ABC Company: Critical Action Learning

Subject: Employee Management
Pages: 13
Words: 3054
Reading time:
14 min
Study level: PhD


Critical action learning is the process of learning from the experience and thoroughly reflecting upon it (Ram & Trehan, 2010, p. 417). It has been shown that such an approach provides a better understanding of the actions performed and the knowledge gleaned. This paper is devoted to critical action learning and is concerned with workforce issue in the non-English speaking countries that the ABC Oil & Gas Company has faced. The process of this problem solving is going to be described as the object of critical action learning.

Upon providing a background on the matter, the problem is stated and described. The actions that have been undertaken to eliminate the issue are presented, including the critical action learning theses and set group discussion. The literature review on the leadership issues and management training is provided with reflection on the matter. The outcomes of the following insights implementation are described. Finally, the results achieved through the critical action learning by the participants are mentioned. The conclusion about the company’s current and future problem-solving strategy is made.

Background to the workplace base case

ABC Oil & Gas Company is a medium-sized global organization with over 100,000 employees in 80 countries, the industry leader in many spheres. The training and development program for the employees is one of the reasons for the success of ABC. However, being a multinational company, ABC faces certain issues in implementing these programs for its local units. Unfortunately, there have been major capacity problems in some of our non-English speaking countries that require fundamental learning and development of the local workforce. This issue stems from numerous reasons, including internal organizational challenges and external factors (for example, geopolitical ones). The long-term plan of the company includes the elimination of this problem.

Being assigned as a Principal Project Manager of one of such problematic units, I understand my goals in the following way. In order to success, I need to mobilize, motivate, and coordinate the workforce of the unit, and to create a sustaining team for this project and the subsequent major ones. This critical action learning reflection is, therefore, concerned with defining, describing and reflecting on the problem and the steps that are taken for its elimination. A critical narrative of the key processes and events will be presented while referring to the scholar-practitioner perspective on the issues. One of the dominant paradigms implemented in the process is the new leaderful practice based on the notions of leadership concurrency, collectiveness, collaboration, and compassion (Raelin, 2003).

Steps Taken to Address the Problem

Critical Action Learning and Research

Action learning is “an educational process where people work and learn together by tackling real issues and through reflection” (Walia & Marks-Maran, 2014, p. 612). Its purpose is obvious: it is meant promote the implementation of the knowledge received, which has been proved to increase engagement, understanding, and reflectiveness. Technically this process is not linear; it may incorporate numerous complex elements (Trehan & Pedler, 2010, p. 406). Still, the key notion and element of this process is learning from experience (Ram & Trehan, 2010, p. 417).

Critical action learning incorporates the standard action learning but it also includes an emphasis on critical thinking, the object of which is most commonly the everyday processes that participants have to face (Ram & Trehan, 2010). The key notions are the learning from experience the reflection on the results of every participant’s actions.

The ABC Oil & Gas Company values its employees, understanding that they are the key to the company’s success. Unfortunately, this vision of the company does not always appear to be successfully implemented in the non-English speaking countries. Having researched the negative tendency, we have come to define the initial problem statement as follows.

Despite the fact that ABC makes a particular emphasis on employee development, the local training programs can be either non-existent or insufficient. In order to boost the workforce capacity and enhance employees’ skills and knowledge the situation must be rectified and training programs should be implemented locally in consonance with the company’s vision.

However, in the process of taking measures to rectify the issue a new vision of the problem was defined.

Set Team Discussion

Collaboration is an essential part of the critical action learning process. It is typically performed within an “action learning team” or “set” that is a group of people who sincerely intend to learn together and from each other (Ram & Trehan, 2010, p. 418). The sets work both with the larger problem that is being addressed and with the individual issues that inevitably arise in the process of implementing new knowledge. The positive effects of such teamwork include the increased feeling of support and discipline along with critical thinking promoted by the collision of different views (Walia & Marks-Maran, 2014). Since critical thinking is crucial for critical action learning, the set team discussions are of particular importance for the process.

Upon reflecting on the company’s issue more thoroughly the following conclusion has been made. While the workforce issue and the lack of proper training programs is a problem, it can be also redefined and reframed as an opportunity to implement new development programs for the employees and the management levels that would allow promoting the company’s vision of leadership. In the process, the old training programs can be redefined to incorporate new features and trends that appear in the fast developing field of management and leadership studies. This vision should be implemented by the trained and retrained leaders who are going to help the employees from local company’s branches to develop and improve their skills.

The team shall proceed to discuss and reflect on all the outcomes of the new strategy implementation. In this paper, some key points of the new leadership paradigm definition along with the training programs development and outcomes are going to be presented. The critical view on the process is going to be mentioned.

