters it had the eff ect of fully immersing them in their topic.

Do we need face-to-face?

Most of us assume that, where important work-related matters need to be tackled, face-to-face meetings are essential if we are to understand one another and build strong relationships. After all, we can’t really know what people are thinking if we don’t have eye-to-eye contact and we can’t see their body language … can we? R, who’d had a poor experience

of virtual action learning, adamantly stated: “I need to see people … I don’t think trust can be built up if you can’t see people.”

But what if we could recreate Carroll-

Smith’s ‘intimate involvement’, and build trust and strong relationships in a voice-only action learning context? How could that positively impact the partici- pants’ sense of trust and connectedness; support broader learning, development, performance, motivation and enjoy- ment; and reduce organisational costs?

Virtual options

To consider the latter point fi rst, it is obvious that if there is a viable alternative to face-to-face meeting, then travel time, costs and carbon footprint can be reduced or even eliminated. G, describing one virtual action learning programme he was involved in, remarked: “Expenses vanished because of virtual working.” T e consensus among the

practitioners I spoke to is that we can create eff ective, productive and compelling audio action learning spaces, provided we set them up with skill and care. Much of the work needed to ensure success takes place before the action learning begins. As C commented: “80 per cent of the success happens before the fi rst meeting.” R, quoted earlier as believing you need visual cues in order to develop trust, went on to explain how he had been parachuted into an existing action learning programme and expected to facilitate a group without any opportunity to prepare himself or the participants. On refl ection, he felt that this had been the principal reason for his feeling that trust could not be built if you couldn’t see your colleagues.

Learning system

Any action learning programme also needs to be considered in context. Reg Revans, the pioneer of action learning, considered that successful organisational development only occurs when a ‘learning system’ is present within the organisation. Within this learning system he listed essential criteria such as: employ- ee involvement at all levels, including line managers, senior managers, and chief executives; a willingness to look at the underlying reasons for problems and openly address them; the need to allocate and protect suffi cient time to properly engage with the action learning process and philosophy; and

the openness to enable organisational ‘rules’ to be examined and altered to meet changing conditions. Assuming a learning system is in

place, practitioners agree that it is good practice to invite prospective partici- pants to either one-to-one calls or to a single group briefi ng prior to the fi rst meeting. T e main purpose of the call(s) is to explain what action learning is and to start building trust and rapport, which are fundamental to successful

The intensity and relationship-building was leaps and

bounds beyond other ways of working

audio action learning programmes. T e initial call can also be used to

explore the hopes, concerns, anxieties and preconceptions that prospective participants may have. Some practi- tioners suggest this meeting should be face-to-face, if possible, while others believe that this is an excellent opportu- nity to begin the voice-only experience. One major consideration here is

that voice-only action learning can be a great equaliser. M noted: “You don’t get the same sense of power issues that might come with age, gender, ethnicity. T ese issues may still exist but they tend to be more low-key.” M went on to say: “Nobody’s sitting there in a suit – they might well be, but nobody knows that.” Another practitioner recalled one participant who “loved” working in an audio-only space because no one responded to her body image.

Trust issues

T e skilled facilitator will work hard to build trust and intimacy in the virtual space. Organisational anthropologist Judith Glaser talks about oxytocin levels going up when we are helping each other. She says, “Sharing activates oxytocin – our bonding hormone – which activates higher levels of trust and creates a positive virtuous cycle.’3 When Revans famously said

“swap your diffi culties” he may or may not have known about oxytocin levels but he was clearly aware that

 | November 2016 | 33

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