Action Learning (Revans)

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Experiential learning and complex problem solving in teams. Explanation of Action Learning of Revans. ('69)


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What is Action Learning? Description

Some variations of definitions for Action Learning are:

  • A process for bringing together a group of people with varied levels of skills and experience to analyze an actual work problem and develop an action plan. The ad-hoc group continues to meet as actions are implemented, learning from the implementation and making mid-course corrections. Action Learning is a form of learning by doing.
  • An approach to individual and organizational development. Working in sets or groups, people tackle important organizational issues or problems and learn from their attempts to change things. Traditional instruction, or "programmed knowledge", is appropriate when we are faced with "puzzles" - 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 process itself. The benefits of learning on all these levels are that the knowledge is more likely to be transferable to other situations and participants will be engaged in "double loop learning" where they not only receive feedback on their actions, but will find their underlying assumptions and mental models under scrutiny.
  • An experience-based approach to developing people that uses work on meaningful problems as a way to learn. Action learning programs involve small groups that meet regularly to take action on critical, real problems while explicitly seeking learning from having taken that action. Usually, the learning aspect is facilitated by a learning coach who is skilled in using the collective experience of group members to create learning opportunities.

Action Learning typically comprises the following activitiesAction Learning

  1. Experiential learning.
  2. Creative complex problem solving. See also: Case Method
  3. Acquiring of relevant knowledge.
  4. Co-learning group support.

Each of these activities can be regarded as a necessary component, but insufficient by itself, to be considered as Action Learning.

characteristics of Action Learning

  1. An emphasis on learning by doing.
  2. Conducted in teams.
  3. Addressing company / organizational issues.
  4. With participants placed into problem-solving roles.
  5. Where team decisions are required.
  6. Formalized into presentations.

Origin of Action Learning. History

Professor Reg Revans first introduced and coined the term "Action Learning" in the coal mines of Wales and England in the 1940s. In Revans interpretation, the purpose of Action Learning is not just to promote local action and learning, but to bring about organizational change. As in "The enterprise as a learning system" (1969).

the Action 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)

Usage of the Action Learning. Applications

  • To address problems and issues that are complex and can not easily be resolved.
  • To find solutions for underlying root causes of problems.
  • To determine a new strategic direction or to maximize new opportunities.
  • Generating creative ideas.

Steps in Action Learning. Process

  1. Clarify the objective of the Action Learning group. Presentation of the problem or the task to the group. A group may handle one or many problems.
  2. Group formation. The group can consist of volunteers or appointed people, and can work on a single organizational problem or each other's department's problems. Convene a cross-section of people with a complementary mix of skills and expertise to participate in the Action Learning group. Compare: Belbin Team Roles. Action Learning groups may meet for one time or several times. Depending on the complexity of the problem and the time available for its resolution.
  3. Analyze the issue(s) and identify actions for resolving them.
  4. The problem owner presents the problem briefly to the group. He can remain involved as a member of the group, or withdraw, and await the group's recommendations.
  5. Reframe the problem. After a series of questions, the group, often with the guidance of the Action Learning consultant, will reach a consensus on the most critical and important problem the group should work on. The group should establish the crux of the problem, which might differ from the original presenting problem.
  6. Determine goals. Once the key problem or issue has been identified, the group seeks consensus for the goal. The achievement of the goal would solve the restated problem for the long-term with positive rather than negative consequences on the individual, team, or organization.
  7. Develop action strategies. Much of the time and energy of the group will be spent on identifying, and pilot testing, of possible action strategies. Like the preceding stages of Action Learning, strategies are developed via reflective inquiry and dialogue.
  8. Take action. Between Action Learning sessions, the group as a whole and individual members collect information, they identify the support status, and they implement the strategies developed and agreed to by the group.
  9. Repeat the cycle of action and learning until the problem is resolved or new directions are determined.
  10. Capturing learning. Throughout and at any point during the sessions, the Action Learning consultant may intervene. He can ask questions to the group members, which will enable them to:
    • Clarify the problem.
    • Find ways to improve their performance as a group.
    • Identify how their learning can be applied to develop themselves, the team, and the organization.

