Category Archives: Guest Blog

Making Action Learning Work!

Re-blogged from WCVA

Action Learning

In addition to training and bespoke support the Communities First Support Service is offering an increasing number of people in the CF workforce the opportunity to learn from each other via our Outcome Learning Groups (OLGAs). These are based on the methodology of Action Learning. Here, Jane Lewes from The Learning Consultancy, who is working with the CF Support Service to develop the framework for this peer learning, explains the ‘rules’ of Action Learning.

Action Learning is being used increasingly frequently as a tool to help community groups to work through some of the issues they have to tackle on a daily basis. The kinds of issues or “knotty problems” may cover just about anything; they can be irritating, frustrating and even the source of genuine distress. Whatever the nature of the problem, one characteristic they all share is that others will almost certainly have experienced the same, or a similar, problem.

So, how does Action Learning help to unblock problems and break through barriers?

The technique of Action Learning is a remarkably simple and effective way of supporting an individual to work through a real and current problem, leading to new insights and, ultimately, solutions. The technique is simple because all it requires is a group of people (round about 6-8) who agree to follow the “rules” which are few but essential for success. These are:

Trust: When a group of colleagues agree to meet as an Action Learning Set (ALS), there needs to be a strong basis of trust – trust in one another and trust in the process. One of the cornerstones of trust is the commitment to confidentiality. An absence of trust will almost certainly cause the ALS to implode and could lead to further damage.

Clarity of role: There are 3 roles in the Action Learning scenario:

  • The Presenter – the individual who shares her/his issue or problem
  • The Supporters – the other members of the Set whose job is to listen intently and ask insightful and powerful questions about aspects of the issue
  • The Facilitator – the individual who acts as a “benign referee”, ensuring the entire Set keeps to the rules of the process

The Process: A typical Action Learning Set will run something like this:

  • The Set meets in a venue where they will be assured of privacy;
  • The Facilitator reminds the Set about the “rules of engagement”, management of time, commitment to confidentiality, the requirement to listen with empathy, suspend judgement and give total focus to the Presenter;
  • The Supporters listen – listen, not to reply, but to understand;
  • The Presenter speaks for about 6-10 minutes;
  • The Facilitator opens the floor for the Supporters to pose questions to the Presenter, but NOT to give advice or provide possible solutions!
  • When the questions have dried up, the Presenter sums up the situation, identifying any new insights and actions they will take before the next session;
  • The session ends with the Facilitator running an evaluation about the session’s overall effectiveness;
  • The length of the session will vary, depending on agreement among the Set

Quality of the questions: The ability to ask powerful questions is essential for an ALS to work. Questions should be designed to help the Presenter identify some new aspect or angle – something that hadn’t previously occurred to them. Questions should be open and focus on the positive, with the tacit assumption that there IS a solution to the problem. The quality of Supporter questions is the key ingredient for effective Action Learning.

Outcomes: The aim of Action Learning is to help individuals identify actions they could take to solve a problem or resolve an issue. Each session should begin with an update from the previous Presenter, sharing what has happened as a result of the actions to which they committed at the last Session. It provides a real boost to the dynamic of the Set to hear about positive outcomes.

Motivation: When a Learning Set first assembles, members agree to commit to a defined process – regular attendance, adherence to the process, total engagement, confidentiality and so on. As time goes on, if individuals ignore these commitments the level of motivation will diminish and the Set will lose its effectiveness. Motivation to participate is essential as it acts as a spark that ignites energy to “fire and inspire” the work of the Set.

Here is what a couple of OLGA members have said about their initial experiences of Action Learning:

“It was very thought provoking and made me take a good look at myself and the other Cluster Managers. It also made me feel worried about all of us – I suppose a bit scary. It was a bit like a light bulb moment and realising we have the same issues and problems to deal with. This is something we can now work on to achieve and support each other with.”
“What I brought back from the session is to look for the positives in any situation as you can nearly also find something to positive to build on.”

“I thought the whole afternoon was brilliant. Not knowing what to expect, my first experience of a learning set under the facilitator’s guidance was really worthwhile and the issues it raised have stayed with me since and I’ve actually spent some time addressing these. I have found myself reflecting on the whole experience in the weeks that have already passed and am looking forward to the next one.”