Literature Review

The development of the Concept of Leadership

The leadership skill is regarded as a basic one for business in the 21st century (O’Connell, 2014). Consequently, the topic of leadership is especially popular nowadays in management science (Dinh et al., 2014). Leadership is being researched both as a concept and practice, and, as a result, we have left behind a number of theories believing them to be erroneous (O’Connell, 2014). For example, at the beginning of the theoretical leadership studies, it would mostly be defined with the help of leaders’ qualities. This changed, however, and nowadays leadership appears to be perceived as a complex that consists of a leader, his or her followers and the circumstances, the latter constantly changing and influencing the leadership decisions (O’Connell, 2014, p. 184). As a result, no single theory of leadership can be suggested, and implementing one of them does not necessarily rule out utilizing elements of another. Apart from that, given this fact, it becomes understandable why action practice or critical action practice seems to yield results for leadership development.

Definitely, the qualities of a leader are still being researched. The importance of leader’s personal traits is still highlighted, for example, within the concept of charismatic leadership (Dinh et al., 2014). Still, the emphasis of leadership theory appears to have shifted to the interpersonal relationships. For example, the transactional or transformational leadership are defined exactly by the type of relationships between the leader and the employee (Brownell, 2010, p. 364). Apart from that, the idea of leadership being concentrated in the hands of a single manager is not as popular as before, as the ideas of shared, distributed leadership or leadership practice gain acclaim (O’Connell, 2014; Raelin, 2003).

Transformational Leadership and Leaderful Practices

Among the well-promoted types of leadership is the transformational leadership that is opposed to the transactional one. It has been proved that the transformational leadership has a greater potential to enhance workplace relationships and climate, increase job satisfaction and, therefore, service performance (Brownell, 2010). Transactional type of leadership is mostly concerned with financial rewards and restrictive actions (Saleem, 2015). On the other hand, transformational leadership is aimed at supporting the employees and creating a firm trust- and respect-based relationships with them (Brownell, 2010, pp. 365, 369). Specifically, transformational leadership is usually characterized by empowering actions and the encouragement of employee’s development (Saleem, 2015). Empowering leadership, as opposed to the directive leadership, presupposes significant amount of employee control and is regarded as a more positive and efficient kind of human resource management. There also exists an intermediate kind of leadership, the participative one, for which the employee control is higher than that of the directive type but lower than that of the empowering model (Clark, Hartline, & Jones, 2008, p. 211).

The reflection and development of these ideas can be found in the concept of the leaderful practices as presented in the works by Joe Raelin (2003), especially in the book “Creating Leaderful Organizations: How to Bring out Leadership in Everyone”. The author advocates the idea of teaching the team to be capable of leading itself, therefore, empowering any of the team members to become a leader. Obviously, such a team does not need one single leader. The resulting group cannot be called leaderless; instead, it is definitely leaderful, where any team member is capable of leading the rest should the necessity arise. In the book, this concept is explained as opposing the more conventional leadership that is described as serial, individual, controlling, and dispassionate. The leaderful kind of management, however, is based on the four C’s: concurrency, collectiveness, the collaboration of all the members, and compassion. According to the author, the benefits of the leaderful management include it being democratic and humane. Apart from that, Raelin (2003) believes that this kind of leadership paradigm encourages development and increases job satisfaction. This appears to be logical since the leadership model is both transactional and empowering. More than that, it is democratic and ethical, and it corresponds to the vision of the leadership that the ABC company would like its leaders to implement.

Similarly, in the article “From Leadership-as-Practice to Leaderful Practice”, Raelin (2011) describes the concept of ‘leadership-as-practice’ (LAP) as connected to and preceding the leaderful practice. The values incorporated in LAP include reflection on the outcomes of the manager’s actions, including “public”, that is, team reflections. It is not difficult therefore to connect the ideas of Raelin (2011) to the process of critical action learning.

The vision of ABC Company regarding leadership is, therefore, restated. At the same time, the main issue that the company faces consists in getting the vision across to the actors who are supposed to implement it.

Training the Staff

Employees are the source of talent and competency, which makes them an invaluable resource (Brown & Harvey, 2011). The development of employees is particularly profitable for the company, and, realizing this, ABC has always worked on implementing relevant training programs.

Training and development are crucial for human resource development (Goetsch & Davis, 2014). Initially, the necessity of training was mostly regarded as a part of non-management level employees development (Teck-Hua & Catherine, 2015). Nowadays, however, it has been admitted that such a view is erroneous. In fact, such a presumption appears to be most harmful to leadership practice (Brown & Harvey, 2011).

