In the 1980s, pioneering management consultant Reg Revans published his two most famous books, The Origins and Growth of Action Learning in 1982 and ABC of Action Learning in 1983. These publications made him one of the most well-known and sought-after figures in business coaching and management consultancy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, even though he was well into his 80s by this time.

The work he did using Action Learning theories to develop managers and improve business processes led to Revans being made a Freeman of the City of London and earned him a knighthood from the King of Belgium at the age of 90. Add to this the fact that Revans was also a former Olympic long jumper and an accomplished musician with the trumpet, you start to get a picture of a highly interesting character. Let’s take a look at his theory.


The idea behind Action Learning is that we will learn more through working with others to achieve a set goal or solve a problem. The theory goes that an individual will not only develop his or her own knowledge and skill, but that the overall skillset of the group will also increase.

It is important to understand that Action Learning is seen as a philosophy for dealing with long term challenges. The groups formed as part of the process are known as “sets” and these are encouraged to meet regularly, discuss the problem at hand and collectively arrive at a solution.

Like all the best theories, Action Learning is very simple at heart. It needs the following ingredients: A problem to be solved, a client who has set the problem (could be internal or external), a set adviser who facilitates the set and presents the Action Learning process and finally, of course, the process of solving the problem.

Underlying principles

Revans said that Action Learning is built on a set of four core principles:

1) Learning is a voluntary process and those involved want to learn.

2) The learning experience is based around a real-world problem that needs a solution.

3) The journey is as important as the destination, i.e. developing skills is as important as solving the problem.

4) The process takes time to be fully effective, typically four to nine months.

Stages in problem solving

When the sets meet, they are required to explore a variety of options, and collaboratively arrive at the most appropriate solution. Typically, this will involve the following steps:

  • Defining the problem
  • Discussing the problem and potentially redefining it after tossing it around within the set
  • Assessing what has been discovered so far
  • Implementing or trying out actions
  • Evaluating the outcomes from the actions
  • Re-evaluating the problem-solving method and deciding how effective it has been

Implementing Action Learning

When you read through it, the process of Action Learning seems so obvious that you wonder why nobody came up with it before. Typically, that is the sign of genius at work, and we could all benefit from continuing to use the tools developed by Reg Revans to develop ourselves, our teams and our processes.

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