Knowledge management – Learn while doing – Facilitate an after action review

Introducing a culture of learning in organizations can be difficult at times, especially if the effort required is great and the benefits are not quickly identified.

After Action Reviews (known as AARs) are one of the simplest knowledge management techniques and have been used to great effect in organizations ranging from the US Army to BP and even the development industry in NGOs such as TearFund. Their power comes from the fact that they take little time, produce quick results, and the approach is easily learned and repeated. In short, they have a “low barrier to entry.”

So how is an AAR conducted?

AARs are a simple way for individuals and teams to learn immediately, both from successes and failures, regardless of the length of the task at hand. Learning is from the team, for the team. The format is very simple and quick: it is a “paper and pencil” or flipchart exercise. In an open and honest meeting, usually no more than twenty minutes, each event participant answers four simple questions:

  • What was supposed to happen?
  • What really happened?
  • Why were there differences?
  • What can we learn from that?

The guidelines below are excerpted from the book “Learning to Fly – Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organizations” (Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell), and lay out the key steps to facilitate effective after-action review.

1. Hold the AAR immediately. AARs take place immediately while all participants are still available and their memories are fresh. The learning can be applied immediately, even the next day.

2. Create the right climate. The ideal climate for a successful AAR is one of openness and commitment to learning. Everyone should participate in an environment free from the concept of seniority or rank. AARs are learning events rather than reviews or audits. They certainly should not be treated as an evaluation of personal performance. The US Army describes an environment where you “stick your stripes to the wall” before initiating an AAR.

3. Additional facilitator. The facilitator of an AAR is not there to “give” answers, but to help the team “learn” the answers. Learning must be extracted, both from the individual and from the group.

4. Ask “what was supposed to happen?” The facilitator should begin by breaking the event down into discrete activities, each of which had (or should have!) an identifiable goal and action plan. The discussion begins with the first question: “What was supposed to happen?”

5. Ask “what really happened?” This means that the team must understand and agree on the facts about what happened. Facts – not opinions. Remember, the goal is to identify a problem or learning point, not a culprit!

6. Now compare the plan with reality. The real learning begins when the team of teams compares the plan with what actually happened in reality and determines “Why were there differences?” and “What did we learn?” Identify and discuss successes and shortcomings. Implement action plans to maintain successes and improve deficiencies.

7. Record the key points. Recording the key elements of an AAR (initially on a flipchart) clarifies what happened and compares it to what was supposed to happen. It facilitates the sharing of learning experiences within the team and provides the foundation for a broader learning program in the organization.

That’s all about it. Why not put an AAR on the agenda of your next big team meeting, training event, negotiation, or project review meeting? You’ll be surprised how quickly you learn what you didn’t know.

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