The challenges that the managers of ABC deal with in non-English-speaking countries include geopolitical problems and diversity issues. Apart from that, it is particularly important for the leaders to stay informed of the modern trends in business and technology, as well as leadership practices. Finally, it should not be forgotten that management staff also faces personal problems (for example, the issue of balancing the family and the work). These challenges should serve as an explanation and ground to the fact that the managerial staff requires training as much as the other employees.

Obviously, the training meant to prepare management staff for their roles should incorporate knowledge of the issues related to leadership, including (but not limited to) the decision-making, problem-solving, managing workplace diversity, and so on (Aragon & Valle, 2013). The issue of workplace diversity that is especially urgent for a global company has become a fact of real life that modern multinational organizations have to face. This issue stems from the natural differences that may be connected to the concepts of gender, race, religion, or disabilities (Coleman, 2012, p. 597). The fact that the workforce is diverse poses new management issue, namely, diversity management (O’Connell, 2014). Technically, it is an aspect of business ethics, the proper management of which can increase the company’s reputation and the satisfaction of most stakeholders, including the employees. Training in diversity management is obviously necessary for a modern leader (Coleman, 2012). In effect, the training should prepare managers for their current and future tasks (Ferreira & Leite, 2013).

Related Issues

Providing training for the management staff is not enough. Apart from the training, supervision is necessary along with the assessment of the employees’ progress (Saks, Tamkin, & Lewis, 2011). Therefore, the company needs to create a sufficient level of competence in every branch and unit in all the 80 countries (Church, Rotolo, Ginther, & Levine, 2015). This appears to be a consistent plan of rectifying the workforce capacity problems that the company’s local branches have faced. At the same time, this plan can be also considered a challenge as the amount of work necessary to provide the tailored training for different organizational levels and cultures appears to be rather enormous. Still, it also seems to be necessary and is bound to be compensated through the advantages of increased employee efficiency (Creswell, 2013).

However, there is another issue to be considered in this respect. The valuable and trained employees need to be retained. Turnover cannot always be prevented and, therefore, recruitment and training future managers is another important aspect of human resource management (Jayakumar et al., 2014). At the same time, the departure of senior managers is a serious issue for any organization. Consequently, the retention of competent employees appears to be of utmost importance.

Job satisfaction is most important for employees’ dedication and commitment (Melton, Dail, Katula, & Mustian, 2010). In case it is not sufficient or in case an employee is dissatisfied, it may lead to decreasing performance and an increased rate of turnover (Ferreira & Leite, 2013). One of the most obvious ways of increasing employees’ job satisfaction lies in the reward and recognition system. Apart from that, voluntary employee turnover may be caused by the lack of career opportunities (Creswell, 2013). Training presupposes the possibility of career advancement and, therefore, reduces the probability of employee quitting (Church et al., 2015). At the same time, training and development result in growing job satisfaction, involvement, and commitment of employees on their own. This is mostly connected to the fact that employees’ competence grows, and their confidence increases as well.

Therefore, training and development is not only a way of increasing the quality of employees’ performance; it also proves to be a mechanism for retaining competent employees. Finally, the active implementation of training and development programs corresponds to the ABC company’s endeavor of creating leaderful practices in its branches.

Upon defining the ways of implementing the modified company’s vision, we may proceed to describe the results achieved.

Results and Conclusion

ABC Oil & Gas Company has sought to treat its employees as partners, recognizing the importance or, rather, the centrality of employees for the success of the organization. As a result, a number of procedures have been carried out to ensure the development and training of the staff, including those in managerial positions. Such procedures include training programs that are tailored to every specific position and refresher training sessions along with a consistent and thorough employee evaluation program. The problem of implementing such programs in the non-English speaking countries where the company operates is being solved at the moment as specific issues and needs of every region are taken into account.

ABC Oil & Gas Company has already benefited from the implemented training programs. An example of a successful program is the training in the application of information communication technology which allowed the incorporation of computerized services, and consequently increased the efficiency, productivity, and accuracy of the services in the company’s branches. The latter contributed to the increase of customers’ satisfaction. This program turned out to be successful in the local branches of the company as well. Similarly, training programs for future managers have proved to be efficient, increasing their capacity and commitment.

In fact, loyalty is a vital aspect of efficiency at ABC Oil & Gas Company, and the correlation between proper investment in employees’ development and their job and career satisfaction has already been seen in practice. As a result, currently no ABC employees name the lack of opportunities as the reason for their resignation.

However, it should be pointed out that the process of innovation and training cannot be stopped in the constantly evolving world. In fact, from this point of view, the problem of insufficient managerial staff training offers an opportunity for developing the skills of the employees without the necessity of retraining them. Similarly, the challenges presented by the differences in cultural and geopolitical peculiarities of the company’s branches can be regarded as an opportunity for analyzing and reflecting on diverse experience that is the basis of critical action learning. The experience of redefining the issue as an opportunity for change appears to be a significant outcome of this critical action learning process.