If you would like to learn more about how Action Learning could be of use in your role as a member of an OLGA, please contact the CF Support Service on or 0800 587 8898.

Participation Cymru offers a facilitation service for action learning sets that helps to set up a set and facilitate initial meetings as well as monitor and evaluate Action Learning. Would you like to enhance your learning by being able to reflect with colleagues on current work issues? Visit our website for more information.


Participatory Research with Carers

This guest blog post was written by Rachel Waters from Newport Community Counselling Service.

University of South Wales logoNewport Community Counselling Service (NCCS) is based at The University of South Wales. The service offers free counselling to local people at venues across Newport and Caerleon.

NCCS also carries out research into counselling and in this blog I will focus on our participatory research with carers.  I’ve reflected on some challenging aspects of the work and included a few tips to help others involved in participatory research.

What is Participatory Research (PR)?

Participatory research involves people in research as co-researchers not just participants; knowledge is co-produced through collaboration between community research partners, and research should lead to action to benefit the community under study.

Participatory approaches have a distinct value position ‘involving … sharing power with those usually the objects of research, and to working for progressive social change’ (Durham Community Research Team, 2011, pg.4)

Finding our Co-researchers

Our first step was to engage carers’ organisations in the Newport area.

This was initially difficult – many organisations were supportive and wanted to be ‘kept informed’, but did not have capacity to get involved.  Explaining the nature of participatory research was tricky– often I was asked about the research questions and the time commitment needed.  I explained that co-researchers would decide on research questions and that commitment was flexible depending on organisational interests and capacity. The uncertainty inherent in participatory research approaches makes it difficult to predict in any detail what the project will involve, and this makes it harder for organisations to be able to commit to involvement.

Despite these challenges we eventually gained the interest and commitment of a number of key local organisations and individuals, who agreed to become co-researchers.

Our co-researchers

Our co-researchers are: Newport Carers’ Forum, Hafal (Newport), Newport City Council Carer’s Development officer and Newport Council Adult Review Team.


  • Tip…Existing positive relationships with organisations and individuals can make this first step much easier.
  • Tip…   Prepare a succinct and accessible explanation of participatory research but be prepared for questions about the details of the project.

The next task was to work together to decide on our research question.

Deciding what to research

Ideally in participatory research, community co-researchers choose the research topic and questions, however, our particular context as a University based counselling service required that we focus on counselling.  We made our co-researchers aware of this from the start. 

A review of the NCCS counselling service revealed that not many carers were using our service and those who were often didn’t stay for long.  This was worrying as we know from our co-researchers and from research that there are lots of carers in this area, that caring can lead to stress, depression and anxiety, and that counselling can be helpful to carers.  We shared this information with our co-researchers and the group decided to explore this discrepancy with the aim of improving the service NCCS offers to carers and sharing what we find with other counselling and carers organisations.

Discussion with our co-researchers revealed that carers tend to focus on the cared for person whilst neglecting their own needs.  This was supported in the research literature.  The group wondered if carers view counselling as a way of helping them to maintain caring and underestimate how helpful it might be for addressing their own needs.

The group came up with the following objectives:

  • To identify carers expectations of the process and potential outcomes of counselling
  • To identify whether and how carers think that counselling could be helpful to them, particularly in relation to the impact of caring on their emotional well-being
  • To identify barriers to carers accessing counselling services
  • To work collaboratively and as far as practicable, equitably with local community member

Although reading this summary, it might appear that our research objectives fell quickly and seamlessly into place, in reality the process of integrating academic and community based knowledge was time consuming and awkward.  We reviewed the literature and listened to our community partners at the same time – in hindsight, listening first and then reviewing literature on the topics raised may have facilitated the process.

  • Tip…    Consider in advance whether and how you will integrate academic knowledge of the topic into the development of research objectives or questions.

Developing our study materials

We decided as a group to use semi structured interviews to gain information from carers, and set about producing our study materials – publicity for recruiting participants, interview schedule, etc.

