He told us, in 1976, of how David was able to fight and
ground the giant Goliath even as trained soldiers ran
away. The young David used an unconventional weapon to
reach the giant and fell him - the sling and the stone
hit the giant on the temple when others were worried for
their lives as the conventional arrows and spears could
neither reach the giant nor harm him. David thought innovatively,
"out-side the box", not burdened by programmed knowledge,
and used his sling and stone to overcome a problem on
hand by questioning self and the situation.
also assailed conventional training and development for
being ineffective and unduly expensive. People do not
learn just because they are told to learn, he said - hence
we do not have lands of honey and milk. Adults learn only
when they perceive the compulsion to learn and arising
from experience. Managers must tackle real life problems
to create true learning. If they do not learn that way
and match the pace of changes in the environment, organizations
would decline, he pointed out.
he preached his action learning (AL) he was considered
an iconoclast. He was action-centric. He even admonished
attempts to evaluate AL in cost benefit terms - he said
" AL is such a simple process that Professors will take
years to understand unless they are part of it". (He was
as shocking as his attire on that day - a bright greenish
sweater with a yellow blue tie hanging over the
is Professor Reginald W Revans. The creator and messiah
of Action Learning, equally revered and criticized. Reg
Revans is amongst the most interesting management gurus
whose theory and practice of AL have taken deep roots
in academia, industry, and formed the basis for the current
propagation regarding learning organizations. It is a
near certainty that knowledge management practitioners
are distilling and capturing knowledge, based on the practice
of AL - some corporate universities have done so already.
Revans, a Cambridge scholar, was fascinated by his early
observations of about a dozen of his colleagues and contemporaries
who went on to discovering medicines, atoms, molecules,
and theorems and eventually became Nobel laureates (Bowden,
Thompson, Rutherford, Chadwick et al). He took his observations
of knowledge creation among these people and applied in
the National Coal Board in the UK and subsequently in
several universities and institutions around the world.
Along the road, his writings and articles on action learning
including in Harvard Business Review have become a repository
of frontier knowledge integrating adult learning theories,
systems thinking and organizational behaviour. The contribution
of AL to the quality movement in Japan was acknowledged
by the Japanese in glowing terms (N Sasaki, "Management
and Industrial Structure in Japan", Pergamon Press Oxford,
1981 and D Hutchins, "The Japanese Approach to Product
Quality", Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1983).
is confusion still whether AL is a theory, faith, technique,
or a tool. Revans made it near faith - which probably
contributed to the reverse onslaught by the conventional
HRD specialists. Nevertheless, several corporations have
been swearing by it and researchers acknowledge AL as
the first step in the trilogy of Action Technologies (AL,
Action Research and Action Science).
simple understanding of Revans` AL is that:
means that Learning [L] is determined by: Programmed
Knowledge [P] (things that people have been taught/learnt
through previous experiences) plus Questioning Skills
[Q], the ability/ willingness to challenge this programmed
knowledge using the stimulus of real life problems.
have been several companies who have participated and
benefited from AL. General Electric was among the earliest
to have adopted and promoted AL. (We saw managers at their
Dunchurch Staff College huddling together and eagerly
learning to crack real life problems - the Finance man
attacking a maintenance issue and a HR manager that of
a marketing one.) It is recorded that new markets for
GE in East Europe and India were the direct result of
AL, apart from several other cost advantages. Several
companies such as Motorola are reputed to be using AL
as a primary means of identifying and developing leadership
talent. (I had noted companies intermixing AL with new
models of leadership paradigms such as those of Kouznes
and Posner). Shell uses AL to solve intensely complex
business issues. Coca-cola is reputed to have benefited
in one AL effort by a 1500% return for the project. Amoco
has a case of a US$ 18million saving in one such measure.
