Action Learning as a Tool for Strategic Leadership in Higher Education: An Empirical Study

Gentle, Paul Nicholas (2008). Action Learning as a Tool for Strategic Leadership in Higher Education: An Empirical Study. EdD thesis The Open University.



The thesis aims to provide an empirical study of an attempt to introduce an Action Learning Set at departmental level within the organizational context of a College of Higher Education. The starting-point for the study is the notion that an academic leader introducing action learning to a department for which he or she is responsible might reduce the dissonance often experienced in educational organizations when institutional management paradigms conflict with the educational values and pedagogical principles underpinning the institution.

A range of literature is examined, from that on leadership, organizational culture and change management, to a number of specific texts on higher education management. The use of action learning is considered within and beyond higher education, particularly in its use as a means of strategic leadership.

A discussion on methodological issues focuses on specific research questions which were revised over the course of the study, and considers ethical and practical issues which underline the study.

The thesis presents a case study narrative based on the experience of the Action Learning Set over a sequence of six set meetings, and the resultant analysis of data gathered. The data is supplemented by post experience interviews.

The period of the study coincided with a time of considerable turbulence in the higher education sector in the wake of the 2003 White Paper, including the introduction of top-up fees in September 2006. This made a significant impact on the specific institution and the department in which the research was based, and this is evident in the data gathered and analysed.

The research concludes that the success of action learning, particularly in a setting where professional education is practised, depends not only on the interplay of professional knowledge, questioning and reflection, identified originally by Revans (1980) as P, Q and R, but also on appropriate tension between affective factors and those concerning the organizational politics of the institution where action learning is situated.

A number of points are identified for potential action by future researchers, including the need to investigate the transferability from the team learning in an action learning set to the development of collective capacity for leadership development across an institution of higher education. It is also suggested that it would be valuable to conduct empirical research on the use of action learning in other settings in higher education, including those of senior management teams.

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