    After a period of time, reconvene the group to discuss progress, lessons learned, and next steps. Document the learning process for future reference. Record lessons learned after each phase of learning.

Strengths of Action Learning. Benefits

  • Offers an intelligent and creative way to act and learn at the same time. This has become essential in a work environment that is rapidly changing and that faces evermore unpredictable challenges.
  • Can help to solve complex, urgent problems.
  • Instrumental to develop skilled leaders, or to develop teams.
  • Can help to transform corporate culture, and to create learning organizations.
  • Produces tangible outcomes as a return on investments in education.
  • Adults are most motivated for learning when it is immediately relevant to their lives. Participants can test the utility of frameworks and techniques on tangible problems, and are able to see for themselves what can be usefully applied, and what can not be usefully applied.

Limitations of Action Learning. Disadvantages

  • Necessary to organize multiple Action Learning events, to make it effective.
  • The design and content of the Action Learning program is crucial to its success.
  • The accomplishment of the example task or project can potentially overwhelm the reflective learning process. Without reflection and feedback, Action Learning is similar to a normal day on the job.
  • In teams where a single individual or a single functional perspective dominates, the group tends to produce outcomes that are not very innovative or insightful. (Compare: Groupthink).
  • Good and objective facilitators are needed.
  • Risk of poor follow-up on project outcomes.

Book: R.W. Revans - Action Learning: New Techniques for Management -

Book: Michael Marquardt - Action Learning in Action: Transforming Problems and People... -

Book: Michael Marquardt - Optimizing the Power of Action Learning: Solving Problems and Building Leaders... -

Action Learning Forum
  The Return on Investment of Action Learning
Is there hard evidence for an attributable Return on Investment (ROI) for Action Learning programmes out there somewhere?
I have been searching for robust organisational studies which provide this.
My personal experience identifies anecdota...
  Distance: An Action Learning Delusion?
The distance between our actions and the observable, known, impact of those actions can be close (when we have a coaching conversation with a team member) or far (when we take a decision at head office and the primary impact is in the customer/patien...
  Which Comes First - Action or Learning?
Does action always precede learning or does learning precede action? Does this matter? Can both take place simultaneously?
Not exactly questions on the meaning of life but still intriguing…
And what does 'action' mean - if you read a book o...
  Action Learning in Fire Departments
I am exploring the possibilities of action learning in the discipline and work practices of fire departments in the Netherlands. I'm searching for examples of investigated action learning in similar disciplines or professional groups, especially in t...
  The Difference in Learning Between Knowing and Doing
When it comes to learning, there is a world of difference between knowing and doing. Many learning programmes leave participants 'knowing' lots about leadership or team working (for example), but do not deliver on 'doing'.
This can be understood...
  New Radka Action Learning Matrix
Please have a look at my new Action Learning Matrix which can be used to understand the learning dynamics of teams and leaders. It has been placed in the 'Resources - Action Learning' part of this AL Knowledge Centre. I would be very interested in an...
  Experiential Learning Through Virtual Simulation
One of the processes involved in action learning is experiential learning: a learning technique that takes into account the impact of emotions and subjectivity and its influence on the learner’s experience. Team-based experiential learning is an effe...
  A New Name for Action Learning?
What do you think: Is it time for a name change and a relaunch?
How about: Learning in Action - sounds more dynamic.
Or: Action for Learning?
Any other ideas for a new, better name for a new future for Action Learning?...
  Socrates and Action Learning?
The Socratic Method - which he used more than 2000 years ago – still works and has many similarities to an Action Learning approach. For example what about Socratic Circles for Business? Follow the steps below with some facilitation:
  Key Features of Action Learning
Here's a list of the key features of Action Learning (AL) in a business context.
- Small action sets with people who work together in a supportive and challenging way with each other
- Clear ground ...
  New Year Action Learning Resolutions
Now may be a good point to put time in the diary very early in 2014 to actively reflect on 2013 and what has been learned - with a clear intent to take action in the New Year to improve our lives?...
  Does Action Learning Deal with the Knowing - Doing Gap?
Action Learning is surely working in this era of human behavior and learning? Is there far too much knowing in organizations and far too little doing?...
  Action Learning Mantra - Right or Wrong?
Revans said: There is no learning without action and no sober and deliberate action without learning.
Is this really true? Cannot some people keep taking the same action over and over without learning? Can organisations not do this as wel...
  Action Learning Facilitation
Revans (1998) himself was critical of the need for facilitators apart from the earliest stages of the process, believing that independence was important.
How important is the role of a facilitator in an Action Learning set in the current busines...
  Conditions for Action Learning. Circumstances
My experience in a corporate organization is that you need:
1. An active driver (champion) behind the AL process, to ensure that everyone commit the time they promised initially.
2. Monitoring also drives the behavior....
  Why Action Learning? Purpose
Many "study groups" result in heightened awareness and increased knowledge but often stop there. In my work with action learning teams (mostly corporate based) the key purpose is getting increased or better RESULTS. Leveraging and combining:
  Similar Knowledge Level
First of all, to succeed in active learning, the different entities involved should not be far in terms of basic knowledge to be able to achieve an initial transfusion of knowledge from the highest to the lowest level. Then, add tο the gr...
  Introduction to 2nd and Consecutive Sessions
I have learned that is very important to start second and consecutive sessions in a learning course with a brief review of the past concepts, to reinforce them in the process. Just select some questions to evaluate how the participants are inv...
  New Technologies for Action Learning
Great overview, my interest is how the new technologies "leverage" action learning (and research)?...

