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Table of Contents
1. Peer Mentoring and Action Learning................................................................................................................ 1
2. Bibliography...................................................................................................................................................... 8

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Peer Mentoring and Action Learning


Author: O'Neil, Judy; Marsick, Victoria J.


Publication info: Adult Learning 20. 1/2 (Winter 2009): 19-24.


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Abstract: [...] as Zachary's (2005) earlier mentoring description described, ALCs are learner centered. [...]
although the groups are made up of peers, the diversity that is part of the process helps to open up thinking to
new points of view.

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Full Text: Traditional Mentoring

Mentoring has been defined in many different ways. Traditionally, mentoring is seen as a relationship between
an older, more experienced mentor and a younger, less experienced protégé for the purpose of helping and
developing the protege's career (Ragins &Kram, 1997). Caffarella (1992) talks about a relationship, which is
both intense and caring, between persons who have differing levels of experience to promote professional and
personal development. The relationships described here, between mentor and mentee, provide both
psychosocial and career related support (Kram &Isabella, 1985).
Zachary's (2005) description best fits the process we will discuss in this article: "Mentoring is best described as
a reciprocal and collaborative learning relationship between two (or more) individuals who share mutual
responsibility and accountability for helping a mentee work toward achievement of clear and mutually defined
learning goals" (p. 3).
Zachary's emphasis here on learning, and later references in her workto mentoring being a self-directed
learning relationship and the need for skillful coaching in the relationship, all have strong tie-ins to the concepts
of Action Learning (AL) and Action Learning Conversations (ALC). In the next section, we describe what AL and
ALCs are to show how the role and actions taken speak to peer mentoring.
Action Learning and Action Learning Conversations
Action Learning (AL) is a leadership development process that can include processes useful for peer mentoring.
In our practice, we define AL as:
an approach to working with and developing people that uses work on an actual project or problem as the way
to learn. Participants work in small groups to take action to solve their problem and learn how to learn from that
action. Often a learning coach works with the group in order to help the members learn how to balance their
work with the learning from that work (Yorks, O 'Neil, &Marsick, 1999, p. 3).
An Action Learning Conversation (ALC) is a structured protocol that we have developed for use within AL
programs that can be used for peer coaching and mentoring. It is a criticaUy reflective practice that we believe
can support transformative learning (Marsick &Maltbia, in press). ALCs combine insightful questions with
reflection and critical reflection to produce a process of group mentoring that can be used within an AL program
or as a separate learning activity. Critical reflection, that is, reflection that helps identify underlying values,
beliefs, and assumptions, is especially powerful in the context of ALCs because it enables people to see how
they can change a situation by changing the way they frame it and act on it (Marsick &Maltbia, in press).
ALCs involve working in peer groups (as small as three people, but preferably no larger than a group of six or
seven) on a challenge or problem that is highly meaningful. While members of the group, either in an AL
program or an independent group engaging in ALCs, are usually peers, diversity in the group is important. From
a mentoring viewpoint, diversity is particularly important to maximize different perspectives and to provide a

