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In the video embedded in this post, Reg Revans, the Founder of Action Learning, explains the origins of action learning and focuses strongly on the need for questioning insight. He was 83 years of age at the time of this interview and had been using action learning in multiple contexts around the world for more than 50 years.

In the video, Revans discusses two key influences on his personal development and the formation of the concept of action learning:
1. his father’s involvement as head of the inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic
2. his own role as a physicist in the elite Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University.

Key learning that shaped Revan’s approach to action learning

Revans draws on these two experiences to explain the philosophical underpinnings of action learning and the practical application of the lessons he learned. I have summarised these lessons in three key points:

1. Cleverness does not equal wisdom

Through the Titanic Inquiry, Revans learned from his father that there is a very clear difference between cleverness and wisdom. His father explained that clever people had designed the Titanic while experienced and clever mariners sailed the ship. However, the Titanic disaster occurred because of a lack of wisdom. His father pointed out that when you are confronted with unusual conditions, as occurred with the Titanic, then cleverness was not enough, you needed wisdom to ask fresh questions and go beyond your prevailing assumptions. In another context, Revans displayed his own wisdom when he stated, “The past is no precedent for the future”.

2. Learn to acknowledge what is not going well

When managers seek advice from staff about the current work situation, they are often seeking reassurance that everything is going well. Staff respond accordingly by highlighting what is going well and by omitting what is not working as expected. Revans experience at the Cavendish Laboratory taught him that the starting point for real learning was to acknowledge to yourself and others what is not going well. This is a difficult thing to do in an organisational culture that values image above learning. The members of the Cavendish Laboratory at the time (who included 10 Nobel Prize winners) met weekly to share their research, and participants in the conversation were required to acknowledge what was not going well with their work. It was not a case of one-upmanship as often occurs when experts get together. These elite scholars were exploring the frontiers of physics (e.g. the makeup of the atom) and their way forward was to question what was going wrong, to establish what questions remained unanswered.

3. The danger of relying on experts

Revans frequently warned against the danger of relying on experts, who had the answers to previously asked questions. He indicated in the video that you should “never run away with the idea” that you can rely totally on the expert and not think for yourself in the light of your own context. He suggests that this is a recipe for getting yourself and others into trouble. Action learning encourages you to draw on the expertise and knowledge of others as a starting point, but to be prepared to develop your own “questioning insight”.

The resultant norms of action learning

In practice, these key ideas that Revans learned from his early experiences are encapsulated in the following norms of action learning:

  1. treat each other as peers, each having their own life experiences and rich store of knowledge (hierarchical or status differences are suspended when the action learning group meets)
  2. focus on what is not going well – for that is where the real learning begins
  3. be prepared to engage in “supportive challenge” by asking fresh questions and challenging assumptions in a supportive way.

Revans ideas were strongly resisted by academic institutions for more than thirty years because they viewed themselves as teaching institutions not learning organisations. They relied on the reservoir of their expert knowledge, not the capacity to enquire and push the boundaries of learning by taking informed action in real contexts, free from abstractions designed to simplify a complex environment. However, today most universities have multiple faculties that are engaged in action learning or action research in one form or another. Some have used action learning to improve their own operations, pursue strategic goals and cultivate innovation.

While the concept of action learning is simple, the process of developing “questioning insight” is difficult because it demands setting aside learned behaviours and being prepared to challenge prevailing assumptions – your own and other’s.


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