Download our FREE Action Learning Toolkit to support change agents in your organization

Action Learning has underpinned the success of the Unlimited Value research project. The Arts Council England funding has enabled us to develop a toolkit which can help your organization embed and benefit from the principles of Action Learning.

You can download this toolkit here:  Action Learning Toolkit - Unlimited Value

This short and practical guide will be useful for participant, facilitators and line managers.  It includes information on:

  • The principles of Action Learning, its origins and uses.
  • A breakdown of ‘what happens’ in Action Learning Sets and how they work.
  • A guide to the closed and open questioning techniques that help participants provide one another with valuable peer support.
  • Guidance on supporting virtual and ‘in person’ Action Learning.
  • Recommendations for additional reading, and information sources.

‘It’s changed my life’ – participant feedback on Action Learning as Leadership Development

One of the most successful parts of the Arts Council England funded Unlimited Value project has been the Action Learning inspired leadership development programme that informed our  participatory Action Research.  Action Learning is an important leadership development tool because it enables participants to tackle live challenges as they arise, and to help one another develop practical solutions and next steps for tricky issues that are often seen as ‘too difficult’.

Our first Social Value Champions, with the research team and Ciara Eastell, then CEO of Libraries Unlimited, at the first Research Summit.

For some, this experience can be truly transformative:

“I do really think it has changed my life, and I think that if more people had the chance to take part in action learning, it’s got the potential to build a very strong organisation…” (Participant, Social Value Champions Programme, 2018).

Together, the University of Exeter Business School and Libraries Unlimited enlisted a team of Social Value Champions, to work on developing a better understanding of Social Value over time.  The programme centred on 6 action learning sets of up to 4 hours’ duration each, spread over 9 months.  Between meetings, participants also attended research summits, staff conferences, colllaboration days and other training workshops.  The sets provided an important data source for the project, showing the researchers how individuals learn to share new ideas and translate learning into action.  Equally importantly, they helped Libraries Unlimited to embed,  across the organization, a better understanding of how to connect social value to the daily experience of working in frontline library services.

It’s often said that a good action learning challenge begins with ‘How Can I…’?  And certainly, at the heart of action learning is an open-ended peer questioning technique that develops practical problem-solving skills. Feedback from participants supports this argument:

‘[I] approach problems a lot more analytically now and I find I open things up to my team a lot more… I’ll invite them to have an input, feed back, say what they think we could do to move things forward.  And [Action Learning techniques] really helped me with breaking down what I needed to do [for a major piece of recent work] putting it into a plan and working out who I needed to talk to…’ (Participant, Social Value Champions Programme, 2018).

As the programme progressed, we noticed that the Champions became more confident about their ability to enact change.  They moved from focusing on small, individual challenges, towards tackling more challenging and systemic organizational issues.  As one participant reflects:

“I have found the open question technique invaluable; absolutely fantastic.  It allows me to have challenging conversations in a really collaborative way, it’s enabled me to open up conversations with people that I have previously found difficult.  It has given me confidence to have a greater say.” (Participant, Social Value Champions Programme, 2018).

An important legacy of the Unlimited Value project is a greater awareness within libraries sector of the power of Action Learning to develop leaders and change agents at all levels of the organization. Stand by for our free Action Learning Toolkit, based on the process developed through Unlimited Value, to help you create the next generation of leaders.

‘Libraries are Heterotopias’ – multiplicitous places of potential

You might have recently watched Ciara Eastell’s emotive TedEx talk on the power of libraries to transform and empower lives.

In her talk, the former CEO of Libraries Unlimited reveals an important finding from the Unlimited Value research.  We argue that libraries are ‘heterotopias’ – places of potential where there is opportunity for transformation.  They are places characterised by multiple meanings, which cater to diverse stakeholders with even more diverse needs. As one frontline member of staff put it:  ‘A library is a place where people can come to be themselves’.  A library is a place of possibility, which ‘opens up’ rather than closes down identities and social categories.

Ciara shows, in her talk, that libraries play a vital role in our social fabric.  They support people at the heart of communities and in the margins, work to maximise potential at individual and regional levels, and bring together people who might not otherwise encounter one another.  Libraries are ‘both/and’ places – they cater to children and the elderly, they can be a quiet refuge and a host of loud ‘bounce and rhyme’ activities.

The challenge from a ‘social value’ perspective, is with the difficulty of arriving at a single purpose definition associated with heterotopic places.  Which can make it difficult to calculate and create a coherent narrative around, the difference a library makes to its service users and surrounding community.  But whilst the ‘what’ of social value might vary depending on a library’s location, service users, and so on, perhaps we might arrive more precisely at the ‘how’ – the tools that library services can harness to develop a better understanding of a library’s unique contribution.

You can read more about heterotopias, and about our approach to social value in our project report here:  Unlimited Value Report.