Action Learning

What Does Action Learning Mean?[1]

Action Learning is an approach to solving real problems that involve taking action and reflecting upon the results. The learning that results helps improve the problem-solving process as well as the solutions the team develops. In many, but not all, forms of action learning, a coach is included who is responsible for promoting and facilitating learning as well as encouraging the team to be self-managing. In addition, the learning acquired by working on complex, critical, and urgent problems that have no currently acceptable solutions can be applied by individuals, teams, and organizations to other situations. The theory of action learning and the epistemological position was developed originally by Reg Revans (1982) who applied the method to support organizational and business development, problem-solving, and improvement.

Components of Action Learning[2]

The Action Learning process is most powerful when six components are in operation, interweaving and reinforcing each other:

  • A Problem (project, challenge, opportunity, issue, or task): The problem should be urgent and significant and should be the responsibility of the team to resolve.
  • An Action Learning group or team: Ideally composed of 4-8 people who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution. The group should be diverse in background and experience.
  • A process of insightful questioning and reflective listening: Action Learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action. Questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness, generate innovative and systems thinking, and enhance learning results.
  • An action taken on the problem: There is no real meaningful or practical learning until action is taken and reflected on. Action Learning requires that the group be able to take action on the problem it is addressing. If the group makes recommendations only, it loses its energy, creativity, and commitment.
  • A commitment to learning: Solving an organizational problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the company. The greater, longer-term multiplier benefits, however, are the learnings gained by each group member and the group as a whole, as well as how those learnings are applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization.
  • An Action Learning Coach: The Action Learning coach helps the team members reflect on both what they are learning and how they are solving problems. The coach enables group members to reflect on how they listen, how they may have reframed the problem, how they give each other feedback, how they are planning and working, and what assumptions may be shaping their beliefs and actions. The Action Learning coach also helps the team focus on what they are achieving, what they are finding difficult, what processes they are employing, and the implications of these processes.

Action Learning
source: Project ALGAIA

Action Learning Fundamentals[3]

  • Questioning insight is always the starting point.
  • The problem must be real.
  • The problem to be solved can be tactical or strategic, but the learning is strategic. You are striving to continuously upgrade the intellectual capital of the firm in terms of adapting to change and sustaining a competitive edge. This is a key ingredient of the learning organization.
  • Reflection is as important as action. Learning journals/logs are a good way to induce greater reflection and enhance the learning that occurs.
  • Three basic questions commonly begin the action learning process in addressing a real problem. First, what should be happening? Second, what is stopping us from doing it? Third, what can we do? This is reminiscent of Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Analysis (Driving Forces and Restraining Forces) (Weisbord, 1987, pp. 77-79).
  • Learning is the primary goal, even though problem-solving is real and important. Learning is facilitated, including breaking out well-established mindsets by having the setting, the problem, and colleagues to some degree unfamiliar.

The Quintessential and the Principles of Action Learning Model[4]

The Action Learning Model was first introduced by Professor Reginald Revans in 1980, who was a noted physicist and the first known Industrial Management Professor. The idea behind the Action Learning Model is that a learner can gather knowledge by working with other peers in a group setting to find a solution to a problem or scenario. In doing so, learners will be able to not only develop their own skill sets and knowledge base, but also those of the group or of the organization. Reginald Revans also described the Revans Formula as L= P+Q, where: L is learning
P is programming and
Q is questioning (closed, open, objective, and relative)

The principles involved in the Action Learning Model are as follows:

  • The learning experience should be centered around finding an answer or a solution to a problem that exists in the real world.
  • Learning is a voluntary process, and the learner must be willing to learn.
  • Action Learning is a highly social activity and process which takes time to be fully effective. The typical action learning program can last between four to nine months.
  • Developing the individual's knowledge base and skill sets is just as essential as arriving at the solution to the scenario or problem.

Goals and Purposes of Action Learning[5]

With its roots in adult learning and organizational change, it is evident that the goals of action learning are to:

  • benefit organizations by addressing perplexing problems that have previously seemed insoluble
  • help organizations to use the potential of their staff better
  • help individuals to learn with and from others by discussing the difficulties each member of the action learning set experiences while working on an important organizational problem
  • benefit individuals by learning how to survive and operate successfully in a complex and confusing world.

Action learning has three mutually reinforcing purposes:

  • To make useful progress on a problem or opportunity in an organization; to make things happen.
  • To help the individual themselves to find out how to deal, in the future, with other such ill-defined problems; to help them to learn how to learn.
  • To help those responsible for the development of people in the organization to see their role afresh; that is to help people create the conditions in which they can learn with and from each other in pursuit of a common task. In a practical sense, this is the building of a learning organization.

Why is Action Learning Effective?[6]

  • Action Learning solves problems and develops leaders simultaneously because its simple rules force participants to think critically and work collaboratively.
  • Action Learning is particularly effective for solving complex problems that may appear unsolvable. It elevates the norms, collaboration, creativity, and courage of groups that solve problems of great urgency to the organization.
  • The Action Learning coach assists group members in reflecting not on their problem-solving but on the elevation of their group functioning as well as focusing on examples of their leadership skills. In this way, Action Learning participants become effective leaders as they solve difficult problems.
  • Action Learning positions inquiry at the core of organizational behavior, develops critical thinking and creates mutual respect among employees at all levels. The focus on inquiry elevates group interaction to a true learning environment.

See Also

Action-Centered Leadership
Action Inquiry
Action Logic
Action Priority Matrix (APM)
Action Research
Action Science
Critical Thinking


Further Reading