Column by Dr YRK Reddy - HRD Newsletter


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.

He 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.

When 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 sweater.)

That 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.

Reg 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).

There 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).

A simple understanding of Revans` AL is that:

L = P+Q

This 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.

There 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.

There 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.

  1. Improved business results
  2. Strengthened peer networking and relationships
  3. Improved leadership coaching skills
  4. Enhanced cross-unit communication and knowledge transfer
  5. Increased strategic and innovative thinking

There are five distinguishing features of AL, in the AL practice of Belden Hyatt, USA.

"Focus 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.

Learning 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 over time.

Questions 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.

Commitment to learning - Most organization project teams focus only on their task. Action Learning legitimizes learning as being as essential to success as task accomplishment.

Commitment 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."

Typically, as practiced by Action Learning Associates, USA, AL programmes last about six months and run in five main stages:

  1. Introductory 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 effectively.
  2. Investigation 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.
  3. Presentation 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.
  4. Implementation. 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.

Evidently, 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.

Connectedly, AL will be the key to KM practice. Reportedly, Marquardt ("Building Learning Organisations", McGrawHill,1996), believes that AL builds the knowledge system through:

Acquiring 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.

Being 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.

Often, 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.

Action 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.

"The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage."

Arie DeGues, author of The Living Company


March, 2002 Issue

Copyright 2000 Yaga Consulting Pvt. Ltd.