Ideally in participatory research all materials would be produced as a group from scratch, however, pragmatic concerns meant that we decided the academic partners would develop the materials which would then be reviewed and edited by the group using their experiential and local knowledge.

The review process resulted in several changes to our materials such as clarifying the term ‘carer’ – which our co-researchers informed us was used locally to refer to paid as well as unpaid carers.  We also adjusted the interview schedule to suit those caring for more than one person – a situation which our co-researchers demonstrated was far more common than we had anticipated.

Research Outcomes

One of the important aspects of participatory research is that it should lead to positive action to benefit the community being researched – in our case, carers in Gwent.   What action we take depends on the results of our research however, we have various ideas in mind which include developing specialist training for counsellors working with carers and /or producing accessible information for carers about counselling.

We are currently recruiting carers to be interviewed for our research.  If you know of any unpaid carer, over 18 in Gwent who might be interested please forward my contact details:

Rachel Waters (Research Assistant)
Newport Community Counselling Service
Tel: 01633 435282

Any views or opinions presented in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the University of South Wales or community co-researchers.


Durham Community Research Team (2011) Community-based participatory research: Ethical challenges.  Available at: (Accessed 2 May 2014)

Channel Shift: Making the best use of your citizen communication channels

This is Participation Cymru’s first guest blog, which comes from Tanwen Berrington. If you would like to contribute to our blog, please email

Public Sector Customer Services Forum

Towards the end of February, I went along to the somewhat elaborately-titled conference, ‘Multi Channel Customer Contact Strategies & Channel Shift for the Public Sector’, organised by PSCSF. I found myself surrounded by public sector customer service specialists and private sector companies sponsoring the event. Now, I am not an expert in these areas and I imagine many readers won’t be either.

However, I was pleasantly surprised at how the wider concept of public engagement has become a key consideration for both these sectors; public engagement sells nowadays.

There was quite a mix of presentations on the day, including speakers from English and Welsh local authorities and private sector companies specialising in social, online and electronic customer communication (though not enough of the latter to turn the conference into a sales-pitch).

They all focused on multi-channel customer contact and making the best use of these channels. Some focused on the technology available to manage your public engagement and all were interested in providing a better customer service through improved communication and engagement.

For us lay-people, some of the presentations which specialised in customer contact centres might have been a little above our heads. For me, the presentation given by Sarah Barrow from Wokingham Borough Council on selecting appropriate channels of communication and by Leon Stafford from LiveOps on ‘empowering your agents to autonomous engagement’ were particularly interesting.

What did I learn?

  • To my understanding, channel shift is not just a case of shifting your citizens to social and online media; this is, after all, a little dictatorial! It is rather about engaging citizens on the most appropriate channels. This means shifting between different media depending on the nature of the service and the media the citizen is most comfortable using, or uses in their day-to-day lives. So, a customer complaining about a service on Twitter might appreciate an immediate response via a web chat (which of course, conveniently comes with the added bonus of privacy).
  • It’s not necessarily good practice to use your social and online media just to broadcast information. Twitter can be useful for broadcasting traffic updates, for instance, but it is also a cheap and easy way to actually listen to your citizens. Social media and technology can be used as a pre-prepared ‘human sensor network’ (a nice concept used by Professor Dave Snowden) that you can use as a temperature check, to become aware of local issues which are a source of complaint or praise. Why arrange irregular and infrequent consultations when you already have a regular feedback loop?These networks can also be ‘activated’. I was charmed by the example of the network of dog walkers in Wokingham Borough; when a dog is lost, the Council sends text messages to network members, who then turn into a borough-wide search and rescue party (though I must admit, I am a ‘dog person’).

What does this mean?

  • Often, organisations already have many of their engagement channels set up. You don’t necessarily need to re-invent the wheel therefore, just make the best use of what you already have.
  • This can be as simple as actually paying attention to what your citizens are saying!
  • Or managing your channels so your messages are co-ordinated. Citizens will feel they can get in touch by whatever means they feel comfortable with, without getting lost in the system.

– Tanwen Berrington
Working in public sector improvement. These views are my own.