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Best Practices - Action Learning Premium
  Action Learning in Leadership Development
Leadership development programs that most organizations currently use do not deal with all dimensions necessary for becoming an excellent leader, according to M. Marquardt.
As a result, leaders are perfectly able to handle problem-solving models...
  Virtual Action Learning
Is anyone doing virtual action learning? If so i'd be very interested to hear from you. I'm researching this emerging form of action learning....

Expert Tips - Action Learning Premium

Capturing Learned Lessons: After Action Reviews

Knowledge from bad and good experiences will lead you and your organization to better future performance. You can improve your learning culture with <...
Usage (application): How to Capture Organizational Learning? Best Practices

'Action' Learning is Misleading...

Note that the title "Action Learning" can be a bit misleading, because it emphasizes action, learning in practical situations rather than study...
Usage (application): Understanding Action Learning

Action Learning Groups / Programs

According to Michael J. Marquardt (Action Learning in Action), there are two basic types of programs: Single-project programs and open-group programs....
Usage (application): Creating an Action Learning Organiztion

6 Action Learning Components

According to Michael J. Marquardt (Action Learning in Action), Action Learning has Six Interactive Components:
1. A problem
2. The gr...
Usage (application): How To Apply It

Execution as Learning

Also compare Action Learning with the quite similar Execution as Learning-approach by Amy Edmondson....
Usage (application): Similar Approach

Core Characteristic of Action Learning

The difference between a simple work team (like a task force or a quality circle) and an Action Learning group is the simple work team is charg...
Usage (application): What Makes an AL Group Different?

