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Action Learning: L=P+Q

Action Learning

Action LearningAction Learning is, quite simply, the best way to learn. Especially if what you want to learn is less ‘learning that’, and more ‘learning how’.

Reg Revans started life as a physicist. His Big Idea was to apply the way scientists deal with problems to create a way for managers to learn. And he called his process Action Learning.

Let’s understand what Action Learning is, how it works, and why it is so good.

The Origin of Action Learning

As a former physicist myself, I am awed by the company Reg Revans kept in his early years. He worked in the Cambridge University Cavendish Laboratory, with Ernest Rutherford and JJ Thompson and a host of other greats. Einstein himself was a direct influence, apparently telling Revans:

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

What struck him was the humble approach these top* scientists took to problem-solving. He took these attitudes and ideas with him as he moved into the worlds of mainstream education management and then industrial learning.

* and I mean ‘top’ in the sense of remembered in the context of world history

What is Action Learning?

Revans believed that gaining knowledge was useful, but not enough. What matters more, in the world of work, is developing skills. That is the goal of Action Learning.

Your job performance will be dictated by your attitudes and your skills. So, Action Learning sets out to develop both, by linking your learning to your experiences and your real job needs. It does so by training you to solve real problems.

The thinking behind Action Learning might be best summed up by this wonderful quote from the ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles:

One must learn by doing the thing; for though you think you know it, you have no certainty, until you try.

L = P + Q

At the heart of Revans’ thinking on Action Learning is a simple idea, which he expressed with a simple formula. You can find it – and all his original thinking, in his 1974 book, Action Learning. It’s long out of print. But an updated version of his 1978 book, ABC of Action Learning is still available, as are many other good books on the topic.

The equation captures the essence of Revans’ idea:

Learning = Programmmed Knowledge + Questioning Skills

Programmed Knowledge

Programmed Knowledge is the stuff you have been taught. Or that you learned through some form of study, like:

  • reading
  • viewing
  • courses

It’s ‘knowing that’.

Questioning Skills

You can only really learn if you are prepared to to accept your own ignorance. As Socrates asserted:

I know only one thing–that I know nothing.

If, alongside a willingness to accept your ignorance, you are curious to learn more, you will be willing to ask questions and challenge ideas. This is what transforms programmed knowledge into true learning.

Action Learning

Action learning is a process where a small group of people comes together to learn, by solving real problems. In so doing, they bring to bear all of their collective knowledge and experience. They challenge that knowledge and put it to the test. In finding solutions, they learn new skills. Action Leaning leads to ‘knowing how’.

How to ‘Do’ Action Learning

The start of Action Learning is a sponsor, who will create a supportive environment for a small team of people to learn together. That group is an Action Learning Set.

The Action Learning Set needs a real problem to solve.

Three Types of Action Learning problems

The three types of problem that Action Learning Sets typically take on are;

  1. Developing Programmed Knowledge by tackling a problem that exercises that knowledge in a practical manner
  2. Building job-relevant expertise by taking on a problem that is highly pertinent to the jobs of the set members
  3. Organisational change problems (called in-plant problems) that will serve a pressing need for the sponsoring organisation or division

Whatever the problem, there is usually a ‘client’ who owns that problem. The client will give feedback to the Action Learning Set on the effectiveness of the solutions it puts forward. They are the ultimate arbiter of the quality of the Set’s work.


Action Learning Sets have a facilitator. Their role is to support learning by encouraging members to question one another’s programmed knowledge. They will also move the set on if it gets stuck, or help it to dwell on an issue, where there is still learning to be had. Later in the process, their role will also encompass reflection on the group’s learning.

Clearly, one of the set members – maybe in rotation, can facilitate the process. But for maximum learning, Action Learning Sets employ trained facilitators. Perhaps later, a set will continue informally, with set members acting as facilitator.

Solution Finding

The core part of the Action Learning process is testing out solutions and leaning from the process. Not all solutions will succeed. But whatever the outcome, the set can learn from it.

The set crystallises that learning through a process of sharing their experiences, impressions, and interpretations of the outcome. And, when necessary, they will use their reflection as the basis for designing a new solution.

What is Your experience of Action Learning?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.

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