The Beyond Action Learning initiative (2011-13) used an action learning set approach and improvement methodologies to support collaborative working between health and social care services in Aberdeenshire.

The initiative was facilitated by Fiona Soutar, from NHS Grampian, and Jane Warrander, from Aberdeenshire Council, who worked with more than 170 staff from health, social care and other public services. In this guest blog post Fiona and Jane reflect on the impact of Beyond Action Learning on the staff who participated and on themselves as facilitators … and highlight the ‘co-produced’ report on learning from the project recently published with What Works Scotland.

Beyond Action Learning – how do we know this initiative was a success?

It’s always slightly daunting to re-visit a piece of work some years later. There is that sense of trepidation and those self-searching questions around “was it really that good?”; “did it really make a significant impact?”; “do people actually remember what we did and who we are – and if so is it for the right reasons?”

Two months after the end of the Beyond Action Learning (BAL) initiative we evaluated the impact by sending a questionnaire to each person who had regularly participated. The results of this – which you will find in the main body of the report – confirmed that it had been a success and that people had valued the process and what they gained from engaging with it. 

Long-lasting impact

Nearly four years later we were delighted, and somewhat relieved, that observations and experiences of the current relationships and behaviours in the partnership confirmed the BAL philosophies and methodologies had been successfully embedded, the benefits continued to be notice, and sustainability of the model was demonstrated. These observations were supported by comments from managers, participants and partner agencies:

  • People who had participated in BAL groups had stayed engaged;
  • Improvement processes were being used to achieve improved results;
  • People had continued to use their new learning and ways of tackling complex issues;
  • The model was used to engage staff across Aberdeenshire who were moving to the Health and Social Care Partnership;
  • The people involved in BAL naturally took up this way of working for the implementation of Health and Social Care Integration;
  • Even those who were sceptical during the BAL initiative opted for this method of working when addressing other thorny issues.

Where people and process come together – as facilitators, what did we bring to Beyond Action Learning?

Our personalities: though our backgrounds and experiences are significantly different, we both have a very similar motivation:  “I want it to be better, but I want them to own it” – a desire for improvement and for that improvement to be owned by those closest to the change.  We both came to BAL with sound experience and many years of working with groups of people, and in using numbers and measurement as evidence to support change.  Our ability to suspend our judgement and personal frames of reference and to trust people to find their own solutions resulted in people trusting us, working with the processes and structures we provided and accepting the challenges we made – that was a very powerful mix.

We have both been described as strong and confident characters; something that seemed to surprise people was that there was never any professional posturing in our working together. Instead, from the very beginning, we had an uncanny undiscussed and unwritten understanding of how to get to the synergy in our relationship – resulting in the sum of the parts being greater than the whole.

Our working styles: we are both tenacious and curious in our different ways and used to joke about being like a baseball bat in a velvet glove. One of us is very structured in approach and uses tools to get results. The other is a free thinker and uses creativity to great effect – allowing people to find their way to the goal. This combination provided group members with different styles of options to open up their own thinking and achieve their aims. We are both natural ‘resource investigators’ and believe there is always an answer or a way. This approach is infectious and many people are motivated by this behaviour.

What did we, as facilitators, gain from Beyond Action Learning?

We had no knowledge of each other before we began this work – it could all have been quite different! The synergy between us supported our individual desires to learn, develop and widen our own fields of knowledge and practice. We were honest in our feedback and support to each other and as a result both went on to develop in our roles – Jane, extending her learning in Coaching and OD (organisational development) skills; Fiona, more confidently combining improvement methodologies within her OD practice. We each gained a critical friend and trusted colleague and though we no longer work together, we still meet for coffee and a scone to seek each others’ thoughts on aspects of our work.

In summary, Beyond Action Learning was successful because it seamlessly brought OD and Improvement together in a way which allowed participants to unpack their values and beliefs and evaluate them using measurement without feeling threatened or exposed.

Read more of Jane and Fiona’s reflections on the impact of the project in Exploring collaborative learning, research and action in public service reform: Aberdeenshire Health and Social Care Change Fund Beyond Action Learning initiative.