Understanding Action Learning

“For an organisation to survive, its rate of learning must be at least equal to the rate of change in its external environment.”
Action Learning meeting

The Art of Learning by Doing

Action Learning; a definition

Action Learning is a flexible, dynamic, peer group coaching based method for solving problems and developing people. It involves taking action to address a real-life issue or problem and reflecting upon the results achieved, with the support of colleagues, who are also attempting to solve their own problems.

The Origins of Action Learning

Action Learning was developed by Professor Reg Revans (1907-2003) in the
1940’s. It was inspired by his work as a research scientist (when studying
astrophysics) at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University in the 1930’s.

During that time, he was struck by the way that the scientists (many of whom were Nobel prize winners) were, in their regular weekly seminars, completely open about not understanding fully the work they were doing and were welcoming of their colleagues’ questions, suggestions, and observations. Consequently, he formed the belief that people learn best when working together to help each other with their problems, and then taking their answers away and implementing them in the workplace. To explain the collaborative aspects of action learning he would often quote Leonard Cheshire (the philanthropist); “The best way to deal with your own troubles is to go help someone else.”

Furthermore, his experiences at Cambridge also led him to make a distinction between being ‘clever’ and ‘wise’.

So, clever people know things (which is good), but wise people understand that there are often unforeseen factors associated with real life events (that can be very complex) and are always ready to ask themselves testing questions to make sure that they really do understand what’s happening. That is, they don’t feel the need to come up with the right answer immediately, or to dominate a discussion, and they realise that, in a volatile situation, it’s very easy to make mistakes. Revans noted that when asking these ‘testing questions’ in the company of others (as happened at the Cavendish Laboratory) real insights and learning can occur.

Revans’ Law

Revans’ Law is the principle “that for an organisation to survive, its rate of learning must be at least equal to the rate of change in its external environment”. And for that to happen (in a volatile and uncertain world) people have to be willing to (i) experiment and crucially, (ii) learn from the results they achieve. The increasing rate of change that was occurring throughout the 20th century made Revans think that the ability to respond to change was a key success factor in business and life, and that Action Learning Programmes could help people to meet that challenge.

The Action Learning Equation

The formulae Revans’ used to explain Action Learning is: L = P+Q

This means that Learning [L] is based on Programmed Knowledge [P] (the things that can be formally taught) plus Questioning Insight [Q] (the ability to apply what has been taught to ‘messy’ real life problems, across a wide range of situations). Questioning Insight matters where there is no fixed body of knowledge that commands a strong consensus, or where the situation is subject to constant change.

So, Programmed Knowledge makes you ‘clever’, but the ability to develop ‘Questioning Insight’ makes you ‘wise’. Of course, both aspects of Learning, (P+Q) are important. Clearly, acquiring a good understanding of a topic is vital to success, for example, no one would hire an electrical engineer who didn’t understand circuit analysis – but Questioning Insight is the more difficult of the two ‘learning components’ to acquire (and that’s what Action Learning helps with).

Question Insight itself is a function of (A + R) i.e. [A] ‘action’ – actually doing something in the real world – and [R] Reflecting on the results achieved, and discussing your observations with colleagues.

So, in summary, advocates of Action Learning believe that people learn best from trying things out in practice and reflecting on what happens as a result of their actions and why. (At its heart Action Learning is about taking real world action to solve a real-life problem; it is not about recommending an action; it’s about owning the implementation of an action and learning from what happens as a result.)

The 7 components of an Action Learning Programme

An Action Learning programme consists of seven key elements. By changing the shape of these elements, it is possible to use Action Learning to achieve a variety of different outcomes. E.g. develop high potential managers or grow business leaders, or implement a change programme etc.

1 The Problem

The focus for any Action Learning programme is the problem or problems that are to be tackled. It follows therefore that problem selection is crucial to an effective programme.

The three main issues to consider here are that the:

  • Problem(s) must reflect a real business need.
  • There must be a genuine willingness by senior managers to have the problem(s) ‘fixed’ by the programme participants.
  • A specific senior manager must be prepared to ‘own’ each of the problems selected and be willing to use his or her influence to ensure that any changes are actually put into practice.

2 The Sponsor

The Sponsor is the person who has the authority to ensure that the Action Learning programme runs its full course. In a large-scale programme this person will normally be the COO or CEO.

3 The Client

The Client is a senior manager who takes ownership of a specific problem and its eventual solution. His/her role in an Action Learning programme is to delegate the responsibility for tackling the problem either to a specific individual or to a team of people. He/she is often defined as the person who ‘knows and cares’ about the problem and who can implement any changes that are suggested by the nominated problem solver(s).

4 The Fellow (or Participant)

The term ‘fellow’ is used to describe the people who are tasked with solving a problem on behalf of a ‘client’ i.e. they are the programme participants. The term ‘fellow’ is a reference to Revan’s University experiences (i.e. research fellows). Identifying the people with the right mix of skill and experience, and at the appropriate level of seniority to participate in a specific Action Learning initiative, is one of the key factors in determining the success of the programme.