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broad network. The ALC process takes the problem-holder sequentially through recurring cycles of: (a) framing
of the challenge as a question; (b) unpacking meaning through sharing information about the context and prior
action; (c) peer questioning (to which the problem holder does not immediately respond) to unlock mental
models that make one blind to other points of view; (d) identifying assumptions that underlie current ways of
framing the challenge; (e) reframing one's understanding of the situation; and (f) making more informed
decisions and taking informed action to address the challenge (Marsick &Maltbia, in press).
Figure 1 shows how we have structured our general approach to ALCs in three phases: (1) framing/ engaging,
(2) advancing, and (3) disengaging. A learning coach introduces the process, guides people through it, and
enables learning (O 'Neil &Marsick, 2007). In its purest form, using the sequential ALC protocol to address one
person's challenge takes about one hour, depending on the nature of the problem, the size and composition of
the group, whether people are first working the challenge or if this is a continuation of prior work, and other
contextual factors (Marsick &Maltbia, in press).
We warn participants that it will feel "unnatural" to work through the protocol because it artificially channels
conversation. Peers are guided to ask questions or offer observations without giving advice about how to
address the challenge. The person receiving the mentoring help does not respond to questions or observations
in the moment, but does write down what he/she hears. Each phase includes an opportunity for short, selective
responses by the person receiving the help, but remarks are held until that point in the protocol (Marsick
&Maltbia, in press).
Phase 1 - Framing and Engaging
The first step involves everyone writing about an important challenge or problem in the form of a question.
Criteria are usually established to help people in the group determine an appropriate challenge. In general, the
criteria might include:
* a complex challenge, with which you have been struggling, that has no obvious, or known, solution;
* reasonable people could disagree about solutions to the challenge;
* a challenge that crosses boundaries beyond your immediate responsibilities (O 'Neil &Marsick, 2007);
* and in a mentoring situation, a challenge that could help promote the opportunity for help and support.
Writing focuses attention. Members briefly share their challenge questions, after which the group picks a person
with whom to begin work. That person takes about 10 minutes to fill people in on the background. Peers help by
asking what we call "objective" questions to clarify the context and surface essential background information
(i.e., the "facts" about the situation, external reality, relatively direct observable data). Phase 1 concludes with
the challenge holder stating the support that would help in thinking about the presenting challenge (i.e., framing)
(Marsick &Maltbia, in press).
Phase 2 -Advancing
Phase 2 is the heart of the process. It is divided into four key steps, each of which takes a minimum of 10
minutes. During each step the person receiving peer support listens and writes but does not respond. At the end
of each step, one can then respond selectively to what they heard before moving to the next step. Phase 2
begins with more questions. Questions have always been at the heart of AL in that they free people to think in
new ways whereas advice giving can reinforce prior mental models that inhibit fresh solutions (Marsick
&Maltbia, in press).
We encourage the use of four kinds of questions: objective, reflective, interpretative, and decisional. Objective
questions center on "What is happening?" Reflective questions probe "How am I feeling/reacting?"
Interpretative questions seek to answer "What does it mean?" "What are we learning?" Decisional questions
focus on "What do I do?" and "How do I respond?" (Spencer, 1989). Objective questions are introduced in
Phase 1 when people share their challenges. In Phase 2, although some objective questions can still be asked,
we focus learners on reflective and interpretative questions. We recommend refraining from decisional
questions early in the process. Decisional questions become more important as people engage in iterative

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cycles of ALCs because, at that point, they are reviewing action taken on decisions made in earlier ALC cycles.
A common pitfall when first engaging in this questioning process is to provide advice disguised as a question
(Marsick &Maltbia, in press).
People first silently think and write down questions related to the challenge holder's question, which are then
shared in a round of "Q-storming" (Adams, 2004). Often we use a sequential, round-robin process whereby
each person raises one question at a time until all questions are asked. The challenge holder remains silent
throughout, but at the end, he/she can choose to selectively comment, provide more information, or remain
The second step in Phase 2 involves exploring assumptions. Assumptions are any belief, idea, hunch, or
thought held about a subject. People use their assumptions to guide their behavior. People are frequently not
aware of underlying assumptions that drive actions. In this next step, members silently write down relevant
assumptions they think the person being helped might hold, or that they themselves might hold were they in a
similar situation.
The third step in Phase 2 involves refraining the original question. New information typically leads to fresh
thinking. Often the person begins to see how he/she contributes to the gap that can exist between "intentions"
and "impact" and/or identifies other views of people in similar situations. In this step, members write down ways
they might now reframe the challenge and then, in roundrobin fashion, share these re-frames. At the end of this
step, the person receiving help can share his/her re-frames based on new thinking. The final step in Phase 2 is
a commitment to action, based on new insights (e.g., to gather more information, check out assumptions, or
behave in new ways). This prepares the way for Phase 3, that of disengaging.
Phase 3 - Disengaging
During the final phase, the learning coach, a member of the group, or the person who has been helped
summarizes key discoveries, reviews commitments, and checks for alignment. As Figure 1 shows, doing so
enables a feedback loop in which feelings and attitudes experienced can be informed by new insight and
knowledge, which, in turn, gets fed back into the way the person frames and engages the situation through
action (Marsick &Maltbia, in press).
Peer Mentoring
We find that the group structure (small diverse group composed of peers), environment and process (high
degree of mutual trust along with a genuine interest in learning and development) of ALCs parallel the
description of other kinds of peer mentoring groups (Kram &Higgins, 2008). A look at the scholarship of peer
mentoring shows why we make this case.
A mentoring relationship with a peer or peers can offer an alternative to the traditional mentoring relationship
(Kram &Isabella, 1985). Peer mentors provide similar support as do other kinds of mentors, for example,
psychosocial support such as confirmation, emotional support, and personal feedback, and career support such
as knowledge and information sharing, career strategizing, and job-related feedback (Bryant &Terborg, 2008;
Kram &Isabella, 1985).
There are differences as well. Peer mentoring is more of a two-way process than traditional mentoring; often
absent from the equation are differences in levels of experience and the power of the traditional mentor (Bryant
&Terborg, 2008; McDougall &Beattie, 1997). These differences can produce additional benefits. The lack of a
hierarchical relationship may make communication, mutual support, and collaboration easier, as well as
produce personal benefits such as mutual learning, exposure to different perspectives, and friendship (Kram
&Isabella, 1985; McDougall &Beattie, 1997). The type of interaction allowed in peer mentoring provides more of
an opportunity for the relationship to become transformative (Darwin, 2000).
With the advent of global organizations and virtual connections, peer mentoring has evolved from a one-toone
relationship to groups, 'circles', and developmental networks. Face-to-face, by telephone and virtually, small
groups meet regularly to share mentoring support. The groups develop a high degree of mutual trust along with

