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Action Learning

Fundamentals 

Action LearningReg Revans was careful not to define Action Learning in a rigid way. He left the concept open for growth, experimentation and development. Others have attempted more definitive models. As a result, Action Learning teams operate with a wide variety of formats on a wide range of problems. However, most practitioners would agree on this summary of basic elements.

Revans’ Learning Formula

Reg Revans described Action Learning with the formula L = P + Q, where Learning (L) occurs through Programmed knowledge (P) and insightful Questioning (Q).

Traditional instruction, or “programmed knowledge” is appropriate when we are faced with puzzles, i.e., challenges that have a right answer. However, when we are faced with “problems”, challenges that have no right answer, we need critical reflection or questioning insight. Action learning encourages such reflection by providing the support to enable people to learn from challenges as well as from themselves and the group itself.

There are substantial benefits of learning on all these multiple levels.

  • The knowledge is more likely to be transferable to other situations.

  • Participants engage in double loop learning. They not only learn new facts but also investigate their own underlying assumptions and mental models. They learn how to learn.

Learning Teams (Sets)

Action Learning is always a team effort. Revans referred to these teams as “sets.” Team concepts had not been developed when Revans did his original work. The problem often lies outside the expertise and knowledge of some or all of the team members. This is an important part of the learning experience. A team consisting only of experts in the area of the problem would be unlikely to question basic assumptions and mental models.

Real Problems

The team is given a real problem and they are expected to solve it. Contrived classroom exercises are not compatible with Action Learning. The problem should also be a challenging problem, e.g. one of those recurring, intractable problems that seem to haunt organizations, a problem where many people think they know the answer but all their answers are different.

Learning Dominates

The problems and situations undertaken by an Action Learning team are genuine, important and difficult. However, the  learning experience should be the primary goal. Solving the problem is a happy but collateral result. This is primarily what distinguishes Action Learning from the typical Kaizen Event or task force.

Problem Solving Procedure

The team needs a formal problem solving procedure, another adaptation from the early Work Simplification movement, figure 3. The formal procedures prevent a rush to judgment or knee-jerk responses. They structure the process and focus attention towards the immediate task. A number of such procedures are popular as part of TQM and Six Sigma. In essence, they are similar and most provide an adequate framework.

Problem Solving Procedure

Figure 3 Problem solving Procedure

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