The philosophy of Action Learning
Action learning is an educational process whereby the participants study their own actions and experiences in order to improve performance. This is done in conjunction with others, in small groups called Action Learning sets. It is proposed as particularly suitable for adults, as it enables each person to reflect on and review the action they have taken and the learning points arising. This should then guide future action and improve performance.
An unconventional method
The method stands in contrast with the traditional teaching methods that focus on the presentation of knowledge and skills. Action Learning focuses on research into action taken, and knowledge emerges as a result that should lead to the improvement of skills and performance. Action Learning shifts the focus from the teacher to the learner.
Theory developed by Reginald Revans
Professor Reginald Revans, the originator of Action Learning, died aged 95 in January, 2003. He had invented and developed this method in the UK in the 1940s, working in the Coal Board and later in hospitals, where he concluded that the conventional instructional methods were largely ineffective.
The starting point is the awareness of relevant knowledge. People have to be aware of their lack of relevant knowledge and be prepared to explore the area of their ignorance with suitable questions and help from other people in similar positions – in order to learn effectively.
The formula of Action Learning – asking questions to create insight
Revans made it clear in the opening chapter of his book (Revans, 1980) which describes the formula: L = P + Q. L is learning, P is programmed (traditional) knowledge and Q is questioning to create insight. Q uses four “major” questions: • Where? • Who? • When? • What? and 3 “minor” questions: • Why? • How many • How much?
A world wide recognized theory
Although Q is the cornerstone of the method, the more relaxed formulation has enabled Action Learning to become widely accepted in many countries all over the world. In Revans’ book there are examples from the USA, Canada, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific.
Action Learning proved useful in Leadership Development
The contribution of Revans is being seen today through initiatives in leadership development such as those made by Dr. Richard Hale form Value Projects Ltd., and Dr. Charles Margerison, working with major organisations. They have developed a new approach to education of leaders which is recognised by leading universities interested in work based learning in the UK.
Revans distinguished between puzzles and problems, noting that action learning lent itself to working on real problems, e.g. improving productivity or morale rather than puzzles e.g. constructing a balance sheet. He also noted from his experience working with Nobel Prize winning scientists at University of Cambridge, that there was a distinction between cleverness (i.e. knowledge) and wisdom, which showed in the form of insightful questioning. He showed that much powerful learning comes from people learning ‘with and from others’, hence many action learning programmes put the ‘action learning set’ at the heart of the process.
Other key writers on the subject
In the UK key writers on the subject have been Mike Pedler and Alan Mumford and in the USA Michael Marquardt and Joe Raelin. Revans achieved major honours in Belgium where he linked higher education with industry achieving major results that impacted on national economic recovery. Revans’ theory of Action Learning was cited by Stuart Crainer as one of the 75 Greatest Management Decisions Ever Made in his book of the same title.
Action Learning is informal learning
Jay Cross, author of “Informal Learning” makes the following pertinent points in relation to formal versus informal learning: “Workers who know more get more accomplished. People who are well connected make greater contributions. The workers who create the most value are those who know the right people, the right stuff and the right things to do.”
Formal learning is equal to putting everyone on a bus
A great solution provided your goal is to get everyone to exactly the same place at the same pace and at the same time. However, formal learning – classes, workshops and online events – is the source of only 10 percent to 20 percent of what we learn at work, and of that we only remember and apply a very limited fraction in our actual work. Research shows that only 1% of all improvements taking place is sourced directly from formal learning.
Informal learning is like riding a bike
The route, speed and direction is adjusted to fit the needs of each person – and then there is also time to take a pause, reflect or even lend a hand to other learners if needed.
Learning to learn – at work
At work we learn more in the break room than in the classroom. We discover how to do our jobs through informal learning – observing others, asking the person in the next cubicle, calling the help desk, trial and error and simply working with people in the now. Informal learning is effective because it is personal. The individual calls the shots. The learner is responsible. It’s real. And it is very different from formal learning, which is imposed by someone else. People are pulled to informal learning; formal learning is pushed at them.
Action Learning – a well proven method for optimising informal learning
Based on the above, Action Learning reinforces informal learning in a conscious way, puts it into a common and well structured format and enables the individual to utilize the process to grow in the direction and pace that is optimal for him/her. When the goal is to develop individuals for their individual career in a common framework, action-learning is an optimal process and supporting structure.
Who is using Action-learning and for what
Chester University has a long an solid tradition for Action Learning programmes in collaboration with Action Learning facilitors such as VPL, Charles Magerision and currently the company GROW in Denmark. The following companies are examples of, how Action Learning has proved useful in developing strong organizations.
An insurance-based financial services provider, with headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland. The core business is General Insurance and Life Insurance. Founded in 1872 with a global network of subsidiaries and offices in North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America and other markets. 60.000 employees serve customers in more than 170 countries. Senior Leaders Talent Pool in Zurich has started in March 2008 a process of work based Action Learning targeted across all divisions and linked to the Talent Management process.
The programme, a Masters in Leadership and Management, is a work based Action Learning programme. Lloyds TSB Asset Finance Division, a division of Lloyds TSB, designed the development programme to meet a number of objectives: Create a Leadership Talent Pool; fill the management development vacuum; encourage networking; bridge the gap between learning and working; balance business need with personal need; and recognise personal achievement with external accreditation.
HBOS is a major UK company. The Group provides retail, business and corporate banking, and insurance and investment services through its multi-brand strategy in the UK and internationally. About 72.000 people are employed across the Group. University of Chester accredited Masters in Leadership and Management.
Other examples from Boshyk, Yury (Editor): Business Driven Action Learning: Global Best Practices
• DaimlerChrysler: Global Leadership development_
• Dow Chemical: Change management and talent development_
• DuPont: Change management and implementation_
• General Electric: Leadership development_
• Heineken: Leadership development and business problem solving_
• Guiness Brewery/UDV: Leadership development_
• La Roche: Leadership development in connection with major merger_
• IBM: Tool for crises management_
• Johnson & Johnson: Leadership development and strategy work
• Motorola: Business development and training projects_- Philips: ”From training to transformation”_
• United States Army: AAR – After Action Reviews_
• Cigna Healthcare, Management development
Read more about Action Learning