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Reg Revans: action learning.

Professor Reginald Revans (1907-2003) was involved in education throughout his long and varied career. He was scathing about the value of traditional 'chalk and talk' management education which prevailed during the 1960s and 1970s, arguing that people learned most effectively not from books, lecturers or teachers, but from sharing real problems with others.

Life and career

Revans studied at Cambridge (where he held the undergraduate long jump record between 1929 and 1962) and during his time there represented Great Britain in the long jump at the 1928 Olympics. After he obtained his degree, Revans became a Research Fellow at Emmanuel College and in 1935 he was appointed Chief Education Officer of Essex. During the war he was in charge of Emergency Services for the East End of London, and when the war ended he became Director of Education for the mining industry (later the National Coal Board). By 1950 he returned to academia to research the management of coal mines. From the mid-1950s, Revans held a range of professorial positions in the fields of industrial administration and management. He carried out much of his most important action learning work during the 1960s, within the NHS and for Belgian firms and institutions. His most well-known books were written during the late 1970s and 1980s, after his retirement at 68. He retained an interest in the Centre for Action Learning and Research at the University of Salford until the end of his life.

Action Learning processes

Whilst Director of Education for the National Coal Board, Revans spent two years living and working with miners trying to identify what their problems really were (rather than what people thought they were). His experiences led him to understand that people learn most effectively through 'doing' in groups, and this realisation helped him develop the theories to support Action Learning.

The learning process may be expressed as:

Learning = Programmed knowledge + the ability to ask 'insightful' Questions, or L = P+Q

Programmed knowledge (P) is conveyed through books, lectures and other structured learning mechanisms. It is an accessible format for knowledge, but it may take time to find exactly what we need, and in isolation is not sufficient to fulfil all learning needs. Revans argues that it is overvalued in management learning.

Insightful Questions (Q) are those asked at the right time and are based on experiences or an attitude about ongoing work projects, as well as creativity which goes beyond acceptance of ready-made solutions. Revans maintained that P is the domain of experts while Q is the domain of leaders who wish to drive projects forward by getting answers. Revans noted also that P was the initial letter of poppycock, platitude and professor, while Q initiates query and quiz.

Insightful Questions are the key to Revans' process. P will not take you very far unless you focus on the reflective side of what you do. Revans argues that it is not just 'doing' but learning to learn by doing--Q is much more important.

Revans suggests that each participant should have the following (deceptively simple) questions at the forefront of their thinking.

* What are we really trying to do?

* What is stopping us from doing it?

* What can we do about it?

* Who knows about (understands) the problem being tackled?

* Who cares (genuinely wants something done) about the problem?

* Who can (has enough power to) get something done about it?

Action Learning requires solutions to be implemented, not just recommended. Because it demands probing and sensitive questions, it can also require levels of tact and diplomacy.

Principles of Action Learning

Action Learning is a process which, to work, must be owned by its participants, because (Revans argued) the participants need to make their own decisions about tasks in order to learn how to help each other. Besides the important issues of ownership, Action Learning has other principles which must be adhered to.

* The learning context must be a real working situation, or a defined project meaningful to the participants--not a simulation. Learning to take action involves taking it, not merely making a recommendation on someone else's problem.

* Members of the learning set (the group or team involved) should all be able to make a contribution from their experience.

* The team members need to be ready to continue to learn from each other as they discuss problems and test out ideas through regular meetings. The learning process is not one of isolation: managers learn best from each other.

* Scheduled input of knowledge (P) should be kept to a minimum.

* An advisor needs to be present for the life of the team to facilitate, help, steer or guide when needed, but not to teach or lecture.

* Top management support must be available to respond to the team's findings.

To be successful, Action Learning also requires:

* commitment from the top--no hidden agendas where time spent will produce an outcome which has been rejected before it is announced

* the full commitment of everyone involved--action learning must be voluntarily embraced; it cannot be imposed

* time for meetings and questions which necessitate flexibility in terms of scheduling

* good communication to facilitate enthusiasm and commitment from all participants

* an atmosphere of trust and openness--team members should be able to feel relaxed about confronting sensitive internal issues.

These are onerous requirements for a learning programme, but the benefits offered make Action Learning a worthwhile undertaking, in that it:

* encourages self-reliance and develops people, especially in times of uncertainty and discontinuity

* is an aid to management development because it helps individuals to prepare for the future by helping themselves

* develops the organisation by changing the way it behaves

* produces results because it requires team members to take decisions

* can be a powerful problem-solving tool.

In perspective

Accepting Revans' distinction between knowledge (P, or didactic learning) and insightful questioning (Q), research has revealed those situations where Action Learning may be most appropriate. These are where:

* knowledge is changing rapidly

* a body of knowledge is applied to specific problems

* the individual is acquiring self-knowledge

* processes and concepts for thinking and learning are applied.

On the other hand, Action Learning may prove less appropriate where knowledge is relatively stable, when you are building up a body of knowledge or where the body of uncontested knowledge is well-established.

Revans' position of influence on modern-day management remained undefined, and varied from underestimation or disregard to being considered a management genius. He campaigned around the world to spread his ideas and had an influence in countries as diverse as Belgium, India and Egypt. In Belgium his ideas were applied with particular success--national output during the 1970s and 1980s surpassed that of many major competitors and credit for this was laid at Revans' feet. He had his detractors as well as his devotees and this was probably as much for his uncompromising style as his apparently simplistic thinking. But it is on his thinking that posterity should judge him, and it is possible to discern a number of developments in the domain of learning which have been strongly influenced by Revans.

Learning Cycle

Developed by David Kolb, this ensures that a learner cannot assume a passive role; learning instead is active, following a cyclical continuous process of:

experience [right arrow] evaluation [right arrow] conceptualisation [right arrow] experimentation.

Learning Preferences

All learners have different levels of comfort or difficulty in relation to the phases of Kolb's learning cycle. Some may need to practice more than others, some may prefer reading, some observation. Peter Honey and Alan Mumford have identified four basic styles of learning--the activist, the theorist, the reflector and the pragmatist--which take account of Revans' great emphasis on learning to learn by doing.

Competence movement

If the competence movement in management education is principally about being able to do things better in the workplace, by using work-based problems and situations for projects and assignments, then it - along with the growth of National Vocational Qualifications and the rise of mentoring schemes - might do worse than to acknowledge Revans as one of its main forerunners.


Revans Centre for Action Learning and Research, University of Salford, Salford, Lancs, M5 4WT.

Key publications by Revans

The editions cited here are those held in, and available for loan to members from, the Chartered Management Institute's Management Information Centre. These may not always be the first edition.

Action learning: new techniques for management London: Blond & Briggs, 1980

The ABC of action learning: a review of 30 years of experience Bromley: Chartwell-Bratt, 1983

Confirming cases as introductory exercises, Revans Action Learning International, London: 1985

Further reading


How to get the best from action research--a guidebook R Bennett and J Oliver Bradford: MCB University Press, 1988

Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development, David A Kolb Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1984

Manual of learning styles, Peter Honey and Alan Mumford, 3rd ed Maidenhead: Peter Honey Publications, 1992

ABC of action learning, rev ed, Reg Revans, London: Lemos and Crane, 1998

Journal articles

What can be learned using action learning? Tom Bourner Organisations and People, vol 3 no 4, 1996, pp18-21
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Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2003
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