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a genuine interest in learning and development. Individuals give and receive informational, emotional, and
strategic support (Kram &Higgins, 2008; Jackson, 2008). Kram &Higgins (2008) describe one such
developmental network:
In one pharmaceutical company, product-development team leaders come together monthly in groups of 10 to
12 to coach one another. They start each meeting with a check-in where each member identifies new
challenges, such as dealing with a poor performer and building a team that could deüver new designs in a
timely manner. Members address each issue in turn, giving their peers possible strategies. The give and take
also helps boost their interpersonal skills, (p. 2)
Outcomes of ALC Groups
We believe that the outcomes we've experienced in using ALCs in our practice resembles that described above
and that the outcomes could rephcate themselves as the process is used in mentoring applications. We offer
the following outcomes from research as examples.
In 2002, the US division of a multi-national pharmaceutical organization embarked on an AL leadership
development program. In small groups of peers, participants worked on organizational projects and using the
ALC process, each participant worked on an individual learning goal with the help and support of their peers.
One of the participants decided he would work on his conflict management style and expressed that it would not
be the first time that he was sent to 'charm school'. "I have a tendency to make a difficult situation worse," he
said. It was common knowledge that he was intelligent and creative, but was very difficult to work with. His co-
worker described his behavior prior to the program as "an interpersonal bull in a china shop."
In keeping with the ALC process, once the participant gave some background regarding his learning goal, his
group asked questions for him to record and reflect upon. "What did he gain from being a 'tough guy'?" "Why did
he behave in ways that caused outcomes he didn't want?" While the questions helped him to think differently
about bis behavior, the part of the process dealing with assumptions was the most impactful for him. He felt that
most of his conflicts could be attributed to making assumptions about other people and what he thought was the
reason for their behaviors or statements. He talked extensively about how his beliefs about people came from
his upbringing. He realized that his "tough guy" image he maintained was destructive with all his relationships.
This was the root cause of his conflict with others. He noted,
You know, there's something that happened to me in this program that has never happened before. I know I've
caused conflicts but I didn't think I could change. . . .but during the program I felt like I was stripped naked and
the group told me things about myself... for all to see and I couldn't hide or ignore it... it changed me and it
changed the way I understand and work with people.
Based on reports from his boss and others at his work environment, he had made considerable progress in
working effectively with others (Ward, 2008).
In another program we conducted with a different global pharmaceutical company, the Executive Vice President
of HR for the business in a European country presented the following problem to his group for help and support
through the ALC process, "How can I develop my senior management team to manage their learning better?"
He went on to explain that his senior team of 7 people, which included the marketing company President and
himself, achieved good results last year but weren't good at sharing their knowledge and expertise with others
in the company. He had shared his concerns with some of his peers but was afraid to raise the issue publicly.
Complicating the issue was the fact that some of the Directors didn't get along. "The Marketing Director 'hates'
the other Directors." He felt they all needed to cooperate in order to ensure that the business would continue to
be successful.
The group and learning coach began the ALC process with Q-storming. Some of the questions included:
Where did the success last year come from if there was this lack of cooperation?
Do all the Directors behave this way?
Do they behave this way all the time?

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What is your evidence this behavior is not good?
Is the behavior open or hidden?
Have you figured out how you're contributing to the problem?
Some of the assumptions raised were, "I assume personal ambition is a factor;" "I assume this is considered to
be an acceptable way of working." Based on reflection on the questions, assumptions and reframes offered, the
Vice President reframed his problem to "How can I help the senior management team recognize that their
dysfunctional behavior will eventually harm the marketing company?" He decided to take the explicit action he
had been avoiding and discuss the issues with the President and management team (O'Neil &Marsick, 2007).
These two mentoring situations demonstrate how the process can bring value to the individual being mentored
through interaction with the group. There are several reasons why the ALC process can produce such results.
First, as Zachary's (2005) earlier mentoring description described, ALCs are learner centered. As such, the
mentee participants are able to frame their own issues and the help they want. Once the protocol is learned, the
mentee participants can use the process independently on an ongoing basis. Second, although the groups are
made up of peers, the diversity that is part of the process helps to open up thinking to new points of view.
Conversely, because they are peers, the questions of members of the group can be powerful since these peers
have often encountered similar situations. They can easily put themselves into the peers' 'shoes'. The final
consideration is the concept of critical reflection. Critical reflection is often spoken about in the adult learning
literature as an important element in transformative learning (Mezirow, 1991). How to bring about critical
reflection isn't always clear, however. Questioning, reflection, and critical reflection don't necessarily come
naturally to people who hold strong views and may believe there is only one 'right' way. The steps in the ALC
process build on one another to help bring the mentee participants to a point where they are more able to
engage in critical reflection and potential transformative learning.