5 The Action Learning Set

Participants in an Action Learning programme are assigned to a self-help group or ‘Set’ of around six to nine people. The Set meets once per fortnight and members tell each other about how their work is progressing and ‘bounce’ ideas off one another. In the Set ‘fellows’ learn with and from each other, and as a consequence the development that they experience is greatly strengthened. The importance of the Set is based on three key beliefs, namely that:

  • Human beings learn best from reflected practice. That is by stepping back and thinking about what they are doing and why they are doing it.
  • The best test of any learning is trying it out in action.
  • The process of learning is greatly strengthened by regularly sharing the experience with others who are also learning by doing.

The Set provides an environment in which these beliefs can be put into practice.

6 The Set Adviser

Each Set has a ‘set adviser’ whose job it is to sit in on the regular team meetings to (a) help the participants to work effectively together to achieve the goals of their projects and, (b) capture the individual learning that is taking place. This is a highly skilled mentoring and facilitation role.

7 Programme Coordinator

For large scale programmes there is a Co-ordinator who monitors progress of the Action Learning Sets on a day-to-day basis (e.g. checks that the meetings are taking place, assesses what overlap, if any, is happening with work in the various Sets) and offers help to the team with their administrative arrangements e.g. timetabling meetings.

Types of Action Learning Programme

There are 3 variables that can be manipulated to build an action learning programme (Internal/External + Familiar/Unfamiliar + Individual/Group). The choices that are made will depend on the desired outcome and the available resources.

Internal Vs. External Participants

Action Learning Programmes can either be External, where participants from different organisations are involved, and where meetings are rotated around the participating organisations (or meetings are hosted by an organising entity, often a University). Or they can be Internal, with managers from the same company meeting together to discuss their progress on their project work.

External ‘Own job’ Action Learning programmes were designed for those organisations wishing to develop managers by exposing them to people from quite different backgrounds. The idea being that people from different industries could challenge each other’s views of what was ‘normal and acceptable’ and thereby help to generate creative solutions to the problems that were posed.

Internal programmes, on the other hand, are attractive because they are cost effective, and easy to manage. In addition, if each ‘Set’ or team of people who are attending the Action Learning meetings has a good mix of managers, then functional barriers can be broken down.

Familiar Vs. Unfamiliar Tasks

The Familiar Task format involves the participants working on tasks that they would normally be expected to tackle e.g. A Marketing Manager works on a marketing problem.

The Unfamiliar Task format involves the participants working on tasks that they would not normally be expected to tackle e.g. A Marketing Manager works on a quality problem.

Individual Vs. Group Projects

Individual Projects means that you have one person for each problem to be addressed and (obviously) Group Projects involve a team of people looking at each of the chosen problems.

The Most Common Format: The ‘Own Job Model’

The most frequently run type of programme (because it is the cheapest and easiest to do) is the Own Job Model. This is based on: Familiar Task + Familiar Environment + Individual Project format.

As the name suggests, the ‘problem’ is based on the participants getting better at their current jobs e.g. to develop their leadership skills, or to improve the productivity of their department, or to get into a position where they can be considered for promotion etc. The Client is typically their Line Manager (or sometimes the HR VP). So, the ‘scope’ of the problem being addressed is relatively small, but that doesn’t mean that the personal development (and the impact on the business) can’t be substantial. And (with a good mix of people in the Sets) there are additional benefits through improved internal networking and team building.

Other formats are much more difficult to organise logistically and consequently are much rarer e.g. An Unfamiliar Task + an External Participant + Individual Project format, might see a senior manager from (say) a steel plant working on an issue presented by a textile mill or electronics company. This can be a very powerful form of development but the commitment in time and energy (plus the amount of trust needed to share confidential company information) means that it is not a commonly adopted format.

Putting it all together

When faced with an unpredictable situation (or ‘unknown, unknowns’, as they are sometimes called) it is the ability to ask Insightful Questions that will determine the success of your efforts. And that process of asking questions, taking action, reflecting on the results and learning from your experiences is greatly strengthened if you have the support of a small team of colleagues as you do it. You help them and they help you and, as ‘comrades in adversity’, you are better able to keep learning and adapting in the face of high rates of change; this is what Action Learning was deigned to deliver!

So what’s next?

Reflect on how good you are at learning by doing? Is your rate of learning keeping pace with the rate of change in your industry? Who do you help navigate difficult problems, who helps you? Would a formal Action Learning Set be helpful to you (and them)?


Read this article on Scoping Action Learning Projects


View this three-minute long video of Professor Revans talking about
Action Learning in 1984


You may be interested in how we can help you design and run an Own Job Action Learning Programme…


Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at
coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can
work with you.

And finally, remember…

“If you think you understand a problem, make sure you are not deceiving yourself.”