KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

After Action Reviews – a simple low-tech learning tool anyone can use

with 10 comments

A brief interlude from my usual rants and thought experiments  – here’s a quick piece I did for an internal blog about after action reviews – one of the simplest and most well established knowledge management tools, but which hasn’t really caught on in UNICEF for some reason.

The After Action Review (AAR) is a structured review or de-brief process for analyzing what happened, why it happened, and how it can be done better, by the participants and those responsible for the project or event.

The AAR was originally developed by the US Army and is a simple group learning tool that can be used by anyone, not requiring any specialized software or KM expertise. It often forms part of the KM toolkit of other organizations in both the public and private sectors – but for some reason it’s never really caught on in UNICEF.

The KS Toolkit (which UNICEF co-sponsors) has a nice explanation of the approach. Here is an extract that explains further when to use the approach and how to do it:

When to use:

* During and after a project to reveal what has been learned, reassess direction, and review both successes and challenges.
* During and after an event monitor and evaluate.

How to Use:
Learning While Doing – Time to Reflect (From Chris Collison’s Learning to Fly)

1. Hold the AAR immediately. AARs are carried out immediately whilst all of the participants are still available, and their memories are fresh. Learning can then be applied right away, even on the next day.
2. Create the right climate. The ideal climate for an AAR to be successful is one of openness and commitment to learning. Everyone should participate in an atmosphere free from the concept of seniority or rank. AARs are learning events rather than critiques. They certainly should not be treated as personal performance evaluation.
3. Appoint a facilitator. The facilitator of an AAR is not there to ?have? answers, but to help the team to ?learn? answers. People must be drawn out, both for their own learning and the group?s learning.
4. Ask “what was supposed to happen” The facilitator should start by dividing the event into discrete activities, each of which had (or should have had) an identifiable objective and plan of action. The discussion begins with the first activity: “What was supposed to happen”
5. Ask “what actually happened” This means the team must understand and agree facts about what happened. Remember, though, that the aim is to identify a problem not a culprit.
6. Now compare the plan with reality. The real learning begins as the team of teams compares the plan to what actually happened in reality and determines “Why were there differences” and “What did we learn” Identify and discuss successes and shortfalls. Put in place action plans to sustain the successes and to improve upon the shortfalls.
7. Record the key points. Recording the key elements of an AAR clarifies what happened and compares it to what was supposed to happen. It facilitates sharing of learning experiences within the team and provides the basis for a broader learning programme in the organisation.

USAID have also developed more detailed explanation and guidance.

Here is a nice blog post and video from Nick Milton (Knoco stories) that demonstrates the use of the approach in practice. He also has lots of other great stuff on AARs on his blog.

The graphic above comes from a great blog post by Chris Collison on using the AAR approach on a flight during that 15 minutes when you are not allowed to use electronics.

Are you using this approach where you work? Any useful tips or experiences to share?

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 4, 2011 at 8:50 am

10 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this. I’m a big advocate of AARs and find them valuable throughout the life cycle of a project. Sometimes SMR’s clients give us a little pushback about the time required, but I find the AAR a useful way to keep the conversation going. Will be guest lecturing next week to a graduate class in management consultant and I’ll be sure to “lean on” the students to be thinking about AARs in their own client projects. Thanks for the good reminder.

    Guy St. Clair

    March 4, 2011 at 9:37 am

  2. Thanks for this informative post. Am using AARs at work, also given some training on how it can be used. People have been very receptive to using it.

    I think the most important aspect of the AAR, is what you say about the “ideal climate…(being)… one of openness and commitment to learning”. If people do not feel comfortable sharing, they’ll just keep quiet and not much learning comes through. Yet openness is hard to emulate when there is fear – of hierarchies, failure, punishment. Personally I think the fear comes from past experiences in which people are penalized for honest feedback. What do you think?


    March 4, 2011 at 10:15 am

  3. […] this link: After Action Reviews – a simple low-tech learning tool anyone can use AKPC_IDS += […]

  4. These seems like a nice tool; I’ve suggested to my line manager that we use it to assess our event planning as there are some tensions among staff around this.

    Rebecca M.E. Pointer

    March 7, 2011 at 3:07 am

  5. […] After Action Reviews –… How can better models of change sharpen up our work on development? – […]

  6. […] and beneficiaries, and it means self-reflection on the experience (including using tools such as after-action reviews). Finally it means feeding back whatever insights were gained from the project into the broader […]

  7. […] After Action Reviews –… basically my point was that these are an underutilized tool for looking at past experiences  and […]

  8. […] went and what you learnt from it. But if you actually care about coming up with a good event, an after action review is an essential session whether you are doing group facilitation or not, to build upon the good and […]

  9. […] A brief interlude from my usual rants and thought experiments – here's a quick piece I did for an internal blog about after action reviews – one of the simplest and most well established knowledge management tools, but which hasn't really caught on in UNICEF for some reason. The After Action Review (AAR) is a…  […]

  10. Reblogged this on Revise & Reborn.


    November 21, 2015 at 3:22 am

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