Alignment is key

Having used action learning in several programs over 3 years I now always align the Action Learning with the strategy of the business in order to ensu...
Usage (application): Change and innovation

Resources - Action Learning Premium

Action Learning in Action

Good, detailed presentation about Action Learning by M.J. Marquardt.
- Concept of action learning, benefits and an some reference users of action...
Usage (application): Action Learning, Problem Solving

Action Learning Schools and Varieties, History of Action Learning

This presentation outlines the various schools on action learning and the varieties of Action Learning it has generated. The presentation includes the...
Usage (application): Action Learning

Action Learning Guide

Open source Ashridge College reference document with background and description of Action Learning, as well as useful book and web references.
Usage (application): Anyone Interested in Learning About Action Learning

Introduction to Action Learning by Reg Revans

In this 1984 (!) video, Professor Reg Evans explains that the central idea behind and the foundation of Action Learning is a set of comrades in advers...
Usage (application): Historical Background and Foundation of of Action Learning

Professor Evans Explains Why Fast Change Requires New Ways of Learning and Thinking

In this historic video Action Learning Professor Reg Evans shows that it is very important to understand that today's rate of change (C) is exponentia...
Usage (application): Action Learning, Coping with Change, The Need of Change, The Need for New Ways of Learning

Applying Creative Thinking to Complex Business Problem Solving

This presentation focuses on creative thinking as a useful tool for dealing with complex business issues. It includes the following sections:
1. ...
Usage (application): Creative Thinking, Problem Solving, Complex Problem Solving Techniques

Introduction to Working in Teams, Team Work and Related Concepts

Presentation about teamwork, including the following sections:
1. Importance of Teams
1.1. Introduction
1.2. Definitions of Concepts Re...
Usage (application): Team Management, Team Work, Groupthink

Organizational Framework

Paper by Ivo de Loo and Otmar Donnenberg. Action learning programs are supposed to result in both personal and organizational development. Recent rese...
Usage (application): Action Learning

The Knowing - Doing Gap

'The Knowing-Doing Gap' by J. Pfeffer & R. Sutton explores and identifies the causes of this gap and provides insights on how to close it. Knowing wha...
Usage (application): A New Action Learning Perspective?

Action Learning Toolkit

This is a very good sample activity which you are welcome to use in your training programmes. This sample activity is just one of 12 contained in The ...
Usage (application): Action Learning Sets

Action Learning Diagram

Download and edit this 12manage PowerPoint graphic for limited personal, educational and business use. Republishing in intranets, websites, books, ma...
Usage (application): Experiential Learning

Action Learning in Leadership Programmes (2)

How I will use my learning insights from Paper 1 to organise the Action Learning content/process before commencement, influence key stakeholders, and ...
Usage (application): Action Learning for Leadership Development

Tools and Approaches to Complement Action Learning (3)

This Action Learning Question asks how I will use my learning insights and understanding from Research Papers 1 and 2 to support the development of ap...
Usage (application): Action Learning Tools

Co Consulting Action Learning

Co Consulting Action Learning
Involves working with a group or set of people in a quiet space. The novelty in this approach is that the issue hol...
Usage (application): Different AL Approach

Evaluation of Action Learning Approaches to a Leadership Programme (1)

“How do I evaluate, and learn from, the use of Action Learning approaches within a pilot Leadership Programme to inform the development of future Clie...
Usage (application): Action Learning

Radka Action Learning Matrix

A new matrix which explores the dynamics of action and learning within teams and in relation to the behaviour of the team leader....
Usage (application): Team Leadership Reflection and Assessment


Action Learning


Organizational Learning


Action Learning


Organizational Learning


Action Learning


Organizational Learning


Action Learning


Organizational Learning

Compare with Revans' Action Learning: Case Method  |  Team Management Profile  |  Stages of Team Development  |  8D Problem Solving  |  Appreciative Inquiry  |  Positive Deviance  |  Analogical Strategic Reasoning  |  Knowledge Management (Collison & Parcell)  |  SECI model  |  Bridging Epistemologies  |  Organizational Learning  |  Organizational Memory  |  Cause and Effect Diagram  |  Root Cause Analysis  |  Metaplan  |  Groupthink  |  Six Thinking Hats  |  Emotional Intelligence  |  Training Within Industry  |  Pyramid Principle

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