ALCs combine insightful questions with reflection and critical reflection to produce a process of group mentoring
that can be used within an AL program or as a separate learning activity.

Reflection Questions for Examining and Expanding Mentoring Practice

1 . How have you helped your peers in their career?
2. When can questions facilitate the mentoring process?
3. What can you do to incorporate action learning into your institution's peer mentoring processes?

Adams, M. G. (2004). Change your questions, change your life. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Bryant, S. E., &Terborg, J. R. (2008). Impact of peer mentor training on creating and sharing organizational
knowledge. Retrieved May 29, 2009, from website: http://www.entrepreneur.
Darwin, A. (2000). Critical reflections on mentoring in work settings. Adult Education Quarterly, 50(3), 197-211.
Caffarella, R. S. (1992). Psychosocial development of women: Linkages of teaching and leadership in adult
education (Information Series No. 50). Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career and Vocational
Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 354386).
Jackson, M. (2008). The art of mentoring, modernized: Age-old form of learning takes on new importance.
Retrieved June 18, 2009, from com/bostonworks/news/articles/2008/10/12

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Kram, K. E, &Isabella, L. A. (1985). Mentoring alternatives: The role of peer relationships in career
development. Academy of Management Journal, 28(1), 110-132.
Kram, K. E., &Higgins, M. C. (2008). A new approach to mentoring. Retrieved April 19, 2009, from http://
online.wsj .com/article/SB 1 22 1 60063 875344843 . html
Marsick, V. J., &Maltbia, T. E. (in press). The transformative potential of Action Learning Conversations:
Developing critically reflective practice skills. In J. Mezirow and E. Taylor (Eds.), Transformative learning in
action: A handbook for practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
McDougall, M., &Beattie, R. (1997). Peer mentoring at work: The nature and outcomes of non-hierarchical
developmental relationships. Management Learning, 28(4), 423-437.
Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
O'Neil, J., &Marsick, V. J. (2007). Understanding action learning. New York: AMACOM.
Ragins, B. R., &Kram, K. E. (1997). The roots and meaning of mentoring. In B. R. Ragin &K. E. Kram (Eds.),
The handbook of mentoring at work: Theory, research and practice (pp. 3-15). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Spencer, L. J. (1989). Winning through participation: Meeting the challenge of corporate change with the
technology of participation. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/ Hunt Publishing Company.
Ward, R. C. (2008). Assessing learning transfer and performance improvement in an action learning leadership
development program. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York,
Yorks, L., O'Neil, J., &Marsick, V. J. (1999). Action learning: Successful strategies for individual, team, and
organizational development. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 1(2), Berrett-Koehler Publishers and
the Academy of Human Resource Development.
Zachary, L. J. (2005). Creating a mentoring culture: The organization 's guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Judy O'Neil is on the adjunct faculty at Teachers College, Columbia University and is President of Partners for
Learning and Leadership, Inc.
Victoria Marsick is a Professor of Adult and Organizational Learning, and co-directs the J. M. Huber Institute for
Learning in Organizations at Teacher's College, Columbia University.

Subject: Independent study; Marketing;


Publication title: Adult Learning


Volume: 20

Issue: 1/2

Pages: 19-24

Number of pages: 6

Publication year: 2009


Publication date: Winter 2009


Year: 2009

Publisher: American Association for Adult and Continuing Education

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Place of publication: Arlington


Country of publication: United States


Journal subject: Education--Adult Education, Education


ISSN: 10451595

Source type: Trade Journals


Language of publication: English


Document type: Feature


Document feature: References;Diagrams


ProQuest document ID: 607282558


Document URL:


Copyright: Copyright American Association for Adult and Continuing Education Winter 2009

Last updated: 2010-07-18


Database: 3 databases; -ProQuest Career and Technical Education; -ProQuest Education Journals; -ProQuest
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Citation style: APA 6th - American Psychological Association, 6th Edition

Judy O'Neil, & Victoria, J. M. (2009). Peer mentoring and action learning. Adult Learning, 20(1), 19-24.
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