To conclude, we shall recite the measures that have and will be undertaken to eliminate the discussed problem within the ABC company. They include creating training programs in accordance with the latest leadership paradigms that are concordant with the company’s vision (an example being the leaderful practices); tailoring the programs to suit local needs of the company’s branches; providing the current and future management staff with the training and retraining; retaining the competent and trained personnel through valid policies and incentives. As a result, the problems that the company has faced are in the process of being solved, and its vision is in the process of being changed in accordance with the current leadership trends. Apart from that, managers are going to be provided with a unique experience that can be further reflected on to glean knowledge that can be used to improve their effectiveness and the company’s performance.


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Reflections: Leadership and Research

This paper includes reflecting on the critical points of five works related to the fields of leadership and research.

At the time when the article “Distributed Leadership as a Unit of Analysis” by Peter Gronn (2002) was written, the existing leadership models were widely criticized for leader-centrism and individually conceived leadership. The conventional individual leadership models appear to be in conflict with the reality and, therefore, should be substituted for more suitable ones. Gronn (2002) offers distributed leadership as an alternative.

Gronn (2002) points out that leadership is not supposed to be concentrated in the hands of one leader or manager. The book “Creating Leaderful Organizations: How to Bring out Leadership in Everyone” by Joe Raelin (2003) advocates a similar idea of delegating leadership to the team, or teaching self-management to the team, therefore, making it leaderful. In the first chapter, the concept of leaderful practice is explained through the contrast with the “orthodox” leadership that is serial, individual, controlling, and dispassionate. On the other hand, the leaderful kind of management is based on the four C’s: concurrency (more than one person can be leading at once), collectiveness (the plurality of leadership), the collaboration of all the members, and compassion.

In chapter 5 of the book, the benefits of the leaderful management are listed including the fact that it is democratic, humane, and development-encouraging. Apart from that, according to Raelin (2003) it tends to raise job satisfaction and encourage people to realize themselves through their work. In chapter 10 the author challenges managers and employees to implement the new ideas presented the book.

These ideas are further developed in the article “From Leadership-as-Practice to Leaderful Practice” by Raelin (2011). The author regards the phenomenon of ‘leadership-as-practice’ (LAP), which is described as an approach that focuses on the leadership, not the leader and includes democratic participation, co-creation, and collaboration. Apart from that, LAP presupposes public reflection, which is a major advantage of the approach from the point of view of the author. Further on, the author returns to his ideas concerning leaderful practice.

It can be therefore concluded that the works presented above emphasize the possibility, if not the necessity of leaving the individualistic leadership model behind. The two articles described below suggest analysis tools that are supposed to enable the researcher to gain a deeper and more consistent understanding of the subject, and that can be used for management studies.

The article “Reflections on the “Realist Turn” in Organization and Management Studies” by Michael Reed (2005) describes the development of critical relativism which is “a meta-theoretical paradigm focused on explanations of the underlying ‘generative mechanisms or structures’ that shape corporate agency and the social relations that it reproduces and transforms” (Reed, 2005, p. 1623). As a result, the critical realism can be expected to allow a deeper organization analysis. Still, Reed (2005) believes that the new approach lacks the necessary tools (such a consistent agenda) and requires rethinking the concepts of “organization” and “management”.

The article “Understanding Process from within: An Argument for “Withness”-Thinking” by John Shotter (2006) justifies and advocates the idea of thinking about a process from within. The author addresses the new kind of thinking using the terms ‘thinking-from-within’ or ‘withness-thinking’. According to the author, the withness-thinking results in “engaged, responsive thinking, acting, and talking, that allows us to affect the flow of processes from within our living involvement with them” (Shotter, 2006, p. 585). It presupposes an attentive and holistic understanding of the changing and unique occurrences that researcher have to deal with in the real life and should, therefore, be more effective.


Gronn, P. (2002). Distributed leadership as a unit of analysis. Leadership Quarterly, 13 (4), 423-451.

Raelin, J. (2003). Creating Leaderful Organizations: How to Bring out Leadership in Everyone. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Raelin, J.A. (2011). From leadership-as-practice to leaderful practice. Leadership, 7 (2), 195-211.

Reed, M. (2005). Reflections on the “realist turn” in organization and management studies. Journal of Management Studies. 42 (8), 1621-1644.

Shotter, J. (2006). Understanding process from within: an argument for “withness”-thinking. Organization Studies, 27(4), 585-604.