Making Action Learning Work

Another wonderful post from Nithya - who includes previously unpublished notes from the founder of Action Learning!


If one looks up the term, “Action Learning” on the internet, the numerous varied descriptions displayed would only serve to befuddle the reader. Reginald Revans who founded this learning method, remarked, “Since Action Learning is less structured, like space and time themselves, it is available to all persons and may be all things to all people.” The multiple meanings of Action Learning, or rather, a lack of one definition has led to the concept being associated with many labels such as problem-based learning, reflective learning, action research or even experiential outdoor learning.

What really is Action Learning? It was this question that fueled me to undertake my Masters Degree to clarify what is Action Learning, what are the learning theories that sit behind this method of learning, and its varied interpretations and applications. As part of my research, I had the opportunity to visit a close friend of Revans at the Revans’ Institute, within the University of Manchester. I was fascinated to find many handwritten notes, photographs and unpublished reflections from Revans around this very subject.

I discovered that the premise of Action Learning was stirred up not only through Revans’s application of learning in the workplace, but a notable life experience from his father, a naval architect, involved in the Titanic Disaster inquiry. In an unpublished reflection, Revans shared:

“I asked my father much later in life what he felt he had gained from having to help conduct the report upon this dreadful (Titanic) disaster; his reply was that it had emphasised to him the difference between cleverness and wisdom. Every single detail of the design of the liner, including its watertight bulkheads to make it unsinkable, was of the highest standards; the conduct during the maiden voyage of every responsible officer was all that could be expected. What was wrong was that nobody paused to ask whether all these separate perfections would cope with conditions that had not yet been fully encountered. This turned out to be an iceberg of a peculiar shape; in trying to avoid it the vessel was slit from stem to stern by underwater ice that could not be seen. My father identified the difference as mainly that the wise, as distinct from the clever, remind themselves that there may be important questions still to be asked that had so far not crossed anybody’s conscious mind. It is this need for being doubtful about one’s own qualification and ability to deal with the here and now that is the essence of Action Learning.”



It is this curious disposition, no matter how much of an expert each one of us is, to always query and challenge assumptions, going beyond what we know to open up the space for constructive dialogue and fresh perspectives. The best Action Learning teams always start with this premise, by creating the space and time to ask questions through various lenses, before jumping into problem-solving mode.

Action Learning teams comprise 6-8 employees from different functional areas to work on an enterprise-wide challenge or issue for a set period of time. Throughout this time, they diagnose the challenge, speak to stakeholders within and outside of the business, balancing their reflection and learning with progressing solutioning around the challenge. The gentle reminder for Action Learning teams is to heed the advice of Revans as while subject matter expertise is important, the limitations of the expert is the conception of prefabricated solutions.

The next time you are in an Action Learning team, or asked to support one, reflect on the proportion of time spent asking questions to genuinely learn from one another without trying to advocate one’s own expertise. Creating the time and space for genuine inquiry helps to set up Action Learning teams for success.

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