Where Action Learning comes from and where it’s going

Professor Reg Revans (pictured left, 1907 – 2003) pioneered action learning, considered to be one of the most important ideas in the field of organisational development.

Revans, a man of action himself, started his career as a physicist and an Olympic athlete.
His inspiration for the development of action learning came from the sinking of the Titanic, since his father was a marine surveyor and was involved in interviewing surviving crew after the tragedy.  When he later asked his father what he had learned his father replied “to know the difference between cleverness and wisdom”.

In his 20s, Revans was a research scientist at the Cavendish Laboratories at Cambridge University, working with JJ Thomson and Ernest Rutherford.
  He was impressed by Rutherford’s insistence that, however eminent individual scientists were in their field that they be willing to share their doubts with each other.   “What does your ignorance look like to you?” Revans remembered Rutherford asking at one of the regular meetings.

The crucial importance of asking fresh or “insightful” questions about complex problems was further emphasized in Revans’ first real work in action learning, for the National Coal Board, then the world’s largest employer.  He was asked to write an educational plan for its workers  and from this, in 1945, the theory of action learning was born.

Revans’ Formula is L = P + Q (learning = programmed knowledge + questioning insight) and Revans’ Law, for an organisation to survive, its rate of learning must be at least equal to the rate of change in its external environment.

Revans went on to develop action learning in projects for the National Health Authority (later the NHS), in Belgium and in many other countries.

Action learning has gone on to be developed in numerous ways, including virtual action learning, critical action learning and action reflection learning.

Read Reg Revans’ obituary in The Guardian newspaper.

View  here Yury Boshyk’s keynote lecture “Reg Revans and the Evolution of Action Learning – from the Titanic to Twitter”, about Reg Revans as well as the history of, and current developments in, Action Learning.


Virtual Action Learning (VAL)
VAL can work well where members are geographically dispersed, or are from different organisations and sectors.  Using teleconference and/or web-based technology it is possible for effective Set meetings to take place without the time, financial and environmental costs associated with travelling.

Working virtually provides the opportunity to receive and provide support and challenge whilst also rehearsing skills that are relevant in busy organisations.  At the IFAL conference ‘Action Learning in a Virtual World’ in October 2011 we heard reflections on learning from several groups who had experienced AL via a variety of technologies.  These included teleconferences, Skype and Second Life (where members created avatars and met in a visual, virtual world).

Users of VAL reported that listening skills had been sharpened and that as a result the level of trust required to be able to work at a deep level, and therefore achieve useful insights, had been achieved more quickly than when working in Sets that met face to face.

The development of VAL as a variety of action learning in its own right has been explored in a paper by Mollie Dickenson, Mike Pedler and John Burgoyne of Henley Business School.


Action Reflection Learning (ARL)

This approach, developed at the MiL Institute in Sweden during the 1970s and later in the USA, was based on Revans’ principles.  It quickly incorporated a facilitator (or ‘learning coach’) which Revans did not, it emphasized the importance of reflection in developing and implementing projects and it saw a role for the ‘expert’  (of which Revans was, by and large, critical).

In 2004, Isabel Rimanoczy researched and coded the ARL methodology, identifying 16 elements and 10 underlying principles.

The Sixteen Elements of ARL

  1. Taking ownership for one’s learning
  2. Just in Time intervention
  3. Linking
  4. Balance Task/Learning
  5. Guided Reflection
  6. Feedback
  7. Unfamiliar Environments
  8. Exchange of Learnings
  9. Appreciative Approach
  10. Safe environments
  11. Holistic involvement of the individual
  12. Learning and Personality Styles
  13. Coaching one on one
  14. Sequenced Learning
  15. Learning coach
  16. Five System Levels

 The Ten Learning Principles

1: Relevance
 “Learning is optimal when the focus of the learning is owned by, relevant to, and important and timely for, the individual.”

2 Tacit Knowledge 
“Knowledge exists within individuals in implicit, often unaware forms; it is frequently under-or not fully utilized and can be accessed through guided introspection.”

3: Reflection 
“The process of being able to thoughtfully reflect upon experience is an essential part of the learning process, which can enable greater meaning and learning to be derived from a given situation”.

4: Uncovering, adapting and building new maps and mental models
 “The most significant learning occurs when individuals are able to shift the perspective by which they habitually view the world, leading to greater understanding (of the world and of the other), self-awareness and intelligent action.”

5: Social Learning 
“Social interaction generates learning”.

6: Integration 
“People are a combination of mind, body, feelings and emotions, and respond best when all aspects of their being are considered, engaged, and valued.”

7: Self-Awareness
 “Building self-awareness through helping people understand the relation between what they feel, think, and act, and their impact on others, is a crucial step to greater personal and professional competence.”

8: Repetition and Reinforcement 
“Practice brings mastery and positive reinforcement increases the assimilation.”

9: Facilitated learning 
“A specific role exists for an expert in teaching and learning methods and techniques which can help individuals and groups best learn.”

10: Systemic understanding and practice 
“We live in a complex, interconnected, co-created world, and, in order to better understand and tackle individual and organizational issues, we have to take into account the different systems and contexts which mutually influence one another and effect these issues.”


Critical Action Learning (CAL)
The theory of critical action learning is that all action learning takes place within a context which includes elements which may be unconscious and unspoken and will remain so unless the facilitator takes an active role in helping them to ‘surface’.  These elements include the dynamics within a Set, the power relationships within a department or an organisation, the relationship between Set members and the facilitator and the emotions and experiences of Set members themselves.

CAL invites participants in AL “to be aware of the power relations they are creating, representing and enacting” (Vince, 2011).  One way in which this can be done is to set aside time at the start of Set meetings to enable some of these aspects to be explored.

Proponents of and writers about CAL include Kiran Trehan of the University of Lancaster and Russ Vince of the University of Bath. See the September 2011 issue of AL News for an article on CAL by Professor Vince.