Action Learning

Published – 31 March 2021 By Gavin Beever

(Image source, Wendy Brooks, 2016)

Action Learning is a theory and process developed by Professor Reg Revans (Revans, 1982). It is an excellent tool and process for Extension Professionals to facilitate groups (Action Learning “sets”) to tackle key problems or tasks that are complex in nature and don’t already have a solution. “Action Learning is a process that involves a small group working on real problems, taking action, and learning as individuals, as a team, and as an organisation. It helps organisations develop creative, flexible and successful strategies to pressing problems” (WIAL)

Reg Revans (1907 – 2003)

Reg Revans gives an introduction to Action Learning here:

Core to implementing Action Learning is the principle that dealing with a problem or task takes adaptation and that adaptation is achieved only by learning. Current knowledge is described by Reg Revans as Programmed Knowledge.

He proposes that gaining Programmed Knowledge can only help individuals or organisations up to a point, but dealing with change requires greater insight and this is gained by posing questions.

Learning then becomes a function of acquiring programmed knowledge and combining it with questioning insight. This is expressed by Reg Revan’s Learning Equation:

L (Learning) = P (Programmed Knowledge) + Q (Questioning Insight)

Professor Revans said that the principal interest in developing effective learning to achieve adaptation and deal with change, was to focus on Q, Questioning Insight. He stated “Action learning recognises that, in the absence of insight, the use to which a wealth of programmed knowledge may be put is limited.”. “Problems and opportunities are treated by leaders who must be aware of their value systems, differing between individuals, and of the influences of their past personal experiences.

These will strongly influence their subjective judgements and, hence, their predisposing willingness to take risks. Such risks are diminished to the extent that further discriminating questions are posed and answered; this demands exploratory insight (Q).” Revans, (2011).

Action Learning enables clarity of thought through deep questioning. Group Members are made aware of their implicit assumptions, beliefs and attitudes which in turn affect group and organisational decisions and outcomes.

Steps to Action Learning (Source: WIAL)

  1. Define the problem that group needs to resolve: It must be significant and urgent.
  2. Assemble the group: Having diverse backgrounds and experiences is an advantage.
  3. Insightful questioning and reflective listening: Questions are asked of and by the group, to establish the precise nature of the problem. The questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness and generate innovative and systems thinking. Action is taken after reflecting and identifying possible solutions.
  4. Take action on the problem: Action Learning requires that the group be able to take action on the problem it is working on. If the group makes recommendations only, it loses its energy, creativity and commitment.
  5. Commitment to learning: Solving a problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the group or organisation. The greater, longer-term strategic value, is the learning gained by each group member and the group as a whole; as well as the application of the learning throughout the organisation in question.
  6. Action learning facilitation: The facilitator helps group members reflect on both what they are learning and how they are solving problems. They help the members reflect on how they are listening, help them reframe problems and provide feedback on how the team plans and works together. They also help the group identify what has been difficult, what processes they use and the implication of the processes on what the group achieves. Using this information, the group can develop, become more cohesive and effective.

Key Risks to Effective Action Learning

  1. Poor group attendance: This impacts the energy and the output of the group.
  2. Lack of patience and or time: Lack of patience or time at critical moments for the group can lead to issues not be explored in depth, sensitive issues being left unexplored and lack of group cohesion, trust and effective output.

To conclude, Action Learning is a simple, cost effective method for groups and organisations to tackle complex problems. It promotes creativity, is transformational and delivers benefits at three levels: To the individuals, the group and to organisations as a whole.

Content sources and further information

Revans, R.W. (1982). The origin and growth of action learning. Brickley, UK: Chartwell-Bratt.

Brooks, W. (2016). Ask. Ponder. Act. Learn: The Power of Action Learning. Safari Blog.

Revans, R. W. (2011). ABC of Action Learning. Gower Publishing Limited, UK.

World Institute of Action Learning