It’s teamwork Jim, but not as you know it… don’t just sit there – learn something

Action learning is an educational process whereby people work and learn together by tackling real issues and reflecting on their actions. Learners acquire knowledge through actual actions and practice rather than through traditional instruction.

Action learning is done in conjunction with others, in small groups called action learning sets. It is proposed as particularly suitable for adults, as it enables each person to reflect on and review the action they have taken and the learning points arising. This should then guide future action and improve performance.” Thank you Wikipedia

The traditional approach to learning – spoon-fed, take a test, retain nothing is under attack. An alternative – stretched, take action, changed something – is action learning…

The Basis of Action Learning

“One must learn by doing the thing: for though you know it, you have no certainty until you try it” Sophocles 415BC

“There can be no learning without action and no (sober and deliberate) action without learning” Reg Revans, originator of Action Learning

What is Action Learning?

At its essence, Action Learning (AL) is learning by doing, and its main benefits over traditional taught approaches to learning are: fact, not fiction: unlike the typical learning techniques based on hypotheticals and simulation, in AL the focus is on real problems

Problems or Puzzles

A problem: may not have a single right answer, or even be solvable.
A puzzle: can be resolved.

Action learning is about solving real problems.

  • In context, not a vacuum: the problems to be resolved are directly relevant to those involved.
  • Solutions, not just lessons: any learning is immediately applied: so the firm obtains concrete results, and the individual sees the learning in action.
  • Active, not passive engagement: give AL groups – aka ‘sets’ – real, current and relevant problems, plus the responsibility for solving them, and watch them sit up and take notice.

Revans believes that learning consists of two elements – traditional instruction or programmed knowledge, and critical reflection or questioning insight.

This produces the learning equation: L = P + Q

which matters to the individual, not just the organisation any problem to be tackled via AL must be a situation in which those involved feel they are personally affected, and 

“I am part of the problem and the problem is part of me”

Nowhere To Hide

For their first AL work-shop, HR execs of Johnson & Johnson units had to prepare:

  • a proposed change project for their business
  • a detailed analysis of their business and value drivers

Projects were progressed between meetings, reviewed in further workshops, and presented (along with the individuals’ strengths and weaknesses) to the presidents of each division.

How Does AL Work?

The typical features of an AL programme:


  • The ‘set’
    the name given to the group of people (about 6) who come together to work on a problem or several problems together; meeting periodically to review progress; the set comprises people with no experience of the ‘problem’ who are willing to openly provide a perspective of the problem situation by asking questions
  • The problem
    must be specific and actionable, and owned by a set member. AL is not suitable if the end result is to be no more than recommendations or to draw conclusions, as any action will be thin on the ground
  • The individual accountability
    each set member should be made responsible for specific tasks to progress between meetings

Stepping Out

A rule of thumb in some companies are for each member to work on an AL project/problem outside their functional area.

Learning Levels

The best AL focuses on learning at 3 distinct levels:

  1. about the problem
  2. about oneself
  3. about the process of learning itself or ‘learning to learn’
  • the process: each set member states their problem; the other members ask questions about the problem statement; the problem ‘owner’ then reflects on the questions, carries out research, and starts to develop responses; these are discussed at the next set meeting until a conclusion is reached
  • the ‘time out’: caught up in the heat of their actions, sets may take decisions they will later regret: a period for reflection must be factored into the programme

Will AL Work In Your Organisation?

Questions to consider to find out if you and your organisation are ready for AL:


As part of an initiative to improve real production at ‘ABC Ltd’ , suggestions from the AL set are tested on the shop-floor after weekly production has finished, allowing experiments without interfering with real schedules.

  1. Are management prepared to reveal sensitive information which may be needed for the set to take action?
  2. Will set members be sufficiently empowered to be able to take actions and follow them through?
  3. As a potential set member, are you prepared to make mistakes in full view of your peers, and to have them scrutinise your work?
  4. And how do you feel about being held truly accountable for the actions you take?