Professor Reg Revans (1907 – 2003) pioneered the process of action learning; it is still considered to be one of the most important ideas in the field of organisational development.
With a background as a physicist and an Olympic athlete, the catalyst for his development of the action learning concept came from the sinking of the Titanic; more particularly, from observing the work his father, a marine surveyor, who was involved in interviewing the crew that survived the tragedy.
During his formative years, Revans was a research scientist at the Cavendish Laboratories, Cambridge University and worked with JJ Thomson and Ernest Rutherford. He was impressed by Rutherford’s insistence that, no matter how eminent an individual scientist was in their field, it was important for them to be willing to share their doubts with each other. In his work he cites Rutherford asking: “What does your ignorance look like to you?” at one of their regular meetings.
An earlier indicator of his approach to the solution of complex problems was his emphasise on the importance of asking fresh or “insightful” questions: this represented Revans’ first real work in action learning while working for the National Coal Board. Subsequently, in 1945 he was asked to write an educational plan for its workers; it was from this that the theory of action learning came into being.
He is most often remembered for 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.
From which came his formula:
L = P + Q (learning = programmed knowledge + questioning insight)
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 since developed in several different directions including virtual action learning, critical action learning and action reflection learning and the principle of action learning sets now underpin many team development, and leadership and management programmes. As a process, it is underpinned by the 4 stage cycle of experiential learning, and the concept of learning by reflection (or reviewing) on an experience.
Plan: The aim her is to obtain a clear understanding of what you want to achieve by defining the problem or process in question. This will involve establishing the root causes of any problems and developing a detailed SMART Action Plan that sets out what needs to be done.
Do: Involves implementing the action plan and monitoring progress, recording any learning points along the way.
Review: Reviewing and evaluating the results or the outcomes of the actions you have taken. Ask questions such as: Are we getting the results we wanted? What else is going on? What can we learn from the results?
Act: Use the learning as a basis for being clear about what needs to be done differently and draw up a new SMART Action Plan.
In practice there is a tendency to short circuit this cycle and skip the reviewing phase as it is often difficult to do away from the immediacy of the context. Action Learning per se will help ‘close the loop’ and ensure learning is as effective as possible.
Action Learning is now also used extensively as an approach to the development of people in organisations, where it positions the actual ‘task’ as the vehicle for learning. It is based on the premise that there is no learning without action and no sober and deliberate action without learning.
The concept of ‘Action Learning Sets’ is the main delivery medium for this form of Action Learning: they are primarily focused on the individual’s learning. The RESOLVE Model learning programme incorporates many of these principles.
What are the key principles of an Action Learning Set?
- Individuals have an equal opportunity to participate, both in presenting their own issues, and in asking questions of others
- There is respect for each individual’s contribution
- The Set functions best when it allows learning to happen
- The use of “questioning insight” and action is fundamental to how people learn
- Individuals trust each other, respecting each other’s opinions and questions
- Inquiry and understanding are essential aspects, as opposed to criticism and apportioning blame
What happens in an Action Learning Set?
Action Learning Set meetings are designed to enable participants to share their problems and to work on an issue together.
- A presenter describes an issue they are struggling with whilst other Set members listen.
- Other Set members ask questions, inviting the presenter to:
- understand the problem more fully
- explore underlying assumptions
- consider different options
- make choices
- produce an appropriate action plan
At the end of the set meeting, set members reflect on the process and share anything they have learned from it. At a subsequent meeting, the presenter will be invited to talk about the impact of their plan and reflect on their past actions in order to learn from the experience.
What is the role of the facilitator?
A facilitator can be used to ensure that the Set works effectively, particularly at the beginning. They may explain and manage the initial group dynamics, ensuring that all set members are considered equally, and that everybody listens to each other: it is not their role to ask questions or to direct the group or presenter to a particular conclusion. Ultimately, their role is to help create ownership, and once the group begins to function appropriately, the need for a facilitator becomes less; ultimately it will not be required at all.
What is the role of the presenter?
Presenters have the responsibility to share their problems openly and truthfully. Their purpose is to use their time to explore their issue fully, and seek to find or create meaningful solutions. They also have the responsibility of implementing any plan that is created as a result of the Set meeting, since only by taking action will the Set become experiential and enable further reflection.
What is the role of a set member?
The roles of a Set member are to support and challenge: development (i.e. progress towards a solution, which may involve personal change or doing things differently) takes courage and time. By listening and clarifying (and not taking ownership of the problem by offering solutions), Set members give the presenter the opportunity to talk through the difficulties they face and what they want to do about them.
The main function of a Set member is not to offer advice, but rather to help the presenter understand and resolve their situation by:
- exploration through open questions to encourage reflection
- challenging assumptions underlying these reflections
- deciding on the best course of future action
Helping the presenter consider different angles on the problem will give them a different perspective on their thinking to date, and may open up new avenues to different and as yet unconsidered solutions. Above all the questions they ask can ensure that the actions the presenter intends to take are robust and are most likely to succeed.
Remember: No one is more expert than the presenter on their own issue.
Action learning is not a cosy chat, so set members can challenge (softly) any assumptions or perspectives held by the presenter – in effect playing the devil’s advocate – and ask difficult ‘what if’ type questions, with the intent of supporting the presenter’s resolution to take action. Remember, the presenter’s silence is valuable – they are thinking: sometimes the most supportive and challenging this is to say nothing!
- What if you had all the confidence you needed?
- What if funding wasn’t an issue?
- What is you had the support of the senior team?
- What if you had the time in your diary to do this?
- What if the person wasn’t making the situation challenging?
- What if you knew what to do?
- What if you took one small step in the right direction?
How to get the best out of your time in the set:
Think about the issue you want to present beforehand, and the best way to describe it:
- how clear am I about what success or resolution means,
- why is it important to me at the moment,
- what do I feel about it,
- how many times has this situation come up before,
- what happened before it is not a new situation,
- who is involved,
- how long has it been going on,
- what does it involve,
- what have I done so far to address it,
- how successful have been my efforts to date,
- what is getting in the way,
- what are my concerns… etc.,
- what do I think is going to happen next?
How do I report on the progress I have made?
Prepare a short report on your issue, which could involve:
- What the issue is
- What I have done
- What happened, or what was the result
- What was different from what I had anticipated or expected
- What I did not do, the reasons for this, and what I did instead
- What have I learned from this?
Development does not happen overnight since the issues or projects that the presenter is taking on may take time to emerge or solve. In the process, the presenter goes through a process of learning about their ability to affect their working or home environment and their ability to change themselves; their confidence may well emerge over weeks or months.