“The Army’s After Action Review (AAR) is arguably one of the most successful organizational learning methods yet devised. Yet, most every corporate effort to graft this truly innovative practice into their culture has failed because, again and again, people reduce the living practice of AARs to a sterile technique.”
From the GP (a.k.a. “Jeep”) to amazing medical advances (consider recent advances in prosthetic limbs) to the Internet (ARPANET in its infancy), the civilian world has greatly benefited from innovations made by the United States military over the last century.
Among the more recent crossovers is a process utilized by the U.S. Army for the continual improvement of training exercises known as the After Action Review (AAR). The AAR is currently being adopted by many in the business world to determine the success of organizational learning initiatives. Unfortunately, this strategy is often only utilized as a training evaluation tool. It would be far more effective if an organization’s leaders integrated the results of AARs into their knowledge management systems for the purpose of capturing, transferring, sharing and leveraging organizational knowledge.
History of the AAR
The U.S. Army developed and formalized its After Action Reviews in the 1970s as a result of the difficulties the Army faced when trying to record every aspect of a large-scale training event like a combat training exercise. The inability to examine military training exercises from every angle and perspective led to overlooking details that would have clarified the reasons for success or failure. The AAR was created to bring out both individual and group experiences and observations about training exercises immediately after they took place, but it doesn’t stop there. As part of the AAR, ideas for improvement are captured by both individuals and the facilitator, and then immediately applied to the next exercise.
The AAR has been extremely successful in the U.S. Army and is now, after 30+ years, so firmly entrenched in its culture that an AAR takes place immediately following every single training exercise, as well as after actual missions and other non-training initiatives.
Transition into the Corporate World
The first indication that AARs were being utilized in the business environment was in the 1990s. One of the first articles about the subject was written by Harvard Business School professor David A. Garvin in an article entitled “Building a Learning Organization” (Harvard Business Review, August 1993). Since that time, many organizations have formally adopted AARs as part of their culture, including Motorola, Bechtel, General Electric and BP (British Petroleum).
Businesses tend to use AARs as an evaluation tool to gather qualitative data regarding the effectiveness of their training programs. If organizations stop there, though, they are missing the true power of the process. It is when learning organizations use this tool to draw out individual stories and then capture, build and leverage this common knowledge that the AAR is taken to the higher level.
When applied specifically to learning, the primary goals of the AAR are 1) to determine whether the participants learned what they were supposed to learn during the instructional module, and 2) to record ideas regarding how the training process might be improved. The AAR usually takes place immediately after an event. However, it can be performed after a pre-determined amount of time has gone by to allow for the application of newly learned knowledge and skills back on the job.
The basic steps of an AAR are as follows…
AAR conversations can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. During the discussion, the facilitator – either a leader or one of the participants – records the points made on a flip chart or similar record, and, ideally, the participants also take notes to improve their own future performance. Then, if the AAR is being used as designed, ideas for improvements are applied to the next program.
Leveraging the AAR Knowledge
Now, let’s consider what happens with the knowledge that is gathered during an AAR. After a learning event, for example, it is likely that after the knowledge is captured, learning leaders will make adjustments to improve the content or process of future offerings. This is a good result and should be lauded and reinforced. The following steps demonstrate this first-tier knowledge acquisition process.
Now, consider how the results of that AAR could be magnified if the knowledge that was gained in this first tier activity is shared with the remainder of the organization. Imagine if, through a company’s knowledge management system, all employees at all levels could access the experiences and conclusions of every event that takes place throughout an organization. This means that other individuals and teams will be able to benefit from the knowledge of the first team, and hopefully mistakes will be avoided and improvements can be made without the pain that Team A had to experience. Consider the additional steps added to tier one…
From a single event, the stories that are shared can positively impact many others within an organization by way of this second tier of knowledge acquisition and knowledge sharing. What is needed for this to be successful is the AAR in place, a Knowledge Management System, the willingness of staff to learn from each other, and the ability to access the information on demand. This is how the After Action Review – and any knowledge generation process – can be utilized to leverage organizational knowledge.
Building AAR sessions into the company systems, especially (but not exclusively) those associated with learning, can help build and support a collaborative learning culture. If done well, AARs promote creative innovation and a mind set of continual improvement. Employees will come to expect AARs and, if they know that the observations and ideas shared will be used wisely and effectively throughout the company, will look forward to participating in a process that positively impacts not only their own team, but also the organization as a whole.
Lynn Lehman, CorpU Senior Learning Analyst
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