GEs market share in Western Europe for one segment has
increased by over six times in 18 months due to AL.
have been disappointments as well. Revans worked with
Indian public enterprises during the early 70s which was
evaluated by a conventional management institute. The
conditions have been most inhospitable for ALs success,
as it was another of Government imposed projects, aimed
at the stoic organizations not challenged by any compulsion
to learn as there was no competition. It was treated as
a one-coat paint for the year. It would peal off or pale
out waiting for the next season. A management institute
studied it and understandably "calling the dog mad, to
hang it". Despite the early misfire in India, research
indicates five types of benefits of AL.
peer networking and relationships
leadership coaching skills
cross-unit communication and knowledge transfer
strategic and innovative thinking
are five distinguishing features of AL, in the AL practice
of Belden Hyatt, USA.
is on real work issues -- Action Learning starts with
the individual or team issues that are relevant and important
to the participants. This differs from most traditional
learning approaches which start with pre-determined content
that is taught to passive learners with implementation
left to chance.
is a group commitment - In Action Learning groups,
diversity of backgrounds is genuinely valued as it provides
multiple ways of viewing the issue. Participants commit
to their own and each other's learning and implementation
vs. answers - An underlying assumption of the Action
Learning process is that the answers lie within the person
and the group. Participants learn to question their own
and each other's thinking rather than giving so called
"expert advice". The quality of the questioning drives
the quality of the learning. As a result, participants
develop better coaching skills as they refine the art
of effective questioning.
to learning - Most organization project teams focus
only on their task. Action Learning legitimizes learning
as being as essential to success as task accomplishment.
to action - Participants in Action Learning commit
to taking action. Groups meet over time so that their
results can be further explored and improved. It is in
the continued inquiry over time where patterns are uncovered
and deeper learning occurs."
as practiced by Action Learning Associates, USA, AL programmes
last about six months and run in five main stages:
workshop. This is used to launch the programme
and can vary in length from one day to three weeks.
The aim is to get things started and the more effective
this process, the quicker the set starts to function
and Recommendation stage. This usually lasts three
months and provide the opportunity for participants
to analyse the problems to benchmark against best
practice and to produce recommendations.
and Feedback. This is usually a two part affair
with participants presenting their findings to their
clients one day and some days later the clients presenting
back what action they would like to sponsor based
on the recommendations.
This stage also usually lasts about three months and
involves participants in implementing the recommendations
agreed with the client. Final review - 1 day. This
is an opportunity to review what has/ has not been
learnt/ achieved and to agree the way ahead.
all this is related to the newer buzz on Learning Organsation
(LO). Peter Senge and others have done pioneering work
and proffered the idea of LO well. Yet the know-how appears
elusive. Is AL the answer? Probably it is the ayurvedic
medicine for a modern ailment. It has been called the
"DNA" of the learning organization. It provides
the essential practice for deepening and broadening the
learning cycles in companies and thereby make them keep
pace with external/competitive changes.
AL will be the key to KM practice. Reportedly, Marquardt
("Building Learning Organisations", McGrawHill,1996),
believes that AL builds the knowledge system through:
knowledge - occurs through the exchange of information
and experiences of the members
Creating knowledge - as members challenge previously
held limiting beliefs and assumptions, they are able to
see problems in new ways, encouraging creativity and innovation.
Storing knowledge - involves making sense of information
so it becomes knowledge and wisdom. Transferring
Knowledge - learning becomes more intentional and
explicit using Action Learning, thus affording the worker
to deploy new strategies.
a systems man, Reg Revans, had integrated adult learning
and organizational behaviour with organizational processes.
Central to the theory was the guideline that there are
three elements in what managers would be concerned with
in their "action-oriented trade". They will be concerned
with what they should do (the design of information for
defining the objectives, called system alpha); the need
to work out the sequence of how they should do it (negotiating
resources and situations in a five stage cycle called
"System Beta") and with adapting themselves to the new
situations that they have brought about (learning through
close analysis, evaluation, and audit of results - system
gamma). On reflection it would be evident that unless
this cycle is completed, people will not become learning
and will not be able to create knowledge.
the cycle is broken if the HRD manager attempts merely
at advocating the importance of learning or put people
through programmed and structured classroom training.
It might give enhanced awareness and transaction of new
information without necessarily contributing to learning,
change, and adaptation cycles in a cybernetic manner.
learning appears to be an important method for HRD managers
in the new environment for precisely the challenges being
posed wherein the external changes threaten to outpace
the internal learning; there are faster velocities and
cycles in the competitors; there is need for group learning,
flocking together; there is need for innovative thinking
beating competition in terms of products, design, processes,
cost, quality, and time; and there is need to make such
learning into an explicit and sharable knowledge.
ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the
only sustainable competitive advantage."
DeGues, author of The Living Company